by Nirupama Subramanian
It was 5.30 am on a dark December morning. The wind gnawed at my face and froze my fingers gripping the edge of the seat in the open Maruti Gypsy. I wished I had worn gloves. The cold was something I had not anticipated on our quest. We were at the entrance of the Bandhavgarh National Park, along with forty other jeeps, with one singular purpose- seeing tigers in the wild. I had seen tigers before, pacing restlessly behind the bars, resting behind high walls and deep trenches, separated by more than those boundaries from the humans that gawked at them. They were creatures that evoked only curiosity and provoked cries of ‘Hey, tiger, move from there’ from unruly spectators. We are masters of confined spaces, tigers are creatures of vast open territories. We have rarely met on neutral ground. Bandhavgarh National Park has the highest density of tiger population among all other tiger reserves in India. It is in the Jabalpur district in Madhya Pradesh, a few 100 km from Panna, another tiger reserve in M.P. There are supposedly more than forty tigers in Bandhavgarh. The one called B2 is the dominant male. Each adult male tiger marks a territory of about 25 square kilometers for itself. Once, this forest teemed with a large population of tigers. It was supposedly a good omen to kill 109 tigers. The Maharaja of Rewa managed to shoot 111 tigers here by 1914.We didn’t hear if it brought him any good fortune but it certainly was not lucky for the tigers. Today, the tigers in Bandhavgarh are a protected species, zealously guarded from poachers and hunters in the National Park. We paid the entry fees, totaled 3 cameras, a pair of binoculars and 1 handy cam between four people and entered the park. Our driver, Sunil, was a prosperous distributor of biscuits and snack foods at the nearby town of Umaria. He enjoyed taking tourists on tiger safaris. A forest guide joined us. Baccha Yadav had been at the National Park for over seven years. “Will we see tigers?” we asked him. “Eight were spotted over the last three days” he assured us. “Chances of a sighting are good.” Yesterday some tourists had seen a tigress and her cubs cross the path just a few meters ahead of their jeep, sauntering across as casually as cows on Delhi roads. Our Gypsy clattered along the narrow dirt tracks that cut through the forest. The darkness gave way before a pale dawn sun that climbed slowly over the Bandhavgarh hills. Soon, fingers of sunlight touched the trees, grass, and scrub and stroked the forest into a greenish yellow glow. The sky lightened to a cobalt blue, so bright and hard that you felt you could knock on it and make it chime like a bell. A lone bird, perhaps an eagle or a kite, made slow circles high above us. Our driver suddenly stopped the car and pointed to a thicket on the side of the road. I saw a wild boar rooting among the leaves. “Tiger’s favorite food,” said Yadav. “Along with Sambhar deer.” We saw several Sambhar deer along the way, dark brown creatures that moved with a careless fluid grace and gazed at us with liquid eyes. There were also small herds of the spotted Chital deer which darted away with amazing speed as the jeeps approached. They looked fragile, tender. I heard that a full grown Chital can outrun a tiger. The tiger can catch a Chital only through stealth and cunning. Usually, it attacks the very young or the infirm deer. We had driven through the forest for over half an hour. I am a city slicker, born and bred in metros, comfortable with the chaos and crowds of the concrete jungle, accustomed to the constant din of people pursuing their urgent dreams. The loudest sound in the forest came from our jeeps. If we stopped and stayed very still, we could barely hear the whir and hum of small insects. It was disquieting. There was still no sign of a tiger. Our driver hailed a passing mahout on his elephant. “Sita Mandap ke pas call sunayi diya,” he said. We made for Sita Mandap. The call is a warning sounded by other animals heralding the arrival of the tigers. The black faced langur monkeys chatter from tree tops and the small barking deer makes a sharp harsh noise of danger. To the tiger seekers, it is as welcome as a phone call from a loved one who has been away for many days. We rushed to the place, passing a small water hole. During summer, many tigers had been sighted at this hole. Now, the beast again eluded us. We saw a pug mark, and then another across the track. It was that of a fully grown female. The female tiger has a larger central claw and her paws are rounder than the male tiger. This female had walked across the path barely a few minutes ago and had disappeared into the surrounding bushes. I thought I could smell something animal and wild in the wind. We turned back. “We will go on elephant and see them” declared Sunil. He was determined to show us tigers that day. We made for a clearing in the middle of the jungle. Other jeeps were already there. Our guide took a token for the ‘Tiger Show’. The ‘show’ is an organized sighting on the backs of elephants. It is not as exciting as having a tiger cross the road in front of you or a chance encounter at a water hole. It is still a matter of luck but the chances of spotting tigers are high as the elephants foray into the heart of tiger territory. I hoped that the gods of the jungle would favor us with a ‘darshan.’ We had more than half an hour to kill. We drove to a nearby pond and watched out for birds. A grey stork made an elegant V in the sky before alighting on the top of a nearby tree. I spotted a dazzlingly green bee eater that blended into the foliage while a brilliant blue kingfisher swooped into the pond in search of fish. On our way back, a jackal briskly crossed the tracks in front of the jeep. It was small, dusty brown and looked rather like an innocuous Alsatian. We reached the spot for the Show and parked behind seven jeeps on the edge of a track, near a dense cover of trees and bushes. Elephants clambered out of the thickets bearing their human load- some who beamed triumphantly, some with a dazed reverent look and sometimes children who jabbered with unconcealed excitement. Tigers were in there. Our elephant was an aging female called ‘Toophan’. “If you request the mahout, he will position the elephant so that you can get good pictures” the guide informed us. The mahouts were a savvy lot. They favored the foreign tourist with a foot long telephoto lens who would tip them generously for an extra minute .Each elephant party was allowed only three minutes. We climbed on top of the elephant from the edge of the jeep and hoisted ourselves into the makeshift seat. I clutched the handy cam and made myself comfortable. My legs, dangling down the elephants back felt exposed, vulnerable. Tigers rarely attack elephants but a bad tempered one had been known to have jumped on an aging pachyderm sometime ago. Young tigers like to play with the elephants’ little tail as it swishes teasingly in front of them. I lurched into the forest, unsure, a little scared and buzzing with a sense of anticipation. Within a minute, I saw him. He was stretched out on a branch, less than four feet away, his tail hanging down in a languid curve. It was a young male, in the prime of his life. He had a large broad face and the black and orange stripes glowed among the green brown of the forest. For an instant, he looked up at the elephant, his yellow eyes raked over me and then he looked away, bemused, like a superstar amidst his fans. I remembered a poem from childhood-‘Tiger, Tiger, burning bright, in the forest of the night.
Which immortal hand or eye framed thy fearful symmetry.’ The tiger ignored us and started licking his paws. His movements were slow, deliberate. My husband clicked away rapidly trying to capture every second on his digital camera. I pressed the record button on my handy cam. Then I heard a rustle. “Look, look there” whispered my companion seated behind me. I turned my head around to see another tiger on the ground below. He had been almost perfectly camouflaged by the tall grass and bamboo. The remains of a wild boar lay beside him. The tiger looked up at us, appraisingly. He had decided that we posed no threat to him or his larder. He lolled on the ground and rolled the remains of the boar as though it were a toy. He wasn’t hungry. He was only playing with the half eaten carcass. Our elephant scratched her back on a tree trunk and the tiger continued with his game. They seemed used to people, reconciled to a peaceful coexistence, roaming freely in the forest and yet not testing the boundaries of their freedom. The tiger on the tree put his massive head on his front paws and closed his eyes. He seemed bored now, dismissive. We were there at their pleasure, guests who would not overstay their welcome. It was over too soon. Our elephant dropped us off at the jeep. We all were silent for a minute and broke out into excited relieved chatter. I checked my handy cam and realized that I hadn’t got more than a minute of tiger footage. The rest was a green blur. But I can still recall those vivid yellow eyes and still feel a tingling frisson of wonder at my proximity to a wild tiger. In those three minutes, I had come as close as I had ever been to something rare and beautiful, something that deserved to endure beyond our paltry greed and petty desires. To get to Bandhavgarh National Park, fly from Delhi to Khajuraho or Jabalpur and then take a pre-arranged cab for the 250 Km road trip. There are several hotels to suit all budgets in the vicinity. Cross posted in Nirupama Subramanian's blog on Sulekha