Chasing Bengal tigers in India's Madhya Pradesh

Safari at Bandhavgarh National Park.

Safari at Bandhavgarh National Park.

On the trail of the elusive Bengal tiger in India’s Madhya Pradesh, Kendall Hill finds the search for the big cat is its own reward.

The flatulent Mr Rajput is guiding me through the sublime thousand-year-old temples of Khajuraho on an otherwise hushed summer's morning in Madhya Pradesh. Madhya means centre, he explains; pradesh means region. "Now you are most welcome in the heart of India!" he declares with a spicy breakfast belch.

From Australia it has taken three flights and two days to reach these masterpieces of Indian art; Khajuraho's isolation has always been its greatest protection against marauding invaders. The temples were overgrown and had been nigh on forgotten for centuries when the British engineer TS Burt stumbled across them in 1838.

Lakshmana temple at Khajuraho 

In its heyday this treasury of the Chandella dynasty comprised more than 80 temples, built by successive rulers between 900 and the mid-11th century and adorned with meticulously rendered scenes of court life. Today only about 20 survive, and the finest are contained in the World Heritage-listed western group, in open parklands beside a crumbling maharaja's palace.

"A thousand years on, and you can still see the facial expressions perfectly," Mr Rajput says, using a compact mirror and the sun's reflection to spotlight a nymph's suggestively raised eyebrow, carved into the golden sandstone by gifted artisans a millennium ago.

The most beautiful artworks adorn the Lakshmana temple, one of the earliest of these stone wonders. Mr Rajput claims it took 2,500 craftsmen about 20 years to chisel its diorama of orgies, gods and ordinary lives.

It's a telling insight into the human character that these temples are best known for their erotic carvings even though the sexy bits are only a fraction of the whole (less than 10 per cent). The carvings are more accurately viewed as a snapshot of imperial life circa AD1000, complete with gods, wars and scenes of daily life. Including copulation. Demons cavort beneath a border of elephants, soldiers engage in battle and bestiality, and sinuous couples entwine like randy gymnasts in Kama Sutra-style friezes.

Madhya Pradesh gets far fewer visitors than the pin-up Indian states of Kerala or Rajasthan, but those who do venture here are usually drawn by two things: temples and tigers. Ironically, the same culture of neglect that kept Khajuraho safe for centuries has been the greatest threat to the survival of the state's other treasure of world heritage, the Bengal tiger.

Temples at Khajuraho.

PANNA

For a country with 70 per cent of the world's wild tiger population, India has a dismal record of protecting its top predator. Hunted in obscene numbers during the Raj by British and princely rulers - and equally enthusiastically by post-independence Indians reclaiming their land rights - India's tiger population plunged below 2,000 by 1971, prompting then-prime minister Indira Gandhi to establish the Project Tiger conservation project in 1973.

Nine land parcels were quarantined and put under guard across the subcontinent, and initially things improved. From a population of just 1,800 in 1972, the tiger tally rallied, roughly doubling in just over 10 years.

Then, in 2004, the entire feline population of Rajasthan's Sariska Tiger Reserve - estimated at the time to be 16 to 18 - disappeared, thought to have been slaughtered or sold by Indian's deadliest poacher, Sansar Chand. It was described as the worst wildlife crisis in post-independence India. But then Panna happened.

Local man in Khajuraho.

One of six protected reserves in the self-styled "tiger state" of Madhya Pradesh, Panna was crowned India's best-maintained national park by the Ministry of Tourism in 2007. Two years later, all of its tigers - estimated at 32 - had vanished.

In 2009, Dr Raghunandan Chundawat, one of India's foremost tiger experts, turned whistleblower to alert the world to Panna's shocking loss.

After raising the alarm and, in effect, exposing the venality and neglect of forestry officials, the conservation biologist - who had devoted a lifetime's research to snow leopards and tigers - was banished from Panna and harassed by authorities. He has not worked there since, but conservation's loss has been tourism's gain. In 2010 he and his wife, Joanna Van Gruisen, opened a small resort, Sarai at Toria, on the banks of the Ken River facing the national park.

Cigarette shop in Khajuraho

Van Gruisen came to the subcontinent as a documentary filmmaker for the pioneering UK wildlife program Survival (winner of four Emmys and a BAFTA, no less). She and Chundawat met while stalking snow leopards in the Himalayas in the 1980s and she has lived in India ever since.

If you've come to Madhya Pradesh for the tigers, there's no finer place to stay than Sarai, hosted by two passionate conservationists who also happen to be terrific cooks. Van Gruisen oversees the continental dishes - her chilled pumpkin soup with coconut and milk is a wonderfully light elixir on a baking-hot summer's day - while Chundawat and his long-time cook, Bahadur, conjure local Malwa dishes using Chundawat family recipes. All the fresh produce comes from their garden and village markets.

Set in the foothills of the Satpura Ranges, Sarai's eight rammed-earth cottages are partly concealed by a sea of kans grass, its high, white-flowering heads waving and whispering in the breeze.

Bathroom at Sarai at Toria

From the outside the cottages look like traditional village huts and give no hint of the comforts indoors - the eggshell-smooth floors, mezzanine space for children (in some rooms) and deep verandas with bushland views from charpoy seats. Bathrooms are so large they double as yoga pavilions - mats supplied, local instructor available on request.

It's all very Out of India, from dawn outings on the river with boatman Raj to candlelit cocktails around a firepit as our hosts entertain guests with tales of their exploits filming BBC documentaries, or the travails of setting up Sarai ("This was Raghu's retirement plan, but there hasn't been much retiring," says Van Gruisen). They may even suggest ideas foroutings to the region's forgotten forts and palaces. The hilltop Ajaigarh Fort nearby has temple carvings even older than those at Khajuraho, says Van Gruisen, "and I've never seen anyone else when I've gone there with guests". They're also, of course, very happy to talk tigers.

Local women on the steps of the Benisagar Lake in Khajuraho. 

Thanks to reintroduced animals and the vigilance of rangers, the 540-square-kilometre Panna National Park now has a population of more than 20 adult tigers and as many as 14 cubs, according to the latest Wildlife Institute of India survey.

I'm hoping a lion can find me one of these tigers. Sarai guide Jaipal Singh ("singh" is Sanskrit for lion) is my wildlife interpreter on a game drive across the Panna plateaux. On an afternoon safari through its dry, crackling forests of teak, Indian ebony and crimson-leafed mahua we see dainty spotted deer and three kinds of antelope - the nilgai, the Indian chinkara gazelle and the four-horned chousingha.

At a freshwater spring that Mr Singh says is a favourite watering hole of T1, a tigeress translocated here from Kanha National Park, we admire white-throated kingfishers but see no big cats.

Some rangers wielding radio-transmitter devices to track the animals tell us T1 is, in fact, down by the river with her two cubs, safely hidden from human eyes. When the setting sun flares huge and golden on the horizon it's time to leave. Given Panna's calamitous recent history I didn't really expect to find a tiger here. But that's okay - we still have four days in two more parks to find one.

KANHA

Mysterious raindrops fall on me from hot cloudless skies as we drive between Singinawa Jungle Lodge and Kanha National Park. I shout to naturalist Rakesh Solanki in the driver's seat, asking him why my face is wet. "Cicada pee!" he shouts back.

The road to Khana

Solanki has spent more than two decades working in wildlife reserves around the country, from Karnataka in the south to Rajasthan in the west, but he likes Kanha the best, he says. "It's the most beautiful."

Of all India's 50 tiger reserves, Kanha is also the only place where you can see the world's rarest deer, the hard-ground barasingha.

They appear obligingly as soon as we enter the park - four males drinking by a lake, wearing shabby moulting coats but impressive antlers.

Safaris in Kanha feel like Sunday drives in a grand country estate, all leafy sal avenues, mirror lakes and open grasslands. Talc-soft dirt roads make it easy to read animal tracks. A mother and two cubs have passed this way recently. A sloth bear, too, Solanki says. I ask him how fresh the tracks are. "I think about five this morning, because there's no dew on them."

Langurs in Kanha National Park

We park in the shade beside a dirt road to listen for alarm calls. "The tiger is somewhere in this area," he assures me. The air rings with riotous peacock calls, langurs wreaking havoc in trees, the cooing of doves, frisky deer calling for mates, the cries of jungle owlets and brown-headed barbets, cuckoo-shrikes - a hundred conversations going on around us, and all of them about sex.

Kanha sprawls over almost 1,000 square kilometres (2,000 including the surrounding buffer zone) within which there are thought to be about 100 tigers. Our chances of seeing one are 60 per cent, Rakesh says. "Last week I went on one drive and saw seven tigers!"

We encounter no tigers at Kanha. But there's plenty to keep me entertained. Singinawa Jungle Lodge is an estate of 12 cottages set in resurrected forest. Eighty per cent of the staff are local, and more than half from the Gond and Baiga tribal communities. Their artworks - fabulous brass sculptures and richly detailed spiritual paintings in vivid colours - decorate the guest areas, but the best are displayed in the Kanha Museum of Life & Art, an on-site gallery established by the owner, Tulika Kedia, a noted New Delhi art dealer.

Baiga tribeswomen

It's a remarkable collection. The art is naïve and yet sophisticated in its appealing use of colour and form. There's an intricate symmetry to the works, and the stories behind each are fascinating. Tigers feature prominently. To the Baigas, tigers are "chota bhai", meaning little brother. When one kills a Baiga the community priest or dewar is called on to perform a ritual to protect the villagers and remind the tiger not to bother the deceased's family. Run-ins between humans and tigers are not uncommon, I'm told. They're often found in the buffer zones between national park and villages, including in the 45-hectare grounds of Singinawa.

Over dinner of mulligatawny and copper thalis of excellent curries, Solanki assures me tigers rarely attack humans unless they have a toothache or injured legs. "Because humans are easy prey. They don't run very fast," he clarifies.

Butter chicken with pappadums and condiments at Singinawa Jungle Lodge. 

The last night at the lodge is a cultural extravaganza. Chef Nirmal cooks a barbecue in the jungle courtyard and more than a dozen villagers arrive in fabulous outfits - patterned capes, elaborate floral headdresses, handbells and rattles, and red-turbanned drummers - to perform for us.

The dancers shuffle in a circle - kind of African, but without the butt magic - shaking their instruments while one duet sings and another drums. The songs are of nature and animals, love and romance. They're mildly hypnotic, which perhaps explains why John, the photographer, leaps up to join the dancing early on. In a flash, we all join the Baiga circle.

In India, you come for one thing and find yourself falling for something completely unexpected. Forget tigers; it's all about the tribal dancing.

BANDHAVGARH

India has a knack for making road construction look like natural catastrophe. Scenes of mayhem and annihilation punctuate the five- six- and seven-hour roadtrips between Madhya's tiger hotspots.

Dust storms, quite possibly fuelled by the roadworks, blow up at the slightest provocation. Pink-toned earth rages in red-hot winds. Locals swaddle their heads in cloth, leaving just a slit for vision, before walking, cycling, biking and bullock carting through the torrid plains. They look like extras from Mad Max.

A guide astride an elephant in Bandhavgarh National Park

Bandhavgarh National Park is crowned by an 800-metre tabletop mountain and the ruins of a 2,000-year-old fortress. The fort and a 10th-century reclining Vishnu are off-limits to visitors, but ancient landmarks are not the big drawcards in this area; Bandhavgarh has one of the highest densities of Bengal tigers on the planet, so anyone intent on seeing Panthera tigris braves the dust storms and comes here.

Some pay up to $US2,000 for a full-day pass that includes a three-hour off-road elephant ride deep into tiger territory. Mahouts use the elephants to rouse tigers into action for stunning eyewitness photos. The rest of us criss-cross the savannah in chauffeured jeeps, heeding alarm calls and waiting beside waterholes in the hope a parched predator will make an appearance.

Chai time at the Samode Safari Lodge

My guide - officially Abhimanyu Singh, but known to all as Guci - knows well the frustrations of fruitless hours spent stalking invisible cats. He calls it tiger deficiency syndrome. "When you haven't seen a tiger for three or four days you start to see deer tigers, and rock tigers, and imagine them in all situations," he says.

Between safaris we retire to Samode Safari Lodge, a 12-villa hotel in a simple village where the seasons are still defined by the harvest of wheat in the winter and barley in the summer.

South Indian thali with roti and pickles at Samode Safari Lodge. 

The accommodation has been built to resemble traditional huts, but inside each cottage is 140 square metres of five-star finishes, from four-posters to exuberant Gond murals in bathrooms. Air-conditioned lounges feature leather ottomans, come-hither couches and a chandelier fit for Versailles. Rear terraces have cushioned charpoys, ceiling fans and savannah views.

Dinners are staged at different venues every day, always lit by dozens of oil lamps (the resort has 450 in all, and employs two full-time staff just for lanterns and candles). One evening it's the lower terrace of the main lodge beneath a spreading jamun tree. There are red-clothed tables, Gond paintings throughout and a bar stocked with local wines and spirits. Dinner is a South Indian thali, a tin plate crowded with bottomless bowls of curries, pickles and raita, with breads and rice. Another night, dinner is laid out by the pool, an impossibly romantic setting that's wasted on the photographer and me.

The dawn air is honey-scented with sal blossoms as we set off on our final game drive with Guci. Recent bushfires have reduced Zone 3 of Bandhavgarh to an apocalyptic vision, like a scene from The Road. All the easier to see tigers.

Sign in the Bandhavgarh National Park.

At 9am we're parked expectantly by a waterhole when the alarm call comes - not from a deer or a monkey - but from a passenger atop a jeep on the opposite bank. "Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!"

It's on. Engines roar to life, manoeuvring Tetris-like into the best viewing spots on the tiered banks of the dam. Through binoculars I can see a large, mud-caked cat flopped in the shade of the far bank. Now we just have to sit and wait for him to stir.

By 9.15am I count 53 humans packed onto jeeps with viewfinders trained on the tiger. The beast lifts its head to survey the sideshow and causes a frenzy. Will he get up? "It's generally accepted that, after three yawns, the tiger will get up," Guci counsels me. When he does finally stand, around 9.30, the crowd goes berserk, snapping frantic frames before this astonishing moment ends.

But it doesn't end. It goes on and on.

He saunters down to the water. Dips a paw in. Extends his long pink tongue into the wetness and laps steadily, constantly, while immersing himself up to the armpits. Pleasure seems to flicker across his face on this 45-degree day.

Eventually he submerges his back legs, too. He arches his back so his heavy stomach, perhaps bulging with spotted deer, dips into the water. Limb by limb he succumbs to desire, languorously lowering his entire body until only his head is visible.

The tiger takes a dip

His long pink tongue never stops lapping, his black ears never stop twitching. The white dots on the back of them flash like a Morse code message.

A tiger's coat is a beautiful thing. The patterning reminds me of a butterfly - far too pretty for an apex predator. But the garland of stripes around his neck seem fitting, like mayoral chains or a prizefighter's medals.

After much meditation and a long period of staring at his clicking, whirring audience across the water, the tiger hoists his massive bulk out of the water, wanders along the bank, stops briefly in the shade of a tree, raises his tail and sprays the trunk, then saunters over a ridge and out of sight.

"Show's over!" Guci announces. But what a performance it was. Those last 30 minutes felt like the greatest show on Earth. 


GETTING THERE

Singapore Airlines flies from all major Australian airports to Delhi and Kolkata via Singapore. Internal flights to Khajuraho are more frequent from Delhi. Air India has direct flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Delhi.

BEING THERE

Veteran safari operator andBeyond offers customised itineraries, such as the one described here, and two scheduled itineraries that cover the natural and human history of Madhya Pradesh. The eight-day Temples & Tigers tour explores New and Old Delhi before heading to Pench and Kanha national parks in search of big cats. It costs from $7,688 per person twin share including accommodation, transfers, meals on safari, internal flights, guides and the safaris themselves.

There is also a 13-day extended itinerary, Romantic India and Jungle Safari, which covers all the above and visits Bandhavgarh National Park, Khajuraho and
the Taj Mahal. Similar inclusions, priced from $12,400.

MORE INFORMATION

Visit incredibleindia.org

GETTING THERE

Singapore Airlines flies from all major Australian airports to Delhi and Kolkata via Singapore. Internal flights to Khajuraho are more frequent from Delhi. Air India has direct flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Delhi.

BEING THERE

Veteran safari operator andBeyond offers customised itineraries, such as the one described here, and two scheduled itineraries that cover the natural and human history of Madhya Pradesh. The eight-day Temples & Tigers tour explores New and Old Delhi before heading to Pench and Kanha national parks in search of big cats. It costs from $7,688 per person twin share including accommodation, transfers, meals on safari, internal flights, guides and the safaris themselves.

There is also a 13-day extended itinerary, Romantic India and Jungle Safari, which covers all the above and visits Bandhavgarh National Park, Khajuraho and
the Taj Mahal. Similar inclusions, priced from $12,400.

MORE INFORMATION

Visit incredibleindia.org

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