That name occupies so much space in my heart, that I think it necessary to host it in a line of its own, ungrouped with the clutter of seemingly less meaningful words.
When I think of it, a smile of familial fondness graces my lips and a wistful swirl of memories descends upon my brows. I feel infinitely fortunate to have known this place, because it hasn’t just been a park; it’s been my spiritual home. It hasn’t been merely benevolent; it’s been an alchemical force. And in the words of Michael ‘Nick’ Nichols, one of my most loved photographers, it’s made me a part of it and given me a voice.
Interestingly, though, it wasn’t my first choice to seek photographing a tiger, back in 2006. That place was Kanha, probably because it was more accessible and renowned at that time, immortalised by that famous film on Lakshmi (with an epic zoom-out shot of a mahout riding an elephant through a misty Kanha-meadow, with Sir David’s sonorous voice in the commentary).
But very soon, a few inspirations in the media galvanised me to head, at the next precious vacation, to Bandhavgarh instead of returning to Kanha. These included two films – National Geographic’s The Temple of Tigers, which had some splendid footage of an indomitable Charger bonding with a very small B2, and heartbreaking scenes of Charger’s eventual decline; and a documentary on Nichols’s groundbreaking camera-trap work – apart from Stephen Mills’s book, Tiger, in which he described Bandhavgarh as a “very pretty park” and demonstrated the compliment with many amazing images thence.
Then there were the stories of phenomenal tiger sightings. Recent visitors reported seeing a dozen tigers over the course of a four-day trip, and multiple tigers on each safari – statistics that had roughly the same gravity to me as facts pertaining to the size and mass of the solar system. Naturally, they made my head reel out of orbit and heart race out of my ribs. And the thought that B2 was still there at large, and that I could meet him, was impossible to resist.
So off I went to Bandhavgarh in May 2007, to set foot on its hallowed ground for the first time as a dreamy-eyed pilgrim, to finally see in flesh what my mind had for long woven vivid imaginations.
And it wasn’t so much that it met my lofty expectations, rewarding me with a tiger-find in just the first two hours of the first safari (image below), with many more over the rest of the trip, that caused me to be irreversibly besotted with it as an ardent devotee for life. What hit me was how it reduced all my expectations to just one – of being there.
It was love at first light!
|My first ever Bandhavgarh-tiger – one of the female cubs from the Jhorjhora Female’s first litter at Rajbehra,
14 May 2007
Very quickly it became hard not to notice how everything about this place left me enthralled, absorbed, fascinated.
The variety in habitat was one, with rugged, bamboo-covered hills complementing sublime grass-clad meadows lined with sal trees sporting their cheerful green even at the height of summer, and the winding roads affording access to even the remotest precincts, and brow-brushing thickets resounding to the noise of the cicadas, and archaeological wondrousness merging consummately with natural wealth.
Bandhavgarh seemed to be the utopian melting-pot of man and nature.
|Forest path and incoming storm, May 2007|
The peerless beauty of the tigers was another – I very quickly came to conclude that Bandhavgarh’s tigers, especially the progeny of the Charger-B2 lineage, were the best-looking tigers on the planet. I’m not sure if this was a case of love making me blind or more perceptive, but in my eyes no tiger could look better than a Bandhavgarh tiger. There was, on its face, a certain establishment of evolutionary finality vis-à-vis visual design and aesthetics.
|The Chorbehra Female in May 2010, probably the prettiest tigress I’ve seen anywhere, and the very embodiment of ‘Bandhavgarhness’. All the tigresses who’ve ever come close to her (notably, the Mirchani female cub and the Sukhi Pateeha Female (T5)’s daughter, Spotty (T41) are from Bandhavgarh.|
Then there was the genuine passion for the tigers the drivers nursed, with some very solemnly regarding them as gods; the immense knowledge the guides had (I was astounded by their prophetic cognisance of a tiger’s next move), and the extreme dexterity the drivers possessed; and how lightly they carried all this expertise, and how intuitively they worked, and how they’d take a miss as a personal loss; the warmth and affection they lavished openly on visitors, and the delightful stories they told of the forest and its tigers, in their colourful, theatrical style of rumination delivered with an impeccably tobacco-influenced accent, animated prosody and an endless appetite for badinage.
|The ever-unassuming, deferent and passionate lad, Vikas Yadav in April 2011, my first (December 2007) and still-favourite personalised-driver|
Matching this was the way the staff of even the most inexpensive lodges went about redefining hospitality, waking up at any time of the night to oversee arrival or departure, going to absurd lengths to ensure their guests’ comfort and satisfaction, and greeting them with a heart-warmingly cheerful “tiger mila, sir?” (this question sometimes transforming to an amusingly confident “kitne tiger mile, sir?”) upon every return from a safari. It seemed the entire town functioned with the singular objective of introducing visitors to the magic of a tiger, and what a splendid place Bandhavgarh was for this purpose. In no other place or establishment had I come to witness such a profound commonality of cause and unbridled passion shared by a large number of people.
It was little wonder they succeeded, for I was quickly in love with everything – from the chai at the centre of the park and the dhaba outside, to Kakubhai Kothari’s images stunningly displayed at the interpretation centre (image below), and the bird calls that needed a rather sinister-looking lady to turn on the power to work.
|My dear friend ‘Scotchie’ (Pramod Kumar) reverentially beholding Kakubhai’s awe-inspiring image of Charger, May 2007|
Amongst numerous other things, I was also enamoured with the magnificent domesticated-elephants, who carried their burden with humbling grace; the cattle that lazed on the main road with enviable insouciance; the watchtower-like entry office at the Tala gate; and the splash the safari vehicles would make while fording the stream en route to it, and the sole wine-store in the hamlet that allowed us to celebrate our cherished moments!
|Vikas making a spectacular approach to the Tala Gate, December 2007|
But the piece de resistance of this feast was an inexplicable undercurrent of belonging and kinship; a spiritual connect that exceeded rationality. Just being there, breathing the same air as the tigers I loved, able to set off in pursuit of them every morning and evening, made me impossibly joyous; and being elsewhere made me ache to be there instead.
I wasn’t Alice, but this was Wonderland!
And so since that seminal visit, I’ve kept going back, almost by default, as though an unstoppable force has been pulling me towards it. I’ve visited Bandhavgarh a total of 17 times (I must mention six of which have been leading a Tour for Toehold), clocking over 230 safaris in a total of three core zones and one of the buffer zones of the park, in six different months of the nine-month season – all of which is to say: not as often enough as I’d like, but as often as circumstances have allowed, meanwhile occupied principally by the task of counting the days to my next trip, right from the last day of one.
I’ve stood at Shesh Shaiya with teary eyes, gasped at the panorama from atop Ganesh Pahadi, beheld an impossibly beautiful sunset behind the Badhaini Hill from Chakradhara, heard the cherubic gurgle of the stream at Sidhbaba, witnessed the water change its colour at Gopalpur, felt the earth reverberate at Jhorjhora and snaked through the darkness of Jamunia.
|A radiant morning in Sehra, November 2011|
I’ve rejoiced in the freshness of Pateeha, surrendered to the maze of Bhool Bhulaiya, breathed the drama of Dabhadol, negotiated the precipitous paths of Rampur, fallen into raptures at Ghodademon, felt the serenity of Banbehi, espied the changing forms of Damnar, gazed into infinity at Rajbehra, caught the reflection of paradise at Enicut, warmed my soul in Hardiha, and shuddered at the edge of Mirchani.
|The Rajbehra Female at Sehra, only a couple of days before giving birth to her second litter, May 2015|
But the most pivotal part of the experience has been the generosity of opportunities to follow the triumphs and the trials of the heroes of the park: the tigers. Opportunity to get to know them – above everything else – as the unique individuals they are, with all their idiosyncrasies.
|The Kankati Female with a two-month-old cub from her first litter, the first time I saw such a young cub, November 2011|
Opportunity to watch them grow from callow and scrawny, through adorable and silly, to big, serious, mature, frightening and redoubtable; to see them handle situations, make history, flower, win, lose, triumph and perish, and pass on the baton to the changelings; to admire them flaunting an ungainly tail, or a pair of oversized ears, or a belly too full to move, or a swagger to swoon at, or a shyness to bemoan, with nothing but innocence and sincerity.
|His Worshipfulness, B2, the greatest cat of any kind I’ve ever known, full stop. April 2011.|
In my pursuit of them I’ve been astounded, amused, perplexed, frustrated, terrified, heartbroken and elated, but never left tepid. For being in their presence, and let into their boudoir of privacy even in their most vulnerable moments, to witness, record and share but a few precious winks of their ephemeral lives, has been an unsurpassed privilege and a source of immeasurable joy.
|The Bamera Male in May 2010, the first male tiger I ever saw in Bandhavgarh (in May 2007)|
And so I thought of compiling a list of every tiger I’ve ever seen in Bandhavgarh, as a page of reflection and tribute to this phenomenal place and its exceptional inhabitants. This is a credit plate of all the apples of my eyes, because each of them has added to my life, and kept the doctor away.
A few notes:
1. This is by no means a comprehensive list of tigers recorded in Bandhavgarh. Plenty of people, including some senior naturalists, have documented far more tigers, from much earlier. This is just my personal list of tigers I have seen there since May 2007.
2. This list was first made and published in April 2016. I will update it every time I see a new Bandhavgarh tiger.
3. The ‘first seen’ or ‘seen’ date indicated is not general, but the first time or the only time I saw the tiger. Mention of ‘seen’ instead of ‘first seen’ indicates that I got to see the tiger only once, and it’s now known to be deceased.
4. You can click on a hyperlinked name (in blue font) to be taken to a story or page on that tiger. For some tigers that don’t feature much or at all in my stories or posts, I’ve included pictures inline with the text.
5. The appearance of the tigers is not in chronological order of sighting. I have mentioned the males first, not due to gender bias, but because there are fewer of them on my list, so the frequency of future additions upsetting the serial numbers will be lower. The females and cubs appear later, in a not-perfect order of approximate seniority, with the tigresses I’ve known very little about appearing right at the end.
1. B2 (first seen April 2008)
2. Bokha (first seen December 2007)
3. Bamera (first seen May 2007)
4. Mukunda (first seen November 2011)
5. T37 Bamera’s son (first seen as a cub, November 2011)
6. Blue Eyes (first seen May 2012)
|Blue Eyes near Pateeha Camp, May 2012|
7. Jobhi – BTR MP T18 (first seen November 2014)
8. Mangu – BTR MP T9 (first seen November 2015)
|Mangu T9 in Rajbehra, November 2015|
9. Mahaman male 1 – BTR MP T39 (first seen May 2016)
|Mahaman male 1 T39 near Salendha Junction, May 2016|
10. Bheem (first seen November 2017)
FEMALES AND CUBS
11. Old Banbehi Female (seen April 2008)
Chakradhara Female’s penultimate litter
14. Jhorjhora Female (first seen April 2008)
Jhorjhora Female’s first litter
15. Female cub (first seen May 2007)
Jhorjhora Female’s second litter
Jhorjhora Female’s third litter (seen May 2010)
19. Male cub
|Male cub at Jhorjhora Dam, May 2010|
20. Female cub 1
21. Female cub 2
|Female cub at Jhorjhora Dam, May 2010|
22. Chorbehra/Sidhbaba Female (first seen December 2007)
Chorbehra Female’s first litter
23. Male cub (Chabana or Sukhi Pateeha Male) (first seen December 2007)
26. Mirchani Female – BTR MP T45 (first seen April 2008)
|The Mirchani Female T45 in Rampur, May 2010.|
Mirchani Female’s first litter (first seen April 2008)
|Kallu in Bheetri, May 2010|
Mirchani Female’s second litter (first seen January 2010)
|Mirchani male cub M2 at Patpar Naala, January 2010.|
Mirchani Female’s third litter (seen May 2014)
32. Male cub 1
33. Male cub 2
Kankati Female’s first litter
34. Female cub 1 (first seen November 2011)
|Kankati grooming one of the female cubs from her first litter in Chorbehra, November 2011|
35. Female cub 2 (first seen May 2012)
Male cub – BTR MP T37 (same as number 5, first seen November 2011)
Kankati Female’s second litter (seen May 2014)
|Kankati and cubs near Charanganga. Please note: This image is a digital composite of three different frames, for only illustrative purposes of their relative size.|
36. Cub 1
37. Cub 2
38. Cub 3
Rajbehra Female’s first litter
39. Female cub 1 – first seen June 2013
40. Female cub 2: New Kankati – BTR MP T35 (first seen June 2013)
|New Kankati T 35 at ‘Tadoba’, May 2016|
41. Female cub 3: Solo – BTR MP T42 (first seen May 2014)
|Rajbehra female’s female cub 3, Solo T42, on Alu Banda Road, November 2015|
Rajbehra Female’s second litter (first seen November 2015)
42. Cub 1
43. Cub 2
|Cubs at the Bathan-Enicut Junction, November 2015|
44. Cub 3
45. Cub 4
46. Banbehi Female II – BTR MP T32 (first seen May 2010)
Banbehi Female II’s first litter (first seen May 2012)
Banbehi Female II’s second litter (seen November 2013)
50. Cub 1
51. Cub 2
Banbehi Female II’s third litter (first seen May 2016)
52. Male cub (Samrat)
|Banbehi male cub at Kinarwah, May 2016|
Banbehi Female II’s fourth litter (first seen May 2017)
56. Sukhi Pateeha Female II – BTR MP T5 (first seen November 2013)
Sukhi Pateeha Female II’s first litter
57. Male cub 1 (seen November 2011)
|Sukhi Pateeha Female II’s first litter male cub at Bhool Bhulaiya Junction, November 2011|
Sukhi Pateeha Female II’s second litter (first seen November 2013)
58. Female cub 1: Spotty – BTR MP T41
|Sukhi Pateeha female II’s second litter female cub 1, Spotty T41, near Behra Camp road, Magadhi, November 2013|
59. Female cub 2: Dotty – BTR MP T17
|Sukhi Pateeha Female II’s second litter female cub 2, Dotty T17, on Behra Camp road, November 2013|
Sukhi Pateeha Female II’s third litter (first seen May 2015)
|Sukhi Pateeha Female II (T5)’s third litter cubs at Dabhadol, November 2015|
60. Male cub – T532
61. Female cub 1
62. Female cub 2
New Kankati Female’s Only Litter (First seen May 2017)
63. Male cub 1
64. Male cub 2
65. Female cub
Spotty Female’s First Litter (First seen May 2017)
66. Female cub 1
67. Female cub 2
68. Female cub 3
69. New Mahaman Female – BTR MP T40 (seen November 2014)
|Mahaman Female II T40 at Sukha Dam, November 2014|
Mahaman Female II’s First Litter
70. Male cub
Mahaman Female II’s Second Litter
71. Cub 1
72. Cub 2
73. Cub 3
Chakradhara/Kila Female’s First Litter
75. Male cub
Chakradhara/Kila Female’s Second Litter
79. Bamera Female’s cub 1 (seen November 2011 in enclosure)
80. Unknown female in Khitauli (first seen April 2011)
81. Unknown female’s cub (first seen April 2011)
82. Tara (first seen May 2018)
83. Unknown male in Khitauli (first seen May 2018)