A fraction of a price (₹30 perhead) takes us from Umaria railway station to Bandhavgarh. It was during that hour-long bus ride that we heard our first tiger story. ‘“You are going to Bandhavgarh?”asked a shy co-passenger, with a baby in her arms. When I nodded, she started chatting. She had seen tigers several times outside her house and was rarely afraid. “They are not harmful, and do not attack you,” she said. An hour later the park director, Mridul Pathak, confirmed what the woman had said, that tigers in Bandhavgarh were more or less human-friendly. The sentiment was further echoed when lone forest rangers moved around on bicycles with nothing but a stick for defence.
Pathak, surrounded by fawning listeners—a journalist, two researchers, a photographer, and a couple of rangers—was full of stories. “There are so many instances, but it’s for you to decide what story you want to tell,” he declared dramatically.
With a safari to look forward to the next morning (tigers were better spotted then), we proceeded for lunch. Afterwards, we sauntered around the guest house. The main road at Tila was deserted, dotted with empty grocery stores and a few souvenir shops. We took the mud road that branched off into the village. After browsing through narrow alleys (and evading many cows), we finally lounged on a ledge adjoining a mud house. Soon enough, a young man emerged to join us.
As more locals trickled in, the inevitable question cropped up: had they seen a tiger? “Oh yes, right here where you are sitting,” said one. “It jumped over that fence, with a calf in its jaws. The tiger killed three cows that day.”
The people were kind enough to invite us to sample the local brew, made from mahua flowers. We enjoyed a glass each as the sun hid behind the forested mountains. The locals had breached the fences of these forests for mahua and tendu leaf, the latter a good source of income.
Sharp at six the next morning, we were woken up with a knock. The sun was yet to rise when we mounted the open Gypsy, but we buzzed with excitement, eager to spot the big cats. By then, a middle-aged Gujarati couple from California had joined us. This was their third safari and they had not spotted any tigers yet. “Third time is always the charm,” I quipped, hoping to lift their spirits.
Our first sighting was a spotted chital. After clicking as many pictures as we could, we found ourselves in an open meadow, a herd of deer feeding on its grass. I could not help admire the natural beauty of Bandhavgarh’s landscape, its rolling pastures and rising hills.
Ram Avtar, our ageing and loquacious guide, told us that there were nearly a hundred adult tigers and 28 cubs in the 716 sq km core area (including Tala, Magadhi and Khatauli), making Bandhavgarh one of the likeliest places for spotting a Royal Bengal Tiger. But where were they?
We crossed a stream hoping to find a tiger, but instead stumbled upon a sambar drinking from a pool. A little ahead, we saw a fish-owl perched over the stream. We crossed several forest tracts until Gopal Singh, our driver, announced that it was tea-time. As we gorged on snacks, our guide spoke of a mahout, Neelam, and his elephant Ashtham, who had warded off a tiger attack.
The two tigers had fought viciously, and one of them, badly injured, withdrew into a hideout. Neelam was tasked with luring it outside. They were worried that the tiger would succumb to his injuries. But none in the rescue party were prepared for the injured tiger to attack. It leapt on the elephant’s hind legs and bit. Ashtham swung around, but the tiger would not let go. The elephant spun around several times, finally shaking off the tiger and also, unfortunately, its rider.
The mahout, badly injured, lay on the ground when the tiger attacked again. Ashtham came to his rescue by stomping on the wild tiger. It made for an interesting tale, but whether it was true or not I do not know.
We drove next to the fence, and sensing our disappointment, the driver decided to drive to Rampur Hill, to try for a glimpse of the elusive feline. The drive was a steep climb and more of an offroad experience. When we came to an abrupt halt, we thought we had finally succeeded. Instead, he showed us a pugmark and pointed to its large size. “It is a male”. We drove in the same direction, curving at the many twists and turns, but to no avail.
A scratch on the ground. Some tiger scat. But never a real tiger. I was fast losing hope.
We drove further until the jungle opened to a tableland, with the most magnificent views. If this was all I saw on this trip, it would still be well worth the effort.
Later that afternoon, outside the park, we sampled Tala’s famed milk sweets, gulab jamun with rabri. The shopkeeper was amused to learn of our failed bid to spot a tiger. “Only yesterday this woman, who had gone to relieve herself, ran in screaming,” he laughed. She had spotted not just a tiger, but a leopard too.
Returning to Umaria, I kept looking out of the bus, hoping to catch a stray tiger in the passing buffer zone. And I wondered if it was all based on luck. The woman who had gone to relieve herself got to see the tiger, while the woman who had crossed seven seas got to see just that, tiger crap. “Tigers are their own masters, not obliged to make an appearance for visitors like us,” she remarked.
The nearest domestic airports to Bandhavgarh are Jabalpur (200km) and Khajuraho (250km) while the nearest international airport is Varanasi (350km). There are no bus services from Jabalpur to Bandhavgarh. Cab services are easily available from the domestic airports. The nearest railway station to the national park is Umaria (23kms). Umaria is very well connected via Delhi, Agra and Jabalpur.