A brush with the wild in Bandhavgarh

Where do you begin a travel story? Is it when you arrive at your destination? Or when you are travelling there? Or as far back as when you begin your research about the place? Come to think of it, it’s really hard to define a clear starting point for trips. Because long before they actually materialise in time, they begin germinating in your mind, taking shape through Google, Lonely Planet guides and recommendations from friends. And so, every trip has a past, present and future; the past being the research and the anticipation; the present being the actual holiday and the future being the memories that will assail you over and over, encouraging you to do an encore.

I’ll begin the story of my first trip to Madhya Pradesh (Bandhavgarh and Kanha wildlife sanctuaries) from the part I love the most – the journey.

Katni station, Madhya Pradesh

Katni station, Madhya Pradesh

I board a train on Thursday night after bidding goodbye to my office and settle down for a relaxing solo journey in the Mumbai Mail.

26.6.15 Friday 9 AM. In the train to Katni, Madhya Pradesh.

I’m somewhere in Madhya Pradesh. Acres of farms pass me by, and just now, a family, already hard at work at a station called Bhairanpur (You Google it and there’s nothing – literally nothing. Yes, there are still a few places whose existence Lord Internet knows nothing of). The names are similar to the north but the feeling is somehow different. The people are slim and so are the animals. This is perhaps a thrifty land.

I spot a kid at Banapur dressed entirely in red – like a pop of colour in an otherwise earthy landscape. I contemplate what I might do for the rest of the ride. Read a book perhaps (Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck). And allow myself to be distracted now and then, by the panorama unfolding outside my glass window.

Some people have curled up again in their blankets after performing their morning ablutions but I cannot surrender to sleep and give up the wonders of this beautiful day.

Slowly, the landscape starts giving way to more of the green denizens. Ponds of water reflect the blue sky, dotted with greyish clouds here and then. The grassy, natural lawns are a lovely playground for the local children. To see them run across the field with not a care in the world fills my heart with joy.

By a divine stroke of luck, my train is only half an hour late despite the devastating fire at Itarsi station. The good folks at Pugdundee Safaris send a car to pick me up at Katni station, a two-three hour drive from Kings Lodge, Bandhavgarh, where I’m going to be staying.

A crossing herd of chital or spotted deer

A crossing herd of chital or spotted deer

26.6.15 Friday 4 PM. Khitouli, where the wildlife sanctuary begins. In the car.

The wiry young driver, Bhole Prasad Yadav reveals, “Sometimes you can see the tiger on the road here but they are harder to spot in the sanctuary!” That’s news. He tells me that once the parks shut for the monsoons, he will go back to farming. “I spend eight months driving and four months farming in the village,” he says proudly. I notice that it isn’t raining at all and ask him if that’s not a problem. “It is! But we get water from the tube wells,” Bhole says. Once he gets talking, he doesn’t seem to want to stop. He tells me that it’s very hot in the summers and very cold in the winters. “There are bears and leopards in this sanctuary. They stopped allowing trekkers in here after a leopard was spotted on the route,” he says. As if trekking wasn’t perilous enough as it was!

Suddenly, he stops and starts pointing outside the window excitedly. A lovely male peacock with his feathers in full display darts away as I fumble for my camera. I’m disappointed because I don’t know then that I’ll see many more of these beauties later! Bhole is determined to give me a ‘pre-tour’ of the sanctuary and manages to keep a lookout for creatures of the forest even while keeping an eye on the road. We spot jungle fowl, a monitor lizard and langurs along the way. I click a photograph of the ubiquitous tall trees and Bhole volunteers that they are sal trees. They are adorned with leaves all along their trunks and look like faeries cloaked in green. “The best tiger sightings are at gate 2. That’s where they’ll take you tomorrow,” Bhole says. I’m new to the concept of safaris and only then do I learn that there are three entry points into Bandhavgarh National Park and two of them are favoured for spotting a wide variety of wildlife. “One of the tigers caught a man,” Bhole says, with just the right amount of menace in his tone. “When the park is shut, they tigers prey on our cows more often and prefer to stay close to the village.” Poor cows.

I arrive at Kings Lodge in the evening and I’m greeted by Sapna Dhall, their marketing head and Manav Khanduja, the owner. Manav is so unassuming that I don’t recognise him at first! The lodge is welcoming and done up tastefully in décor that is elegant without being overbearing. The cottages are located a short walk away from the pool and reception area. Saket Shrouti, the friendly young manager who hails from Nashik shows me to my cottage.

Dinner that night is a sumptuous affair. I partake of one drink too many but still manage to be up at 3:15 AM the next day for the early morning safari.

27.6.15 Saturday 4 AM. Kings Lodge: Poolside.

There are so many stars in the sky! The pre-dawn canvas is so thickly dotted with them that there’s barely space for any more. The undergrowth is buzzing with secret life even at this hour. Walking to the reception from my cottage in the darkness is one of the eeriest experiences I’ve had. I felt like I was being trailed by a feral pair of eyes. A haunting in this wilderness would be hard to battle. I notice how the pool glistens in the glare of artificial lights and how different it is from the glow of the sun.

The forest full of sal trees

The forest full of sal trees

The safaris

Safaris are exciting. They are also painful because of the rough jeep travel and tedious after you’ve been on several in a span of a few days. But you forget everything when you glimpse a peacock so high up on a tree that you can only see it through your binoculars. I didn’t even know they could make it to such heights simply by hopping from branch to branch. Your back ceases to ache from the ups and downs when you see a herd of graceful chital deer crossing the road right before you. You begin to feel truly fortunate when your more learned companions tell you about phenomena like brachiation (it’s when monkeys swing from tree to tree using their arms) and the diurnal nature of cicadas.

A mahout with his elephant

A mahout with his elephant

On this trip, I remained a stranger to the tigers but I did see more birds than I had ever seen (crested hawk and serpent eagles, a drongo, golden orioles, kingfishers, rollers, cormorants, a coppersmith, turtle doves) and a wide variety of animals each of whom was beautiful in a different way (sambhar and chital deer, a mongoose, a monitor lizard, jackals, vultures). And though I did not see the beast himself, I did see the tiger’s pug marks hinting at his elusive presence and the naturalist from Kings Lodge also brought our notice to the tiger’s territorial markings on tree trunks.

The crested serpent eagle

The crested serpent eagle

It wasn’t just the creatures that held our attention; it was also the myriad trees, creepers and grass. A ghostly white entity with chalky bark revealed itself to be a gum tree. Ravi, the local forest guide regaled us with the gruesome tale of a foreign photographer who was attacked by a tigress in the 90s after he used the flash feature while photographing her. “The driver pulled the tigress off by her tail and the photographer escaped with injuries,” Ravi told us with gusto. So when you go, remember not to startle or nettle the animal in any way. Else, you might be another one of Ravi’s stories.

A sudden hush fell over the jeep when we spotted in the distance, a family of deer calming sipping from a largish pond, while a couple of jackals and a lone vulture lay on the surrounding grass. It was a frame straight out of a wildlife documentary and for once, even the cameras lay untouched as we drank in the sight of that perfect ecological balance. A bright caterpillar livened up the ride by landing on my companion’s arm. Imagine if we’d given it a ride straight out of the forest and into the lodge! I felt blind when my companions began chattering excitedly about what they called a Eurasian Thicknee in the midst of some dry foliage. After a few agonising moments of screwing up my eyes in concentration, I saw it. The cagey bird was exactly the same light brown colour as the surrounding foliage and blended right in with the background. Talk about a successful camouflage!

The Eurasian Thicknee

The Eurasian Thicknee

We saw tiny flycatchers and white-throated kingfishers that flew away the second we approached. I wondered whether humans belonged in that forest at all. I simply could not visualise a time when humans were a part of that landscape. The roar and the rustle of the jungle frightened me as I scribbled in my notepad. And to add to that, we spotted long stretches of strangler vines with trunks all twisting and gnarly like ropes.

We were quite famished when we returned to the lodge and I ate my scrambled eggs with cheese on toast with gusto. Our breakfast table was set in a garden full of various herbs such as basil, turmeric and lemongrass. There were a few amla trees standing guard as well. In the night, Saket the manager caught a poisonous common krait and managed to lure it into a sack; he would release it into the wild later.

An excursion to the village

We might have wasted away at the inviting pool or in the comfort of the soft beds in our rooms had it not been for the infectious enthusiasm of Siddhartha Joshi of ‘Tell me your dream’ fame. As a part of his series, Sid wanted to interview a few villagers from the nearby settlement and we decided to tag along. What we encountered were two best friends who shared the same name (Munni), a little girl whose shy curiosity charmed our lenses, breathtaking examples of hand sculptures and the differences in lifestyle between the Gond and Khushwaha tribes.

Here is a photo story of the heartwarming discoveries we made.

A Gond woman in Bandhavgarh

Munni of the Gond tribe gesturing in her cool stone house. She opened up once we began asking her questions.

Handmade art in a Gond house

Does this look like something you might buy at an art and handicraft shop? It might surprise you to know that Munni made and painted this all by herself. The Gond tribes are immensely talented and from the looks of it, have a great sense of beauty and proportion.

A Gond woman and her daughter

Munni with her small daughter whose innocence captivated us

A Gond woman with her daughter

And here they pose for Siddhartha’s camera, while we take our own pictures furtively

A Gond child

Don’t you think this lovely child deserves a frame of her own?

Drying grains and mahua seeds

The spread of drying grains and mahua seeds make for a colourful sight at Munni’s house

A half-finished Gond doll

In the backyard, we discover another example of Munni’s skills. This is a half-finished doll which Munni was yet to paint.

Toran at a Khushwaha house

The toran (sacred gateway) at the entrance to Munni’s home. And this is the Khushwaha Munni who stays next door to the Gond Munni.

The village folk at Bandhavgarh

Munni and Munni (the Khushwaha Munni has her face hidden here) with their children

A cow in its shed

A lone cow in its shed stares back at me curiously

Two young Khushwaha girls

Khushwaha Munni’s two daughters are struck by shyness when we ask them to pose. I love the little one’s bashful smile.

A hand cart

A hand cart bakes in the heat outside Munni’s home

A temple at Bandhavgarh

Temples here have turrets that resemble mosques.

Also read: My adventures in Kanha National Park and the forest fantasy that was Kanha Earth Lodge