I was lucky enough to join our most recent group of clients on our Tiger Study Tour, which visited Panna and Bandhavgarh National Parks, the latter certainly known for its relatively high numbers of tigers, but where I had one of my most enjoyable wildlife experiences in India – and not a tiger in sight.
I had opted to visit the hilltop fort at Bandhavgarh – with legend dating the construction to around 800BC (the same time of the epic Indian Ramayana) but which has slowly been consumed by the forest since the turn of the 16th Century, when the Bhagel Dynasty left for Rewa. Subsequent Maharaja’s have managed the park well to ensure a good hunting ground, but have left the tumbling ruins in peace, which makes for a fascinating walk.
Much of the large temple complex is spread out across the top of a commanding ridge, just over 800metres high, with spectacular views across the park. As I followed my guide through the moss covered fort gates, complete with overgrown weeds and vines slowly strangling the foundations. The first thing I noticed was the stench of bats – and with a quick flash of the torch, the roof of the cavern suddenly exploded into life in series of squeaks and the soft flapping of hundreds of wings.
We continued climbing the cobbled path winding its way up the ridge, stopping to look at the hornbills which were now at eye-level, sitting in pairs on the highest branches of the trees below us langur monkeys leapt from tree-to-tree, dropping fruit and leaves, eagerly eaten by the Sambar deer that sat and waited for their lunch to arrive underneath. Every so often small splashes of colour could be seen growing out of the fort walls, as hundreds of butterflies and dragonflies fluttered around small flowers. We then came to a number of smaller outlying temples, ancient and still in the undergrowth, with small statues inside representing various reincarnations of Vishnu – stone fishes and enormous turtles, in amongst rubble of carved slabs, their sandstone images faintly visible after centuries.
On reaching the top we reached our destination – a large temple, guarded by two saints, ordained holy men whose sole job it was to maintain the temple and bless those who made the pilgrimage from the plains below. On a far wall, there was a small statue of Ganesh and above this, covering most of the wall were coloured handprints in a variety of shapes and sizes like a child’s painting. This is where the faithful come to make offerings – a wish for children, a good wife, wealth. One hand print for the wish and they return to complete the pair once the wish is granted. Judging by the number of hand prints covering the wall, this is was a particularly auspicious place.
I was offered some snacks and chai by the guards, who were also radio operators for the government – and with that they showed me a small short wave radio, alive with the chatter from all of the vehicles in the park looking for tigers. The fort is the highest point in the park and as such the signal for any radio is perfect. As a result, they are given the job of monitoring the airwaves, keeping a tab on the movements of the game talking to the guides. “We don’t feel the need to visit the parks” he said “if you ever want to know where the tigers are, this is the place to be.”