The sighting of a tiger in the wild is magical, but seeing a tiger in perfect isolation, is truly a miracle. One such moment happened to us this May at Kanha National Park. I don't think we will ever have a repeat, although we visit the place every month, since we are building a house on the edge of the jungle.
Just the day before, our son had arrived from Mumbai and we took him for his first safari in the forest. A line of Gypsies was waiting at a 'kill' for the female tiger that had hunted it to predictably appear. We thought we'd just check another forest track, before joining the 'queue' and got distracted with bird watching as is our habit. As we came back to the spot, vehicle after vehicle was leaving, with the occupants gloating in satisfaction about the tigress putting up a magnificent appearance and just leaving. I groaned in sore disappointment and my son consoled me by saying "Hey, it's no fun seeing a tiger in such a crowd. We should have a solo viewing to make it our special moment,"
I think the god of wild wishes heard this one. The next morning, we entered the forest at Mukki Gate, and drove down a wooded path still misty with morning dew. Herds of pretty chital and a wild boar family trotted by. My mind was vacant, my soul communing with the bird call. Our jeep trundled on slowly as we approached a crossing of four paths, when suddenly our guide let out a sharp "Aaahh!" All heads turned to the right and there in front of us 30 feet away was a magnificent male tiger out on his morning walk. He ambled down the road as if it were his private walking track (and actually it was, we were the intruders!)
The black-and-yellow striped work of art grew closer and there he was every rippling muscle in sharp focus as he passed us at the crossing and walked on ahead. Yes there was a Gypsy with five gaping humans within smelling distance. But he couldn't care less. These insignificant beings were not a part of his consciousness. He was on his walk, exploring the offerings of the new morning and nothing could disturb him. He sniffed the air and turned his face from side to side, regal and proud. He raised his tail up stiff and sprayed tree trunks to mark his territory, and continued on his investigations.
And what were we doing?! Our driver was taking the jeep forward by 100 feet each time and stopping so that we'd not get too close to the beast. Each time he'd start the ignition, I'd squirm. But was the tiger bothered? No. He strolled on and at a particular point went into the bushes and crouched (we soon realized to take a dump). This was our moment to overtake him, since we would then be able to face him head on and take front shots. My husband's camera shutter was clicking furiously, and that is the only sound in the video I have taken, apart from me at one point saying "Chup, quiet, quiet...!"
The Mahabir male, as our guide now identified the beast to be, approached us at a measured pace. The slow rocking motion of a tiger walking is rhythmic and even paced. Each of his giant paws made contact with the earth and absorbed the shock of his 200-kg bulk. But he was as graceful as a ballet dancer. Is this the magic of a tiger? A perfect balance of strength and grace, and the piercing gaze of amber eyes that penetrate your soul? Lions cannot match it any day. I know who is King for me.
This high drama went on for at least half an hour, and we must have followed the big cat for a good kilometer. The climactic moment was when the jeep arrived at another cross point and the tiger wanted to turn left. He plodded forward and circumvented the Gypsy (at which point my son says he was too paralysed to even click his camera) and turned the bend to walk down the forest path. This path was closed to jeeps and we watched him helplessly, submitting to his total reign over the forest.
The average tourist comes back from National Parks without sighting any tigers and exclaims, "Oh the guides take you for a ride. They always point out pug marks and exclaim how a tiger has just passed by! But we never get to see actual animals!" Tiger watching needs more patience than that. You must go with a philosophical approach, to soak in the spirit of the forest. Appreciate the other flora and fauna, and then you will be suddenly surprised by the sight of a tiger, making the experience near miraculous.
Pictures by: Jhampan Mookerjee