Tiger country

Tadoba-andheri reserve

A full moon hung low overhead barely throwing light on the empty path skirting the jungle. Two slightly anxious women hurried in the gathering darkness shepherding a young girl, disinclined to walk fast and howling loudly in protest, causing the two ladies even more anxiety. It was only when they were safely inside the gates of the MTDC resort did the two wonder how they made it back without any problem from Moharli village, situated a kilometre away, outside the gates of the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve. Considering that a tiger or bear could have crossed their path anytime. The two women — Geetanjali, a wildlife pro, and yours truly, a wildlife enthusiast — lived to tell the tale (and write about it), much to the professed disappointment of their two husbands who were hoping the tigers would make short work of their spouses.

Happily, the rest of our stay near Chandrapur in eastern Maharashtra proved worry-free. A resort set amidst idyllic surroundings near the Irai lake. Helpful staff happy to dish out whatever you order to eat, including local specialities like jhunka. And no television! Instead there were the calls and antics of myriad birds to occupy ourselves with.

Tadoba is home to some 280 species of birds, both migratory and resident. Spotted Dove, Paradise Flycatcher, Open Billed Stork, Shikra, Forest Owl, Lapwing, Honey Buzzard and more winged beauties. All excitedly spotted by Geetanjali, the seasoned bird watcher, with the names faithfully recorded by me, the amateur birdwatcher. Giving the birds competition, for the top slot in entertainment, was the little girl, Raaga with her own histrionics. Which included wrapping the resort hosts round her little finger, charmingly addressing them as chacha and having them do her bidding. 

The sanctuary, spread over 625.40 sq km, gets its name from the local tribal God Taru and the Andhari river which flows through it. An interpretation centre, outside the reserve gates, is useful to visit for information before entering the sanctuary. Bhandu, the guide who took us on our safaris inside the reserve, was impressive with his knowledge of the birds and the jungle. So was the forest guide assigned to accompany the jeep, trained from among the local Madia Gond tribals. With them, we sighted Sloth Bears (like the one which suddenly materialised on our path), Nilgai, Bison, Sambar, Barking Deer, Spotted Deer, Wild Boar, Wild Dog, Mongoose and Langur. And admired the Mahua and Ain trees (the latter with bark distinctly like crocodile skin).

We marvelled at the numerous pillars in the forest put up by the Gond kings, guiding travellers in earlier days. And dodged little swarms of cicadas creating a buzz in the silence of the jungle. Sadly, the tiger, and also the leopard, for which the sanctuary is famed, eluded us (Raaga’s fervent prayer to Lord Vishnu to help spot a tiger too did not deliver any divine assistance). Even as other groups which had entered the jungle with us, all returned with stories of tiger or leopard sightings. However, the haunting beauty of the jungle, even at the peak of summer, made the visit worthwhile anyway.

We did discover another kind of tiger though, in nearby Anandwan. A tiger among men — Baba Murlidhar Devdas Amte. A fearless man with the courage to stand up for the people whom society shunned. He gave up a lucrative profession and changed his own lifestyle in order to begin a new life with the leprosy-affected, and later, with other handicapped communities as well. He not only treated the lepers but also rehabilitated them with a new meaningful life of dignity, thanks to the various vocations they could train for and pursue.

Anandwan, the commune he founded more than 50 years ago, is today a thriving institution, even though he is no more. The hospitals and schools have also come up at other neighbouring places, serving the Madia Gond tribals too, apart from the handicapped. Visiting this landmark in Warora, an interesting two-hour drive through the countryside from Tadoba, proved to be an eye-opener.

Equally enjoyable was the visit to a couple of ancient temples to the east of Chandrapur — Somnath, with its pristine little waterfall, and Markanda. The latter is a set of hoary temples, 24 in all, on the banks of the Wainganga river. Named after the sage Markandeya, who was said to have worshiped a shivalinga here, it is built in the style of the Khajuraho temples. Shivalingas of various kinds lie scattered among the ruins of sculpted stone, a delight for art and history lovers.

In complete contrast, Chandrapur itself is an industrial town, with a super thermal power plant, as well as countless conventional and open shaft mines. The effect is there for all to see — decreased tree cover, high temperature, soot-filled roads around the mining spots and mountains of dug up earth completing the desolate look. Yet this town of high pollution levels offers some wonderful opportunities in its surroundings, to explore places of natural beauty, wildlife, historical and artistic value, as well as a heroic example of human endeavour.

Not to forget Mangala, the only woman coolie we had come across anywhere in India, cheerfully bearing her burden at the Chandrapur railway station. She insisted on waiting with us, narrating her life story and bantering with Raaga as we stood awaiting the delayed train from Ballarshah to take us to Mumbai. Yes, the place does throw up a lot of surprises. To sample these, a visit to Tadoba and its surroundings is highly recommended, regardless of whether you spot a tiger or not.     

PS: Tadoba has been in the news recently for disappearance of some tigers. The age-old human-animal conflict and the issue of relocating the remaining few villages, from inside the reserve, continue to create problems. Tadoba is a weekend getaway from Mumbai. The metropolis, 900 km away, is connected to Wardha and Nagpur by the Sevagram Express (13-15 hrs journey) and to Chandrapur by the CST-Ballarshah Passenger Express (18 hrs). Chennai (12 hrs) and Bangalore (around 20 hrs) are also well connected to Chandrapur, the latter being on the Delhi-Chennai line.

Best time to visit: February-May
Park Timings: 6am-11 am & 3pm-7 pm (closed on Tuesdays)

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