Force of Nature: Bandhavgarh

Rule no. 1. Adjust you expectations.

I looked at my host Joydeep Mondal from wildchaserindia in surprise. Surprise mostly because it’s a concept that we always talk about, or make attempts towards trying to implement or preach in solidarity of sisterhood during girl’s night outs. We all come with certain expectations – may be as part of professional and career growth, personal beliefs, and often in our love life. For this very reason, when your host says such a statement, it does make you relook your inner mental gears which resulted in this impromptu plan. I asked Joy for this very reason, “Can you be more specific!!” He said “This is the jungle. If you consider it as a whole ecosystem, instead of an opportunity to check items off the list, then you will enjoy it more.” I don’t think there could have been more poetically divine advice ever been given to me. Why such a profound exclamation? Well, emotional crisis does bring a side of me that I hadn’t known until this tumultous time period of 2020-2022 happened!

The idea of a safari has now evolved into this mad rush to capture “the shot” of a tiger sighting. But people often forget that, the instinct of the animal is to take care of its own needs and not that of the public demand. Any jungle safari is just not about the sighting of the prime predator alone. It is a journey showcasing co-existence of predators within an ecosystem that keeps adjusting itself. For a safari, not only your life gets influenced by the moment of grandeur, but also the animal’s life itself gets connected to you – from the intrinsic behaviour around the vehicles, pattern of movement, food and water consumption, sleep or general resting area, mating habits, raising of the kids, inter-species rivalries, establishing territories that often overlap buffer zones and other species. And this is true not only for the apex predators like tigers, lions and leopards, but also for the herbivores like langurs, the spectra of deer population, and the birds.

Meet Joy from Wildchasersindia

I asked Joy “Why wildlife only?”. His reply was simple. “Every forest, every zone within the forest has its own character. And the bond you create with these animals is sometimes so instinctual and profound that you will always remember. As a passion, I want everyone to see and experience the same characteristic that I feel everytime I cross the entrance of each park gates.” And I get it! We only get to see and explore 20% of the forest which includes the tourist zones. But in a mad rush to capture and capitalise the moment of a sighting, we forget the significance of cohabitation that maintains this balance. The perfect portrait of “connecting with the gaze”, or the art of capturing a “head-on-tiger”. I mean these terminologies never existed in my vocabulary until a fellow resident at the camp literally laughed at my amateur photographs because they were not “cool enough” and didn’t fall into the dictionary definition of what a head-on-tiger shot means!

Yours truly’s attempt at wildlife photography!

Head on tiger is an adverb describing the bold personality of a tiger that walks straight towards the safari vehicles, irrespective of mad cacophony that humans display around it. I mean, imagine a tiger brushing by your jeep, yawning in boredom of human antics! For a first-timer like me, I would be enthralled by the pure display of arrogance, rather than strain my arm with a camera with a heavy-ass lens trying to bend my body in angles that these old bones are unwilling to, just to capture the perfect shot! I would prefer to leave such expertise to the experts like Joy, so that I can hound them for the next 4 months for the pictures and come out with a very late post!

A jungle safari is not about what you get to photograph the most for a few number of views and “feedback”. It’s about how you see the safari. You see, the word ‘safari’ originated from the Arabic word ‘safara’ which means ‘a journey’. The Arabic word was later adopted by the Swahili of East Africa to become the Swahili word ‘safariya’ which means ‘journey’ or ‘to travel’. William Harris had led an expedition in 1836 to observe wildlife and landscapes. It was Harris who established the safari style of journey, starting with a not too strenuous rising at first light, an energetic day walking, an afternoon rest then concluding with a formal dinner and telling stories in the evening over drinks and tobacco.The hunting aspect traditionally associated with the safari is said to have its origins in the early 17th century in the region of Évora, Alentejo, where villagers got together to hunt wild boar and reclaim land for farming. The English origin of the word came into existence in late 19th century when it was introduced into the English language as a foreign language word by the legendary British explorer, Sir Richard Francis Burton.

Despite etymological growth of a simple word, at the end of the day, it talks about a journey – an experience. And yet, in the mad rush of gaining numbers in the cyber world, the journey of experiencing Bandhavgarh’s terrain gets lost – a rocky terrain with distant glimpse of twin hillocks while the lush canopy changes its look-and-feel in each zone of the national park. Each zone has it’s own unique environment. While Tala zone has natural caves, ruins of a fort, some old temples and thick forest cover. Magadhi zone has more grasslands. There’s a sense of raw beauty in the air, a fact echoed in Kabir’s poems when he visited the forest area during his lifetime. Sunset set against a backdrop of deserted narrow road passing through dense forest, almost echoes a well-known Bengali maxim:

“Jekhanay bagher bhoy shekhanay shondhey hoy.”

Translation – Dusk falls where tigers abound.

A maxim that seemed particularly eerie here in tiger country. Conservation efforts boosted tiger population, in this 715 park with over 16 tigers per 100 sq km. A female tiger’s territory varies from 10-20 sq km as compared to a male tiger who will cover an area between 20-50 sq km. It seems very linear and straightforward, but in reality the borders are porous as they fight for territory, irrespective of whether is a designated tiger reserve, a national forest or a village. And in this mad race of survival, bring in the cacophony of human who are looking for the exhilariting experience of catching a glimpse of the golden and black stripes.

PC: Joy from WildchasersIndia

So how did I get to experience my dose of adrenaline considering my love for heritage? Well, Joy arranged for 7 safaris, and the first two days can be described as educational with numerous sightings of flora and fauna, excluding the golden stripes. Don’t think I am complaining! I mean while we were chased by a herd of wild elephants, I literally got to see a wide range of species – from Indian Pitta (Navrang), Long billed vulture, Lesser adjutant stork, Barking deer, Chital, Sambar, Nilgai, A peacock doing the mating dance, Asian paradise flycatcher, which is incidentally the state bird of Madhya Pradesh, and so on! Well, other than peacocks and phoenix, I don’t think I will ever be fascinated with birds. But, I did want the denim color that the lesser adjutant stork seems to pull off so beautifully!

But things literally took a dramatic upturn, with the grace of Lady luck, and my lucky jungle print shirt, from Day 3 onwards! Stripes and Rosettes played with the shadows of their surrounding. But more than tiger sighting itself, it was how the tracking was done that I will remember and cherish – from pug marks, to whooping noise of nervousness exhibited by langurs, the barking echoes of chittal, to tracking the final echoes of grumbling growl of a tigress lazing around at a water body. It is a journey that will never be forgotten as you brace yourself through a jolting ride of a jeep in a mad rush to reach first. And this is how I first meet the famous Kajari of Tala zone. A sleek feminine beauty, rechristened due to the thick black lines marked like an eyeliner around her eyes, soaking up some afternoon sun, yawning and casually strolling her way through the haphazardly parked vehicles… Just like a queen paving her way!

Kajari. PC: Joy

A tiger definitely doesn’t make it easy to track that’s for sure! From a failed jeep in the middle of the jungle, in middle of tiger tracking, teaches you one thing. A tiger’s territory is extensive, but they have their favourites. Especially when it comes to existence of waterholes and availability of new ones as the season changes.

First time video recording one of the apex predators, with a huge ass borrowed camera

Continuing on the favours of the Lady Luck and dedication of Joy and his tribe, we encountered a brief glimpse of a female Leopard, before she merged into the shadows as more number of vehicles started crowding the area. An hour of neck craning later, I asked Joy “Shouldn’t there be something like jungle war between the two felines of the same species?”

“You would think so. But in reality, the rosettes are extremely cautious of their bigger cousins especially in jungles like this where they share territories. In their attempt to be introverts, they are extremely elusive and masters of camouflage, especially considering the landscape of Central India.”

“You sound like someone in love with the rosettes more than the stripes.”

“Both are captivating for me. But I won’t deny that I have some kind of luck favouring me when it comes to the rosettes.” And then he recounted one of his favourite Leopard moment that he had the fortune of experiencing recently.

Mothers are the fiercest warrior. And it’s true for the big cats as well. A tiger mom plays the game of dominance with a fine balancing act of strength and stealth. From hiden and seek to False mating, she provides optimal chance of survival for her cubs. A big cat’s true personality develops once she or he steps out of the shadow of the mother. At the end of the day, it’s the jungle where they have to play out ever old survival of the fittest. No other tiger showcased this more than Bandhavgarh favourite Bajrang, the resident male usually spotted in the Khitauli zone. The young male has a haunting persona that cannot be described easily. Its been 5 months since I have seen him, but even now I can easily proclaim with utter confidence “That guy knows how to capture a heart!” Joy might lament and preach about my photography skills, but that’s one fact we agreed upon – The Bajrang effect! The fact that we traversed a 15-minutes of dusty road in 5 minutes, just for this male tiger, vouches for this effect irrespective of whether it is a park official or the seasoned and newbie tourists.

7 days of Safari. Didn’t you get bored? Well, I would have. But each day in the jungle is a fight between various species to survive the day. And sometimes, the fight gets moved into the human domain as well. The lack of human activity suddenly changes when you step into the buffer zone. All of a sudden, roads marked with dwellings and TV antennas hint towards civilisation that had briefly faded from my consciousness. But for a tiger, its all about where the food is. The tourism opportunity might look into changes to local lifestyle. But when its a matter of loss of life or limb, who cares about the majestic glory of golden stripes! The recent addition of wild elephants has further added to the local aggravation with numerous instances of damage to property.

At the end of each day, over a cup of coffee, Joy would ask “So..?” and all I could reply was “It was brilliant!” And it truly was! The bumpy roads may have given me a new appreciation of chest exercises, but each safari ended on a brilliant note! Not because the stripes were the end-goal for me, though they did add a certain level of glamour to the day. But, mainly because at the end of the day, there was a new takeaway about the jungle life. In my eyes, it always appeared different as if the jungle metamorphosed overnight. And guess what?! I had my taste of history in the middle of a jungle as well. Bandhavgarh is known to host one of the oldest forts of India, said to have its connection to the era of Ramayana. According to the legend, Lord Rama flattened a hill into a plateau and then built the Bandhavgarh fort on top of it, which was then gifted to his brother Lakshmana. Hence the name, “Bandhavgarh” (“Bandhu” means “Brother” and “Garh” means “Home“). Set within the heart of Tala zone, the fort is off-limits since its a point of attraction for the wildlife more than the tourists currently. However, one can peep into the ancient caves that are located at the base of the fort area.

Near the Bandhavgarh fort lies the Shesh Saiya, a 35-feet-long statue of God Vishnu lying in a reclining position on the 7-hooded snake “Shesh Nag” . A stream of water flows from near his toe, which is believed to be the source of Charan Ganga – which meets the ocean at Dwarka.

Seven days later, I returned back to the life of calendar invites and project updates. But I ended my birthday on a high note that was different from my usual travel sojourns. It was more than a spiritual awakening. There was this awareness that despite the increment in numbers in my lifespan, I still have lot of grounds to cover when it comes to my personality and mental well-being. Bandhavgarh left a lasting impression, but it does make me wonder for every reboot to my system that I seem to require, will this kind of privilege be there always? I mean, each day climate change is taking its toll globally. New developmental plans are being put in place which somehow puts the word ‘development’ to shame. And in middle of all this, your own psyche and self keeps playing a tug-of-war for some weird reason. So a break of this kind does seem like a hard won privilege lately.

Wilderness touches the heart, mind and soul of each individual in a way known only to himself.

Michael Frome

Pro Tips:

While safari bookings can be done on your own through the official website of course or as part of some tourist packages that are available, my personal recommendation would be to opt for a trip hosted by wildlife enthusiast like Joy who is the founder of wildchaserindia. From accommodation to the entire duration of safari, each aspect will be taken care. All of you have to do is reach the meeting point, i.e. Jabalpur in this case, and carry your ID since at each safari check point that will be checked for sure. And a personal recommendation for the ladies, wear a sports bra for the girls 😉

Related (and not-so related) Posts:

Madhya Pradesh

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