In the middle of March, clouds are getting together in the sky. After gazing at the heaped dark clouds for some time, Ramdin Baiga, the experienced guide of Bandhavgarh forest, said in a low tone by provoking the theory of possibility, “Sir, this is the ideal environment to see tigers, leopards, and bears.” In the suddenness of words and in the thoughts of the future to come, Rumki, the youngest member of our team, swallowed quite a bit of water. We have come in search of situations of the Bandhavgarh tiger victims in Madhya Pradesh. Now, hoping to see the tiger and respecting the conventional system followed by the travelers, we, a team of five persons, ride a zip safari in the Tala zone of Bandhavgarh National Forest. The National Forest Department has divided the Forest into three zones; Tala, Magadhi, and Khitauli. Now, at the time of entrance, we get to rest awhile as the security officers of the Forest are checking the requisite papers.
In this leisure period, let’s get an introductory episode of Bandhavgarh, which is situated at the side of Rewa- Umaria road under the district of Umaria. The area is spread within 3629.7 sq. km but the buffer area of the Jungle is 450 sq. km. and the core area is 105 sq. km only. According to mythological and popular concept, after the victory of Sri Lanka and returning to Ayodhya, Sri Ramchandra gave this land to his brother (Bandhav) Lakshman by establishing a fort (garh) here to keep an eye on Sri Lanka. Both the words Bandhav and Garh construct the word Bandhavgarh.
After entering into the core area of the forest from the buffer zone, the trees are becoming dense to denser. The driver of our jeep is carrying the orders of the experienced guide Ramdin Baiga stoically to fulfill our long-cherished purposeful desire. On the way, a lot of monkeys, a herd of deers, Sambhar, Nilgai, a pig team, and a jackal are met by us. Ramdin Baiga has taken an opportunity to emit his treasure of knowledge about Bandhavgarh Forest as soon as we meet these animals. It is heard from him that there are Monkeys, Languor, Rhesus, Wolves, Asiatic Jackals, Foxes, Hyenas, Sloth Bears, Honey Badger, Mongoose, Wild Cat, Wild Boar, Armadillos, and Dhole, a special type of Wild Dogs, except Tigers and Leopards. There are also Porcupines, Gaurs, Fishing Cats, Civet cats, Squirrels, large size rats, and different species of deer such as Chital, Nilgai, Chaushinga, Chinkara, and Sambar. There are more than 22 species of animals, 250 species of birds (according to another opinion 300), 80 species of butterflies, five species of bats, and different species of snakes.
All of a sudden, everyone casts a glance at a hole of a tree on the left side as directed by Ramdin with excitement. Surajit keeps his eye on binoculars, which are always hanging vertically from his neck. A terrified nocturnal creature appeared through his lens. The lips of Rumki are curled slightly from what the binoculars show her. Again Ramdin is excited, as usual, we too. Now it is to the right side. The cleverest creature of the fauna is sitting to soak up the setting sun.
The day has not gone so badly. Under the guidance of Ramdin, We have reached the fort of Bandhavgarh once we begin to see colorful peacocks and innumerable monkeys ramping about with the spectacular scenery of different types of deer running together – Chital, Sambar, Chausingha, Nilgai – in a rhythmic bounce and wave. The safari jeep halts at the foot of Charanganga Lake. We climbed the stairs to the edge of the small and naturally created lake. On the opposite side of us and on the bank of the lake, there is a thirty-four feet long statue of Narayana, also called Vishnu, the creator of the universe, sleeping on the bed of Shesnag Ananta with a round-shaped statue of Shivlinga on the head side of Narayana. A lean stream of water, coming out from the notch of the hillocks, is mixing with the lake at the feet side of Vishnu. There is also situated a small dilapidated idol of Nrisinghadeva on the Yonipith of Shivlinga.
Here nature gives a golden opportunity to the photographers by revealing her resplendence. Asoke and Rahul open their modern photographic equipments quickly to arrest the sublime nature. On the other side, Rumki and Surajit, the future couple, are busy capturing selfies on their camera. Does this candid scene give birth to the realization of Browning, – ‘Who knows but the world may end tonight?’ The cosmos, however, remains silently indifferent to the balance of status. In this time of leisure, I and Ramdin are engaging ourselves in discussing the genealogy of the Bandhavgarh dynasty.
Tiger and We:
When the discussion is shaking hands with history, the heart is searching for its alleys towards a forgotten light. Suddenly Surajit shouts out, “Let’s go, it’s over”. In the meantime, two more jeeps have come with the buzzing sound of the riders and their distorted exhilaration. The parallels between nature and history lie in the misuse of modernity with an unspoken amour propre.
On the way back Ramdin has taken another. A vast expanse of a green-carpeted stretch of land with a herd of deer is floating in front of our eyes. And the monkeys are bullying each other near the jeep. The fascination is broken by Ramdin’s low voice, “Sir, see the tiger”. There neat the bushes we could see the yellow stripes of a middle-aged tiger. Its steadfast gaze focused on the herd of deer. What concentration! Suddenly, he straightens up a little with its head forward in a cat-catching manner. Immediately, the yell of the monkeys begins to screech from one end of the forest to the other. The quiet stillness was lost. The yellow flame runs towards the herd of deer. The deer that falls back and in the weakest, inconvenient position is his target. But the tiger is failed by the pace of the deer; he gives up the effort with utter despair after running a few yards.
The tiger is swayed back and forth in a regal manner. But which way is he coming? We slowly find him coming towards the road ahead! Everyone in the jeep is so speechless, still and terrified. Only Ashok keeps his camera active. Me, Ramdin, and Ashok are in the back seat. The tiger crosses the road, glancing at the jeep and takes refuge under a tree. The message is relayed across to the other jeeps – the smell of the tiger – a few of them roll up to the spot. The combination of progress, development and commercialization creates crisis; a nagging irritation comes over me.
Now the path is secluded. Only we are going this way alone. No cars are seen here. Black clouds have taken all over the sky. At the farthest end of the horizon, the sound of thunder is heard; the rain comes down loudly as soon as the crooked sword of lightning is unsheathed and pierces the bosom of the sky. Not with umbrellas and raincoats, now there is no alternative but to get wet. Suddenly, instead of croaking noise, the peacock wandering in the small field to the left of our jeep screamed in terror. Ramdin immediately tells the driver to stop the jeep. We almost are said in an instinctive manner, ‘Look at the branches of the trees, it could be Tendua (Leopard).’ A little later he points to a large leopard lying lazily on a branch of a tree not far away. Flash goes again. On a rainy evening, where nature is paralyzed, an unsavory montage is made mingled with a lonely leopard lying on a tree branch. After giving the travelers their due, the leopard becomes aware of the needless busyness of mankind. He comes down to earth. The painting is made of smudgy and now merges into the dust of the soil.
Everyone is silent for a while. Saying goodbye to the Bandhavgarh forest, all kinds of birds, animals, and floras that have mixed their fragrance and made the indescribable nature sweet with melody, rhythm, and aroma, – it is now time to return to the lodge. The next day, we will start our survey.
As we exit the lodge after eating and drinking at night, we see a cloudless, starry sky. The sky holds so many stars in her bosom, which is dirty with dust and dull in the city. Nature here is so alive, so intimate, and so vast. That is simply unimaginable in the city where there is only an endless gap between man and nature.
Men of Struggle:
The survey cannot be conducted during the morning session; the people of the village will be busy with farming activities. There will be no workload in the afternoon. As a result, the afternoon is decided upon.
Part of the questionnaires was about the Bandhavgarh forest and the eviction of the local inhabitants from there. We heard that the government wanted to evict them. That is why the first question is; Have you or your ancestors been evicted from the jungle of Bandhavgarh before? The answer is found, yes three, not forty-seven, and three without comment. The second question is about the date of eviction. No answers are found. The third question is, did the Government provide any grants or assistance for the eviction? One in three answers yes, one says no, and one does not comment. The fourth question is a type of grant and helps from any source. The only one in the answer says that he has got the land. The fifth question is extremely important. The question is, do you want the forest should be closed and all the lands to be distributed equally among you? Of these, forty-eight persons have wanted the forest in Bandhavgarh to remain as it, three have given their consent that the jungle should be removed and two have not passed any remark. Those three people who are in favor of clearing the jungle are members of the same family. Harihar Baiga, son of Sukhanandan Baiga, is a resident of Dulhara village under Kadonga Gram Panchayet. Harihar is now forty years old. In the year 2017, he was attacked by a tiger while working in the field. At present, though, he is alive, but the part below the waist is almost crippled. He did not receive any financial assistance from the Government or the private sector.
How can institutional opposition be explained? Let’s see what the opinion is in this regard. The question is what kind of organization do they believe in conserving people, the tiger, and nature? Government organizations get the support of two, so also NGOs, twenty-six people trust the panchayat, twelve people trust the local administration, five people trust the forest department, four people trust no one and two people trust other organizations. It should be noted here that although there is no direct reliance on the government it is good to rely on the organization of various branches of government. Their combined sum stands at forty-five.
Harihar, who was crippled by the tiger’s attack, strongly advocates the removal of the forest and tigers, but he himself does not support the killings of the tigers, although the tone of the other members of the family was different. Sakuntala Baiga, the wife of Pancham Baiga who was killed in a tiger attack, Premabai Jadav, wife of Babulal Jadav and Sushila Singh, wife of Late Mahendra Singh, – all have more or less the same statement. Sushila Devi’s voice is filled with terror, – when I woke up in the morning and saw the print of the tiger’s paw in front of the door that scared me.
The type of speech is pretty much the same; most people don’t want the tigers to be wiped out but they want security. They are willing to leave the area if the government accepts their demands. It is up to the government to select places where they can earn a living. In this case they do not want any bargaining.
Most of the residents, about thirty, are talking about fencing with walls, five talking about fencing with barbed wire, eleven talking about fencing or wire mesh, three talking about moving out of the core and buffer area. One is saying it would be better cut the wide canal. One has given the verdict to encircle the area anyway. One has said about a small perforated net and one has made no comment. To do all these arrangements by the government, a lot of money is needed. Will you pay the tax if the government imposes only two percent of the tax for two years because of your security? Immediately fifty people say ‘No’, three make no comment. But why not, what is the cause? We have placed before them eight reasons but everyone has identified only two reasons; one is, ‘I am willing to pay for the conservation of tigers but financially incapable’, and the second is, ‘It should be done by the existing funds of the government’. Twenty-four have said in favor of the first, twenty-five poles have got the second and four persons have made no comment.
A direct question is thrown, ‘Have you heard of tigers entering your locality?’ Everyone present, including fifty-three people, participated in the survey and has said yes. The second question is, ‘Have you seen tigers in your area?’ Forty-nine people have said that they saw the tigers, but four have replied that they did not. It is normal to see tigers in the paradise of tigers. The third question is, “did any of your acquaintances fall prey to the tiger?” Nineteen people have said yes, thirty-four have said no. The story of Bandhavgarh is comprised of those marginalized people who are destitute; homeless live in the swing of birth and death.
The last question at this stage is, “Should the tiger be saved?” In answer to this question, forty-three people have said yes, two answered negatively and eight responded: “don’t know”.
Both tigers and humans are children of nature. Tigers are a part of their daily life. If one is kept away and makes the other, then Bandhavgarh is interrupted and incomplete.
We are interested in the number of tigers, whether it is increasing or decreasing. Ten people have said too much, twenty-two people have told much, twenty-one has answered well, but no one is agreed with less and sufficiently less. Surprising all of us on the back of this question, Rumki suddenly has thrown a question, “What is the number of tigers you see compared to the last five years?” Ten people have said that it has increased a lot; twenty-seven people have said that it has increased, five people have answered that it is the same, eleven people have said that it has decreased, and no one has answered that it has decreased a lot. The answer indicates that the number of tiger sightings has increased. The famous tigers and tigresses of Bandhavgarh were B2, Charger, and Sita. They were also very popular with tourists. For example, a tiger called Bomera is currently the centre of attraction for tourists. One thing that can be said in context is the tiger holding capacity of the Bandhavgarh Forest. This forest does not have the capacity to hold more than 65 to 70 tigers. If the number of tigers exceeds this, they are moved to other forests, i.e. Satpura, Panna, and Siupuri forests. Male tigers are usually shifted.
“What is your opinion about the authorities taking action to save the tigers?” In answer to Rahul’s question, eighteen persons have said ‘good’ that is indicates their verdict in favor of the Forest Department, twenty-one persons have told insufficient, seven persons have said bad and another seven people have said, ‘I don’t know.’ These statistics indicate the indifference of the Forest Department to conserve the tigers. The death of tigress Sita in the hands of poachers proves that conservation is not of high quality and flawless. Ashoke has raised the most complicated question, “What is your opinion about the actions of the authorities for the residents of the area?” The answer to this question is six have said well, nineteen have said insufficient and twenty-eight people have answered badly, which shows that the distance between the forest department and the people of this area is infinite and the relationship has come to a standstill.
Talk about Problems:
A closer look reveals the allegations against the forest department by the people of the area. If a cow dies due to a tiger attack, the owner of the cow will get ten to twelve thousand rupees. If a buffalo dies; he will get twenty-five thousand rupees, six thousand rupees are allocated for goats, and only rupees two hundred and fifty thousand are for human beings. It is difficult to collect money from the government’s house as they are poor and illiterate.
Another important thing is that the government will pay if the cattle die from the tiger attack, but there is no system to pay if they are injured. They will get treatment only. The same goes for humans. Even more frightening fact is that if any cattle or humans survived a tiger attack and died a few days later, then it is difficult to get money out of the government’s house despite the government’s financial provision to pay the victim. Another issue is that if someone dies in the buffer area, they will get compensation, but if someone dies in the core area, they will not get the compensation because going to the core area requires permission from the forest department. Thus speaks Law. But if a pet goes to the core area at the time of gazing, then its owner will become utterly devoid of common sense under these circumstances. On the spur of the moment, the owner goes to the core area to look for his pet and he may be attacked by wild animals there and that is normal. Then the government will not take responsibility for the accident.
The second issue is the plan to evacuate villages adjacent to the forest. In this case, the government arrangement is to take the family out of the forest area with one million rupees per family. This has caused great anger among the families. Their demand is to pay at least 2 million rupees per family and the government should take the responsibility of rehabilitation. The amount of land for a house should not be less than twenty-one hundred square ft. The place should be chosen in that way where the children’s education and medical facilities will be arranged properly. They are also ready to leave the area if their demands are met. It is up to the government to select places where they can earn a living. In this case, they do not want any bargaining.
How do the people of Bandhavgarh live their lives? There is no industry; there is only tourism and open land. Tourism is the mainstay of their daily lives. The work of hotels, the work of the restaurants, the work of guides, the work of forest department and agriculture, – all these are the source of their little income. There are tigers in the forest and it is more likely to see tigers in Bandhavgarh. Tourists flock here all year round. The tiger kills them and causes the death of their cattle the tiger also provides money. What a terrible joke of nature!
Speaking of Tiger Victims:
Of all the realities, this feeling would not have struck our hearts if we had not come to Bandhavgarh. The down-lane memory of the tiger attack on the villagers strikes a chord in my heart. The late Mihirlal Baiga, father of Daduram Baiga of Dulhara village in Umaria, was attacked by a tiger in the early hours of the morning while working in a field in the village. At first, the tiger hit the little man on the right chest with his paw and then bit his throat without giving him any chance. Mihirlal Baiga died on the spot. However, when Kameli Bai Baiga, the wife of the son of late Mihirlal Baiga, was asked about the presence of tigers in Bandhavgarh, she immediately startled us and said, “Why shouldn’t there be tigers, Babu, let there be people, let there be tigers.” This is not easy to speak. Could have an environmentalist said such a thing in the face of his personal loss? How easily and effortlessly illiterate Kameli Devi said this.
There are many such examples. The incident of Sureswari Tewary of village Kachwahi in Tala area under Umaria assembly is very tragic and painful. Sureswari Devi and eighteen years old Anjana Tewary, daughter of Sureswari Devi and a higher secondary student, were sweeping the yard that morning. The enchantment of its light and shade in the foggy morning of winter has kept it. Suddenly, with a growling sound, the tiger grabbed Anjana’s neck by leaping over the fence of branches and twigs and iron wire provided by the forest department in front of their house; the tiger jumped over the fence again and went to the core area of the jungle before Sureswari Devi understood anything. Her dismembered body was later recovered from the deep forest. That was a morning darker than night to the family of Sureswari Devi. When the childless mother is asked, do you want the tiger clan to be wiped out from the forest of Bandhavgarh? – she protests loudly. She says that let there should be tigers and human beings also, but the measures of security should be taken seriously. They did not receive any such financial help from the forest department or the local administration. We have witnessed a lot of grief and sorrow.
The incident of the tiger attack on Harihar Baiga is like a movie. Harihar was working in the field in the late afternoon. There were many on the field but scattered. Suddenly a tiger came and grabbed the back of Harihar by the paw and tried to bite his neck. Harihar tried to turn round to face the tiger with loud cries because he realized that once the tiger bit his neck, his life would be over. After a brief scuffle, he was able to turn to the front and saw a Settled Death was gaping and trying to grab his throat. At the same time, Harihar grabbed the tiger’s ears and pushed them backward. The tiger wanted to grab the Harihar’s neck and Harihar made his efforts at his best to twist the tiger’s ears. That was an unequal war. Meanwhile, hearing the roar of the tiger and the screaming of Harihar, the villagers who were scattered in the field rushed to the spot with spades, shovels, and sticks. Finding no other alternative, the tiger left Harihar and fled. Bloody and unconscious, Harihar fell to the ground. Although Harihar won that unequal battle part, his waist was torn off and most of his nerves were torn to pieces. He has been crippled ever since. In front of this immense and meditative sorrow, we have nothing to do but only placed our index fingers on our lips.
In fact, we forget, on the destitute summer, – on a rainy evening of the rainy season, how different the greenery of Bandhavgarh is from the busy city life. How splendor the limbs of the same country bring forward so much paragon of beauty! Bandhavgarh presents us with nature, human life, and the material of its struggle for survival and its variegated beauty. Just as Bandhavgarh has revealed to us its natural serenity and motionlessness, which is engaged in the worship of the cosmos, so has it shown the inner turmoil in the hearts of its inhabitants, where the full moon is like scorched bread.
We took a survey every day and drove around in late noon. Most of the day became a night to come back after the survey. When we came back one night, we saw a herd of deer running past our car. Then the cloudless sky, with its enchanting star-studded beauty, called to embrace the whole universe. The great emptiness of that patience calls upon the unbelievers to open their eyes, saying that there is also a beauty of night in him. There is the beauty of the night. It seems, who is the liar has preached that there is a beauty of light only; there is no beauty of darkness?
There is a tribal art gallery in Bandhavgarh. Here are the handicrafts of local tribes which are also purchasable. There are also many other items for sale. Next to it, we saw a few tribal artists sitting under a tree who were engrossed in their work.
The fair is finished, now it’s time to return home. Now the question arises, what do we want to do? In fact, we have wanted to create an environment of communication, with nature and with the people of Bandhavgarh, in our urban-cherished ideas, which Baudelaire called ‘correspondence’. This is just an incapable and humble attempt to touch the inner soul of Bandhavgarh by blending the experience we gather with the world of feeling.
On the way back, we see two sambar deer munching grass on the bank of the river. The car stops and is right at us. I could feel a twist and pain inside my chest. But we have to go; we have to catch the train. The car starts and moves on. On both sides of the road, Red Palash (Butea monosperma) has spread its varied beauty in full bloom for parasites like us.
We have to get on the train. Suddenly it seems to me that big love not only draws near but also pushes away. However, this separation is not permanent. We will come back again.
I am grateful to Ashoke Ghosh, Surajit Das, Rumki Das, Rahul Gupta, and all the villagers of Bandhavgarh who helped to conduct the survey.