“Can you hear that, madam?” Basavanna, our naturalist, turned around in his front seat and whispered. I strained my ears, not unlike the spotted deer we had seen some time back. The jungle seemed still, the cicadas having ceased their incessant song for the moment. I wondered what I should be hearing – a warning call, or perhaps some animal making its way towards us, unseen. And then, it reached my ears – the sound of monsoon in the jungles. The rain came slowly, melodiously, leaving a breath of fresh, earthy fragrance in its wake. Unlike rains in the city, there was no urgency here, no running helter-skelter to take shelter. The herd of elephants we had stopped to observe carried on their meal nonchalantly, the flick of a tail or the flap of an ear now and then giving away their alertness. Jungle Mynahs continued to ride piggyback, unruffled.
We were in Bandipur National Park. Located in Karnataka, this erstwhile hunting ground of the Maharaja of Mysore gained Project Tiger status in 1974. The park spans an area of 874 square kilometers and supports a wide variety of endangered flora and fauna. Bounded by the adjoining Nagarhole National Park, Mudumalai National Park and Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, Bandipur is an integral part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. National Highway 766 cuts through the jungle, winding its way up towards the popular tourist destination, Ooty.
“What would you find in a jungle in the monsoons?” I had been asked prior to the trip. Tigers will not lounge by watering-holes in the rains, and the foliage will hide leopards and all other animals, I was told. But, Bandipur National Park is much beyond just sighting the big cats. Monsoons are perfect for blaming your luck on not being able to see a tiger and heading off towards the mountains, in between safaris; just 25 kms from the tiger reserve’s gates lies Himavad Gopalswamy Betta, the highest peak in Bandipur National Park. The peak is so called because of the ubiquitous fog that hangs year-round, and for the temple of Venugopalaswamy (Lord Krishna), a venerable pilgrimage spot.
Picturesque, golden sunflower fields greet you as you make your way towards the peak. While waiting for groups of stubborn sheep to budge from the road, do sneak in a few photographs, for who knows, by the time you return, the sunflowers may have thrown a tantrum and turned their faces around, like fretting lovers. The bright sunflowers become a distant memory as you ascend the mountains and stare down the cliffs at an exquisite patchwork of greens and yellows. A thick, swirling fog engulfs you as you reach the peak, its intermittent ebb and flow reminding you of the ocean and its tides.
Just as the fog begins to cast its spell, the temple emanates out of thin air. Legend has it that sage Agastya performed intense penance, and as a result, lord Vishnu blessed this place and promised to reside here. Seated by the temple, a heady otherworldliness hits you, as prayers, chants and peals of bells ring through the misty air, lending a surreal touch to the atmosphere; until you catch sight a herd of elephants foraging by the hillside and realise that you are still in Bandipur National Park.
Later, driving through the expanse of the park, a veritable treasure-house of botany presents itself, comprising of dry deciduous and moist deciduous woodlands as well as shrub-lands. The region has its share of water bodies, with River Kabini in the north and the Moyar River flanking the south. Bandipur has a typical tropical climate, with the dry and hot period generally beginning in early March and lasting till cool welcome showers arrive in June. The best way to enjoy the monsoon is to book oneself into the JLR property at Bandipur, glad in the knowledge that you will be privy to some of the most beautiful moments in the jungle when the heavens spill over.
Through the rain, I spy scarlet flashes of the ‘flame of the forest’, embellishing the jade green of the jungle. Small pools of water dot the landscape, with tiny frogs diving into them the instant our vehicle approaches. Scores of spotted deer graze peacefully on fresh shoots of green, with the males sporting their newly acquired antlers with a velvety sheen. Peacocks amble about without their iridescent long tails, the season of spring having passed by. A few laggards continue wooing peahens, holding on to their last few strands of tail feathers with pride. Meanwhile, bee-eaters carry on frenetic dust-bathing in the middle of the road, unmindful of our stalled vehicle.
Road blocks are aplenty in Bandipur. If it isn’t a herd of Indian Gaur obstructing your path, there definitely is a lone tusker. As the tusker approaches, his stride unbroken, you know that you have no other alternative but to give the giant his way. After all, the jungle is his domain and he has the right of traffic.
Unless you are one of the chosen ones, you will not be given an audience by the king. All you can do is to take a long look at the fresh pugmarks of the tiger and let out equally long sighs. At least you know that the regal creature is on his rounds in the jungle, and more importantly, he is safe. Just as the melancholy sigh ends, you perk up because the naturalist had shushed everyone – something is around the corner! And lo behold, there lies in front of you one of the fiercest predators of Indian jungles, a species that was nearly wiped out owing to human follies – the Indian Wild Dog or the Dhole. Watch the group with rapt attention, trying to recall what you had seen in the wildlife movie shown at the resort. Is that the alpha male, you ask the naturalist, proud to use the term you had learnt the previous evening.
Bandipur has a hundred stories to tell – thrills, and heart-wrenching tales too. It tore me up to see the way a mother elephant shielded her young one, aided by her herd. It was as if their whole life had only one purpose – to see the little calf survive. Perhaps they had seen too many adversities and atrocities in their world. It was the same with the gaurs. Keep your senses open and wait for these beautiful moments to unfold. Perhaps a single visit is not enough to comprehend the beauty of Bandipur. The monsoon has shown me many facets; maybe the dry season will show me countless more. And who knows, in my next visit, Bandipur might just ink itself as the place where I finally see a tiger and lend closure to at least one story!