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
Our first tiger sighting in Bandhavgarh was actually not wild, but one of three siblings raised in an enclosed acreage after their mother was poisoned by poachers.
Fearing that we might not see a tiger during our stay, Hatsy drove to the edge of the enclosure, parking among a group of safari vehicles. Using binoculars to peer through the jungle’s undulating brown and green foliage, we nudged each other and whispered “Do you see him? Where is he?”
When my eyes adjusted and were able to focus between the elements of shade, there he was, lazing on a massive rock amid softly stirring branches. His great head barely moved, nodding sleepily.
Even a “tame tiger,” used to gawkers and tolerant of safari vehicles, is breathtaking. When he eventually rose to stride with muscular grace into the trees, I was awestruck. Photographers elbowed their neighbors for a better position, shutters whirred and clicked, and tourists whispered almost in unison, “Did you see that?”
We were in this remarkable setting thanks to our daughter’s fiancé. Amrish knew that his future father-in-law’s idea of travel focused on the great outdoors. An introduction to an India of jungles and wildlife seemed more auspicious to future family relations than a visit to Mumbai or Delhi.
Judging by the look on David’s face, Amrish was correct.
The signs were even more auspicious the next day, as a tigress on the hunt strode directly in front of our parked vehicle. Bandhavgarh tigers are named; we had just seen the graceful Pathia tigress.
A Minnesota connection
Our next safari stop was Sarai at Toria on the river Ken, developed and run by the husband and wife team of Dr. Raghu Chundawat and Joanna Van Gruisen. Raghu is a leading expert on snow leopards and Bengal tigers. He spent several months at the University of Minnesota in the early 1990s.
When we realized the Minnesota connection, the soft-spoken Raghu brightened and said, “Ah, yes, Minnesota — hash browns!” In the mind of this renowned scientist half a world away, the finest hash browns are found only in Minnesota.
Sarai at Toria is near Panna Tiger Reserve, whose website oddly trumpets that it is “second to lose all the tigers, but first to achieve first-ever breeding success.”
According to Joanna, there are now about 16 tigers in Panna.
That evening on the open veranda, Sarai staff removed rugs and carefully placed a burning brazier in the center. By firelight, we talked of the tiger’s plight with Joanna, Raghu and other visitors. Tiger poaching is big, if illegal, business in India, fueled by an Asian market for pharmaceuticals and traditional remedies concocted from all parts of the animal. In 2009, five tigers were moved to the park to jump start a tiger population that had been wiped out; the current tigers are their descendants.
At Panna Reserve ranger station early the next morning, check-in was delayed by one of the many bureaucratic frustrations of India. Before entering the park, safari guides must submit copies of visitors’ passports, itineraries and entry permits to conservation authorities. Paperwork for one individual in the group (yes, it was me) was off in some small particular (the use of a formal first name vs. a nickname).
Sorting out the discrepancy took 30 minutes of conversation, bumped up the chain to the highest park official. All this took place in Hindi, with many sidelong glances toward me, while our Indian traveling companions argued, huffed, and threw up their hands in frustration. The next morning, the name issue played out all over again, with a different set of officers at another gate to the same park.
We did not have the good fortune to see Panna tigers, but swooned over hazy vistas of the Mughal-style royal hunting lodge and elephant stables, once frequented by maharajahs and their hunting parties. For my husband and I, who do not live with ancient history on a daily bases, such architectural wonders were like the tigers themselves: stirring remnants of a misty past.
Writer Lorrie MacGillivray lives in White Bear Lake and has traveled to India four times in the past three years.