This evening we dipped our tyres in potassium and set course for Damnar. I really quite like this idea because it’s akin to washing our feet before entering a temple. A temple certainly Bandhavgarh is for me, because I worship every bit of its leaf-strewn, grass-covered, bamboo-populated, rock-rich, cave-filled, sand-laden ground.
The hope in our hearts was that we’d see Spotty the first time for this trip. So we hung about Jhilki Nallah like pups awaiting their treat, but a tea at Hardiha was all the reward we were to get for our wait.
A Tickell’s blue flycatcher, a lesser adjutant and a greater coucal were the new members of the wildlife symposium at Damnar. A blue-bearded bee-eater provided a Bohemian background-score with its frog-like calls. The flycatcher swooped down and stood by the water waiting for the right moment for a drink, while the coucal went about picking stuff from the ground very busily, while the adjutant preened in a highly self-satisfactory fashion.
Later, as the sun wore his evening gown, we waited at Climber Point junction for a fair while. A common hawk-cuckoo called plaintively, but his rousing performances failed to stir the tigers resting in the nallah to produce a public appearance. And so we drove to Sidhbaba, where the Chakradhara female cub, having again sat on the exact same rock as the previous evening, had just crossed over to the Jamunia side. As vehicles started exiting, we saw her walking amid the rocks on the slope of the hill, negotiating them with the ease and grace that’s unique to tigers. They seem to have mastered the art of being light enough on their feet to be as agile as any other cat, but weighty enough to carry a full check-in allowance worth of gravitas. Sweet.
Once or twice she vocalised, and that booming baritone, soft yet penetrating, like that mousse that melts in your mouth and yet pierces your heart like an arrow, filled that arched alleyway in the fading light like a fragrance fills an enclosed room.
Then it was time for us too to leave. Just before the gate, at the elephant camp, Kamta pointed to a month-old elephant calf and told us it was born to one of the wild elephants captured and domesticated recently. Sourabha was torn between adoring its cuteness and feeling for its future. After a thoughtful and silently expressive few seconds, she reflected, “A life of captivity from birth…” and bemoaned, “the calf will actually never know freedom.”
“I don’t buy the argument that elephants are being used to save wildlife,” she added, “because it’s we who’ve brought it to the state of having to be saved.”
There was merit in her assertion.
The dipping of the tyres on the way out of the gate seemed a laughable taunt at the thought of cleansing ourselves of the way in which we’ve treated animals apart from ourselves that are otherwise much alike.
The morning of 3rd June was exceptionally warm. Neeraj had said we were in the middle of a heat wave set to last until about the fifth, but it seemed determined to outlast the summer! The breeze from the movement of the vehicle only fanned the hot air about our faces and did little to rid the stifling warmth. Only the cocooned beauty of Barua Nallah cooled our senses.
At Banbehi there was a set of pug marks towards the watchtower but no calls. Soon we reached Kinarwah to find both chital and jungle fowl in a tizzy over something. A langur watchman very nearly straight overhead joined the chorus of alarm. We could see where the langur was looking, which was very suggestive of where we ourselves must look. Moments later, a sambar went off in a startling honk, very close to the road.
Up until this moment we were alone at the place. But by the time the Bheetri female broke cover, the chorus of calls inevitably gathered a bevy of vehicles buzzing with excitement, all of whom descended on that narrow road that climbs up from Aama Nallah towards Kinarwah. And this meant chaos and noise and crowding and all the dark sides of tiger tourism that often stain the park and call to question the practice of ecotourism itself in the minds of the sensitive, especially one very sensitive mind such as that of my wife, who was really very upset.
So we left the scene not to be a part of it, despite having to stomach the irony that we were there first and now it wasn’t even conscionable to be present to see the tiger cross. Instead, we positioned ourselves on the Banbehi road, above, and hoped she’d cross over to the nallah below the rapta (an outcrop of flat rock) above Kinarwah, so we’d get a chance to see her without stirring up a mess.
Fortunately, that’s precisely what she had in mind, and some time later, with far fewer vehicles, she arrived on the road and walked across it snarling at us, as she’s often wont to do.
Sourabha took a picture with her Instax, but the result was awful. As good as the Instax is for normal usage, it just doesn’t seem to work well when the light is even remotely challenging and when the subject is a bit far. The same problem had occurred the previous evening, when Sourabha’s attempt to take a picture of Kamta and Wasim was befouled by the backlight, and the flash on the Instax simply not being strong enough to get a good exposure on their faces. She was disappointed but I assured her she might yet get another chance.
When the tigress had passed and we were waiting at the Banbehi watchtower to see if her amble down the nallah would bring her there, Wasim asked how the pictures were and I said they were perfectly useless, because I didn’t like pictures of tigers snarling, since that meant they were uncomfortable with our presence when the picture was taken. Wasim was much surprised at this, and with admirable innocence said, “But this is how wild tigers behave; this is the norm. It’s only the tigers that are accustomed to tourist presence — in other words, exceptional tigers — that are nonchalant and do not usually snarl.”
I’m not sure I fully concur with this, but I thought it was a very interesting counter-perspective, and went on to show that there was always a different way of looking at things, and while it’s undeniable that there are things that are clearly right and wrong, there is also a significant portion of things we do and happen in the world which fall in the nebulous wilderness of grey.
Anyway, Bheetri didn’t give us any further opportunities so we broke for breakfast and then proceeded to fulfill something Sourabha had been looking forward to experiencing for a long time now. Shesh Shaiya.
It was scalding when we passed in front of Gopalpur Talab and started climbing up to the ancient site. We stopped at the horse stables to take a picture, and as we negotiated the hairpin around the Indian ghost tree, I pointed to where I had so often seen Malabar pied hornbills. Before us, from the increasingly vantage view, I wouldn’t say lay sprawled the beloved Bandhavgarh jungle, but rather, the precious patch of mystical forest haunted by archeology and kept alive by tigers hung on in precarious protection to the last vestiges of erstwhile glory. Getting up high to look down on any landscape is usually an emotionally charged experience because the conversion of micro involvement into a macroscopic perception begets into being the larger picture, and the larger picture always, on account of being the fundamental truth, chimes with the deepest parts of our inner core and churns up a whirlpool of heartfelt feelings.
The sight of the recumbent Vishnu as the flight of stairs arrives at the landing never fails to awe me and has moved me to tears on numerous occasions, and now, it was heartening to see the same was the case with Sourabha, going by the way she slipped into a wordless trance from the moment she set foot there.
The statue had assumed fluidity as its reflection in the water wobbled from the wind. Fallen leaves yellowed with age floated on the green water surface. Like ripples in stone, the light being reflected off the pool crawled on the rock face. So tranquil was this place that even the jumpy langurs seemed to have found unmatched calm.
After a noisy crowd left for the better, in the background three distinct gurgles of water became palpable – one from the wall behind the statue, one from the feet of Vishnu where the Charanganga, originating just above, flows tirelessly into the pool, and the sporadic trickle from the bedrock.
It took some effort to get Sourabha to leave the place: so affected she was by its energy that she asked if she could stay until we returned for the afternoon safari!
Later while driving back I asked her how she had enjoyed the safari. “It was a case of ‘sher mila; shaanti bhi milee’,” she quipped in contrast to what she had said the previous day.
On my part I realised that in Bandhavgarh, going on safari isn’t merely in search of a tiger, but in pursuit of that silence which abounds in nature, and one we humans are so keen to quell.