It was the peak of summer and the peak of the day around 12 noon. During my epic drive from Ahmedabad to Bhubaneswar for about 2400 km (including several detours), I arrived at Seoni, a dusty small town at the middle of Nagpur and Jabalpur Highway in south-eastern Madhya Pradesh. This was where the Jungle Book of the 19th century by Rudyard Kipling had been set.
Landscape around Seoni
I and my companion, His Highness Sri Somraj Singh Jhala, were in a fix, whether to drive south from here to Pench National Park or northeast to Kanha National Park. Both were alluring. After much deliberation, we decided to head northeast, to Kanha National Park.
Delicious Breakfast and Sweet Meats in a Road Site Eatery Enroute Kanha
The terrain of Seoni is undulating with most of the area is covered by small hill ranges of eastern Satpura mountains, steeply sloping on the sides. Once covered with dense forest today the landscape from Seoni to Kanha (120 km) looks mostly barren and deserted. But throughout the drive of nearly 4 hours what had captivated me were the scenic Gond houses in villages that dotted on both sides of the road. Neat and clean, the houses made of mud bricks and plastered with wattle and daub, are amongst the finest vernacular houses I had seen anywhere in Central India.
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Enchanting Gond Houses and Villages around Kanha in Mandla District
Madhya Pradesh is predominantly a tribal state with Gonds forming one of the prominent tribes. There are over 50 sub-tribes within Gond Tribe, which are also concentrated in the neighbouring states of Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Telangana, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh. In Madhya Pradesh alone they are spread in Betul, Hoshangabad, Chhindwara, Seoni, Balaghat, Mandla, Dindori, Sagar, Damoh, Rewa, Satna, Shahdol, Raisen, Burhanpur and Narsighpur Districts.
Kanha National Park is spread over a vast stretch of forest over Mandla and Balaghat districts in Eastern Madhya Pradesh. The nearest town is Mandla and city is Jabalpur. The park is well-known for evergreen forest and animals like tiger, leopard, sloth bear, barasingha, gaur and Indian wild dog. It is also home to over 1000 species of flowering plants. While the lowland forest is a mixture of sal and other mixed-forest trees, interspersed with meadows, its highland forests are tropical moist and dry deciduous.
Kanha Tiger Reserve abounds in meadows or maidans which are basically open grasslands.
The best season to visit Kanha is between Mid-October and March. The safari timings are between 6.30 to 11 AM in the morning and 3 to 6 PM in the afternoon. The park is closed between 1st July to 15th October. The buffer zone of the park near Mukki and Khisli Gates are a number of jungle resorts and lodges for accommodation, which can be booked through online. For a Gond tribal experience visit Khatia and Narna villages on the fringe of Kanha.
Gond People in a Village near Muki Gate in Kanha
The Gonds are known for building their houses using locally available resources which I could see during my drive to Kanha. Unlike us, the city breeds, the Gonds do not harm their environment while constructing their shelters. No external agency is involved in construction. Their houses become one with the landscape where they live. Their womenfolk take charge of decorating the walls and floors of their mud houses using clay and organic colours, mostly blue, earthen red and white. The main entrance of the house is mostly east facing and on the left side is kept the cowshed, which is supposed to be the sacred place in the house where auspicious occasions are celebrated and important rituals are performed.
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A Gond House near Kanha
When you enter to a Gond house, you are welcomed in a large drawing room (palta bangle), and then an open verandah (parchhi), which is adjacent to the courtyard, where implements related to cattle are kept. The kitchen (muhrat ghar) having enough space for storing grains, pulses and oilseeds, is located in the backyard. Remaining rooms are called Kuria. The family god is enshrined in a small platform in the front of the wall where the chulah or the earthen hearth is built. Though there is no image or idol or god, it is represented by food grains and coins that are placed in a pit.
Gonds are beautiful souls known for warm hospitality and gesture. When we entered Mandla District, I was simply drawn to one of their shrines dedicated to Shri Shambhu Mahadeo under a huge Banyan Tree made out of the earth. According to their folklore, when Gods were born, their mother abandoned them. The goddess Parvati rescued them, but her concert Shri Sambhu Mahadeo kept them captive in a cave. Pahandi Kapar Lingal, a Gond hero, who received help from the Goddess Jangu Bai, rescued them from the cave. They came out of the cave in four groups, thus laying the foundations of basic fourfold divisions of Gond society. Lingal is also responsible for creating a Gond kingship system and establishing a group of great Gond gods.
Shrine of Sri Sambhu Mahadeo
Sacrificing a life before a new event is a common aspect of Gond life. Certain Many of Gond Goddesses demand chickens, goats, and sometimes male buffaloes during major festivals. Every nine or twelve years, Gonds sacrifice a pig to the god Narayan Deo in an important ceremony known as the Laru Kaj (Pig’s Wedding).
Gonds believe that evil spirits and the gods’ displeasure cause most diseases and misfortunes. Their shamans intertwine when there are such crises. They fall into a trance and give voice to the demands of an offended God or spirit.
By the time we had reached Mukki Gate of Kanha National Park, we had travelled through a dozen of Gond villages in Mandla District. It was dusk. Sun was going down against the western horizon over the Kanha sky. Soon pitch dark night shrouded all around us. We retired for the day at MP Tourism Jungle Resort close to Mukki Gate.
The Buffer Zone of Kanha
Next day morning! It was 5 AM, the outside was still hazy. The noise of the forest and the chirping of birds helped us waking up from the deep slumber of tiredness of the previous day’s long travel from Panchmari to Kanha. Over a cup of hot chai, we chalked out the day’s plan. The first job was to get ready at the gate for the safari before 6 AM. We hurried and booked our tickets. At 6.15 AM we entered to the core of Kanha.
Kanha National Park is one of India’s finest wildlife parks and is geographically blessed with meadows and valleys apart from the dense evergreen forest. Spread over a thousand square kilometres. Here wildlife sighting is almost guaranteed.
Enchanting Kanha National Park
As our safari jeep started navigating through the forest the drama of nature started unfolding at every short interval. A huge meadow at the magical dawn set against evergreen Satpura Hill was the first where we sighted a large colony of antelopes gazing in the mist hours. Soon a wild boar crossed running behind our vehicle. I was disappointed. My mobile camera was inadequate to capture its force.
Soon we sighted a herd of bison, the pride of Kanha before us. Also, called gaur the Indian bison is the largest extant bovine and the tallest wild cattle service. They are active mostly in the nights and disappear before 8 in the morning.
Our guide Girani Maravi, a man from Baiga tribe was constantly alert for a tiger sighting. It was close to 8 he succeeded in his morning’s mission. It was an expert like him who could judge the commotion of the forest against the backdrop of a tiger’s roam as the king of the forest. Monkeys are the best indicators before a tiger’s arrival. With his guidance, the driver turned the vehicle and entered to yet another trek road. It was less than 2 min, I arrived at one of the finest wildlife moments of my life. Before us, less than 100 m, a full-grown Royal Bengal Tiger was walking majestically on the dusty trek. He saw us. We saw him. There was an exchange of anxiousness between us. He sat almost for 10 min without doing anything. We were the only safari jeep. My mobile camera went on clicking pictures and shooting small clips. There was deep silence all around, not a single other creature, except birds could be seen nearby. After giving a 10 min pose he finally got up and started walking into the jungle. At this moment another vehicle arrived but alas, for them the show had pulled its curtain.
Once you have the best tiger sighting your enthusiasm is largely over. Now it was the time to return back to the gate and proceed to your next destination on this epic drive from the west coast to the east of India.
It was truly a magic moment in my entire drive from India’s west coast to the east coast in the land of Kipling’s Jungle Book. It is the land of countless stories of human-tiger conflicts and love. The Gonds and Baigas have a deep association with the forest of Kanha and their traditional knowledge system and spectrum of ethnic life are not be missed by any serious traveller to Kanha.
Author – Jitu Mishra
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org