The typical raw and earthy forest smell hit you as you entered and stayed with you throughout. The trees clustered together were dense, dark and cool. Interspersed in between were clearings of grassy meadows with trickles of streams. The land was not always flat. We rode along the dirt tracks, winding around small hills and cleverly navigating the rough route in ravines among tall ant-hills.
These are some of the scenes from the visit to Kanha National Park so many years ago. All of us – a group of youngsters registered with one of the numerous organizations in Pune city, made a long journey by road into Madhya Pradesh. We stayed at a comfortable resort where the forest began right from the resort’s compound walls. At night we played hide and seek around the resort and me, with my wild imagination, would imagine a leopard or panther perched in one of the trees close to the compound watching us silently from above, waiting for the right moment to leap and pounce.
Of course, no such misadventure took place and morning came, crisp and bright, with the previous count of people tallying with the current. We left nearly at dawn, wearing greens and browns that would blend in with the forest surroundings and help camouflage us. Rough and tough open air jeeps seating up to six people including a guide were at our service.
Jungle fowl with colorful feathers, scraggly looking jackals, peacocks and peahens, chattering monkeys, herds of wild buffalo, wild dogs and deer, a shy brown bear, vultures, mongoose, elephants and other inhabitants played major roles in the wildlife movie we experienced from the safety of our vehicles.
And so it was that our yearning eyes scanned the surroundings eagerly and our hearts beat with excitement every time one would be spotted. Members of the royal family cannot go unnamed and the same seemed to be true with the kings and queens of the beasts. The guide pointed out a male whom they called ‘pooch-katta’. The wise old beast had lost his tail in some fight, hence the name. He showed himself among the tall grass and then entered the jungle, reappearing in short intervals among the trees until he disappeared inside the black shadows. Another sighting was a dramatic one. A herd of wild buffalo grazed contentedly while a tiger lay low among the grass watching its future meal. We waited and waited for some action but a hunt is a matter of great patience and it seemed the tiger had more of it than the spectators who were watching. We left it behind after a while, still flicking its tail and watching its prey, probably smacking its lips in hungry anticipation. Another leisurely sighting was on the back of elephants since this particular female tiger was resting deep inside the jungle on a hill and the large, gentle beasts were the only way to reach her. She reclined on the ground peacefully and seemed oblivious to the admiration visitors showered upon her and the fear and awe they felt on viewing her at such close quarters although seated safely above the elephant that hovered nearby.
Kanha National Park is an enchanting place and there is a certain exhilaration and pride at viewing its orange royal blood in the wild. What must it be like long ago when it had denser vegetation and was teeming with more wildlife? What must it be like during the time it was the source of inspiration to Rudyard Kipling when he wrote ‘The Jungle Book‘? Deep within the forest, in my mind’s eye, I could see the young chaddi-pehen-ke-phool-khila-hai Mowgli running wild among the trees with Bhaloo and Baghira. And I saw the majestic orange and black stripped Sher Khan walk with strong muscles rippling at every step and with fiery eyes smoldering like fire …
Watching a tiger in the wild makes your heart swell so much, it feels like it might burst and flood the entire forest with tears of emotion. The opening lines of the following poem perfectly captures the intensity of the strong entity known as the tiger.
Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night …
– William Blake