18969c1258b035ea0a2baf5ae2b76ec4-2It was an unusual Divali night. There were no sparkling electric lights, no bursts of firecrackers, no sulfurous fumes in the air, and no music. The night was perfectly dark, the silence punctuated only by our footsteps crunching the foliage that lined the path from the main building to the cottages. The beam of the flashlight pointed the way around the pebbles and potholes while a thousand stars came into view in the inky sky, as if to reward us for choosing to spend the Divali weekend communing with nature. In the glow of candles, we glanced at our sparse yet comfortable room at Baghira log huts, the tourist accommodation provided by Madhya Pradesh tourism in the heart of Kanha National Park. It took a minute for us to realize that we were not just in Rudyard Kipling’s fantasy Mowgli-land but also deep in the heart of tiger country. We were hopeful that the next morning we would encounter Kipling’s Sher Khan, immortalized by William Blake’s unforgettable poem.

Tiger, tiger burning bright
In the forest of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Located in the southwestern corner of Madhya Pradesh (M.P.) in Mandla district, Kanha is about 165 miles from Nagpur, a strenuous car ride with bad stretches of roads once you pass the interstate tollbooth from Maharashtra into M.P. A group of colleagues at my workplace had planned this trip with our families, keeping in mind the long weekend in November in the festival season and the fact that Kanha stays closed from July through October during the monsoons. We had looked forward to this group outing for months. The hours on the road zipped by as old and new songs, original and remixed, were tossed around in unending bouts of antakshari interspersed with other travel-tested games.

It was late evening by the time we arrived at Kanha where we were informed that a bad thunderstorm had downed power lines in the area. We ordered dinner at the comfortable canteen and checked into the cottages aided by a young boy who accompanied us with a tray of lit clay diyas and left a few at each cottage. With no television, no cell phone signal, and absolutely no electricity, we city folks were forced to slow down the pace and relax in these mellow surroundings. We spruced up in cold water and walked back towards the canteen for a true candlelit Divali dinner. The simple meal was served on plates marked with characteristic yellow-and-black flaming tiger stripes, the symbol of M.P. tourism. A sweet dish served on the side was the only indication of the festive occasion. Exhausted but satisfied, we went to bed with plans to be ready by 5:30 a.m. for our first foray into the park.

The warm blankets and utter silence brought about a peaceful sleep that was hard to resist. It was the prospect of seeing Kanha’s most famous inhabitants, the magnificent tigers, that made us jump out of bed at dawn, and rush out with our jackets, cameras, and binoculars. Although our lodge was the closest to the main gate at Kisli, there were at least two dozen vehicles ahead of us in the hour before sunrise, when the park opens.

Open-top jeep rentals with authorized guides are the preferred way to see the wildlife in this park. Once inside the park, getting off the vehicle and littering is strictly forbidden. We split into two jeeps, and paid the entry fees for the jeeps and the multiple digital, still, and video cameras that we were carrying. Although the probability of sighting wildlife is greatest in the summer months of March and April when the animals leave the safety of the tree cover in search of water, on any given day the early morning and dusk hours are considered the best times to view the creatures of the park.

The jeeps trundled along the unpaved roads in an organized line until a fork in the path when each driver decided his path based on his personal assessment of the areas of the park most likely to be inhabited. A light mist hung in the air, creating a mysterious ambience as we wondered whether we would enjoy the thrill of coming across a wild creature on his home turf.

18969c1258b035ea0a2baf5ae2b76ec4-3The vegetation was not dense and the first animals we spotted were wild dogs. Although not striking to look at, these creatures usually hunt deep inside the park and, along with the few leopards, are among the hardest to spot. The greenery comes primarily from the tall sal trees that are home to several varieties of birds such as Indian rollers, peacocks, parakeets, eagles, and vultures. The birds tend to perch on the tall branches, demanding a close look. The driver and his assistant kept their eyes open and ears trained to hear the sounds of the langoors and birds, indicating the presence of a predator in the vicinity.

As the sun rose and the slight chill in the air evaporated, we peeled off our jackets and sweaters. The young kids in the group bit into the bread-and-butter sandwiches and chips that we had taken with us as emergency snacks. We were reminded to not make any crunchy sounds or litter as we paused to check for movements in the wooded areas. More false alarms and silent minutes went by and an hour or so later we stopped at the visitor center at Kanha, inside the park. Over hot cups of tea and bread pakodas, we enquired from the hordes of other tourists whether they had sighted the elusive beast. Then we drove further along the horseshoe-shaped valley, and took detours along the forested hills, spotting herds of innocent spotted deer grazing peacefully, showing no imminent danger of the mighty predator. Groups of langoors stared back at us, proudly displaying their long tails.

At one particular curve along the road, we came across the glorious sight of a full-grown barasingha or swamp deer, sitting serenely in its natural habitat. Although the park is popular for its population of tigers, its true success story has been the conservation of the majestic barasingha, whose numbers had dropped to a dangerous low of 66 in 1970. It has been through a determined effort that today this animal, endemic to Kanha, currently numbers in the thousands.

The sun was now high enough to be uncomfortably warm, and it was time to return. The jeep driver-cum-guide and his assistant were probably more disappointed than us, at not having pocketed bakshish for the promised tiger sighting. We headed back to our cabins for a shower and a sumptuous brunch at the restaurant. The afternoon hours were spent catching a few winks while a small group enthusiastically engaged in a competitive game of Pictionary. The more athletic and energetic ones picked up twigs to try their hand at gilli-danda. But all nurtured the hope that we would spot Sher Khan on the evening tour.

Once again we set off on the flimsy Maruti Gypsy, taking our photographic paraphernalia along. Unlike the morning tour, the bright sunshine lit up the unpaved dirt tracks as we scoured the meadows for the shiny stripes. Another variety of deer, called barking deer, that chatter and bark at the whiff of a predator seemed unusually silent as they grazed amidst the trees. The driver took us to an open pasture where he parked the jeep, hushing us when we timidly started conversations. Maintaining silence while waiting, waiting, waiting for some sign, some glossy streak, was no easy task for the group, used as we were to constant banter. We stirred again, trying to move cautiously, and not disturb the serenity of the valley as we rode in our noisy, metallic contraption.

As dusk approached, all jeeps turned towards the open meadow that bordered a cluster of trees, the driver hopeful that the tiger would come out of hiding precisely as twilight fell. The road curved around a gap in the grass and we were almost at one end. From our vantage point, we could see a chain of jeeps, filled with eager tourists, forming a large C-shaped border to the grassy plain. Cameras zoomed into the distance in all directions and people peered earnestly through binoculars until a small commotion went up a few jeeps ahead of us. Our driver was the first to spot the slight movement, a brown spot that merged with the tall grass and ground cover in the horizon. Like a wave, the location of the tiger was conveyed through muffled movements and pointing fingers, from the occupants of one jeep to another, until every person in every jeep turned in one single direction—towards the royal member of the Kanha family. A deep silence permeated the valley as the emotion coursed through our collective consciousness that we were not alone. The magnificent tiger walked out of the woods and into the open grass, moving towards our jeep in measured steps, oblivious to the frantic clicking of cameras in a vain attempt to capture on film the three-dimensional thrill of watching his glorious, graceful walk. We held our breath as the king of Kanha approached our jeep almost directly. The forest officials implored the jeeps to make way for the tiger to cut across the road to the other side of the grass, but it was a hopeless gridlock. Mesmerized, awed, and scared, we watched the tiger turn and walk almost parallel to the row of jeeps, showing his glamorous profile. At the curve, he paused and looked around, as if bored of all the attention, but still savoring the limelight, like a prince. Then with a quick burst of energy, he picked up his pace, walked briskly across a gap in the road, and disappeared from view.

18969c1258b035ea0a2baf5ae2b76ec4-4It was almost closing time for the park and we were a few miles from the main gate. The sun was coming down fast and the jeeps raced ahead, buoyed by happy cheers and jubilant energy of the satisfied tourists. Then brake lights turned red and the jeeps halted crazily. A traffic jam at this hour! As we crawled forward, the reason became apparent. We came face-to-face with a huge Indian bison, who stood by the roadside, chomping down merrily on the grass. Stories of a bloody encounter between the seemingly docile bison and tiger just a couple of days ago were conveyed from the jeep ahead of us. The video shot by the tourists had not been very clear as the cameraman, obviously shaking, had managed somehow to capture the clash of the titans of Kanha on film. It seemed unbelievable that this placid giant was capable of causing harm to a ferocious tiger. Perhaps that is why our lasting memory of Kanha was not just the highly anticipated tiger sighting but also the image of the lofty bison who opened his mouth to chew but clearly had the last word. And in their own way, the animals conveyed to us that they were truly masters of their territory and it was we who were unwelcome trespassers.

Ranjani Nellore, a former San Francisco Bay Area resident, now lives and writes in Hyderabad.

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18969c1258b035ea0a2baf5ae2b76ec4-5Kanha National Park

Kanha National Park is one of India’s largest national parks and covers about 732 square miles, which includes a core forest zone of 362 square miles. The elevation in the park ranges from about 450 to 900 feet above sea level. Declared as a park in 1955, Kanha was among the first parks to participate in Project Tiger, the national endeavor to protect the endangered beast whose numbers have doubled since the initial count. Besides Ranthambore in Rajasthan, Kanha is believed to provide tourists with the greatest chance of tiger sightings in India. Most of the park area is grassland sprinkled with streams and wooded areas. The greenery and landscape of this region, and in particular Kanha, are believed to have provided the inspiration for Kilpling’s Jungle Book.

WHEN TO VISIT

The park is open Nov. 1 through June 30

GETTING THERE

* By Air: The nearest airport is Nagpur (165 miles).

* By Rail: Jabalpur (105 miles) is the most convenient railhead.

* By Road: There are regular buses from Jabalpur. Taxis or jeeps can be rented at neighboring towns.

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