When you’re a wildlife enthusiast and you’re heading to a national park in India, it’s almost a given that all conversations around you are going to revolve around the royal Bengal tiger. It was no different for me as I made my way to Mahua Kothi, a Taj Safaris property in the Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh. While driving towards the lodge, my driver narrated horrifying tales of tigers supposedly attacking people, which sounded too absurd to be true. Every other tree would be “the tree where a tiger mauled a man to death”. I hoped and prayed that these were just fanciful flights of his imagination, though they did little to abate my excitement on finally seeing the elusive big cat.
Once I reached the property, I met the manager, Amit Singhvi. Over lunch, he told me more stories, but this time they were actually believable. “Tigers don’t attack and kill people just like that,” he said, dismissing every ‘encounter’ that my driver had narrated. He explained that Bamera, one of Bandhavgarh’s famous tigers, used to frequently venture outside the core area without harming any humans.
Though Singhvi’s extensive knowledge about the surrounding forests was enough to convey how closely linked Taj Safaris was to nature, the property’s name itself was the biggest hint of all. ‘Mahua Kothi’ literally translates to ‘mansion of mahua’; the mahua tree (Madhuca longifolia) is commonly found in the forests of north and central India. The people of this region rely heavily on it – extracting cooking oil from its seeds and, of course, a potent alcoholic beverage from its flowers! One of the largest flowering trees in the area, it also plays an important role during local festivities as it’s considered holy.
From the mud house-like appearance of the 12 cottages, complete with thatched roofs, to the upholstery inside, Taj Mahua Kothi boasts a quintessentially indigenous flavour. True to its name, the rooms are laid out as individual ‘kothis’ that give you complete privacy and a certain amount of blending in with the natural environs right outside your windows. Each cottage is tastefully decorated; the walls inside the room are adorned with decorative pieces made with local wood and metal. Even the bathing area comes equipped with copper buckets, tumblers and wooden fixtures further accentuating the rustic feel of the property. Each kothi also has a small verandah where you can sit back and enjoy the sunset with a cup of warm coffee in your hands.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that each meal at Mahua Kothi is organised at a different venue – while breakfast might be served under the shade of a mahua tree, dinner could be on the rooftop of the main building. The menu changes along with the venue. This ensures that you see different parts the property and have a unique experience each time! During my stay here, I had the opportunity to savour local delights along with a variety of delectable north Indian dishes.
Tip Your itinerary every day will most likely include a morning safari. On these days, your break-fast (parathas, bread, fruits and yummy muffins) will be packed and kept in the safari van.
While the rustic décor and sublime ambience of Taj Mahua Kothi may transport you to another world, the staff at the property manage to make you feel perfectly at home even in the midst of a dense jungle. In fact, Taj has the reputation of being one of the warmest brands in the hospitality industry today and Mahua Kothi lives up to this distinction. Seventy two per cent of the staff members here are locals who bring their own unique stories, experiences and bright smiles, making sure that you have what you need every step of the way.
That very evening, I met one of the resident naturalists at the property– Rajkishore. Not only did he give me a wealth of information on the national park, its history and its most famous resident, he also told me about the mind-boggling variety of fauna that can be found in the region, the heart-wrenching man-animal conflict and the lifestyle of the locals that reside around the park. Rajkishore also took me to Rancha and Dhoba villages, which are both located quite close to the property. The women of these villages used to suffer from serious respiratory problems due to the use of wood-fired chullahs (open-fire stoves), which created a lot of noxious smoke. Not only were these chullahs extremely bad for the health of these women, they also used about 30–40 kilos of firewood per house per day! Taj Mahua Kothi came up with the novel idea of installing smokeless chullahs in the villages free of cost, which would reduce the deforestation that was rampant in this area. Also, this programme would prevent the villagers from venturing into the forest where they ran the risk of being attacked by wildlife. The task, however, was far from easy. Initially, the villagers were extremely reluctant to get these chullahs installed in their houses. Despite this, Taj persisted and ended up installing a chullah in the house of a staff member, who happened to belong to one of these villages. Thankfully, word soon spread about the wonders of this new cooking device and 210 chullahs were installed in the villages shortly after. I am happy to report that the women here are hale and hearty and the use of firewood has been reduced by about 80 per cent!
An interesting facet of this initiative – The Machan, an eatery that is located in the Taj Mahal Hotel in Delhi has created a ‘Taj Safaris’ section in the menu promoting regional recipes from the villages around the lodges. Ten per cent of all revenue earned from the Taj Safaris menu goes into providing gas connections to local communities around their lodges.
The installation of these smokeless chullahs is just one instance of Taj’s dedication towards the local residents. Taj also provides nutritious food to children upto six years of age. They have also started library projects in about seven nearby villages, which aim at improving awareness about forest conservation amongst children through reading materials.
While we were walking through the villages, every passerby greeted Rajkishore. He explained that he was a local villager, who had become a forest guide and had worked at various properties in Bandhavgarh before the Taj Group hired him. He was then sent to different national parks across the country where he received rigorous training to become a naturalist.
I woke up excited and eager the next morning. It was finally time for me to go on a jungle safari! Taj Mahua Kothi can organise safaris to different zones of the national park for you. However, remember to book your safaris in advance as the limited spots they have tend to sell out very fast.
Before you go off into the forest, an orientation session is held which gives you important information about the park and its wildlife. During this time, they also screen a short documentary on the successful translocation of gaurs into Bandhavgarh. People arrive at Bandhavgarh in droves to catch the big cat in action. Most of them tend to drive past gaurs, not giving them more than a cursory glance. That’s quite unfortunate since, in my opinion, Bandhavgarh’s gaurs have a far more interesting story, complete with the twists and turns of any drama series, than any other animal here, even the tiger! The gaur or Indian bison is listed amongst the most vulnerable bovine species, and their population was practically negligible in the park between 1995 and 2010. When this alarming trend came to light, naturalists and forest officials came together to understand why the bovines were disappearing. They realised that, over time, the gaurs had migrated to the surrounding Achanakmar, Bilaspur, Amarkantak and Kanha reserves due to a limited food supply in Bandhavgarh National Park. Some theories also suggest that many gaurs in Bandhavgarh had succumbed to foot and mouth disease. Unfortunately, the bovines never returned to the park, presumably due to the subsequent increase of human settlements in and around the buffer zones. The same year, it was none other than the Taj Group that brought in &Beyond, a South African wildlife conservation corporation, to help plan the relocation of gaurs to Bandhavgarh, an initiative that was the first of its kind in the area. &Beyond along with Taj Safaris, the Madhya Pradesh forest department, and the Wild-life Institute of India combined their manpower, resources and knowledge to successfully translocate 19 gaurs into Bandhavgarh National Park from Kanha National Park in February 2011. In 2012, the MP forest department translocated another 31 gaurs to Bandhavgarh. All in all, a total of 50 gaurs were introduced in the area. Despite regular predation by tigers, their population continues to grow.
Generally, a naturalist from Mahua Kothi accompanies guests on the safari. This gives you a much higher chance of sighting creatures as their eagle eyes can spot so many more wild residents than your city-weary eyes can. They also give you a great deal of information on topics far and wide, which makes the safari an incredible and educational experience. At Bandhavgarh, the chances of spotting a tiger are very high; the park boasts of a high population density of tigers in the country. During my two safaris through the park, I was lucky enough to spot four tigers!
Even though everything in Bandhavgarh screams ‘tiger’, it would be wise for you to not base your entire forest experience on spotting the elusive cat. Unfortunately, there are chances that you may not spot the big cat on your safaris at all!
Since I knew the story of the gaur in Bandhavgarh (all thanks to that incredible documentary I watched before the safari!), I was more than thrilled when we came across a herd of them in the Magadhi zone. I watched them graze peacefully awhile, hoping that such successful conservation stories encourage the people who visit the park to do their bit and support organisations that try to curb the menace of poaching and deforestation. “When you spot a gaur in Bandhavgarh, I feel like it’s a bigger achievement than spotting the tiger,” Rajkishore said, and I couldn’t have agreed more.
On my last day at Mahua Kothi, I had the incredible opportunity to visit another Taj property – Banjaar Tola in Kanha National Park – and I took it without hesitation. The drive to the property, with dense forests along the way, was absolutely magnificent. Spread over an area of 90 acres, Banjaar Tola lies on the banks of the Banjaar River, which separates the core and buffer zones of Kanha National Park. With two camps consisting of nine tents each, it is the largest Taj property in India.
As always, Taj Safaris has incorporated a bit of the local flavour to name another one of its properties. ‘Tola’ in the local language means a cluster of houses. So Banjaar Tola simply means a cluster of houses by the Banjaar River. However, the property does not consist of a cluster of cottages at all; instead, they have luxurious tent-like accommodation, which has been built on raised wooden platforms with canvas roofs. Each ‘tent’ has a sitting area outside that looks out onto the Banjaar River, on the other side of which lies the core zone of the Kanha National Park.
Banjaar Tola is another Taj property that has provided gainful employment to locals - 60 per cent of its staff belong to the area! Besides this, the property also works closely with the Baiga and Gond tribals who inhabit the region. Guests have the opportunity to go on village visits, which gives them a chance to interact with these tribals and understand their way of life. Their altruistic pursuits don’t just end there. Banjaar Tola also provides nutritious food to local schools and organises eco lessons and safaris for school children, teaching them the importance of conservation in today’s resource-starved world. Health camps are also held for the locals once a year.
When you’re here, don’t forget to ask the chef to prepare a local variant of chicken biryani. The dish is unique and absolutely lip-smacking. Remember that every delightful dish you eat is made from ingredients sourced from local farmers. I was fascinated to learn that the team at Banjaar Tola have also been involved in teaching locals about eco-friendly honey harvesting techniques.
Interestingly, all Taj Safaris properties have also contributed towards the purchase of sewing machines and computers that are used for development programmes run by qualified local people so that new employment opportunities can be created for the villagers.
I spent most of my time at Banjaar Tola chatting with the friendly naturalists who told me a great deal about Kanha National Park and its history, the tribal population near Kanha and their own wild encounters.
We made our way back to Mahua Kothi by nightfall. All too soon, my stay at this wonderful Taj property had come to an end. A visit to the forest is always a magical experience. The anticipation of seeing India’s rarest beasts on the prowl, the fresh air, and the feeling of being one with nature make jungle safaris an activity most definitely worth undertaking. But the one special ingredient here, which ties the whole visit together, and elevates it to one of those remarkable and memorable moments is the reverence for nature that surround your forays into the wild. At Taj Safaris, not only is every last detail of your stay looked after, but they instill in you the importance of wildlife conservation and protection. With their help, your journey into the leafy hallows of a dense forest will indeed become a life-altering tryst.
- Gaur relocation
- Smokeless chullah project
- Nutritious food to local schools
- Creating awareness about conservation amongst locals
When to go October to June
Taj Mahua Kothi
Bandhavgarh National Park
Umaria - 488461
Mumbai contact: 022-66011825
Tariff from ₹47,520 plus taxes per night, including all meals. Rates are dynamic and also vary by season. Shared safaris cost ₹3,540 plus taxes per person
- Jungle safari
- Village visit
Air Nearest airport: Jabalpur (193km/ 4.5hrs) is connected to Delhi, Mumbai and Bhopal. Taxi fare for a drop ₹6,000–6,800 (negotiable)
Rail Nearest railway station: Umaria 34km/ 45min). Taxis charge around ₹1,500. Katni station (101km/ 2.5hrs) offers connections to Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi. Taxi is about ₹3,000–3,500 (depending on the vehicle); Jabalpur Junction is 193km away. Taxi as above
Road From Bhopal take the highway connecting Jabalpur, Katni and Umaria to Bandhavgarh. It’s best to come by air or rail
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