In search of... Indian tigers

He came to see the big cats. But Amar Grover found there was more to the jungle than the stars with the stripes
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The Independent Travel

Tyger, tyger, burning bright ...

Tyger, tyger, burning bright ...

We stopped and sat in silence; eyes alert, ears pricked, gestures checked. Nothing. A breeze ruffled the tree tops and tufts of tall singed grass. Kites swooped overhead. Still nothing. As we made to drive off, the park warden raised a hand to his ear. A kind of stifled bark came from near the base of cliffs. "Deer," he whispered. Their warning calls echoed several times, guarded rather than desperate. But who posed danger? We, the Jeep-bound visitors, or a prowling tiger?

This being India's Bandhavgarh National Park, I hoped it was a tiger. The deer are used to visitors but everyone is wary of the felines. There's a story of one testy male called Charger leaping up the back of an elephant carrying tourists, coming within a swipe of its howdah and traumatising all.

Freakish incidents aside, this is among the best places in the country to see tigers. They are not as "tame" as in some other national parks and relatively few tourists come here. Bandhavgarh's remoteness – rugged, forested hills in the heart of India – has a distinct allure for both travellers and other wildlife, too.

In the forests of the night ...

That evening we sat before a crackling fire, pre-dinner pegs in hand. Dushyant Singh, manager of Bandhavgarh's Jungle Camp, spoke of Rewa's white tigers. In around 1950 a group of these exquisite animals was found in nearby forest. Some were hunted but one, Mohan, was kept in the palace grounds. He is believed to have sired numerous white progeny, dispersed to zoos worldwide. Though they are beautiful, their lack of dark pigment is a genetic defect and of no benefit in the wild. "And there's none here now," added Dushyant.

In truth any tiger – white or yellow, cub or adult – would do for me. Last year's census declared 65 within 1,150sq km (450 sq miles), a huge area encompassing buffer zones and "extensions". The authorities reckon about 16 inhabit the park's core, just over half of which is accessible to visitors. Tigers are secretive and solitary. Luck, then, is key.

Each day I was up at dawn for tea and snacks, then spent three hours winding along jungly tracks in an open Jeep. We returned to the park for another search until 6pm. It's a beautiful place. Dense sal trees cloak steep hills while brush and grassland smother the plains. The shady streams and scattered ponds attract dozens of birds including kingfishers, storks and fish owls. Spotted deer, sambar, gazelle and foxes abound. Boar dashed into thickets at our approach while jackals skulked in the long grass. I was told of civets, sloth bears, mongooses, even wolves. In exceptional circumstances you might glimpse a leopard. But we had all come for the big cats.

What immortal hand or eye ...

Legend tints the tiger's history. In the Ramayana, Lord Ram rested at the natural fort which rises in the park's heart after his battle with the demon king of Lanka. Bandhavgarh means "brother fort" and some say it belonged to Ram's brother. From the 16th century it formed part of the hunting grounds of the Maharajahs of Rewa. In 1968 the Maharajah gave a core area of parkland to the Indian government, and tracts of forest and grassland have since been added.

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

On my second morning there was a sighting. An English couple – on their first drive – had chanced upon one feeding after a kill. We heard all about it over dinner: their Jeep drew close and they gazed for an hour. No one disturbed them nor did their proximity bother the slurping tiger. We were tinged with envy but filled with hope.

Next day I arranged to visit the fort which is still owned by the Maharajah of Rewa. Permission is usually granted provided a caretaker can be found to accompany visitors. This is the only – yet most scenic – area which can be walked. In effect, we were to be marooned for five hours atop the long plateau while the park closed for lunch. From a spring beside a huge statue of a reclining Vishnu, we walked in single file up through a cleft in the cliffs. At its imposing gate, our old guide produced his key, fumbled with the lock and the creaking wooden doors swung open. Tigers have been known to venture even here. There's also a hermitic priest – said to have braved loneliness for 25 years – paid by the Maharajah to tend the fort's ancient temple. One morning the priest found a tiger by the water tank. It held him at bay for days. This being the hot season, he almost died of thirst.

In what distant deeps or skies ...

The fort's few buildings and shrines have been left to crumble since the 1950s. Three large, stepped tanks were hewn from solid rock in ancient times; now they are home to fish and screeching parrots. We strolled to the plateau's far rim where vultures rode the thermals, the cliffs dotted with their nests. Far below spread tawny dimpled grassland, the setting for our sweep later that afternoon.

Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

Jeeps and stealth don't go together but our driver had the next best thing: keen eyes. We shuddered to a halt on the dusty track and he pointed at the ground. Pugmarks, the first tangible sign of our quest. The spoor was distinct but old, and made off into long grass where groups of cheetal deer grazed cautiously. We drove on beneath troops of langur monkeys crashing among the branches. Occasional sambar stared out from the foliage. At another stretch of open country, Dushyant pointed to Charger's tomb. The combative beast had died a natural death, just what one wants in a national park.

The most authentic way to spot a tiger is perched atop an elephant, and with Charger dead this seemed a carefree approach. There's a quiet exhilaration in lumbering through the forest 12 feet up. Little gets in the way, perhaps a stray twig snarling one's shirt. An evening sun slanted through the lattice of trees and for once we felt utterly alone.

It was my last day. Disappointment at not even glimpsing a tiger had subsided. I began to see Bandhavgarh as more than simply a refuge for one of India's most precious species. Here thrived the rhythms of prime jungle and many animals. There's a sign at the main gate depicting a talking tiger. "Perhaps you may not have seen me, but please don't be disappointed," it says. "I have seen you."

How can I join the tiger watch?

Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000; www.coxandkings.co.uk), offers a 13-day Jungle Odyssey wildlife tour, including three days at Bandhavgarh. Cox & Kings also arranges tailor-made itineraries throughout India in its India and Beyond brochure. Bandhavgarh is open until 30 May.

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