There is a place in Central India where the sky meets the holly woodland. For when the sun begins to head home, hues of orange and yellow stretch far and wide, a blanket of clouds fill them in and a few moments later or so, the once cyanic sky turns into a never-ending canvas, right from the painter’s palette like an abstract splattered above the scenic plains. Though I’d tell you that there are several places in Central India that make for a unique and fulfilling holiday if wildlife or birding is something you’re fond of, the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve is one my favourite places when it comes to wildlife. Now, I’ve travelled to Bandhavgarh only once but, the memory of that particular trip is etched in my mind in a way that I can almost visualize every sighting I had on the six safaris that I undertook there and given a chance, I’d travel to this pristine land any day. Bandhavgarh was an experience like never before.
A deeply desired tourism destination by many, Bandhavgarh is a Tiger Reserve in the Umaria district of Madhya Pradesh and often goes by the abbreviation ‘BTR’. A flourishing ground for one of the most sought after big cats, the Royal Bengal Tiger and a land that attracts not just wildlife lovers but also those who enjoy photographing birds and reptiles, this tiger reserve is definitely worth a visit. A place that has witnessed a considerable increase in the number of tigers over the years, BTR houses a diverse and dense topography of open meadows, grasslands, bamboo and sal vegetation, dry deciduous scrub forests and a euphony of water bodies, adding that very bit of soul to the reserve.
Where legend, mystery and folklore intertwine, the riveting tales of this very land make it even more intriguing. It is believed that the Bandhavgarh Fort was gifted to Lord Lakshman by Lord Ram to keep a watch on Lanka and hence, this is how the place came to be called as ‘Bandhavgarh’ (Bandhav’ means ‘bother’ and ‘Garh’ means ‘fort’). Moreover, archaeologists have found references of this fort in ancient Hindu texts which tell us that the inscriptions and rock paintings in the man-made caves here date far back. The earliest available data however, gives us a peek into its history, mainly the fact that this fort was under the possession of the Vakataka Dynasty and was much later also ruled by the Rajputs, Kalachuris, Sengars and Baghels. It remained in the possession of the Baghels, popularly known as the ‘Maharajas of Rewa’ until independence. They had then declared it as their very own private hunting game reserve until it came under the control of the Government of India, post-independence.
BTR boasts a broad diversity of fauna comprising of the tiger, leopard, wild dog, gaur (Indian bison), hyaena, Indian wolf, sloth bear, jackal, langur, rhesus monkey, spotted deer, sambar deer, barking deer, chousingha (four-horned antelope) and more. Surprisingly, for the past two or three years, this forest has been a welcoming ground for the Indian Elephants as well. Fortunately, these gentle, majestic giants have decided to stay back for a longer period of time this year and people have started to believe that they might just settle down in Bandhavgarh for good this time. It’s always such a pleasure to watch these animals in full grandeur and this mystic land is also home to several rare species of birds and animals such as the jungle cat, rusty spotted cat, ratel, flying squirrel and Malabar pied hornbill. You never know, you might just be lucky enough to spot one!
Here, nature is more mirthful than anything else. The gentle swaying of tall grass in the warm morning breeze, the squeaking of the safari jeep’s metal as we drive around the forest and the occasional ballad of birdsongs echoing through the air, this place is bound to make you feel at peace. Sometimes on a dry safari, I take the time to observe and appreciate things I’d otherwise not largely focus on, like the playful behaviour of langurs or how a fawn never leaves its mother’s side. This reserve is also a paradise for bird lovers as one can enjoy a vast variety of flora and avifauna. Grey hornbill, white-throated kingfisher, red-wattled lapwing, long-billed vulture, common teal and a lot more are bound to fill your cameras. I must admit, I was quite lucky to have observed a crested serpent eagle watching its prey on the opposite tree as well as a wake of oriental white-rumped vultures feeding on the carcass of a sambar deer one afternoon.
During my trip to BTR, I felt as though each day seemed to unfold something new. Safari trails that ran along the forest, cobbled streams glinting with life and the lush verdure compelled us to hope for a sighting better than the last one. On the second day, we patiently waited for an hour or so, beneath the brassy sun, with jeeps lined on either side of the road and mindless chatter that kept the tourists busy. A stream stretched before us like blue brocade and our guide told us that we were on the lookout for a tigress named ‘Spotty’ and her cubs who often crossed the stream during that particular time of the day. Spotty is quite the talk of BTR, loved and photographed by many and just as he began giving us a vivid description of her, the guides that now stood in the jeeps ahead, began frantically waving at each other, signalling the arrival of one of her cubs. Hushed whispers, engine noises and camera clicks filled the silence as two of Spotty’s cubs languidly emerged from the tall grass. The crowd gasped in amusement as the shy felines made their way towards the waters, their mother keeping a tight watch from not too far behind. In the day’s warmth, their family of three looked simply regal, basking in the golden light and making the most of a lazy morning before disappearing into the dense vegetation again. On my prior safaris, I had only enjoyed the sighting of a single tiger but here in BTR was the very time I witnessed tiger cubs with their mother and not just once, but twice. The second sighting though, is a story for another time.
The next few days brought different yet worthwhile sightings as we drove around Bandhavgarh, taking in its sheer magnificence and tranquillity. I was overwhelmed to have closely watched massive sub-adult brothers (tigers) enjoying a meal, deep in the woodland. Dry leaves carpeted the very place they so leisurely occupied, each finding his own comfort spot in the shade and their amber eyes fixated on the deer that was being shared by three. I remember how I could hear the subtle cracking of bones as the brothers ate to their heart’s content.
The scenic land of BTR, with trees that stand proudly like fortresses, the calls of animals and air mixed with a sweet fragrance of earth and grass, made me wish I could spend more time there, exploring the forest. That very first sighting of Spotty and her cubs in the morning sun however, was the highlight of my trip. Though I love the jungle experience as a whole and appreciate every bit of what the place has to offer, one can never have enough of tiger sightings. No matter how many times or how closely you witness this royal creature, there’s always a tiny hope of seeing it all over again that lingers in each safari. I’m no expert on tigers but I absolutely enjoy the thrill of how the forest guides and drivers skillfully track them, explaining to us at every point where the tiger might possibly be heading and making sure we get the best of sightings.
In my opinion, it’s a different kind of feeling when you’re on a wildlife safari, far from the bustle of the city, a place where you have ample time to contemplate, observe, enjoy and most importantly, where your phone at times, conveys you a blissful message of “no service.”
How to reach there?
If you decide to travel by air, the nearest airports to BTR are Khajuraho and Jabalpur. BTR is about a 5 hour drive (226 km) from Khajuraho and a 3 hour drive (160 km) from Jabalpur. You can fly to either of these airports from any major city of India.
Umaria and Katni serve as the nearest railway stations if you take the train. BTR is roughly 45 minutes (32 km) away from Umaria and approximately a 2 hour (97 km) drive from Katni.
By road, BTR is well connected to cities and towns like Jabalpur, Umaria, Khajuraho, Satna etc.
The distance of BTR from some of the nearest cities are as follows:
- · Umaria- 45 mins drive (35 km)
- · Katni- 2 hour drive (81 km)
- · Jabalpur- 3 hour drive (160 km)
- · Khajuraho- 5 hour drive (226 km)
- · Varanasi- 7 hour drive (335 km)
- · Nagpur- 8 hour drive (434 km)
If you’re looking for a rejuvenating getaway after the pandemic, give this beautiful tiger reserve a visit and you might just come back planning more safaris than you’d thought of!