There is a lot of history hidden in the forests of Bandhavgarh. The Bandhavgarh Fort inside the national park is considered over 2000 years old. There is a mention of the Bandhavgarh Fort in Narad Panch Ratra, and Valmiki’s Ramayana. It is said that after killing the demon King Ravana, Lord Rama stopped here. He asked Nal and Neel, the two monkey architects to make this fort. It was these two who had also made the bridge to go to Lanka in the Indian ocean. The idea to make this fort was basically to keep an eye on Lanka from here, as this is one of the highest hills of central India. He made his younger brother Lakshman as resident deity of the fort. So the fort gifted to a brother (Bandhu in Hindi), came to be known as Bandhavgarh. Lakshman is also called as Bandhavdeesh after this.
Around the fort there are caves dug in sandstone which are over 2000 years old. One can see the Brahmi inscriptions on the walls of these caves. It is said that many saints and sages meditated in these caves. The Maghas, the Vakatakas, the Chandels inherited the seat of this fort. Finally in the 12th century the Baghels laid their claim on this fort, and until 1969 the Royal family of Rewa ruled this fort. The Royal family played a big role in conservation of Bandhavgarh. Though they did some hunting in this area, but they overall protected it as well. Once it was declared as a national park in 1969, they vacated the fort. Inside the fort one can still see the remains of the court, the treasury, the temple, the horse stable, and the school etc.
You can also see the statues of the Dashavatar (the ten incarnations) of Lord Vishnu here. There are two big lakes in the fort. The story goes that the water from these lakes seeps in, and then emerges from the foot of a 32 feet reclining Vishnu statue at Shesh Shaiya. Thereon this stream is known as Charan Ganga which flows through the Chakradhara meadow, alongside Siddbaba, and out of the park).
The famous mystic poet saint of 14th century, Kabir also spend quite a few years in the fort meditating, and writing his famous Dohas (the couplets famously known as the Kabir Vaani). There is a Kabir hermitage in the fort. On my visit here i was shown a secret escape from a room in this hermitage which apparently Kabir used often to move out from the fort. This escape used to take him to Kashi (Varanasi) to meet his Guru (Master). The Kabir panthis (followers of Kabir) gather here in the month of August every year for a two day celebration. This is the largest gathering of Kabir followers worldwide. They walk on foot till the Fort, stay put there, and come back after two days.
It is indeed sad that after the Supreme Court decision in 2012 visit to this fort has been prohibited. The reason is that this fort is right in the heart of the core zone of Bandhavgarh, and to go up to the fort one has to trek about 25 minutes from Shesh Shaiyya. Needless to mention that there are Tigers and other wildlife in and around the fort, hence it is not considered safe to walk up. Besides it does disturb the wildlife too. I have personally seen Sita with her cubs close to Shesh Shaiyya way back in 1996-97.
For me a visit to Bandhavgarh was incomplete if i had not visited the Fort. Way back in 2004, once while trekking up, i encountered B2 in his early days on this route. There were four of us on foot, and at a bend, we see B2 come up from the valley on to the track of the fort. We froze right there, and so did B2. He paused for a moment, gave us a glimpse, and without bother left the track to go down the valley. What seemed like eternity was actually just 5 seconds.
This was my first encounter on foot with the Tiger in his own backyard. I breathed a sigh of relief. The trek is steep so the camera was around my neck. With B2 looking into my eyes from about 10 meters in front of me, i forgot that i had a camera, so clicking a picture was totally out of question. But the image imprinted on my mind of that moment is still fresh like it happened yesterday, thought it was almost 12 years ago.
From 1997 till 2008 i trekked upto the fort atleast 4-5 times every season. Not only I loved the hike to the fort, but the view from the fort, the feel of the fort, and more than anything else it was meeting and talking with the resident priest of the fort that i always looked forward to. A very old man, tall, with a broad frame, deep voice, and an intense look in his eyes. How he stayed in this temple all alone in this national park always surprised me. No company, no radio, television i doubt if he ever knew it existed. He would give Charnamrit (tulsi water) pronouncing the sacred Sanskrit shloka:
à¤µà¤¿à¤·à¥à¤£à¥à¤ªà¤¦à¥‹à¤¦à¤•à¤‚ à¤ªà¥€à¤¤à¥à¤µà¤¾ à¤ªà¥à¤¨à¤°à¥à¤œà¤¨à¥à¤® à¤¨ à¤µà¤¿à¤¦à¥à¤¯à¤¤à¥‡à¥¤à¥¤
Meaning, “whosoever takes this sacred water is protected from any accidental death, deadly diseases, and is liberated from the cycle of birth and death”. This chant in his deep voice in the corridors of the temple would resonate in my ears for a long long time.
He would walk down to the Tala village to secure his provisions and by late evening he would get back to Bandhavgarh. Once while going back he had an encounter with a Sloth bear. It is said that a Tiger emerged from the nearby grass, and fought the Sloth Bear away. Then the Tiger walked with the priest for some distance to ensure that he reached the temple.
He once told me, “the Tigers are my family, and I know all the Tigers of the area around the fort”. We would sit in the corridors of the temple, and he would make tea for us. Then we would share our lunch with him. There were times we just slept off in the corridor of the temple. As he grew quite old, he became unwell, and was brought down from the Fort much against his wishes as there was no one to take care of him inside the Jungle.
Though Charger, Sita, B2, have all gone, and they have been replaced by many beautiful Tigers of today. But the enigma of the priest, the temple, and the fort cannot be replaced by any. For people who have seen the Bandhavgarh Fort miss it still. And those who have visited Bandhavgarh after 2012, know not what they have missed.
The above photo is not photoshopped, yes there was a time when Bandhavgarh hardly had tourists. I recall sighting 10 different Tigers in 2005 in one morning safari of 4 hours. But the popularity of the Tigers and wildlife photography through social media has made wildlife tourism a big business everywhere.
Many resorts have sprung up in the area, Tala a small village now is a place where you will get everything you need, including a broadband, wi-fi, and a spa treatment. Do not expect the standard of the Spa to be anywhere close to a city hotel. To an extent if handled well, tourism can be a big conservation tool, but if gone awry, it can be a very disturbing factor for wildlife. So yes, those silent, peaceful days of less tourism are also bygone.
The rush of tourism has been regulated to quite an extent by opening of some more zones, and also buffer zones. Yet, one thing that has not reduced is the kind of Tiger sightings that are still taking place in Bandhavgarh. There was a lull year when there was a marginal drop in the Tala zone, but it seems the golden years of Bandhavgarh are almost back as far as Tiger sightings are concerned. The Tiger sightings of Bandhavgarh will never be bygone.