A search for elusive Bengal tigers turns up something equally grand: visions of an ancient, beguiling land.
On a chilly and misty February morning in Bandhavgarh Tiger Preserve, guide Hatsy Rathore pulled our open-air safari vehicle to the side of the road, cut the motor and signaled for silence. I sat motionless, ears filtering bird song and peacock calls, listening for the telltale danger bark of a monkey or chital deer. Moments passed. Bundled in blankets, we strained to decipher movement through dusty, dense foliage.
Several chattering monkeys dropped from the trees and stared at us — safari in reverse.
“Monkey on the ground, tiger not around,” sighed Hatsy as he restarted the engine.
Bandhavgarh Tiger Preserve, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, is believed to be home to more than 50 Bengal tigers, some of the last survivors of a once seemingly unlimited population in India. Over the past decades, human encroachment and illegal poaching have decimated the population of these magnificent cats, rendering India’s national animal an endangered species. Now likely fewer than 1,900 remain in the entire country, according to reports by National Geographic, the World Wildlife Fund and the Indian government itself.
I’d come with my husband, David, our daughter, her Indian fiancé and members of his family to this remote part of India with two missions. To meet our new extended family, far from India’s chaotic cities. And to spy the elusive, powerful Bengal cat; this would prove the more difficult task.
A handful of safari vehicles jounced over the rough track and pulled up beside us. The drivers consulted one another in Hindi. Where were they most likely to find tigers for their guests? I surveyed the other would-be tiger spotters: GoreTex-clad westerners hoisting cameras with giant lenses and Indian families bundled in jackets and woolen scarves staring curiously at us.
Safari drivers seem to work in a fluid state of cooperation and competition, each seeking tiger-spotting success for their clients. They verbally sparred, waiting for the next to make a move. Finally Hatsy convinced the drivers to head one way, then turned sharply in the opposite direction and gunned the engine. Hot water bottles, supplied in the predawn chill by our thoughtful hosts, sloshed against our bellies as Hatsy maneuvered over roads consisting of rocks and ruts.
Until 2012, it was possible to spot tigers from the back of an elephant. The park maintained five elephant/naturalist teams, capable of traveling off-track deeper into the jungle. Hatsy pulled up to the elephant stables, where just two dusty gray beasts remain under the care of park rangers. We arrived to see them lumber heavily into the woods on patrol, and I wished that we could be aboard.
As we climbed down from our safari vehicles, Hatsy lowered the back gate to serve as a table. Baskets of sandwiches and tiny teacakes appeared as we stretched our legs. An icy drizzle forced us to huddle together with hands wrapped tightly around steaming mugs of tea.
Because tigers “don’t like to get wet,” as our guide said, it seemed unlikely we would spot one this morning.
Vishnu hidden among trees
Hatsy proposed a side trip to view Bandhavgarh Fort, which had been held by various dynasties over 2,000 years, located atop a rocky bluff within the preserve. The track to the base of Bandhavgarh Hill, upon which the fort perches, lurched up rocky outcroppings and dangled along steep ridges. Clenching the sides of the safari vehicle and holding our hats, we had a birds-eye view of the jungle below, mostly deciduous dry woodland with sparse undergrowth. As we climbed higher, the clouds cleared and we caught distant glimpses of the ancient fort looming over a sheer cliff face.
Eventually Hatsy pulled the vehicle into a small flat parking area, and we tumbled out gratefully, stretching stiff joints and checking gingerly for bruises.
Here at the foot of Bandhavgarh Hill, we were astonished to find a microclimate of lush bamboo and tropical forest. When my eyes adjusted to the dim and dappled light, I saw the Lord Vishnu himself — a massive granite carving of the Hindu god, reclining beside a deep green reservoir. This stone Lord Vishnu has watched over travelers’ journeys to the fort for nearly a thousand years. How many people have prayed to him for safe passage? How many Bengal tigers have drunk from the waters of his reservoir? In this silent green oasis, I could be just about anywhere in the grand sweep of time.
High above us stood solitary Bandhavgarh Fort, abandoned by all except a mother tiger raising her cubs. Our trek up stopped here, beside Lord Vishnu, since access to the fort had been restricted to keep tiger and tourists safely apart. Had we been able to continue, we would have been treated to more stone depictions of Lord Vishnu in his various avatars, including a boar, a fish and a tortoise.
In a quieter mood, we drove down the mountain to exit the park by the 11 a.m. closing time. As we neared our safari lodge, Hatsy pulled over and pointed to deep parallel gashes in the bark of a frankincense tree that reached about 8 feet off the ground.
“Those are claw marks. The male tiger strafes the tree to mark his territory. A young male measures himself against these marks. When he can reach higher than the marks made by the dominant male, he is ready to challenge him for his territory,” Hatsy explained.
Awed by such physical power, we returned to our lodge to relax until afternoon park hours. We were staying at Samode Safari Lodge, a warm, hospitable haven with good food, comfortable beds and decadent showers and bathtubs in high-walled courtyards attached to each bungalow. The lodge also had a commitment to regional art and architecture. Indoor bathrooms feature wall paintings in the style of the Gond, a local tribal group whose homes are decorated with depictions of nature, made with vibrantly colored, stylized forms filled with dots and dashes. In our bungalow, one entire wall was filled with a Gond mural of brilliantly plumaged birds floating on a yellow-orange background.
Spotting a tiger — or two