The silence was profound and peaceful. Arriving from the endless din of Delhi, I soaked in the absolute stillness of the night — soundless yet palpably alive. And, as if to affirm that it was indeed a living, breathing night out there, the deep tu-whoo of an owl floated in. I snuggled deeper into the warmth of the bed and pictured the big eagle owl we had seen that evening by the river, hunting by starlight, swooping down on a scurrying field mouse. Should I go out with a flashlight and look? Nah! Much cosier to lie in bed and contemplate wild things from its comfort.
It is this delicious irony on which wilderness holidays are based. We want to experience nature red in tooth and claw, but with the mod-cons of hot showers and meals, convivial company and mobile phone connectivity. The forest and river are so much more delightful when they are punctuated by good food and warm beds. The excitement of the bouncing jeep ride in the early morning chill to spot winged and footed beasts is all the more keen when you know you will return to a gigantic breakfast in the sun. Or so it is for middle-aged nature enthusiasts like me.
The irony is delicious but also delicate. Overdo it and you get the dream-like disconnect of the posh resorts that waft you from hot tiger safaris to arctic air-conditioning, Thai massage and freshly flown-in lobster — opulent indulgences that somewhere nag at your conscience as you wonder what the water and electricity consumption must mean for the villages that huddle beyond the designer mud walls of the ‘forest retreat’.
And then you have places like the Sarai at Toria which do things differently. Raghu Chundawat, a conservation biologist and an expert on big cats, and Joanna Van Gruisen, a conservation writer and filmmaker, worked in the Panna National Park in Madhya Pradesh for almost a decade, studying and documenting tigers. Over the years, they made this corner of Bundelkhand their home. The recently opened Sarai at Toria village is a product of Chundawat and Van Gruisen’s long and intense engagement with this landscape and its people and wildlife.
The Sarai is new. The wood and stone of the large open-air pavilion that is the living and dining room is freshly hewn, waiting to mellow with age. Yet, as it sits overlooking the Ken river, so easily does it inhabit the spot that it looks as if it has always been there. And what a spot! Dragonflies and butterflies hover over a sea of chest-high wild grasses along the path leading to the pavilion. But we have no eyes for anything but the view. The Ken flows below; in early December its waters are tranquil, reflecting the sky, rocks and birds. The water is pure, coming directly from the Panna reserve, and there are no cities or industries upstream to foul it. The sight of the boulder-strewn Ken stretching away fills me with peace. I remember that this is what the Narmada was like before she was dammed and I am grateful that central India still has rivers like these to remind us of what we have and what we have lost.
There is a small boat to take us downriver. Raju, the boatman, built it himself. He is from the nearby village of Madla and made a living as a labourer and fisherman. He has helped build the Sarai and now shows visitors around the river. As he rows, only the sound of the oars splashing in and out breaks the stillness. Time is suspended: the winter sun’s late afternoon light mirrors everything in the water; even the wagtails, cormorants and open-bill storks seem to pose on rocky outcrops as if captured by their portraits in the water. We move past them, steering through the boulders towards the nest of the eagle owl we had been told about. We come across a solitary man floating on the inflated tube of a truck tyre; he is laying a fishing net across the water. Raju asks him about the owls and he directs us to the spot. Sure enough, on a branch overhanging the river, we see a large bird, deep yellow eyes glaring at us, its remarkable cat-like ears cocked as it follows our progress. On a small island, we see its mate sitting on what the fisherman says is a clutch of five eggs. This one, too, glowers at us and we respectfully move off, content with our darshan of these ugly-endearing majesties. As the sun sets, hundreds of cormorants fly in formation to their roosts, flapping waves of black ribbons that disappear into the distance.
We head home, to drinks by the fire and a dinner where the flavours of locally grown produce taste fresh and true.
It is a moonless night and the sky is studded with stars. The Milky Way is clearly visible behind the winter constellations that I learnt about thirty years ago in Delhi when the city sky was still clear enough to reveal Orion and Auriga, Gemini and Taurus, Canis Major and Cassiopeia. There is comfort in the constancy of these long-lost friends. As long as the stars still show themselves, as long as there are still eagle owls nesting on a riverine boulder, the world cannot be beyond repair.
But thoughts about how badly wrong our national wildlife policies have gone cannot be denied when we visit Panna early next morning. Ten years ago, the reserve had close to forty tigers. Then, thanks to scandalous mismanagement, the number plummeted to zero. Kalyan Singh and Kaushal Kishore, skilled naturalists from the area who accompanied us into the park, reminisce about the vigour and beauty of the Panna tigers, and how big they were compared to their cousins in Kanha or Bandhavgarh, the other tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh. Three tigers were relocated to the park last year and, during our visit, the park staff was bringing in another two: orphaned cubs that had been hand-reared in Kanha. It’s a desperate bid to try and repopulate the reserve and the Forest Department is sparing no efforts to make it work. Our jeep meets the two domesticated elephants who have been brought from Kanha; their familiar presence is meant to make the tranquillised tigers feel at home when they wake up. The elephants’ mahouts join us in admiring the large crocodile sunning itself on the riverbank — there is no river in Kanha and this is the first time they are seeing the giant reptile.
It is not only the presence of the Ken that makes Panna’s forests distinctive. It is the dramatic topography of the Vindhya ranges at this point, breaking into steep-staired escarpments where the vegetation changes at each step. It is a dry deciduous forest and the platter-sized leaves of teak dominate the varying shades of green that unfold across the year. In the monsoon, tall waterfalls cascade over the cliffs and we go to one such spectacular spot — Dhundwa — named for the mist that hangs over the foaming water. In the winter, the water is a trickle, seeping gently over the rocks. We count about fifteen vultures — long-billed, griffon and red-headed — sunning themselves on rocky ledges. They look moth-eaten and unkempt in the typical vulture way, but so rare have they become that they are a welcome sight. Later, Chundawat describes to us how Dhundwa used to be eight years ago when hundreds of vultures gathered on the rocks and the jeep would have to fight its way through their flocks.
That sense of a forest so recently teeming with life and now in fragile condition lies at the heart of Chundawat and Van Gruisen’s concern. They understand villagers’ hostility to a park management that has taken away their rights to use the forest. Local livelihoods and jobs that harmonise with the area’s biodiversity need to be promoted and, in its small way, the Sarai is a step in that direction. All of its employees are local; what they lack by way of professional punctiliousness they make up with willingness and friendly warmth. A similar rough-hewn charm exudes from the Sarai’s thatched cottages. The all-too-common affliction of ethnic-chic décor, where crafts from around the country jostle each other, and where the perfunctory nod towards local architecture means mud plastered over concrete is absent here. Instead, there are mud walls thick enough to make air-conditioning and heating unnecessary, vaulted ceilings of trussed bamboo and shaded porches — in the manner of the surrounding villages. The plumbing additions would make villagers happy: the shower area is shaped like a chauka, the courtyard enclosure in a village home, and is full of natural light. It is a joy to dry oneself off in the sun, looking out over a private yard where gleaming sunbirds sip nectar from flowers and a bright blue Tickell’s flycatcher sings its liquid song. The vernacular aesthetic is rooted in an ethic that honours local sensibilities, cultural as well as ecological. Solar panels are being installed that will eventually make the Sarai self-sufficient in power. Dairying and growing vegetables may follow as the place establishes itself.
Chundawat and Van Gruisen have a growing, evolving project on their hands. We, on the other, have the lazier pleasure of breakfast in the sun before we set off to see the Khajuraho temples close by. There is muesli with fresh fruit, yoghurt and teak-blossom honey; omelettes cooked just right with hot rolls — the pastry chef is local, having lived in Khajuraho for twenty years — and good coffee. The Ken murmurs below.
My first reaction to the Khajuraho temples is that they are an object lesson in how not to conserve. They may be more than a thousand years old but they have been so aggressively restored that they look as if they were built six months ago. Surrounded by severely disciplined lawns and hedges, they exude no sense of history, sacredness, eros or mystery. They only proclaim the power of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which has replaced the Chandelas as the rulers of this realm. The sonorous MP Tourism audio guide describes the forest wilderness that had swallowed the abandoned temples until a British surveyor stumbled upon them. It mentions that there was once a lake here that reflected the temples’ spires. It notes the Chandelas’ sophisticated building techniques, where stones were fitted together without any mortar. I look at the cement clearly visible in the joints — sign of the ASI’s enthusiastic but inept restoration.
The Matangeswar Mahadev temple just outside the compound is thronged by devotees carrying brass lotas of water to offer to the deity, ringing bells, chanting praise. Their living faith contrasts with the sterility of the World Heritage Site. Tigers and temples have both been beaten into submission by officialdom, it seems. The unobtrusive respect for terroir — a sense of place — that the Sarai embodies is sorely needed here. I salute that spirit as we head to the airport.
The Khajuraho airport is a half-hour drive away. There are daily direct flights from Delhi and Varanasi (from Rs 2,800), but not so from other major cities. (There is one direct flight from Chennai, from Rs 10,000.) The Khajuraho railway station is only twenty minutes from the Sarai. There is a convenient overnight train from Delhi to Khajuraho (UP Sampark Kranti Express on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays; Rs 702 on 3A). The busier Jhansi station, connected to all major cities and served by fast trains, is three-and-a-half hours away. The Sarai is just off NH-75 between Jhansi and Satna on the tourist circuit that includes Varanasi, Gwalior, Orchha and Badhavgarh National Park.
The Sarai is open from October to March. It has six spacious cottages. Tariff: double occupancy Rs 12,000 per night (includes all meals, taxes and onsite activities), single occupancy Rs 9,000. Contact: Raghu Chundawat and Joanna Van Gruisen; firstname.lastname@example.org; 9685293130; 011-42567017; saraiattoria.com
What to see & do
The Sarai is less than 2km from the Madla entrance of the Panna National Park. Activities include wildlife safaris in the early morning and evening with naturalists with expertise on the forest and its rich wildlife. If you are lucky, you may see a tiger. The day before we arrived, a leopard was sighted. We saw sambar, chinkara, nilgai, wild boar, spotted deer, crocodiles and a large number of birds. The Ken river flows past the Sarai and is a place for lazy contemplation as well as more vigorous pursuits like walking, boating and fishing.
The world-famous Khajuraho temples are worth a visit, as much for their erotic sculptures as for the groups of middle-aged men carefully photographing them.
Best of all, do nothing. The Sarai itself is a great place to simply eat, sleep, read on the porch and have a restful holiday. All the same, more activities and trips further afield are listed on the Sarai website.