Our Panna is quite a dry forest. The green you see now will wither soon,” 20-year-old Iden Lal smiles at me as we walk across the dry deciduous expanse just within the territorial area of Panna National Park. What I notice first is how fondly Iden says “our Panna.” He is bashful when speaking and rarely meets my eye, but his eagerness is unmissable. Iden wants me to see and hear every nook of Panna. For him, Badda (18) and Biren (25), young boys of the local Pardhi community, the wilderness is home.
While I never need an excuse to visit a forest, this time it is the story of a community that draws me to one of Madhya Pradesh’s smallest tiger reserves. The Pardhis have lived in and around Panna since the time of the Raj. When British officers hunted, the Pardhis were their trackers, luring game for them. However, their work became a curse when the British passed the Criminal Tribes Act in 1871; although they were denotified in 1952, little changed for the Pardhis, who still live on the fringes of society. They turned to poaching; living in the forest for years meant that most members of the community knew it like the back of their hand, and could get around undetected.
Today, people like Iden, Badda, Biren and four others are changing their story, and introducing the wonders of the jungle to travellers like me. “We wanted to use the skills they already had, but for something positive,” says Bhavna Menon, Programme Manager of the NGO Last Wilderness Foundation (LWF), as we walk along an eight-kilometre trail in Panna. She, and Director of LWF Vidya Venkatesh, along with their team have been working with the Pardhis for about a decade now. It started with relocation from the forest and education programmes for children, but the adults approached them soon after, enquiring about initiatives they too could be part of. That was how ‘Walk with the Pardhis’ was born last year.
Following Iden’s shy but sure voice I walk with the boys and their mentors—a team of naturalists from Pashan Garh, a Taj Safari lodge near the reserve—towards the Dhundwa gorge, the most beautiful stop along our trail. Our progress is slow, because the boys stop at every bird call identifying the songs—Eurasian doves, grey francolins, bulbuls—and by every other tree to tell me what lives and breathes in their home.
The crepe myrtle tree, called lendia in the Pardhi language, replenishes a barren stretch of land because no aminal will eat its dry leaves. The dhawa (axlewood) can only be cut when it is tender and young; once old and dry “it can even break your axe,” Iden says. Locals used to make machans with it. Almost knee-high bristly bushes of wild mint grow in abundance where animals don’t graze. As I rub a leaf between my fingers and inhale the eucalyptus-like freshness, Iden turns to me and reveals another Pardhi secret. “When we lived in the forest, our parents would burn these leaves to keep mosquitoes away.” Next, the boys point out burrow networks made by porcupines, which are sometimes inhabited by foxes too. We stop to inspect scat and a discussion ensues about the langur that left it there. There are worms in the scat, which meant that the animal might have been unwell. Paw marks big and small—from the leopard that the boys spotted only last evening, and a jungle cat—line our trail. The ever-changing birdsong never stops. We pause to look at markings on trees, made by sloth bears and leopards. “You know ma’am,” Iden pipes up behind me as I look at the markings, “if this tree was freshly marked with urine, we could tell you from the smell if it was cattle or a leopard.”
Revelations like these are interspersed with stories of the forest through the walk. Iden and Badda talk of their ancestry—“We’re originally from Chittorgarh. But we didn’t want to remain under a Muslim king, and that’s the first time our ancestors ventured into the forest”—and of life once they came out of the wilderness. “In 2007, some of us began living in the hostel and school started by the management of Panna Tiger Reserve. Since then, we have not hunted tigers in Panna.”
Soon, we’re at the gorge. It’s not too deep and ends in an emerald pool of water. Its caverns are prime leopard territory, Dipu Sasi, head naturalist at Taj, tells me. We settle down for steaming cups of chai on the rocks overlooking the gorge. Indrabhan Singh Bundela, the LWF field co-ordinator turns to his colleague Bottle Pardhi, telling us that he’s great at mimicking animal voices. Bottleji oversees the management of one of two residential schools LWF runs for the Pardhis in the Panna town, and often joins the walks. At 38, he is also part of one of the last generations of Pardhis born and raised within Panna. “I was almost attacked by a bear,” he says nonchalantly. His riveting anecdotes range from his brother being attacked by a tiger to the unique names in his community, much like his own; his brother’s name is Kheer, and there’s a Motorcycle and Bisleri in his village too. Bottleji is full of surprises—he imitates a leopard calling out for its mate; and produces the most convincing bird calls, some in his voice and some using a carved wooden whistle that Pardhis often used to lure birds.
About three hours later, we’ve made our way out of the forest and driven to the Ranipur village on the fringes of the reserve. We visit a Radha-Krishna temple, once part of a 17th-century royal fort, and walk past colourful walls and low wooden doors of homes. Some residents invite me into their open courtyards to try my hand at churning butter, to taste freshly-made mava, and hear tales of the most recent finding of diamonds. Mines abound in the region, and it is not unheard of for a local to stumble upon the rock in a field or forest.
While we explore the village, the boys wait by the car. Even today, they are not allowed to enter homes in Ranipur. They live nearby, in a settlement called Gandhigram, built on land donated by a local. There is some hope—there have been times when the boys have accompanied guests into the village, but today is not one of those days.
At the end of the tour, Dipu invites Iden, Badda, and Biren to join us for the morning safari at Panna, a place that was once home, but to which they unfortunately don’t have easy access anymore. The forest department rarely employs the boys as guides. Their wide grins at the news makes my day. Iden, Badda, and Biren are asked to be well prepared by their mentor; the safari is both a treat and a test.
She is across the Ken river when we spot her, an orange-brown speck in our binoculars. I think of our chase to spot this tiger, and how the jungle has its way of rewarding—or teasing—us.
This morning, I’d left my comfy bed at Pashan Garh before sunrise, at around 5.30 a.m. for a safari in Panna, accompanied by resident naturalist Vipul Turkar, and Iden, Badda and Biren. Only Vipul had seemed to fathom the sources of the alarm calls ringing through the forest. We’d spent hours trying to glimpse the leopard and the tigers we knew were walking just beyond our sight. But amid the chase and long minutes of waiting, Panna unveiled her wonders: black drongos and chirping plum-headed parakeet, tawny petronias, and the swooping kill of a white-tailed buzzard that snatched a rufous treepie.
I missed the stars of the forest this morning, but at night back in Pashan Garh, the jungle has a gift for me. The property is spread over 200 acres—50 acres occupied by 12 luxurious cottages and common areas set amidst 150 acres of territorial forest. You sip chai in the company of deer and birds outside the lobby, and unwind under a star-speckled inky sky at your cottage’s sit-out, skin prickling at the sound of your nocturnal neighbours rustling nearby. If you are so lucky, you might even spot a sloth bear from the picture windows of your cottage. But it is something much smaller that captivates me this evening.
On the night drive, Orion stretches across the heavens above. Suddenly, my flashlight picks up the gleam of tiny eyes in the forest. Dipu jumps and stands on his seat. “It’s a rusty-spotted cat!” And sure enough, transfixed by something on a nearby tree sits one of the world’s smallest felines. And what a show the little one puts up: jumping to nab whatever catches its fancy, and then sashaying away deeper into the bush with one last glance at us. In the last two days I’ve seen and heard my fair share of Pashan Garh’s wild inhabitants—spotted deer, wild boar, palm civets—but nothing has come close to this moment.
An hour later, sitting by a bonfire, I am still enthralled. Behind me, lanterns hung from branches shimmer like fireflies above the alfresco dinner table. The aromas of khad gosht and a tandoor grill tickle my nose as I nurse my drink.
As Amit Kumar, Lodge Manager at Pashan Garh, asks me how my experience has been so far while stirring his special mutton curry over the bonfire, I can only smile to myself before answering. This little national park tucked away in the country’s largest state has shown me so many of its secrets—of the wild, and of its people—and there’s so much more I still have to discover.
Panna is an hour’s drive from Khajuraho, the nearest railway station and airport. Contact Last Wilderness Foundation to book a spot for the walk (email@example.com; Rs250 per person). Taj Safari’s Pashan Garh has 12 luxury cottages. Along with other wildlife experiences, guests can also opt for the ‘Walk with the Pardhis’ (www.tajhotels.com; doubles from Rs15,000).
Rumela Basu is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Her favourite kind of travel involves food, literature, dance and forests. She travels not just to discover new destinations but also aspects of herself.