My love affair with tigers began in the summer of 1991 during my first trip to India. I had joined a group of teachers whose main aim was to see Indian wildlife and, if we were lucky, a tiger or two. It was in the golden glow of the late afternoon sun that I first laid eyes on three tigers, a mother and two cubs. We watched the cubs playing under the watchful eye of their mother for some time. I didn’t know then that that first sighting would change the course of my life.
I returned to the Indian jungle in the spring of 1992 armed with a fellowship, some funding and a plan to study the effects of ecotourism on wild tigers for two years. Since then, I have travelled the length and breadth of India and it never fails to amaze me. Where else would you be asked if you prefer a non-vegetarian meal? Which government would carve off a tip of its mountainous spine and gift it to the Tibetan Government in Exile? Which great religion would accept and incorporate Jesus Christ, Buddha and Mohammed into its pantheon of gaudy gods? And how can a subcontinent bursting at the seams with people still be the best place in the world to spot a tiger in the wild?
Now, almost 25 years since my Indian obsession began, I plan to retrace my steps by leading the Luxury Travel magazine/AsiaQuest 18-day tour In Search of Tigers in October 2015. The tour begins with a search for tigers but evolves into a cultural tour of discovery culminating in the Golden Triangle, a cluster of famous monuments encompassing Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. This time, I plan to do it in style! So if you would like to join me for a walk on the wild side, read on.
The tour starts in Delhi, a city that usually gets a bum rap but doesn’t deserve it. When you peel back the layers of culture, civilisation and history, you discover that modern Delhi contains the remains of no less than 11 ancient cities. On Day 1 we plunge straight into the very heart of Old Delhi, visiting the Jama Masjid, the great mosque whose courtyard can accommodate 25,000 worshippers. In stark contrast, we navigate the wide green boulevards of New Delhi to Rajpath or King’s Way where India Gate looms and the Parliament buildings sprawl either side.
On Day 3, we board an early morning flight to Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh, deep in the heart of tiger country, and drive to Kanha National Park. This area is said to have inspired Rudyard Kipling when he wrote The Jungle Book. And indeed Shere Khan the tiger, as well as all of the other characters, does roam Kanha’s jungle orsal forest. Many of the animals living here are on the tiger menu such as the spotted deer, sambar deer, barasingha, gaur (a type of wild cattle), nilgai (a large antelope), blackbuck, barking deer, wild boar and common langur. Others are less common or more secretive including the sloth bear, jungle cat, leopard and wild dog.
Kanha is the park with which I am most familiar because this is where I undertook my research. With its population of around 100 tigers, it is a popular destination for wildlife enthusiasts and is one of the best places in India to see a tiger.
On Day 6 we head to another popular park – Bandhavgarh National park – which was home for 17 years to one of the most famous and photographed tigers of all time, Sita. She even made the cover of National Geographic. Although Bandhavgarh is much smaller than Kanha, it supports one of the highest densities of tigers in India. This was the former hunting reserve of the Maharaja of Rewabut but was declared a National Park in 1968. Incidentally it was in this area that the Maharajah himself discovered the first white tiger in 1948; it was from this one white cub that all white tigers are descended.
Bandhavgarh is covered in forest, grassy swamps and rocky outcrops, making it very picturesque. Perched atop a rocky hill within the park is Bandhavgarh Fort which is thought to be about 2000 years old. It was once a stronghold for the Bahela Rajputs but is now roamed by wild tigers.
Driving north on Day 9, we visit a park that stands out from the others – Panna National Park. Located on a plateau that is steeply dissected by gorges, Panna boasts cascading waterfalls and teak forests. It has a river flowing through it that provides important habitat for many aquatic species, including crocodiles.
Due to an unfortunate set of circumstances, Panna now finds itself on the cutting edge of conservation science. In 2008, all 40 tigers living in the park were poached. Since then, four tigers have been introduced from Kanha and Bandhavgarh National Parks and amazingly, both females have given birth.
With the thrill of tiger sightings (hopefully!) still pulsing in our veins, we leave the jungle on Day 12 and drive 1.5 hours to reach the Khajuraho temple complex whose World Heritage listing protects some of the finest examples of temple art in the world. Although the complex once boasted 85 temples, the remaining 20 are most famous for their erotic carvings that comprise only about 10 per cent of the seemingly endless tangle of arms and legs that serve to record and illustrate life and values of that time.
We hop aboard a fast train on Day 13 to Agra the former capital of the Mughal Empire. These days it is best known as the home of the greatest monument to love, the Taj Mahal. The Taj was built by Shah Jahan as a final resting place for his second and favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child. The jury is out on how to best photograph this architectural wonder: as a reflection, through an archway, from a distance or maybe even from your hotel window?
You will have the opportunity for close-up snaps of the Taj on the morning of Day 14 and can enjoy distant views later on when we visit Agra Fort, an architectural wonder on the Yamuna River. This walled Mughal city was founded in 1565 and is where Mughal architecture flourished in India. It is a mix of Islamic, Persian and Indian styles characterised by bulbous domes, slender minarets, massive halls and large vaulted gateways.
En route to Jaipur on Day 15 we visit the imperial ruins of the Mughal city of Fatehpur Sikri. This well-preserved city was mysteriously abandoned just 14 years after it was built. This city’s founder was a forward-thinking man in the area of arts and literature, finance and religion but he apparently did not anticipate that his new city would run out of water (our best guess as to why it was abandoned!)
Jaipur is one of my all-time favourite Indian cities. It is beautiful, full of interesting monuments, a centre for Rajasthani handicrafts and a shoppers’ paradise. The buildings and walls of the Old City have been painted a distinctive shade of pink ever since 1876 when the Prince of Wales came to visit. The City Palace, which we visit the following day, is a fusion of Rajasthani, Mughal and European styles. It is encircled by a fortified wall with seven elephant-sized gates.
We begin our final day of sightseeing with Amber Fort, the ancient capital of Jaipur state. No matter what the time of year, Amber always has an ethereal look to it as it appears to hover in the haze. It was built by a Rajput king over four levels. On the third level is the Maharajah’s private residence, complete with Mirror Palace, Pleasure Hall and Mughal garden. The topmost level was reserved for the Royal wives, mistresses and concubines.
Later the same day we visit the Palace of the Winds, a towering pink facade with carved lattice windows where the ladies of the royal family could come and watch street activities without being seen. Tucked in behind it is Jantar Mantar, an intriguing collection of ancient astronomical instruments. These huge and bizarre instruments made of local stone and marble also provide a great backdrop for movie sets and music videos.
So what are the chances of seeing a tiger? While wildlife sightings are never guaranteed, I would rate them as excellent. Not only are Kanha and Bandhavgarh national parks rated in the top five places to see tigers in India, but we will be spending several days in each. My advice is to open your senses and drink in every moment of this unique tour through some natural and cultural wonders of India. After all, who knows? Like all great adventures, you may set off in search of one thing, only to discover something quite different.
Luxury Travel/Asiaquest Tours In Search of Tiger Tour Leader
Dr Renata Bali is a zoologist and a mad keen traveller. She has studied species from snails to kangaroos, monkeys and tigers and spent two years in India researching the effects of ecotourism on tiger behaviour.