“God gave man a cat so he could think that he was caressing a tiger!”–Victor Hugo said something like that
It was so dark that the thick mist made no difference to the visibility on the road. As Ramayan’s moped sputtered down the muddy path leading to Mahua Kothi, he wasn’t too concerned about whether he would reach work in time for his early morning shift. Even his fading headlight didn’t bother him as he had done these sixty-five kilometres so many times before that he could literally do it in his sleep (and, ever so often, he probably had). In fact, he wasn’t really concerned with anything apart from wondering whether his nose would fall off in the biting cold. And then something happened that made Ramayan forget his duty, the cold, and his nose. As his headlight misbehaved and cut weakly through the fog, Ramayan caught flashes of the largest tiger he had ever seen. By the time he had confirmed that it wasn’t his imagination, he was halfway up the tiger’s... Well, you get the picture.
Jungle fever: A place where everyone has a tiger story.
Considering that Ramayan was serving me some fine wine in the courtyard of my lavish kothi (village hut of sorts, if spectacular décor, central heating, a luxuriant open bathroom, and a fragranced, steaming tub could count for one), I assumed that the tiger was not too concerned with the moped, the nose or, quite frankly, him at all.
I wondered if the man’s story was fashioned to make my stay more interesting. After all, when you stay in Mahua Kothi on the brink of the Bandhavgarh jungle, the tariff makes one wonder if they’ll have a tiger tuck you into bed. And as I amused myself with the consideration, Keshavji lurked around my kothi door in a way that made me uncomfortable.
He wasn’t peering at me in any way. He was just there—like an afternoon shadow that turns out to be wet tar on a road. When I insisted on walking myself to the dining room, he smiled hesitantly and told me about the resident tigress with two cubs that was discovered outside my room a month ago. After that, lurking tar became my best friend.
The last time I had been to Bandhavgarh was 15 years ago. We were one of the few jeeps driving through the pristine jungle, and I saw four tigers in the first few hours of entering the forest. This time around, it all seemed the same, until the first tiger was (forget sighted) heard. Gypsys (of the jeep variety) from every path in the jungle converged with maddening enthusiasm and then some seemed to descend from the sky for good measure. It was absurd.
Yet, only recently, Bandhavgarh’s other jungle corridors have been opened to outsiders. With a guide, one can traverse the several hundred square kilometres of jungle that was closed until now. This means that you probably will have a very hard time seeing wildlife that would shy away from the sound of a motored vehicle, but at least you will rarely see another vehicle on the path. More so, you get the fulfilling experience of such pristine forest that just being there makes everything worth it.
It takes a while to understand that you are actually in tiger country. That there is a possibility of a tiger crossing your path even outside the sanctuary. I wouldn’t have said this if we didn’t hear them outside Mahua Kothi. But what makes the experience even more special is when you talk to the Ramayans and Keshavjis who live around Bandhavgarh. Out here, everyone has a “tiger story”. And it’s not to impress outsiders, it’s actually the casual banter of their everyday lives.
Up Bandhavgarh hill, we spent our last few hours soaking in the jungle sounds. Around a rather sizeable Vishnu statue hewn out of a single rock, our 60-year-old forest guide Ramavatar (whose stories made him at least 106!) told us of the colourful times he has experienced in this magical place. Times when Bandhavgarh was the Maharaja of Rewa’s personal hunting ground; when he saw a sadhu who lived here turn six vessels of water into ghee after standing on one toe for several days (why?); and when he would sleep out in the wilderness for nights on end.
But there’s one thing Ramavatar mentioned that really made me smile.
“When the Maharaja hunted the animals, he was the king of the jungle. I could sleep out at night because the animals feared men… Now, I wouldn’t dare sleep in the jungle at night,” he said, adding with a wry grin, “now, the tiger is the king of the jungle again.”
As we drove back to our luxurious camp in Mahua Kothi, I couldn’t help but wonder how much the Maharaja would have enjoyed 40 jeeps barging into his palace every time he sat down to dinner.
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