Bandhavgarh is a forest area and a wildlife sanctuary situated in Madhya Pradesh. It is almost a three-hour ride from the city of Jabalpur. The area has a village called Tala with a local bank, vegetable market and stores. The infrastructure is good and most places have adequate wifi connectivity. However, it is the surrounding villages and villagers, who live within the forest due to encroachment, that form the heart of Bandhavgarh, the interdependence between man and forest. Most villagers raise cattle, ride bicycles and do small-scale farming. Some even paint and make local handicraft. Many NGOs are active in these villages funded by the MP state tourism board. They train the locals to organise fairs and festivals to promote local art and handicraft. Many of the village folks have been given 2.5 lakh rupees from the government to make their houses pakkaa as they live in kaccha houses even now. There is a local school and the villagers have been given toilet facility. However, they still prefer to do it in the open. Water has to be fetched from the wells and nearby ponds.
Women also participate in making papad, masala and pickle for local companies. People are figuring out more ways to lift the standard of life of a villager in Bandhavgarh, or so it seems. However, ask the average villager – he is content and happy in his slow, less-complicated life. He is in peace with the forest and has learned to live with it and even tame it. You do hear stories of tigers who come and eat the cows of local farmers or a group of villagers fighting the tiger with sticks. Overall, they live in harmony and in peace with each other. Near the mud houses by the side of the farms, one can see little children playing in the dust or just flying kites, as women sit in front of their doors chatting away just washing clothes or cleaning up their mud houses. These form the images and sounds of the villages of Bandhavgarh. It has Shiva temples, Kabir Panthi ashram, tribal art, a vast forest and, of course, its pride – the tiger, the animal who keeps the tourists coming and makes safari a fulfilling experience. The tigers of Bandhavgarh is written on the walls of village homes and on the billboards in front of every forest cottages.
It goes on like this from dawn to noon to dusk, villagers herding their cattle crisscrossing the rugged dusty and muddy forest terrain, happy that Mother Nature watches over them all. Insects, wasps, bees, ants, bugs and scorpions come out and play at night as one can hear the sounds of night owls, crickets and the wailing of the forest. The villagers live with these sounds and have learned to read them as calls in the jungle to know when a tiger or a predator is nearby. These are warning calls to all the mammals and birds in the jungle that the tiger is on the prowl. Villagers tie their cows inside their huts at night to save them from tiger attacks. They also carry large bamboo sticks and staffs to beat predators like jackals and wild boars. It also helps them climb up and down the rugged forestland. Safari gypsies criss-cross the road and one can see the steady flow of trucks bringing food and the much-needed supply to the region. Sidewalls are painted with tribal art and paintings of tigers.
Bandhavgarh indeed has its own majesty and its forests have been their unique habitat coexisting with man from the time of the Vedas.