I think the Gods heard my prayer, as I had to cancel my return flight to Delhi. My scheduled meeting for the evening stood as cancelled and now, I could spend more time in the jungle. I immediately cancelled my flight and got Rs 3000 refund from MakeMyTrip. They have a fantastic cancellation policy and you can get 50% of the ticket value even 2 hours before the flight takes off. The procedure is simple. You can cancel through phone or through a web link that comes in your email id. A few clicks and the job is done. The money is credited into your account within 3 to 12 working days. If they delay in paying you the money, Rs 1000 refund for each day delayed will be added to your account. It is a MakeMyTrip policy. I was back to the jungle zone and decided to stay back a bit longer.
Next morning was a special surprise as we drove into the heart of the jungle passing through the villages and the small paths into a dense forest area next to a shallow stream, which was a favourite watering hole in the area. Many tourists had seen the tiger come to quench his thirst in the vicinity of the stream. There we were, having a bush breakfast near the wild stream. “I get a lot of foreigners here. They enjoy eating in the bush and observing the birds and the insects. See, that dung is better when under the sand. Its job is to plough the fields so that the dung and its minerals really dissolve into the heart of the jungle.” Gagan explained in a professor’s tone to me. “That’s the touch-me-not plant. See, touch the leaves and they will close up quickly.” He pointed to a purple flower in the grass. I had begun to understand the value of even the littlest things in nature and how important it is to keep the balance of the forest and the universe going. Yes, this was the forest life, an ecosystem where man is interdependent with nature. More the harmony, more the balance restored and more the forest thrives.
At a distance were pandals being built for the Durga Pooja. Yes, Ma Durga is the Devi for this forest. She also sits on a tiger and that is why, symbolically, she is the dearest to the villagers of Bandhavgarh. Every village had its own temple, which are white washed with its temple art drawn on the walls. Images of snakes are prevalent in these temples as the villagers are also fond of Shiva here, the God of snakes. Yes, Bandhavgarh village is also home to many species of snakes. The cast system is prevalent in the villages of Bandhavgarh and cast segregation is part of the social norm here. Gagan went on to explain to me about the social topology of the region.
Our next stop was the middle school made for the village and tribal kids in the Rancha village. This is the only school for the neighbouring villages to send their kids. A bus picks the kids to and fro from the middle school. I saw the headmaster and there were three teachers teaching the kids Maths, Hindi and Science. The school was small with a large playground that was fenced but unkempt. Food was served once and the meal was a vegetarian affair but wholesome. There were only three classrooms and one room for the headmaster. Teaching was done on blackboard and through art paper. As if to inspire the kids, there was a huge painting of Ma Saraswati painted on the entrance wall of the building. I chatted with the teachers and the kids who looked happy and welcomed me. The local school indeed is vital for the health of this area and connects them further to the mainstream.
We drove through lush green paddy fields and I noticed quite a few wooden type bed strung from trees or supported by bamboo. The villagers sleep open in their farms to safeguard against tigers and other predators. The forest is full of shallow circular ponds making sure every being gets water adequately. Stream and shallow water tributaries further take the water deep inside the jungle terrain making sure the jungles remain green and dense. “We should do the elephant safari tomorrow. That way, we will get a better chance to see the tiger. I mean an elephant can manoeuvre deep inside the forest and can actually defend against the tiger better. Let’s try the elephant safari.” I egged on Gagan to let me ride elephants inside the forest. He said he would try but no promises. Alas! I have another chance in sighting the elusive tigers of Bandhavgarh.
On our way back to the resort Tigergarh, I photographed an old cow herder wearing a short white dusty dhoti grazing his cattle, which were feasting on fresh green forest grass. He even posed for me and gave me a toothy grin. The village life is so simple and laidback. He looked almost meditative to me. As our jeep climbed over a small hillock, I spotted a tribal woman in a colourful saree trudging past on the road. Yes, that was another kodak moment. One of so many today. Yes, truly, these forests are calling me.