Madhya Pradesh’s second national park, Bandhavgarh, tucked away in the hilly northeast of the state, has one of the highest relative densities of tigers of any of India’s reserves and shelters some fascinating ruins. Although it’s a long haul to Bandhavgarh from either Jabalpur or Khajuraho, it’s worth it – not only to track tigers but also, as all the accommodation is close to the park gates, to watch the array of birdlife from the comfort of your lodge.
Though there are flat grassy maidans in the south of the park, Bandhavgarh is predominantly rugged and hilly, with sal trees in the valleys, and mixed forest in the upper reaches, which shelter a diverse avian population. Bandhavgarh’s headquarters and main gate are in the village of Tala, connected to Umaria, by a road slicing through the park’s narrow midriff.
On the whole, jeep safaris tend to stick to the core area where the chances of spotting a tiger (there are estimated to be around 35–45) are high. Deer species include gazelle, barking deer, nilgai (blueball) and chital (spotted deer). Sloth bears, porcupines, sambar and muntjac also hide away in the forest, while hyenas, foxes and jackals appear occasionally in the open country. If you’re very fortunate, you may catch sight of an elusive leopard. Look out too for some very exotic birds, including red jungle fowl, white-naped woodpecker, painted spurfowl and long-billed vultures. Perhaps the most enjoyable way of viewing game is to take an elephant ride in the misty dawn.
The crumbling ramparts of the fort crown a hill in the centre of the park, 300m above the surrounding terrain. Its ramparts offer spectacular views and the best birdwatching in the park. Beneath the fort are a few modest temples, the rock-cut cells of monks and soldiers, and a massive stone Vishnu reclining on his cobra near a pool that dates from the tenth century. Tigers may be found in the area; they’re more likely to stick to the lower levels, and there are no instances of people actually being harmed by tigers here or even suddenly coming across them – but the risks are real nonetheless.
Bandhavgarh, one of India’s newer national parks, has a long history. Legend dates the construction of its hilltop fort to the time of the epic Ramayana (around 800 BC). Excavations of caves tunnelled into the rock below the fort have revealed inscriptions scratched into the sandstone in the first century BC, from which time Bandhavgarh served as a base for a string of dynasties, including the Chandellas, responsible for the Khajuraho temples. They ruled here until the Bhagels took over in the twelfth century, staking a claim to the region that is still held by their direct descendant, the maharaja of Rewa. The dynasty shifted to Rewa in 1617, allowing Bandhavgarh to be slowly consumed by forest, bamboo and grasslands that provided prime hunting ground for the Rewa kings. The present maharaja ended his hunting days in 1968 when he donated the area to the state as parkland. In 1986, two more chunks of forest were added to the original core zone, giving the park a total area of 448 square kilometres.