No one is really sure who built the Bandhavgarh Fort, which was constructed on a virtually unassailable plateau at an elevation of 800 m., though scores of myths about its origins continue to do the rounds. It is clear, however, that the area now encompassed by the park has seen settlements and civilisations come and go for millennia. Historians suggest that sandstone caves to the north of the Bandhavgarh Fort harbour Brahmi inscriptions dating back to the 1st Century B.C. One of these caves, called Bagdhalak, is embellished with the stripe patterns and pugmarks of the tiger (locals still venerate the cat and colourful tiger images can be seen at scores of tiger temples, perhaps their way of appeasing the awe-inspiring animal). Inscriptions attributed to King Bhimsen dating back to 300 A.D. have also been recorded from the fort walls.
The Chandela dynasty of Bundelkhand, most famous today for having built the Khajuraho temples (210 km. away) also ruled here for a while around the 12th century. Later, warrior clans fought and lost many battles for possession of the fort, until the Baghels made the Bandhavgarh Fort their capital in the 17th century. The house of Rewa, whose descendents still own the imposing fort, trace a direct lineage from the Baghel dynasty and the fort is still owned by the Rewa family. This is, in fact, the only private property legally recognised within the National Park area and tourists can visit it after obtaining permission. Today the fort is, however, run down and has been ever since the capital was shifted to Rewa 120 km. away. Till a few decades ago it served as a hunting preserve for blue bloods, who took advantage of the fact that the forest had reclaimed much of its once well-manicured estate.
Ironically, the fact that commoners were kept out of the hunting preserve did a world of good to the wildlife of the region, whose habitat was spared the axe and plough. But it has been a bloody time for tigers, because each Rewa Maharaja was, by tradition, expected to shoot at least 100 tigers! Some of them took this to be their purpose of life and one particularly bloodthirsty royal, Gulab Singh of Rewa, took pride in the fact that he had killed 480 tigers! The story goes that while beaters were instructed to advance in a line Gulab Singh would sit on a machan at a vantage point, reading a book. A tethered rhesus monkey was kept nearby. When a tiger appeared the monkey would raise an alarm. All Gulab Singh had to do was lift his rifle and bag the "trophy". Such an act would rightly be scoffed at today for the one-sided cowardice it embodied, but at the time it won him endless accolades as a brave hunter.
After Independence the privy purses were abolished and the territories of royals were taken over. Bandhavgarh became a part of Madhya Pradesh and was converted into a National Park in 1968. Hunting was officially stopped, new water holes constructed and grazing curbed. Tigers, pushed to the brink of extinction, found a new lease on life. The relatively small 105 sq. km. of protected area was extended to 449 sq. km. as late as 1986. Tigers benefited and their numbers rose because young ones from new litters were able to carve prey-stocked territories for themselves.
The source of the Charanganga, a vital water source for the park, originates within the fort precincts. Here almost touching the ramparts, an imposing stone statue of a reclining Vishnu was carved around the 10th century. Called Sesh Saya, this water source was never disturbed or destroyed despite hundreds of years of wars and skirmishes, because people believed the Charanganga originated at the feet of Vishnu. This worship of forested water sources was once common across India. Such protection had widespread social support and was clearly more effective than the mere legal protection most reserves now enjoy.
It is believed that Lord Ram stopped here after vanquishing Ravana in Lanka and that it was Hanuman's monkey architects, who built the bridge to Lanka, that designed and constructed the Bandhavgarh Fort. Lakshman, Ram's obedient and dutiful brother, was gifted the fort, thus the name (Bandhav - brother; garh - fort). People of the area still worship Lakshman at a temple within the fort.
The white tigers of Rewa were taken from the wild and are justifiably famous worldwide. But no specimens have been seen in the wild in recent years. A well documented story reveals that Mohan, the first ever white tiger cub to be discovered, was accidentally found in the Bandhavgarh forest in 1951 and was kept as a pet by the then Maharaja. Vets confirmed that it was not an albino, but a rare recessive gene that had somehow surfaced. This one animal was the progenitor of all the cubs that now live in zoos in different parts of the globe and displayed to the public as a (very beautiful) freak of nature. Bandhavgarh aficionados, firmly believe that somewhere, somehow, yet another wild white tiger will emerge from the wilds of this forest.
Bandhavgarh National Park spreads across 448 sq. km. in the Shahdol District and shares its Vindhyan Hill topography with Kanha. Once contiguous, the landscape of both parks is not surprisingly similar; a vista that comprises 32 rocky hills (from 200 m. to 1,000 m.) many of them flat topped and grassy. Streams intersect the northern ridges (parallel to the Umaria road running through the park), while sal forests, interspersed with low-lying grasslands (once agricultural fields) clothe the southern aspects. Only three perennial streams water this vital tiger habitat and this is one reason why much of the wildlife is concentrated in a few places. Nullahs however crisscross the park and these encourage herbivores to disperse for a few months each year, following the monsoon.
The vegetation in Bandhavgarh can be classified as the Indus-Ganges Monsoon Forest type consisting mainly of semi-evergreen sal forest mixed with the lofty Terminalia and mixed bamboo species. Lagerstroemia, Boswelia, Pterocarpus and Madhuca enhance the floral richness. Over half the area has sal, saj, dhobin and saja. Bamboo and grassland called bahs are situated in the north, where Saccharum, Phragmites, Themeda and Heteropogan form the staple food base for herbivores. It is thought that swamp deer used to live here, but that they moved away with the gradual change in the habitat. Bamboos flowered gregariously in 1985 and this has led to a profusion of dense new clumps, that can be seen together with the vestiges of old ones. Nullahs such as the Charan Ganga, Umara, Junad, Damnar and Bhadar crisscross the forest. Botanists would like to stop by and admire the ferns that dominate these wet areas, which also sport other typical moist evergreen species.
Bandhavgarh is understandably most famous for its tigers. Local naturalists suggest that high prey densities are responsible for supporting the highest density of tigers in the world. Tigers are generally easier to see in summer when they must daily visit known water sources. If you are accompanied by a talented and knowledgeable guide at almost any time of the year, it is conceivable that, by listening for the alarm calls of langur and chital and by reading jungle signs including pug marks and circling vultures and crows, you could sight more than one tiger per day.
The key prey species for tigers here are chital, sambar and barking deer, wild boar, monkeys and nilgai antelope. The swifter chinkara and four-horned antelope are more difficult for the cats to bring down.The massive gaur or Indian Bison come down from their deciduous hill forests to the eastern side of the park and through the southern extension, to reach the central meadows. There is good grazing to be had here and all the water they need through summer. They return to the hills, where the browsing is better, with the rains. Bandhavgarh is probably one of the best places to see gaur. The herds are, however, geographically isolated from other gaur populations north of the Narmada. Rhesus macaques and black-faced langurs (the latter are believed to be the descendents of the monkey army led by Hanuman, the Monkey God) keep visitors constantly amused with their arboreal antics. Both are important fruit seed dispersers and are vital to the ecology of the tiger reserve.
Foxes and jackals can often be seen on the trot, sometimes surprisingly near herds of grazing chital that seem to know instinctively that these carnivores are in search of smaller prey. Leopards are the 'other' carnivores of Bandhavgarh, but they are rarely seen as the dense tiger population forces them to occupy 'lesser' territories in the fringes. They prey mainly on chital hinds and smaller animals such as blacknaped hare and young wildboar, though a powerful leopard can sometimes bring down prey surprisingly larger than itself.
With luck jungle drives may reveal packs of wild dogs or dholes. These 'whistling hunters' so called because of their whistle-like calls, breed around November or December when they are usually seen in pairs and, later, in larger family units. Lesser carnivores include the jungle cat, civets, ratel (honey badger) and the striped hyaena. Sloth bears are seldom encountered, but they do patrol their turf around dusk and dawn in search of fruit or termites.
Migratory birds, ranging from warblers to Steppe Eagles visit the park in winter, when its wetlands resound with the calls of wildfowl. But such swampy habitats are few and far between. Riparian vegetation along streams and marshes however are rich in birdlife and common sightings include Little Grebes, Lesser Adjutants, Lesser Whistling Teal and Egrets. The Crested Serpent Eagle, White-eyed Buzzard and several species of vultures are among the larger avians.
The resident bird population is high thanks to the year round flowering and fruiting of trees. These include bee eaters, drongos, flycatchers, minivets and woodshrikes, all of which can be seen on forest drives and even on walks near the park headquarters at the Jungle Camp. Noisy Blossom-Headed Parakeets can be reliably spotted, provided you head for the nearest fruiting tree, which a Pied Hornbill may choose to visit. The Paradise Flycatcher, a breathtakingly beautiful bird with an impossibly long tail that is used in its courtship displays, is regularly seen, as is the Tickell's Flycatcher, White-browed Fantail Flycatcher and the White-bellied and Large Racket-tailed Drongo.
The Rajbhera grasslands are a favourite spot for tigers. Keep a lookout for jackals that sometimes point the way to a kill lying hidden in the tall grass. Dholes pursuing sambar have also been spotted here.
Chorbehra nullah is a route mahouts take with tracker elephants and even late afternoons can yield much fauna besides the tiger.
The Kilkutta hillock, a favourite resting spot for tigers, can be reached through thick forests.
Kabir Chaura on the way to the fort almost invariably has old and new pugmarks. Birdwatchers are advised to travel slowly and to stop frequently along this route. Vultures, Blue Rock Thrushes and Crag Martins have made the ramparts their permanent home.
The grassland near Jamania nullah is a reliable place to search for jackal, tiger and chital.
Within the Fort walls, a small number of blackbuck that were released here by the Maharaja of Rewa used to roam free, but they have long since died.
A good road links Bandhavgarh to Khajuraho. If you choose to fly to Khajuraho from New Delhi you could pack in a visit to the world famous temples, explore the nearby Panna Tiger Reserve (25 km. away) and its magnificent Ken River for a few hours (probably one of Madhya Pradesh's most picturesque parks) and be on your way to Bandhavgarh within 24 hours.
There is no bank at Tala to change money. This is best done in the city itself.
Tala village is the point at which visitors are allowed entry into the park. A visitor centre at the gate offers information on park rules.
For elephant rides, prior arrangement must be made with the Forest Department at their Umaria Road office.
The Director, Project Tiger, P.O. Umaria, District Shahdol, Madhya Pradesh.
MP Tourism, White Tiger Forest Lodge, Tala, Madhya Pradesh. Tel.: 07653-65308
Winter, from November to February is a favourite season. But the place often becomes over-crowded! The park is closed from July 1 to October 31. If you can tolerate the heat, summer is a good option too because water is scarce and the animals are concentrated around the few well-watered areas. Because the grass is low at this time and deciduous trees have shed their leaves, visibility is good and this enhances wildlife sightings.
Most of the accommodation is on the Umaria Road. V Patel, offers comfortable and reasonably priced rooms with a choice for a plan including meals, jungle tours and park fees. Tel.:07653-65323.
MP Tourism runs White Tiger Forest Lodge, which overlooks a river. There is a restaurant and a bar. Bookings must be made in advance. Tel.: 07653-65308.
Bandhavgarh Safari Camp is a converted palace with old-fashioned rooms. Tel.: 07653-65322.
Bandhavgarh Jungle Lodge is near the park entrance away from immediate view. The cottages are rustic to look at but equipped with modern amenities in the rooms. They enjoy a lot of foreign custom looking for the Indian natural experience. All meals, safaris and park fees are included in the room rates. Call Tiger Resorts, Tel.: 65317 or book from Calcutta: 033-6853760 Fax: 6865212 or Delhi: Suite 206, Rakeesh Deep, 11 Commercial Complex, Gulmohar Enclave, New Delhi. E-mail: T-Resorts@indiantiger.com.
By Air: The nearest airports are Jabalpur (130 km.) and Khajuraho (210 km.) from where jeeps can be hired to drive to the National Park.
By Road: From Jabalpur, Khajuraho or Satna, 112 km. away and which has a direct bus to Tala every morning at 8 a.m. at a fare of Rs. 60.