Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Bandhavgarh: Forest Trump

It was a balmy winter afternoon — sunny blue skies, a slight nip and air filled with birdsong, just perfect for the lovely picnic lunch we were relishing at the gloriously-leafy Bandhavadheesh Temple grounds inside the ruins of the Bandhavgarh Fort. We had trekked up here and the tranquility around the temple's lime-washed structure and lush environs called for a breather.

We were busy tucking into our sandwiches when a langur call pierced the calm. Questioningly we looked towards our guide who nonchalantly said, "Were it a tiger the call would have had urgency." On cue the temple priest remarked, "A tigress had come by yesterday. She was marking territory. She may be around." Silence descended over our group. The sandwiches suddenly lost taste. It took the chirpiest among us to voice concern. “If a tiger does turn up what we do," she innocently questioned. The guide casually said, "Nothing. What can you do in front of a tiger?" Our friend was alarmed. "I'm newly married! I have to get home! Do we have to trek down a path with the threat of a tiger looming large?" We tried suppressing our grins, but the guide couldn’t, as he declared, “Legend says if you offer prayers at this  temple, a tiger never attacks." Faith has its ways of being restorative. Our friend was convinced. She quickly ran to appease the gods a second time and returned with a big smile back on her pretty face. 

There are not too many tiger reserves where mythology, history, wildlife and the joys of picnicking sumptuously blend. It's this unusual combination that makes Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh such a treat to explore. 

Legends and lore
A spectacular blend of the Vindhya hills, deciduous forest, an enchanting valley meadow and a dominating plateau, this park provides one of the most well-preserved environment for tigers. Bandhavgarh has its sets of legends too. There are legends of gods and chieftains from times ancient. The legends of Medieval kings and poets. And of course the contemporary legends of Sita, Charger and their son B2... tigers who ruled these grasslands as only regal monarchs can. Each being as engrossing as only legends can.  

The story goes, the fort atop the plateau was built by Lord Rama for younger brother Lakshman with an aim of keeping vigil over Lanka. Yes, Rama's Lanka was supposed to be somewhere in Central India, so believe several history-keepers. As the fort was meant for a brother, it simply began being known such; bandhav, or bandhu as it was called earlier, referring to brother and garh meaning fort. The Bandhavadheesh Temple, where we were receiving these lessons in history, was dedicated to the worship of the reigning deity of these jungles: Lord Lakshman and the name Bandhavgarh has stayed since.

Though no specific history of Bandhavgarh Fort is available, it's assumed to be over 2,500 years old and had remained a stronghold during miscellaneous dynastic rules. Its recorded evidence dates to the 13th century when Baghela Rajputs, hailing from present-day Gujarat region, made Bandhavgarh their focus and controlled territory from the fort. That was until 1617 AD when the Baghela king moved his capital to the more-central Rewa. The fort lay abandoned for close to a century aiding in the escalation of flora-fauna around Bandhavgarh. Its tiger population grew impressively which attracted successive Baghelas, known by then as the Maharajas of Rewa, to make it their hunting preserve. It remained such till 1968 AD when it was declared a national park.

Sonnets in stone
Each of these dynasties left their imprint in stone and during our trek of Bandhavgarh Fort we walked amid striking reminders of a remarkable past. Of the colossal rock-cut sculptures — most considered 10th century art — the 18 ft high Narasimha was awe-inspiring while Sheshshaiya or Lord Vishnu reclining on a seven-hooded serpent was overwhelming. There was the friendly-looking Kachchap, a rock-cut turtle, said to be the largest of its kind in the country. A lot of other sculptures lay carelessly in the open, which in some way added to their attraction.

During the Baghela rule the 16th century poet-saint Kabir is thought to have meditated for several years at Bandhavgarh Fort and there was a temple, lake and cave dedicated to him. There were a number of lakes around the fort which translated into watering holes and as we tread the area the guide pointed to markings of various fauna. A set of pugmarks got us excited and we hoped for an adventurous sighting. That, though, was to happen later.  

The tiger trail
It’s said you’re lucky if you spot the striped beauties in other parks and really unlucky if you don’t spot it in Bandhavgarh! That evening Lady Luck was our pal.
In the initial phase of our three-hour evening safari we relished verdant views picturesquely backlit by a setting sun and tried decoding jungle calls. At times the green kingdom’s amiable inhabitants — langur, neelgai, sambhar — would allow a photo-op but The King himself remained elusive. Time was almost running out, when a passing jeep mentioned a sighting.

Our driver turned the vehicle around and raced. This was the moment we were here for. The environs were a blur as we flew to the designated spot, where a crowd of jeeps had already collected. An anticipatory silence followed. Seconds were ticking by slowly and heart-beats were rapid. Will we? Won’t we?

Suddenly there was a rustle and in a flash emerged B2, then the ageing monarch of these jungles. Cameras clicked and visitors exclaimed but unflustered by it all B2 ambled past our jeeps, almost at arm’s length. He was a King in control. He was majestic! A few seconds is all we got to savour before he vanished into the jungle but he had awarded us an experience of a life-time.

It was my first sighting of an untamed tiger and it will always be cherished. More so, as B2 passed away a few months later (in November 2011). And a nation grieved. Such was his charisma. His legend, though, lives on like many more in Bandhavgarh.

Published in TimeOut Explorer, Jan-Feb 2013 issue


rubalsabode said...

Nice one! loved the temple praying incident.

bs said...