Out of the parched forest flow the cool waters of the Charan
Ganga. It is no insignificant stream this, weaving its course through the famed
forest of Bandhavgarh, carving its signature across the land, quenching thirst
of deer and tiger and langur, and bringing life to the dry earth. Here in
Central India, in the middle of May, the sal forests and open grasslands bake
in tropical sun. The seasonal drought has turned many trees nearly leafless,
their branches stark against singeing skies, and the browned grasslands crackle
in the breeze. The heat of summer is hard to escape, here, in the heart of
Finding water, then, is key. The deer make their daily beelines to the waterholes through the grasslands. They appear unhurried, unmindful even of lesser predators, such as the jungle cat who sits motionless, merging with swaying grass. Still, nearing the waterhole, the deer approach with cautious steps, eyes alert, ears cocked, noses twitching. They sense a tiger may be waiting. Sharing sentiment and presentiment with the deer, we make our own way in an open jeep, a group of friends heading to the waterhole, tourists in tigerland. The tiger we find, however, ringed by other vehicles with their gaggles of gaping tourists, is snoozing under the trees and the bamboo, behind a little rise and almost beyond our prying eyes. Lying on its back like a sprawled housecat, the tiger appears to be merely waving a disdainful paw.
The heart of India is tiger country. People come here to see tigers and be awed by their presence. The visitors quickly learn, from guides and from people in other vehicles, that where there is water is a good place to wait to see a tiger. Some learn to mark the tiger’s progress through the forest by the alarm calls of the deer, or by tracking paw prints on the dusty roads. Some begin to sense that the preservation of the tiger casts a protective shadow over a pyramid of prey and plants and other life of the forest. Others note that it is the tiger that needs such a forest to exist. But is this the main message? Don’t we need such a forest, too?
The soil is parched under stunning heat. And yet, the trees, as if knowing something we do not, or from habits derived over the ages, are putting out fresh green leaves. There has been no rain—only an anticipation of it. Fresh leaves erupt on mahua trees, spent after an effusion of fragrant flowers now fermented into country wine, and on sal trees whose branches are laden with winged fruit. Perhaps there is an anticipation of wind, too. Even as fields lie fallow in the human countryside outside Bandhavgarh, the trees have found their moisture and are investing in growth, and in their future. And from the forest, the waters of the Charan Ganga continue to flow.
Deep in the forest lies a great idol of Vishnu, the Shesh Shaiya, a supreme deity signifying, pertinently, existence and preservation. Where the deity lies recumbent, the waters of the Charan Ganga appear to emerge from his feet. It is not hard to imagine, in a summer like this, that such a source of clear water, keeping the trees green here and for miles downstream, has a divine origin.
But, if we could emerge high above the forest and soar on the wings of the long-billed vultures that grace the cliffs and skies of Bandhavgarh, we may obtain a different perspective. Then we would see the vista of forest in the landscape around the spring where rests the Shesh Shaiya.
The stage is set for a grand play of life and death. This is the land of the deer and the tiger, the quintessential prey and predator, a land that holds an essence of wild India: Kanha.
From there, it is the forest that appears to tap and soak and channel the water through aquifers to emerge as a spring. The forest is divine, in an aesthetic sense, but needs no divinity to perform this basic hydrologic function. Now, Vishnu, as a being signified by the idol, seems but a wise person who, like the tiger, found a good place close to water, to rest under the shade of the trees and the bamboo.
His presence, as a preserver, like the tiger's, is but a marker of what needs to be preserved.
he anticipation of the trees is not belied. The wind and the rain are coming. When we turn back towards our lodge as the day comes to a dusky end, a jackal lopes past us into the growing darkness of the evening. And so the clouds gather, with gusts of wind, thunder, and lightning.
Under crackling, electric skies, the shimmering heat yields to cool draughts that precede the rain. Around the courtyard of the lodge, the waiting fruits of the sal trees take wing. Whirring like a fan, they disperse with the wind, carpeting the earth with winged sal seeds. The branches toss in tumult, the seeds skitter before the wind. From the verandah we watch, and our hearts skip along with every gust.
Dark clouds grumble and crash over grey curtains of rain. The rain sweeps across the sky like diaphanous drapes drawn by wind. With the pre-monsoon thunderstorm has come the water to nourish the soil where the sal may grow. And yet, the water is an unwanted burden on the fruit itself, as it makes its own short but crucial spinning journey away from mother tree to moist earth.
Such is the economy of nature that, even as the parched earth soaks the water, the sal spins it off its seed.
rom Bandhavgarh, in the middle of May, we travel on into another special landscape. A landscape of stately sal forests spreading to the horizon, amidst sprawling meadows and plateaued hills. Here, the stage is set for a grand play of life and death. This is the land of the deer and the tiger, the quintessential prey and predator, a land that holds an essence of wild India: Kanha.
Kanha lies within a vast amphitheatre marked by the sweep of the Satpura mountains to the west and the Maikal range to the east. The soils and rocks seem old as the Earth herself—a piece of primeval Gondwana, the great land that sailed the early ocean. This land gathers the waters for the Narmada river, flowing to the west, and for the Mahanadi, to the east. Here have lived the old peoples—the Gond, after whom the great land was named, and the Baiga, who live off the extensive forests and the deep soils.
It is special, too, for us, being the landscape where the pioneering field biologist, George Schaller, roamed the forests and studied deer and tiger in the mid-1960s. His landmark book, The Deer and the Tiger, introduced a whole generation of wildlife scientists in India to field studies of animals in their natural habitats, their behaviour and ecology through the cycle of the seasons, and the perpetual dance of prey and predator.
Kanha simmers in the summer heat and the monsoon is still some weeks away. Like green arms, the forests seem to hug the browned meadows that await the rain to spur another renewal of life. Along with the panorama of forests on view, the grand assemblages of ungulates on the meadows of Kanha must rank among the great wildlife spectacles of Asia.
Dark groups of gaur, heading for water and forage, add grandeur to the landscape. Herds of swamp deer, the barasingha, weave their way through the grasslands. The stags, still sporting the many-tined antlers that give them their name, lounge among groups of prim and perfect does in the relative calm that comes after the rut. These are the so-called hard-ground barasingha, whose cousins of wetter turf live in the Terai grasslands of north and northeast India. Here, in Kanha, these stately deer bring elegance to the meadows.
There are other deer, too, in Kanha: the diminutive and shy chevrotain; the cautious and excitable muntjac; the lithe and graceful chital; and that great deer of the forest, the sambar. The forests and grasslands resound with the bellows of chital stags, for this is the peak season of their rut. We watch, as Schaller must have, males displaying and sparring, pawing and preaching, fighting and mating. We fail to find any chevrotain, a more nocturnal species, but sambar and muntjac afford us glimpses in the forest. Late one evening, we drive up to the Bamhnidadar plateau, looking for the four-horned antelope or chousingha. Although the animal eludes us, we find a viewpoint offering a panoramic view of Kanha and stop to admire the landscape where, from open meadow to dense forest, each species of deer finds its space, and each its place in the cycle of life.
With the prey come the predators. There are tigers, of course, and in their shadow, other hunters: leopards, dhole or Asiatic wild dog, sloth bear, jackal, jungle cats, and other smaller and interesting carnivores such as civets and mongooses. With the help of the langur and a little luck, we are lucky to see some of them.
The present assemblage of wildlife is a truncated one, for the black buck, water buffalo, Asian elephant, and cheetah, which roamed in this region not long ago, are all seen no more.
On our drive through the forest, a troop of langurs erupts
with raucous alarm calls, bringing us to a halt. The monkeys closely watch and
noisily track some movement down in the forest understorey. We wait in silence,
all eyes and ears; the langur's alarm is almost contagious. Our patience is soon
rewarded. At the edge of the road, a shape materialises out of the shrubs: a
leopard. Wide-eyed, we watch as he quickly crosses over.
A bit later, a sloth bear with a grown cub scurries into the safety of the forest. And then, we spot a jungle cat resting in the shade of a little rock overhang to escape the heat of the afternoon. In the distance, a peafowl cries.
he sal forests swathe the landscape, and the Bauhinia climbers, bedecked with flowers, garland the sal. Yet, the really large, tall trees are few: a familiar story of past logging slowly transforming into a future progression of hopeful regrowth. The tree trunks are studded with the gems of orchid blooms and shoulder the burdens of strangler figs. Perched on the boughs, racket-tailed drongos sound their metallic clanging calls. Their glistening black plumage and tail extend down into thin streamers tipped by black spatulae—the drongos, perched erect, attest the trees like exclamation marks.
The drama of the deer and the tiger will play out on the evolutionary stage, and shall forever mark this Central Indian landscape. Yet, it is sobering to recall that the present assemblage of wildlife is a truncated one, for the blackbuck, water buffalo, Asian elephant, and cheetah, which roamed in this region not long ago, are all seen no more. Unseen, yes, but often forgotten, too, as human memory slides on a slope of shifting baselines: it is deer and tiger that one notes today. The vehicle that speeds past us on the unsealed forest road—hastening, perhaps, to the next tiger sighting—also misses the drongo and the orchid on the sal, leaves us coated in a light layer of dust.
It is not difficult to feel a part of this wild landscape, or feel a sense of belonging to a land where people have lived amidst forests and wildlife for millennia, on into the present day in the heart of one of the world's most populous countries. In a land of forgotten species and fading sensitivity, we can despair at what we have lost, yet exult at what we can experience, and strive for what may lie ahead. As we depart from Kanha, we cannot shake off an awareness that, deer or tiger, sal or stream, the land has a value inestimably greater than the sum of its parts. Parting with the landscape, we feel a tug at our heart. But it only seems natural, here, in the great landscape of forests and meadows in the heart of India.