Ode to the unseen tiger
Kanha was chosen as a holiday destination because, it appeared, the place was simply teeming with the big cats. Or was it?
PHOTOS: AFP, KISHOR RITHE
KANHA MAGIC: Though the tiger may be elusive, an ideal way to spot other magnificent species like the gaur is by taking an elephant ride.
AS the sun sets over Kanha, the forest reverts to its primeval magic. Termite mounds dot the roadside, rising in vertical shafts to tapering points, each one a tiny architectural marvel, a many-towered Camelot. Another wonder is the Ghost Tree, its bare branches of the smoothness and colour of ivory curving skywards in supplication as it gleams spectrally in the dying light. The gates of the Sanctuary will close shortly, and one must leave after several hours of driving around and around in a fruitless search for the elusive tiger.
We had motored up from Nagpur the previous day on a highway that seemed like a dream after pot-holed Mumbai. A rude awakening followed, however, when we moved from Maharashtra to Madhya Pradesh, bumping and groaning our way over a 34-kilometre stretch that rivalled home sweet home. How, one wondered, could Kanha attract tourists when the approach was so poorly maintained, and how did the hordes of pampered VIPs who descend on it during the season survive such a journey? Perhaps these superhuman beings had tailbones made of cast-iron. We arrived at our hotel stiff and sore, and spent the remainder of the day nursing that portion of the anatomy on which we sit, elegantly termed the Gluteus maximus, with tablets, ointment and hot-water bag.
We soon realised that our concern for the VIPs was misplaced since they never use the road. These privileged persons arrive with families and hangers-on in helicopters, which land them at a helipad near the Park entrance, all at the taxpayer's expense. So here we are in an anomalous situation where ministers, who are, by definition, Servants of the People, get free access to luxurious facilities denied to us, the People, who have paid for them.
Lying in a horseshoe shaped valley surrounded by hills rising to 2,800 feet, Kanha is alluringly scenic and the pure air has a heady fragrance. Large hoardings along the way tout it as Asia's premier wildlife sanctuary, which it could be by virtue of its sheer size almost 2,000 sq. km. with a core area of half that extent. Nobody felt its enchantment more than Kipling whom it inspired to create a classic that continues to delight children and the child in all of us. Even today, you half expect to come upon Bagheera the panther, Kaa the python or other vividly imagined creatures hiding among the Sal, Bamboo and Crocodile Bark Trees. As for Sher Khan, you feel his presence everywhere.
City-lubbers need a knowledgable escort to initiate them into the mysteries of forest lore, and we found one in the indefatigable Eric whom we nicknamed "The Eveready" after an old cartoon character. And ever ready he was indeed, with information on wildlife, his passion, and on Kanha where he has worked for 18 years. From the many varieties of deer, he singled out the magnificently antlered Barasingha, the pride of the Sanctuary. Here is its home, the only place worldwide where it is still to be found, and though the number was down to a pathetic 66 in 1974, timely conservation has increased it to 1,000, protected from predators in a huge fenced enclosure. "Look, look, at that one," whispered E2 in awe, "he's got 12 tines," and we gasped in dutiful astonishment, though no one could tell at that distance which animal had this special appendage or knew the number of tines possessed by those not so well endowed.
Apart from the herds of grazing deer, there were Gaur or Indian bison, hordes of monkeys, and peacocks dotting the landscape with gorgeous colour. There were Roller Birds too, engaging little creatures so-named because, in flight, they appear to roll through the air like cricket balls, exposing striking sax blue under-feathers. There are 300 species of birds here, among them the Paradise Flycatcher (or maybe it was the Heavenly Mosquito-eater), the Sultan Tit (tut tut!), the Pintail What's-it, the Something-Something Partridge and other avian wonders with names too baffling for ordinary mortals to recall.
The elephant is perhaps the most endearing of forest animals. With what patience this huge, gentle pachyderm stands absolutely still as humans swarm all over it without so much as a "by your leave," and pads leisurely through the undergrowth, clearing a path for itself with its trunk as the mahout whispers sweet nothings in its ear. In the West such a fuss is made of Horse Whisperers and their singular talent whereas the skills of our mahouts, passed on from generation to generation over centuries, goes unnoticed.
Next door to us lived Tara, the heroine of Mark Shand's best-selling book, Travels On My Elephant, tended by two mahouts whom she bullied mercilessly. Couldn't she be put to work in the Park we asked a local guide? No way, he said, she's too fat, lazy and disobedient, and runs for her life on spying a predator. Shand however is still besotted with her. Greater love has no man than this, that he travels over oceans and continents three times a year to see the object of his devotion. It matters little that the said object is less interested in him than in the vanload of sugarcane that he brings her as a token of undying love. If one can say that Tara is Shand's adopted daughter, it follows that this petulant, self-serving creature is now related by marriage to British royalty, being the adoptive niece of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall! (Mark Shand is Camilla's brother).
We had chosen Kanha as our holiday destination because, it appeared, the place was simply teeming with tigers. Ms. A. saw three in as many days, one at a scary distance of eight feet; Mrs. B. had a prime specimen ambling along beside the jeep so amiably that her children had to be restrained from stroking it; Mr. C. saw a tigress and her cubs crossing the road within 10 minutes of entering the Park and so on.
We had no such luck. Every morning we would be up at an ungodly hour to head for the area of a possible sighting, and there we would wait endlessly. Once we kept watch for 90 minutes. Judging by the behaviour of birds, monkeys and deer, our quarry was certainly out there, probably sitting in the long grass and smiling to himself at human folly. Within minutes of our departure, a glint of gold was observed stirring the undergrowth, and then he emerged into the sunlight gleaming and magnificent, walked back, then came out on the road giving the enthralled watchers a full frontal view. For half an hour, he ambled in and out of the shadows, secure in his god-given domain, and our friends who had been more patient than us got it all on film. Another day we came to a fork in the track, and after some hesitation, took the right turn and yes, you've guessed it, those who had turned left saw the tiger. Alas for the road not taken!
The last evening
By a farcical reversal, what should we spy on our last evening in the Park? Not one but TWO tigers made of stone, sitting atop the gateposts of the Forest Officer's Bungalow staring stolidly at each other. Sadly, no immortal hand or eye had framed this pair, though their symmetry was certainly fearful in a sense Blake never meant. Seeing these caricatures in lieu of the real thing was as if a sadist was turning the knife in the wound, oh so slowly. Despite these reverses a visit to Kanha is an experience not to be missed. Here is an enchanted world, a sanctuary for humans as much as for animals, in which the niggling concerns of our quotidian existence seem thousands of miles away. If you want soul therapy, this is where you'll find it.
All too soon it was time to say good-bye to the very caring staff at our resort and to Eric, our mobile Forest Encyclopedia, and to bump our way back over those 34 kilometres. In a sense one has come full circle, for the gluteus has taken undeserved punishment again, and in the beginning of my holiday was its end, and in its end its beginning. Does this cicularity mean that I will visit Kanha again in the hope of sighting that tiger? No, never, unless I can somehow become a Servant of the People and get to use that helipad.
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