A lore of the jungle

Pench forest

A lore of the jungle

As the car turns into an excuse of a road that veers off the main highway, and we arrive at the village of Kanhiwada, perched on the outskirts of Pench National Park in Madhya Pradesh, an old ditty from the Sunday mornings of our childhood come into our mind — “Jungle Jungle baat chali hai patachala hai. Arre chaddi pehenke phool khila hai, phool khila hai.”

Many of us will remember this song from Jungle Book — that timeless work of Rudyard Kipling that had been so wonderfully brought to life through a very popular television series many years ago. And though the jungle may no longer be as grand and endless as it must have been at one time, it is a fact that 120 years after Kipling wrote his first stories of Sher Khan and Bhalu and Bagheera, there are still tigers and bears and panthers in this jungle today, and for those who seek, there is still enough magic and beauty to be found in these woods.

The story of Mowgli is the first myth of this land, but like the course of the original Pench river, myths have changed with the times. In the Pench of today, the tigresses or the queen mothers are the legends of the present and it is their cub-rearing prowess that make up the fables of the here and now. In no other tiger reserve of India is the dominance of the cult of the mother tiger so all-pervasive. Bari Maa or elder mother, as she is so reverently called, is the first of them; the original queen-mother par excellence, who raised multiple litters of four cubs with such consummate skill and dedication. Her story is forever frozen for posterity, courtesy the famous BBC wildlife documentary, Spy in the Jungle, that tracked her lives and times when she raised her first litter and is regarded as one of the most extraordinary wildlife documentaries ever made on the tiger. Nature crafts each tiger with a perfection that takes the breath away, but for all those who have worked with wildlife and tigers in India, there is something special about Bari Maa and her poise and wisdom. She was always more than just a tiger, always something bigger than what you can see, and always something greater than what you can feel.

The current queen of the tourism zone in Pench is one of her daughters, known as the Collarwali; the name that has stuck to her even though her radio tracking collar stopped working years ago! She is now almost 12 years old, a bit past the age at which tigresses are considered to be in their prime, but she has been more than a worthy daughter to Bari Maa, having successfully raised numerous litters herself. The mantle of Bari Maa’s legend couldn’t have had a more worthy successor.

A forest of light & shadow

Pench is a little different from other forests in central India in that it is mostly teak-bearing unlike other places like Kanha and Bandhavgarh where it is always a mix of teak and sal. Here the canopy of teak is tall and endless, reaching proudly into the sky, and stretching as far out as the eye can see. And the trees play with the light of the sun, catching it in some places to hide it under their leafy boughs, and letting it slip to the ground in others; so that when the wind rustles through the forest, a patchworked sheet of light and shadow is draped out on the forest floor. In no other forest is this play of sunlight and shadow taken to such levels of breathtaking delight, so much so that even the most common sights of the Indian jungle — a peafowl pecking at seeds on the forest track, a deer and its fowl crossing into a bush, an old langur monkey sitting languorously in the winter sun — are made special and blessed with a light that makes your eyes want to linger forever.

We set off one morning on an early morning game drive through the Turia village, which is the main entrance gate of the portion of the National Park that is in Madhya Pradesh. The hour is unearthly, the forest is still in slumber, and the pre-dawn coldness of winter air pierces through our bones. At a turn in the road where one path veers off into Karmajhiri, there is a sudden loud cackling that starts off in the trees. It is the sharp, staccato barking of a langur monkey, and for those tuned to the way of the jungle, it is an unmistakable sign that a predator is lurking nearby. In no time, all the drowsiness evaporates and our senses are on full alert. We listen and watch, holding our breath, nerves on edge, city-eyes peering into the undergrowth in expectation, muscles taut from the tension, our heartbeat in our ears. For what seems like interminable minutes, the calls keep ringing through the forest, and we all wait patiently, but on that morning the jungle and the bush do not part with the secret. The predator, most likely a leopard (our guide thinks), will not be in view anytime soon, alerted perhaps by our presence and the long line of jeeps waiting for a glimpse. So in the end we move on to prospect in other places, but thrilled by that experience. We hope for better luck the next time around…

The reward in the end

We do not have to wait long. That very morning, about an hour later, the dappled curtain of light parts at a turn in the road, and there, without prayer or warning, to the right of the jungle path, we have Collarwali on a royal amble on this perfect winter day.

True royalty and magnificence has a presence when even the most powerful of words seem best unsaid. Unfazed by the safari vehicles that have lined up to watch her pass, she keeps walking without so much as a condescending acknowledgement, keeping her perfectly unhurried pace, pausing here and there to scent-mark a tree and pick up signals that only she can sense, ears sometimes cock-ed as she locks on the faintest tremble in the jungle. She is the mistress of this forest, of all that she surveys and all that she does not, and to see her at such close quarters with her velvet winter coat rippling in the golden sunlight, is both a privilege and a blessing.

You cannot ever truly and wholly leave Pench. Part of you will always stay back; memories will spin a web, and will tug at your heartstrings across the chasms of time and distance. And if you don’t believe that, it’s only because you haven’t been there yet!

Fact file

How to get there:

Pench is easily accessible by road from Nagpur. It is recommended to take the drive there and experience the issues first-hand on NH7, the widening of which is a project creating so much controversy in the great and tragic tussle of environment versus development, since that highway cuts right through the heart of one of the last remaining wildlife corridors for tigers, linking east Pench with Kanha.

Activities:

Apart from morning and evening safari drives and birding, Pench and the surrounding countryside is great for walking and trekking. There is also an interesting and one-of-its-kind night safari at Khawasa, about 25 km from Turia gate, where the chances of spotting wolves are pretty high.

Best time to visit:

Winter to early summer is the best time to be in Pench.

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