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PARTNER CONTENT FOR MADHYA PRADESH TOURISM


He must be joking. The tiny wooden structure looks like little more than a shed, balanced on the cliff’s edge with a 500ft drop in place of a porch and 40sq miles of jungle for a garden.


But no. Ramavtaar is gesturing emphatically towards the hut, happiness etched in the lines around his eyes, a smile clear beneath his balaclava. I find myself leaning forwards in the safari truck, waiting for his tale. Ramavtaar used to call this cabin home.


He began patrol work in Madhya Pradesh’s Bandhavgarh National Park when he was 19, using the watch-post as a base from which to protect the park. More than 45 years on, he guides rather than guards, but when the monsoon hits and the reserve closes to tourists, he returns to this hut, deep in the heart of the jungle. “I prefer tigers for neighbours,” he


shrugs, pointing out fresh tracks in the roadside. Each paw is saucer-sized and I stare, awestruck, as Ramavtaar reminisces about a time when a 500lb beast leapt from a thicket, snatching the scarf from around his neck before melting back into the bush. “Perhaps he was cold,” he chortles. “I can move so silently through the forest that people call me ‘the ghost’, but nothing is stealthier than the tiger.” A cold winter dawn is breaking on


Bandhavgarh: blood-red stains are seeping into the sky and, all around us, wildlife is stirring. Babblers begin the morning’s symphony, white-bellied minivets adding their short, sharp burst to the tune. Soon the canopy’s orchestra is in full swing, with quails cooing and rollers calling — Mother Nature conducting a wild jungle song. This is India’s untamed heartland, where


the looming, pine-crested Satpura Range dissolves into Kanha’s grasslands to the east and the dense forests of Bandhavgarh to the north. There are 11 national parks in Madhya Pradesh, more than any other Indian state, and these pockets of wilderness are fiercely protected, their flora and fauna wonderfully diverse. We turn away from the watch-post


and rattle up another rocky peak. Bamboo thickets become denser, and the


eyes of unknown creatures follow us from the undergrowth before the track spits us out at an ancient stone ruin. Piece by piece, nature is devouring the structure, the once- mighty columns cracked and crumbling, the floor subsiding and slick with moss. This palace was once a holiday home


with a very different purpose, a place from which the maharajas of Madhya Pradesh could stalk big cats. Although it hasn’t been inhabited since the 14th century, Bandhavgarh was used as a hunting ground as recently as the 1960s. Local folklore has long deemed the killing


of tigers auspicious — a display of strength and dedication to Shiva, god of destruction. The creatures were almost completely wiped out in Bandhavgarh, with numbers falling to as low as 11 by some counts, and it wasn’t until 1968, when the last maharaja of Rewa became racked with guilt over killing a pregnant tigress, that the park was gifted to the Indian government. Bandhavgargh now has a healthy


population of 79 tigers, and its remarkable success story has been mirrored across the state, including in Kanha National Park — my next stop. The reserve served as Rudyard Kipling’s inspiration for The Jungle Book and, on our first drive, I spot Baloo. He ambles slow and soft-footed past the car, long black hair gleaming, eyes the colour of coal, with a comical white muzzle as though he’s broken into a larder and helped himself to some cream. “He’s after gooseberries,” says Uday,


one of the park’s naturalists. “It’s that time of year. He’ll then move onto black plums and, in August, when the monsoon hits, it’ll be termite time.” I look past the sloth bear, out across the vast expanse of rippling grassland, punctuated by termite towers rising 6ft tall. Kanha’s topography couldn’t be more different to Bandhavgarh, its steep ridges replaced with open plains where barasingha deer glance up from their breakfasts, startled, as we rumble past.


CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Rock pool, Satpura National Park; sloth bear, Bandhavgarh National Park; grey langur male keeping an eye out for danger PREVIOUS PAGE: Male tiger, Bandhavgarh National Park


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