Tiger Tiger... Bandhavgarh, India

| October 15, 2007

India expert Isla MacFarlane visited Bandhavgarh National Park in Central India, where she found she had a previously undiscovered interest in nature.

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It was hard to muster enthusiasm over the wildlife we first encountered at Bandhavgarh National Park when I had squatted over more exotic creatures whenever nature had called on the 9-hour drive to get there. I suppose I’ve never been much of a naturalist. I had always travelled to see how other people live - a fascination that did not extend to animals.

We had driven out of the sleepy temple town of Khajuraho on mud roads that could have been covered with eggs and flour and baked to their perfect golden brown. The reels of scenery – huts, goats, trees – which rolled past us gradually ran out, leaving us staring at an empty landscape. The road cracked and crumbled until it was nothing but two sandy track marks which snaked to the scorched horizon.

We rattled past the park entrance as the sun was setting. I had never been to a jungle before. I suppose I pictured a troop of elephants stomping straight out of a Kipling novel, or monkeys swinging from an Edgar Rice Burroughs series. Our driver grinned and pointed excitedly to the floor just below my window. I craned my neck out of the car expectantly. A chicken clucked up at us. He puffed his feathers out, as if desperately trying to impress. I affectionately named him 'tandoori' and asked for him to be taken to our lodge.

One of my favourite things about being in India is that I can eat curry three times a day. My appetite had shrivelled in the forty-something degree heat but it returned upon a thick, spicy waft from the kitchen. I felt much more human after slopping down velvety mouthfuls of daal spooned onto a mountain of fluffy rice. Stomach as tight as a drum, I found myself in a losing battle with my eyelids and retired.

A pounding woke me up at 04:30. I opened the door to my alarm call, but could only make out a pair of eyes and a tea tray. The eyes blinked and the tray floated towards me.

“Morning m’am,” said the eyes. I looked out into the dusty darkness and begged to differ.

I wondered if I had actually woken up at all as I sat on my porch in my pyjamas, sipping chai and listening to noises I’d only heard on relaxation tapes before. It started with a simple hum from the cicadas, but as the bruised, purple horizon faded to blue the jungle came into full orchestration. By the time I had finished my chai and biscuits its honks, howls and growls could have rivalled Delhi’s traffic.

I walked back into my room as the electricity fizzled out, resigning its job to the early morning sun. I showered in blackness with a frog splashing excitedly in the foaming puddles. I could see its white throat pulsating in the dark. How could anyone invent a fairy-story fabricated around kissing one of these? I had first discovered him on a midnight trip to the ladies – he was perched on the toilet roll like a little goblin. My hand came into contact with something rough. Knowing not even recycled toilet paper could feel that bad, I squeezed. I felt tiny joints poke through leathery skin and let rip a scream that would have made Jane Porter proud.

Shower-fresh and wearing enough insect repellent to give Pepe Le Pew a new love interest I met the others at our jeep. At the gates of the park we joined the heard of jeeps all waiting to crash through the gates at opening time. The vehicles looked like a new breed altogether, engines purring excitedly as the gates started to open. I wondered if this was how the animals saw us; a curious breed - perhaps related to the rhino - that crashes through the jungle with its babies riding its back. It would explain why the wildlife wasn’t particularly shy. The first tiger we saw seemed almost bored by us.

He was lying in tall grass by the trees. I finally understood how a tiger could burn bright in the forests of the night. His grape green eyes singed through the grass as he stared out at us. He hadn’t quite grown into his ears, which flopped awkwardly at the sides of his head like badly fitting earmuffs. I actually thought he was rather cute as he sat licking his paw - until he showed us his deadliest weapon with a single, carefree yawn. I wasn’t expecting to be impressed. I had seen tigers before - behind the bars of London Zoo and lazing around the lawns of Longleat. It wasn’t the fact I was closer than I’d ever been or that there was no glass or bars between us. It was the way he looked at us. In England I had seen tigers as victims, exhibits or novelties. Here, he gazed wide-eyed at our foreign bodies; a heard of jeeps which clicked silent, useless weapons in his direction. I was in his world now.

He tired of us quickly and sauntered into the trees with the air of a spoilt teenager. I felt rather like an unwanted guest, who’d called inconveniently at dinnertime and been left to show myself out. We prepared to move on, but waited as an elephant pushed through the trees and across our path. There was something about him that was almost prehistoric; a bald, aged woolly mammoth who charmed his onlookers with a toothless smile. Travelling in a country that was changing radically by the hour, it was comforting to see something so timeless.

The early morning mist was beginning to clear, unveiling the splendour of Bandhavgarh National Park. We were two weeks from the monsoon and the colours of the park had faded under the garish light of the sun, giving the grass and trees sepia tones. Mighty stone cliffs enclosed the park; their jagged edges making it look as though a giant tiger had taken a bite out of the skyline. Bandhavgarh is known as the national park where nature meets history. Being more interested in the latter, I asked to be driven up to the fortress that looms over the park.

Legend has it that two monkey architects built the fort. It seems they had left minions to watch their handiwork; scores of monkeys bounced around the sandstone caves to the North of the building, which showed the earliest signs of humanity in the form of inscriptions dating back to the 1st century BC.

The fort’s bricks were knitted together perfectly like red wool. The Maharajas who had owned the park from the 3rd century AD until 1968 could see their whole playground from its height. Poaching was one of their favourite pastimes, and from the fort the sport looked like shooting fish in a barrel. It was considered a good omen for a maharaja to kill 109 tigers. Today people came from all over the world in the hope of seeing just one. Prior to my own sighting, I would have been wondering, probably along with the ghosts of maharajas past, what the point was in a mere sighting.

The tigers I saw flickered in my head for days, whereas the human remains were quickly buried in my memory. Reflecting on the monuments of humanity I had seen on my trip, conservation suddenly seemed more exciting than preservation. The Taj Mahal was utterly beautiful; its shimmering white marble making it look as though it had been carved out of the moon. But it was, in essence, a tomb. The ancient, dusty ruins of Orchha made me feel as though I had discovered a forgotten Xanadu. But it was a dead city, and would continue crumbling dry, dusty tears until there was nothing left of it.

In the jungle, the animals and their habitat were very much alive and represented past, present and - we can only hope - future. Perhaps the fascination lies in seeing creatures act on instincts that lie dormant in us after centuries of evolution. They can appear as mystical as the fort that watches over them; silent and unchanging. I did feel an allure to try and understand them better.

Perhaps there is a naturalist in me after all …

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