Kanha National Park has an abundance of legends, not the least of which is the king of the jungle.
“Do you see this white soil on the road? It is used by the villagers to plaster their huts. We call it Kanhar – but the English shortened it to Kanha. That is how Kanha got its name.”
It was 5.30 in the morning and we had just entered the Kisli zone of Kanha National Park. Lofty Sal trees loomed all around us, gently swinging to the rhythm of the wind. The air was crisp and clean, and we took deep mouthfuls to detox our pollution laden lungs. As a flush of orange appeared in the east, we listened, captivated, to these and other tales of the jungle.
Every day is a winding road in the jungles of Kanha
With a core area of 940 sq km and an overall 2,200 km of protected forest land, Kanha dwarfs its siblings Bandhavgarh, Panna & Pench when it comes to the renowned forests of Madhya Pradesh. But it’s not just size that makes this one of our favourite national parks in India – the dense and evergreen vegetation, a plethora of birds and animals and the wealth of jungle folklores turns every visit into an unforgettable experience.
Like most tourists, we had come in search of the tiger. But as our jeep weaved its way through lush Sal trees chatting with the clouds, interspersed with impassable bamboo and the red flowered Mahuwa, those thoughts were temporarily banished. Our guide was diligently pointing out the birds of the jungle – from the bluejay and robin to the racket-tailed drongo, the yellow oriole, the parakeet, the brainfever bird, the velvet red jungle fowl and numerous others! 300 species of birds are found in Kanha, and we saw close to 50 of these during our 3 day trip (yes, we did a count!).
“Dance like no one’s watching”. Peacocks are as common in Kanha National Park as the common crow in our city (sad!)
We were busy watching and clicking a peacock dancing with abandon when we heard the first distress call of the deer. A few years ago, tigers in Kanha were tracked down by elephants and their location communicated by radio, so that all jungle safaris would flock to the spot – turning the spectacle into a veritable zoo. All that has been banished in recent years, and drivers and guides rely on their knowledge of the animals – the body language and most importantly their calls to each other – to establish if a predator is in the vicinity. It didn’t take us long to start second guessing each and every sound of the jungle, much to the veiled annoyance of our guides!
Sambar and cheetal deer grazing in Kanha meadow
The new rules have now divided the jungle into four zones, with a restriction on the number of safaris in each. The Kisli and Sehri zones – with their mountainous ravines and thick forests – are fantastic for bird sighting and fauna watching. But the jewel of the Kanha National Park is the luxurious meadow in the Kanha zone, formerly inhabited by villagers and now converted into sprawling grasslands. It is one of the best places to see scores of cheetal, sambar, jackal, langur and the rare barasingha (Kanha is the only place in India where the 12-tined deer can be sighted).
The magnificent barasingha, or swamp deer
Fortunately for us, we had our first close encounter with the tiger in these beautiful meadows. Sensing a sudden stillness amongst the grazing deer, our guide rushed the jeep to an arterial road, when lo and behold – a tiger jumped out from the bushes and made his way to the other side of the road, with barely a glance towards us silly humans.
I Am Legend
Legends abound in Kanha. Rudyard Kipling used the park as a setting for the adventures of Mowgli in The Jungle Book. The meadow in the Kanha zone is also home to Shravan Taal, the spot at which Shravan Kumar went to fetch water for his blind parents when he was mistaken for a deer and killed by King Dashratha from the Ramayana. But the biggest legend is the tiger – visitors are busy exchanging the tiger count of the day (catching sight of a single black stripe buried deep inside the forests also counts) and the poor guides turn to the elephant herders and fellow journeymen for latest “khabar” (news). As our jeep, and several others, spent half an hour peering at two stripes of a tiger napping in the dense undergrowth – oblivious to the attention and our fervent prayers for movement – I couldn’t help but wonder: were we missing the forest for the tigers? (pun intended)
We met these bison on our way to lunch. Kanha National Park is also home to the exceedingly shy leopard, sloth bear and wild dogs
Meandering through the jungle in the safety of the jeeps, it’s difficult not to think about the legendary hunters – Jim Corbett and Kenneth Anderson in particular – and their stories of a time when nearly 40,000 tigers lived in India, in close proximity to humans. Now there are only 4,000 tigers left in the wild, that too boosted by significant conservation efforts. “Don’t you worry about attacks?”, we repeatedly asked our guides and drivers, all of whom live in the neighbouring villages. “What is there to be scared”, they would reply, “We know that if we do not provoke them, they will not assault us. There is enough here for us to co-exist peacefully, and we are grateful for the living that the forest provides us”. The rules of the wild are much simpler than those of our urban jungles.
There are two gates to Kanha National Park. The Kisli gate can be reached by road from Jabalpur (160 km) or from Nagpur (260 km). Jabalpur is connected to Delhi & Mumbai by air, while Nagpur is connected to all major domestic and international cities.
Accommodation in Kanha National Park ranges from the basic (tents and hostels) to the luxurious (Tuli and Banjaar Tola are especially popular). Our personal favourite is the MP Tourism owned Bagira Log Huts. Being the only property located in the core zone of the forest, you can watch deer, langur and bison from the comfort of your balcony. The rooms are basic but comfortable, food and service is pleasantly reminiscent of government guest houses.
Important Information: Due to the restrictions on number of safaris permitted into the jungle, these need to be booked separately from your accommodation. It is strongly recommended that you book the safaris well in advance (or confirm with your hotel that they will arrange the booking), as these get reserved very quickly during peak season (there is a tatkal system which is a fine example of Indian red tape, and involves queuing up through the night). There are 3 types of safari – morning, evening and whole day. You also need to specify the zone that you want to visit – while the Kanha zone is the most popular, we strongly recommend you visit all 4 zones.
The best time to visit Kanha National Park is during the summer months of April – June as the heat draws the animals into the open. Keep in mind that summers get unbearably hot in Madhya Pradesh, so carry hats, sunglasses and sunscreen. If you love the forest more than tiger sighting, then winters are a great time to visit.
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Images contributed by Elina Da’Silva. You may link to the article and images, but please do not re publish or re-use in any other form without prior permission.