ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY revisit the historic tiger reserve in Central India that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s epic novel The Jungle Book
‘It was seven o’clock of a very warm evening in the Seeonee hills when Father Wolf woke up from his day’s rest, scratched himself, yawned, and spread out his paws one after the other to get rid of the sleepy feeling in their tips.’ Stretched out on the verandah of Tuli Tiger Corridor’s plush jungle camp, our sense of languor and need to feed wasn’t far from Kipling’s century old description of the wolf pack. After supper, we retired early for our morning safari from the park gate at Turia, ready to script our own Jungle Book Adventure. Pench Tiger Reserve and its adjoining forests was the original setting of Rudyard Kipling’s famous novel, The Jungle Book (1894). But it wasn’t the first literary account inspired by the region.
From a detailed description of its natural wealth in the 16th century chronicle Ain-i-Akbari to several natural history books, Pench had captured the minds of many – be it Captain James Forsyth’s ‘Highlands of Central India’, Dunbar Brander’s ‘Wild Animals of Central India’ or Robert Armitage Strendale’s ‘Seonee – Camp life in Satpura Hills’. Strendale’s semi-autobiographical ‘Seonee’ and other wildlife accounts like ‘Mammalia of India and Ceylon’ and ‘Denizens of the Jungle’ formed the inspiration behind Kipling’s classic tale. But it was Sir William Henry Sleeman’s pamphlet, ‘An Account of Wolves Nurturing Children in Their Dens’ about a wolf-boy captured in Seoni district near Sant Baori village in 1831 that inspired Mowgli’s character.
Several places vividly described in the book were actual locations in Seoni District, like the ‘Seeonee hills’, Kanhiwara village and the Wainganga river gorge where Sherkhan was killed. Pench Tiger Reserve was a large tract of untamed wilderness comprising the Indira Priyadarshini Pench National Park, the Mowgli Pench Sanctuary and a buffer forest. Located in the lower reaches of the Satpura hills, the park came in Central India’s AVSM range (Aravali, Vindhyanchal, Satpura, Maikal).
The forest road darted across the undulating landscape lined by dry deciduous vegetation. The open canopies, mixed forests, shrub cover and grassy patches supported high populations of Chital and Sambar. A solitary Nilgai craned its neck to munch on some vegetation while a large herd of Gaur ambled across the track. At 90.3 animals per sq km Pench boasted the highest density of herbivores in India. Criss-crossed by nullahs (seasonal streams), the gentle slopes rose up into flat-topped hills like Golpahadi and the park’s loftiest summit Kalapahad (650 m).
The Pench river, which lends the park its name, flows from north to south, cleaving the park in two. The river is the lifeline of the park but by April it dries up and a number of dohs (pools) serve as waterholes for wild animals. A hydroelectric dam constructed between 1973 and 1988 submerged 54 sq km of the park, resulting in the scenic Totladoh reservoir that attracts plenty of game and water birds. We parked our Gypsy near the Boat Camp and scoured the water’s edge through binoculars to spot coots, pochards, a Grey-headed Fishing Eagle and a White-eyed Buzzard.
Though Pench is renowned as a Tiger Reserve, it is also great for birdwatching with over 300 species of resident and migratory birds. In winter thousands of waterfowl like Brahminy Ducks and Barheaded Geese flock here. Four species of vultures can be found here – the endangered white-rumped, long-billed, white scavenger and king vulture. After an hour’s birding at the reservoir, we revved the engine to head back, disturbing a wild boar which eyed us with a surly expression. On our return trip, we spied a Crested Serpent Eagle on a dry branch, a Collared Scops Owl brilliantly camouflaged in the hollow of a tree and a Eurasian Thick-Knee (Stone Curlew) padding across the grass.
The park teems with rich wildlife including hyenas, jungle cats, wild dogs and more. However, we were a tad disappointed to have missed the principal Jungle Book characters. There was no sign of Baloo (sloth bear) or Bagheera (leopard), nor did we encounter Kaa (Indian python) or Akela (wolf), or for that matter Tabaqui (jackal) or Rikki Tikki Tavi (mongoose)! But the sudden screech of the bandar log (monkeys) in the trees and alarm calls of frightened deer in the bush alerted us.
We couldn’t believe our luck as we saw a striped creature pause by the track. It was Sher Khan! He snarled at the jabbering monkeys before sitting down in a thicket. We watched him in silent admiration for what seemed like eternity before the tiger, bored of our attention decided to slink into the undergrowth for some privacy. It was a befitting end to our jungle tale.
Later, we drove 18 km from the park gate at Turia to Pachdhar, a little village where we watched potters at work. Nearby locals collected the heady flowers of the mahua tree to distil their potent country brew. At twilight, we huddled around a campfire to listen to the sounds of the forest and tales of wildlife that continued late into the night.
Area: 758 sq km
Location: Seoni and Chhindwara districts of southern Madhya Pradesh, bordering Maharashtra
Getting there: Fly or take a train to Nagpur and drive 92km to Pench (2 hours). Turia, the park’s main entrance, is 12 km from Khawasa on the Jabalpur-Nagpur highway (NH7).
Fees: Park Entry Rs.100 Indians, Rs.1000 Foreigners, Wildlife viewing in Vehicle Rs.500 Indians, Rs.2000 Foreigners, Elephant ride Rs.100 Indians, Rs.600 Foreigners
When to Go: November to May
Where to Stay:
Tuli Tiger Corridor
Set in a 22 acre patch with earthy cottages, luxe tents, great swimming pool and a private lake
Ph 0712-6653666, 18002099050
The plushest wilderness lodge in Pench run by Taj Safaris with 12 standalone bungalows and machans overlooking a dry nullah
The MP Tourism-run property with rustic jungle cottages and a machan overlooking the river
Ph 07695-232830, 232850
Spacious cottages done up in natural materials, handmade fabrics and linen with recycled doors and windows besides great service
Ph 07695-290451, 8889231818
Tiger N Woods Resort
10 rustic machans (wooden cabins) in a mahua grove recreating a jungle experience
Ph 09755512826, 9833788358
Pench Jungle Camp
Riverside property with 12 Cottages and luxury tents recreating a tribal village
Ph 07695-232817, 232843
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the May 2013 issue of Rail Bandhu, the in-train magazine of the Indian Railways.