After a flight to Delhi from Bangalore, and a 17-hour train ride later, the only thought that crossed my mind as we entered the thick dry sal forest of Bandhavgarh was: will this place actually deliver what it promises – tigers and more tigers?
Ten minutes later, we intercepted a long line of open-top Gypsies with tourists parked in a line along the jeep track. Two impressive camp elephants were steadily carrying more tourists into tall elephant grass. Their mahouts were “showing” the tourists a tigress in the grass! We couldn’t believe it! We had to see the sight and off we went into the grass atop an elephant. A minute later, the mahout announced, "Yeh dekho saab, Baghvaa!" We craned our necks to see what he was pointing below in the tall grass and lo! A huge majestic tigress lay on the grass sleeping, blissfully unaware of the many prying eyes breaching her privacy. This lady must have been in her teens and was at least 8-feet in length. Photo ops were dismal becasue of the grass, but the very glimpse of her sent our adrenaline pumping. We spent about two minutes with her and returned back to our Gypsy.
We had seen our first tiger exactly ten minutes after our first entry into Bandhavgarh!
Later our driver, Dadan, who would be a huge asset to our trip, told us that she was the Chakradhara female, the grand old mother of the many tigers that we would see in the coming days. "Wow!" I thought, "So, we surely would see more tigers!" Great!
Half an hour later we back tracked to a spot closer to the entrance gate – Siddababa, the place was called, as there was a small Shiva’s shrine nearby. All drivers and guides of the Park believe that a respectful bow to Siddababa before the start of a ride will bring them good luck – sighting of many tigers hence happy tourists. Beside the shrine is a large meadow, with several rivulets that drain the area. The reason we were here – "she will cross the jeep track in front of us, along with her cub. She has left one cub on the other side of the track, so she must cross any time now," told our driver in a confident tone. She was the local favorite tigress, the Siddababa female.
To see her we joined a medley of at least 40 Gypsies with at least three guests in each. They all had gathered there for precisely the same reason as ours. Waiting curiously and patiently, there was thick silence in the air only to the broken by the occasional alarm calls of the chital and langur from the far edge of the meadow. Suddenly a loud aauugh from the grass broke the rhythm and the mood of the moment. It occurred to us that the tigress was not more than 10 feet away from our jeep. She then peeked over the grass, growled some more and walked a few steps in the grass, still hiding her full form. Our driver figured that she would be crossing further ahead of us and not along the gap some of our vehicles had created for her. And in seconds about 20 vehicles zoomed ahead to take vantage positions. Half a minute later a lovely young tigress with a brilliant ochre coat came out of the grass curtain. Visibly disturbed, but almost immediately understanding that all the vehicles and humans around meant no harm to her, she slowly and self-assuredly crossed the wide jeep track and climbed up the rocks on the other side. About a million exposures happened cumulatively from the various cameras of every species! We made our first good images.
We were just about rejoicing in the marvel of sighting and photographing a tigress, in the open with great morning light, when one of the drivers pointed out to the grass and cried bachcha ("cub")! Out came the diffident and timid one and so did our cameras. Well fed, healthy, and about three months old, the little one scurried across the track to join its mother and it sibling in the cave on the other side of the rocky hill. What a start of a tiger adventure!
Our very first three hour drive in the Tala range of Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve had converted us into total tiger devotees. The next three days were going to be tiger chasing on steroids and bird photography would be just incidental!
We were staying at the Tiger's Den in Tala where most of the resorts are situated. This was a very comfortable place and the management totally understand tourists needs. Guests from India and all parts of the world come and stay here for weeks and months together. Such is the addiction with tigers!
Inspite of a sudden early afternoon thunderstorm, the evening ride also proved very fruitful. Three tiger cubs, about a year old, were spotted walking amongst the bamboo thickets on a hillock. These were the almost full-grown cubs of the Chakradhara female. Jeeps dashed to the scene to show, if anything, just the tail or ear of the tiger to the tourists. After a failed attempt to see the cubs completely, all of us retreated to explore the rest of the jungle. A little later with light considerably fading, we saw the three cubs relaxing atop a rock in the hillock. Clearly visible from the plain land below, we were happy to watch them from a distance atop our vehicle.
Suddenly, Dadan jumped to his seat, got the vehicle to first gear and whizzed ahead towards the cubs. It was only when he moved the vehicle that we spotted the fourth cub away from his siblings and in clear view. It was attracted by a chital below. Dadan got us pretty close and at eye level to the tiger… too close for comfort, I must say. Of course our cameras had a field day with tons of clicks. After five minutes, Dadan decided to give up his vantage point to another jeep coming from atop the hillock. We drove in reverse gear and the other vehicle advanced. As we watched the cub, we found him suddenly losing interest in the calling chital below. He turned is attention towards the other jeep. As it moved, his gaze followed the vehicle. He then got up and started walking downhill toward the jeep, which was a few feet beneath him. At one point, the jeep was exactly under his nose, just about four feet below. That moment we held our breath and our hearts raced double time. We were almost sure he would jump into the jeep, even if it was just out of curiosity. The tourists in the jeep were holding on to the vehicle’s railings and I am sure, praying with all their might. And then the jeep crossed the cub. What a relief!
The next day, our chance sighting of a large male tiger B2, the undisputed hero of Bandhavgarh, was the highlight of our entire trip. We realized that our driver, Dadan, was a terrific tiger tracker. His mind worked like that of the tiger. With a keen sense of hearing, he knew where a tiger could be at a given point of time. He could predict the movement of tigers and stand waiting for it further ahead so that it would intercept us or vice versa. And so it was with B2, the reigning tiger of Tala range, the revered male, all the cubs we saw were his progeny. A massive creature, absolutely sure of himself, walking with a care-a-damn attitude and a full stomach, he demonstrated his masculinity, as he marked his territory in regular intervals. We followed him for a good fifteen minutes and then lost him in the valley. We could make images of B2 from far off (400 mm) to point blank (70 mm)!
In the evening, the Siddababa tigress crossed the jeep track, this time from the rocky hillock to the grass and again with one of her cubs. While we were glad to see the sight, we realized not everything was fine with the local drivers and the guides. "Looks like something terrible has happened to her second cub," said one driver to ours in a hushed tone. "I hope not. It is bad news," replied Dadan. There was an air of distress and genuine concern among the local guides gathered there. The ranger passed us with the deputy field director and our guide reported the sighting of one cub less. The Ranger didn’t seem to be flustered or any bit anxious. "The second one is up on the rocks and safe," he said very confidently.
Next morning, we saw the power of Siddababa, the protector of the feline species in the Park, in action. The tigress crossed a fire-line along with a cub. As we all held our breath not just in awe of the sight, the second cub came out of the grass and scuttled behind to catch up with its mother. There was a collective sigh of relief and just as suddenly there was renewed joy and energy amongst all the drivers and guides. The second cub was being seen after several days. It occurred to us that though the tigers were their source of livelihood, there was a deep emotional bond between them and their tigers.
That evening brought us more luck. We were taken very close to yet another tigress – the Jhorjhora female and two of her almost fully grown cubs. Again on elephant back, this time with strict yet hushed yet strict instructions by Dadan to the mahout: "Unko zyada time dena bhaiyya, photo lena hai bhagvaa ka". The tigress lay on the ground unfazed by the elephants getting a closer look of her or her cubs. It was an absolutely fabulous setting – deep in the jungle, beside a steep shaded cliff face with a huge cave, among the shade of the sal trees and with langur alarm calls booming in the enclosed area. We spent over a half-hour very close to the tigress and her two cubs that were mobbed by several intrepid langurs hanging low from banyan trees.
Another B2 darshan the next morning! He emerged from the grass and walked all along the jeep track, sniffing the air and sure enough there was a female nearby – the Chakradhara female lay hidden in the grass not far away. Down the road, we saw the Siddababa tigress and her two cubs cross a fire line far ahead (which Ramki stitched into a scape). Separately, the four cubs of the Chakradhara tigress had also descended to the meadow and the mahouts riding elephants located one of them. We rode on one elephant to get very close to one of the cubs. We could photograph just the eyes of the tiger! What a great way to see these cats. They seem to be totally accustomed to these elephants and also the jeeps.
We later proceeded to Sesha Sayya, the place were Vishnu’s massive monolith statue made out of sand stone is located. As we walked up the steps towards the statue, Dadan called out to us and said “Tiger!” We ran up just in tome to catch a glimpse of a tiger cub by the water tank near the statue which, taken by surprise, retreated and ran away into the rocks and dense undergrowth. We then saw three more cubs among the rocks.
Four days, twelve individual tigers, twenty four sightings… what more can one ask. Bandhavgarh lived up to its hype and delivered what it promised!
Well, there was more to Bandhavgarh than just tigers though they were completely eclipsed with the awe and wonder associated with tiger sightings like these!
During the jeep drives we got good opportunities to photograph three species of vultures (Red-headed, Long-billed and Scavenger), Lesser Adjutant and Woolly-necked storks, the resident photogenic Brown Fish Owl, Brown Shrikes, Green Pigeons, Eurasian Thicknee, Chestnut-shouldered Petronias, the endemic and stunning Painted Spurfowl, Peacocks and peahens of all shapes and sizes and the famed Malabar Pied Hornbills at the northern-most tip of its range. The resort we stayed at had Purple sunbirds, Tawny-bellied and jungle babblers in abundance.
The Bandhavgarh National Park is located in the district of Sahdol in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Bandhavgarh is set amongst the Vindhya Hills and was declared a national park in 1968 with an area of 105 sq. km. The buffer is spread over the forest divisions of Umaria and Katni and totals 437 sq. km. The park derives its name from the most prominent fort hillock of the area, which is said to be given by Lord Rama to his brother Laxman to keep a watch on Lanka. Hence the name Bandhavgarh (Bandhav=Brother, Garh=Fort). The ruins of this ancient fort provides a stunning backdrop to all the action in Bandhavgarh.
Enjoy the images!
For more information about Bandhavgarh:
1. Sanctuary Asia
3. Bandhavgarh National Park - A Guide by Hashim Tyabji is a great book and a must read before visiting Bandhavgarh