At the entry and exit points in the renowned Tala zone of Bandhavgarh National Park, visitors are likely to encounter two interesting signposts. The board with the sketched tiger at the entrance says, "Dear friends, my sighting in wild is a matter of chance… I request you to enjoy this Park in its total wilderness." At the exit point, the board puts up a more consolatory observation in the tiger’s mouth, especially for the not-so-lucky visitor, "Perhaps you may not have seen me but please don’t be disappointed. I have seen you."

One’s expectations run rather high when one plans a holiday to Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. Renowned for its frequent tiger sightings, a host of tales beckons the wildlife enthusiast. In the 1990s, this was the abode of the legendary tiger pair of the country — Sita and Charger. Perhaps the most photographed tigress of the park, Sita the famous matriarch of this reserve has had a big role to play in the success story of tiger conservation here. Before her disappearance in 1996, she managed to successfully raise six litters in her 17-year life span. Except for the first two litters, the successive rest were fathered by Charger, the triumphant male of the Chakradhara and adjoining territories of the park from 1991 to 1999. 

Charger, as experienced safari guides recall, owed his name to his truculent attitude towards tourist jeeps and elephants and most drivers, mahouts and visitors were apprehensive of him in the course of conducted safaris. In the twilight of his life, following a territorial fight with another male named B2, Charger ultimately lost his domain and passed away on 29 September 2000. Even today, the tiger reserve basks in the glory of this legendary pair. Filmed in various documentaries, their tale has become an integral part of the legacy of tiger conservation, not only in Bandhavgarh but in other tiger reserves throughout the country. 

In spite of its success story, however, Bandhavgarh has its share of problems, among these being the pollution of the waterbodies and pressures of bauxite mining in the Maikal range. The park is surrounded by more than 60 villages and poaching and grazing of animals in the forest are also common maladies. The villagers’ dependence on the forest for fuel and grazing their cattle often leads to human-animal conflicts.

Declared a tiger reserve under the Project Tiger initiative in 1993, Bandhavgar, unlike some other tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh, remains a recurrent witness of such conflicts. Even early this year, two villagers fell victim to attacks from the big cats. While Chhotey Lal Baiga, a resident of Damna village (he had gone to collect firewood in the forest), was mauled to death by a tiger in the Manpur area of the buffer zone of the reserve in Umaria district, Sitaram Singh, a farmer from Mardari, village was severely injured in a tiger attack in the Dhamokar range around the same time. Baiga’s half-consumed body was later recovered by forest officials. In fact, if reports are to be believed, more than 10 people have lost their lives in the past seven years or so, as the big cats continue to stray and look for easy prey in the form of cattle and livestock from villages in the buffer zones. And irate villagers often seek retribution by cruelly ensnaring big cats or poisoning them. Autopsy reports conducted on a tiger death in June last year confirmed the suspicion that the animal had been killed by incensed villagers in an act of vengeance because they had earlier lost cattle recurrently to the animal,

Beyond the success stories of tigers like Sita, Charger, Banka, B1, B2, B3, Bokha and Bamera, the landscape of Bandhavgarh has a lure of its own. The topography consists of rocky mounds emerging abruptly from swampy, thickly wooded valleys. The foliage chiefly consists of sal plantations in the valleys and lower gradients, slowly getting transformed to assorted deciduous woodlands on the knolls and in the warmer drier areas of the park towards the southern and western fringes. Dense bamboo growth is found all over the park.

Bandhavgarh consists of ranges of flat-topped hills on its flanks and big meadows like Chakradhara and Sehra, and the marshlands like Sidhababa Meadow lie at their bases. The park is drained by little streams, the Sone river in the east, the Johilla river to the south and the Umrar river westwards. The permeable sandstone infiltrates water, converting them into several perpetual springs, and the rocky terrain consisting of occasional cliffs and eroded stumps provide a venerable spectacle of beauty and wilderness.

Bandhavgarh Fort, which stands amidst these huge crags and battered rocks, is believed to be more than 2,000 years old. No records, however, remain to reveal when it was constructed. But there are numerous allusions to the fort in ancient texts like the Narad-Panch Ratra and the Siva Purana. Folklore has it that it was constructed by the same architects who had fashioned the link to Lanka for Lord Rama. Legend has it that Lord Rama, his brother Lakshmana and Hanuman rested at the fort on their way back from Lanka and Rama then offered it to Lakshmana  (Bandhav – brother, and garh — fort). Hence, Lakshmana got the title of "Bandhavdish", or Lord of the Fort. Locals still worship Lakshmana in a temple within a fort. It is believed that numerous dynasties like the Maghas, Vakatakas, Sengars and Baghels ruled the fort, the last occupants having abandoned it in 1935.

Prior to becoming a National Park, the forests around Bandhavgarh had long been maintained as a Shikargah, or game reserve of the Maharajas of Rewa, with hunting being carried out exclusively by these rulers and their royal guests. The Maharaja of Rewa retained the hunting rights in Bandhavgarh with no special preservation measures being taken till the late 1960s; subsequent to which measures were gradually implemented to conserve Bandhavgarh as an unblemished natural habitat for tigers.

Tourists visiting the park today can witness a tiger habitat that is strewn with Hindu relics connected with myths and folklore. The Shesh Shaiya, or a large statue of Lord Vishnu reclining on a seven-hooded serpent, positioned in a green pool of water, is assumed to be the source of the Charanganga river. In course of a safari, one may also witness the statues of the 10 avatars of Vishnu. Distributed all through the reserve, and predominantly round the fort, there are several caverns containing shrines and ancient Sanskrit inscriptions. Going by history, quite interestingly Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve is also renowned as White Tiger Country, as these animals were claimed to have been found here. In 1951, the last known white tiger cub was captured by the King of Rewa, Maharaja Martand Singh. Christened Mohan, it was kept by the royal authorities at a redundant palace at Govindgarh, Rewa. Today the stuffed animal is on display in the palace of the Maharajas of Rewa.

Yet the tiger is not the only attraction in Bandhavgarh. Among the herbivores, sambar, spotted deer and barking deer are a common sight and nilgais can be spotted in the more uncluttered areas of the park. For birdwatchers, the place is a veritable source of attraction with common sightings that include species like egret, lesser adjutant, sarus crane, black kite, crested serpent eagle, black vulture, Egyptian vulture, common peafowl, red jungle fowl, dove, parakeet, kingfisher and Indian roller. The herbaceous fringes along the streams and the marshlands consisting of foliage and undergrowth are immensely rich in birdlife. The primate group is well represented, with the ubiquitous common langurs and rhesus macaques thwarting the hunting efforts of the big cats with their loud warning calls for herbivores to flee for safety. Besides tigers and leopards, one may also be lucky to spot other carnivores and scavengers like Asiatic jackals, Bengal foxes, sloth bears, striped hyenas and jungle cats. 

For the more alert and sensitive observer, the small Indian civets, palm squirrels and grey mongooses are sometimes ready to oblige, along with reptiles like the cobra, krait, viper, rat snake, python and a variety of lizards.

The writer is dean of arts, St Xavier’s College, Kolkata.