Published: May 2009
By Christopher Petkanas
Can master outfitters <em>CC Africa</em> work their magic in the middle of Tiger Country?From atop his elephant, <em>Christopher Petkanas</em> finds the outlook is promising indeed
Being the maharajah of Rewa used to mean not just the fun but also the necessity of killing 108 (or 109 or 111—no one seems to be able to agree on exactly how many) tigers before retiring your mustache wax, hanging up your pearls, and prancing off to your next incarnation. Apart from the pageantry and the opportunity to unleash vast quantities of hormones, bagging an "auspicious" number of the animals ensured the blessing of the Fates for the prince and his people. Not to mention the favors a viceroy might dispense if, as the honored member of your shooting party, he managed to "get" a tiger or two. The British thought the tiger a transgressive creature, one they smugly believed needed to be conquered to preserve the Indian jungle for grazing cattle and harvesting timber. Prodded by the raj, many maharajahs were all too happy to do business with bounty hunters.
All the back-scratching and perk-peddling in the Indian Empire ended in 1947, with Independence. As part of the deal struck with the new government after the raj dissolved and the British retreated, each prince was allowed to keep one shikargah, or private royal hunting reserve, from his former realm. Rewa’s kept Bandhavgarh, 435 miles southeast of Delhi in Madhya Pradesh, the central state with the largest sweep of forests in India. This is Kipling country, near to where the boy-wolf Mowgli ranged with the predators who raised him in The Jungle Book.
Today, Bandhavgarh is a rigorously run national park (don’t even think about going off track) with a holistic maintenance philosophy, a manned gate, strict hours (dawn to dusk, minus four hours from mid-morning to mid-afternoon), and one of the highest tiger densities—23 within the 40 square miles accessible to visitors—in the country. The other factors that make the chances of viewing a tiger so good are the relative openness of the tropical moist deciduous forest and the easy rapport the cats enjoy with the park’s passenger elephants.
The November opening of Mahua Kothi, Madhya Pradesh’s first luxury lodge, came not a moment too soon for voluptuary career safarists whose trips to Africa to track the Big Five, sad to say, don’t quite produce the goose bumps they once did. No one’s calling them jaded or blasé, but they are a demanding lot. (This group does not include me. No one believes me, but I am just as happy—maybe happier—watching a tawny Rajah butterfly as a rhinoceros.) Africa has more of the animals people traditionally want to see, and more spectacular displays of them, than India. But only India delivers the tiger.
Notwithstanding the wealth of flora and fauna at Bandhavgarh, compared to safaris in Africa—where it can begin to seem that there are prides and sounders of mammals around every corner—the expeditions folded into a stay at Mahua Kothi are more discreet and nuanced. The lodge is a joint venture between Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces, the Nepalese industrialist Binod Chaudhary, and Conservation Corporation Africa, with CC Africa supplying the style, which it describes, not inaccurately, as "sophisticated simplicity," and interpretive wildlife expertise. CC Africa’s ethos also shapes the service, which manages the nearly impossible task of being human, subtle, and comprehensive all at the same time. The standards are the same ones the company has used to build an empire of 40 lodges in Africa. (Before this trip I’d stayed in Kwandwe Ecca Lodge, Phinda Vlei Lodge, and Phinda Rock Lodge.) At $600 per person per night in high season, Mahua Kothi is near the bottom of the company’s most exclusive portfolio of lodges, falling between Kirkman’s Kamp and Phinda Mountain Lodge, both in South Africa, and well below Mnemba Island in Tanzania, at $975 the most expensive property—and it has no safari component. Mahua Kothi is first in a circuit of CC Africa/Taj lodges on the edge of tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh and the state of Uttaranchal, to the north.
CC Africa did not introduce luxury to the Indian jungle. Oberoi Vanyavilas and Aman-i-Khás—both tented camps—have been operating, since 2001 and 2003, respectively, on the periphery of Ranthambhore National Park in Rajasthan, which shares a border with Madhya Pradesh. Though the tiger numbers there are decent—some 18 within 155 square miles—a cap on the number of vehicles allowed into Ranthambhore every day means yours might not make it in. The park’s bus is always an option, though it wouldn’t be for me or, I don’t imagine, any of the sort of people who stay at these places. Neither Aman-i-Khás nor Vanyavilas (which markets itself as a leisure resort) offers the full-court, full-dress safari experience Mahua Kothi does. Both have their own jeeps but employ freelance naturalists, as rangers are known in India, and face an uncertain future: Rajasthan’s High Court closed Ranthambhore in December due to tiger poaching; at press time a second closing was threatened.
Mahua Kothi’s 12 virtually identical cottages are closely staggered amid stands of bamboo on a tiny patch of the lodge’s 40 acres, just outside Bandhavgarh but contiguous with it. Limited to 24 guests, they were designed by architect Dean D’Cruz, best known for taking the dippie out of hippie at the Nilaya Hermitage hotel in his native Goa. D’Cruz told me the cottages are based on kutiyas, traditional Madhya Pradesh jungle dwellings. Instead of a game drive one afternoon, we visited the kutiya of a farming family, and for once a designer’s inspiration sound bite checked out. Like my cottage, the house had a wonky roof and slightly crooked walls (deliberate in the first case, unintentional in the second), as well as a rendering of diluted cow dung to stabilize the mud-plaster façade. The buildings also shared a curvy, organic, Gaudíesque appeal.
I hope I haven’t given the impression that tiger viewings are guaranteed at Bandhavgarh. On the other hand, I did have two separate sightings on my first morning, one from a handsome customized Tata four-wheel-drive, 15 minutes after entering the park (apparently some kind of record—usually the first thing you see is a boring old chital, or spotted deer, of which there are zillions), and one from the back of an elephant just a couple of hours later.
Mahouts, the men who train and drive the elephants, are all Muslims. The animals are commanded with strikes and prods; for a Hindu, to hit one would be to hit Ganesh, the god depicted as having an elephant’s head. The mahouts had located a tiger near a stream with a bridge, which made mounting our elephant easy: it pulled up, its back only
slightly higher than the bridge, and I and four others climbed on, settling on a wooden platform with iron bars that swung across and (nominally) prevented us from falling out. After splashing in the stream a little ways, the mahout parked the elephant parallel to a high bank. Before we knew what was happening we were eye to eye with the tiger, who was languidly digesting his kill 30 feet away. We were less than nothing to him. He could not even be bothered to shrug.
Of course, it would be too much to hope that Mahua Kothi issues refunds when uncooperative or stage-shy tigers refuse to come out of the wings. The other discouraging reality is that sightings are almost entirely a matter of luck, especially since naturalists are denied the use of the radio communications that would allow them to tip each other off. Park regulations require that one of its own guides be present in every vehicle, but he sits in the back rather than on a jump seat on the hood, and although helpful, he is not a true, motivated tracker. Naturalists, who also serve as drivers, are hobbled by the fact that they essentially work alone.
Bandhavgarh’s tremendous resources lessen their burden. Beyond the tiger, the park also has significant populations of sloth bear, jungle cat, leopard, chikara (Indian gazelle), dhole (wild dog), sambar (Indian deer), jackal, hyena, rhesus monkey, and common langur monkey. Of the some 280 species in 50 families of birdlife, 10 are singled out in Mahua Kothi’s charming StarBirds program, geared to get guests who are not interested in birds interested in birds. Like nearly everything on a safari, the success of the program depends on the charisma quotient of your naturalist. Sarath Champati, the lodge’s chief naturalist and head trainer, made the white-naped woodpecker, black-hooded oriole, and crested serpent eagle as exciting to me as a Christina Aguilera video by David LaChapelle.
Champati was also rousing on the subject of the giant wood spider and the giant wood spider’s web, as well as on many of the 515 plant species found in the meadows, grasslands, and fringing the more than 20 spring-fed streams. There is more bamboo, which grows in dense thickets, than any other botanical in Bandhavgarh. But since sal trees—whose small ivory flowers have a strong perfume similar to jasmine’s—make up 20 percent of the canopy cover, the park, in forestry terms, is considered a sal forest.
Presiding over it is a hulking tabletop mountain rising 1,230 feet off the valley floor, its sheer limestone cliffs smeared with great swaths of Egyptian-vulture and shahin-falcon droppings. The shahin is the fastest-diving bird in the world, and I was fortunate enough to see one give a demonstration of its celebrated hunting technique, striking what was probably a gray hornbill in midair. The plateau holds the ruins of a 2,000-year-old fort scattered with ravishing monolithic statues of Vishnu—one of the Hindu trinity of lords and the god of wealth and well-being—in his various incarnations (fish, tortoise). The Baghela kings lived here until 1617, when they came down off the mountain and moved their seat of power nearby, becoming better known as the maharajahs of Rewa.
You can get only so close to the fort in a jeep, which is why the park authority relaxes its rule about never leaving your vehicle and allows you to approach the ruins on foot. Depending on your fitness level, it’s about a half-hour trek. After three days during which the closest even Champati had dared come to the ground was the running board of our vehicle, the freedom was intoxicating. And scary. The jungle was finally beneath our feet. The mountain is your only real chance of seeing a leopard, and on our walk we ran into an entire family, a mother and father with two cubs. I wouldn’t have minded, except Champati was unarmed: naturalists are forbidden to carry guns. I preferred our scat lesson. Instead of Champati pointing to a piece of tiger excrement from the jeep and trying to tell whether its quarry had been a sambar or a wild boar, we were able to crouch down, break it up with a stick, examine it, and know for sure. The hairs meant nothing to me—they could have been those of a domestic tabby cat, which wouldn’t amount to a gumdrop for a tiger—but they instantly told Champati it had eaten a chital.
I developed a kind of crush on Champati (people on safari are always falling in love with their naturalists), which was not surprising, because as everyone knows there is nothing sexier than knowledge. Also, we were always together, from tea and shortbread in the dark before the morning drive, to sundowners and beyond. In a lovely bit of arrival protocol, it’s your assigned naturalist who accompanies you to and walks you through your room, not the manager. Champati mentioned that the rooms were the work of Chris Browne. How could he have known that years ago I anointed Browne the most talented in-house hotel designer in any hemisphere?The day he decides to leave CC Africa, he can have any job he wants. Anybody would be lucky to get him. Browne is always fresh. He never repeats himself. His touch is light and, when appropriate, tongue-in-cheek. A friend calls his work unponderous, about the nicest thing you can say about a decorator.
At Mahua Kothi, Browne explores his feeling for folk art, hanging not-quite-life-size wooden puppets from Kerala on the walls, filling niches with collections of amber-glass doorknobs, topping wardrobes with gaily painted wooden trucks ("horn please!"). All of this is calculated to make you smile, and does. A stuffed animal, a mongoose, sticks its nose out tentatively from among a mountain of throw pillows. A local dark khaki–colored stone cut and laid like floorboards is the wittiest thing I expect to see in a long time. Four mushrooms pretending to be tables march in a straight line toward an ottoman fashioned out of an enormous rice bowl. A 13-foot vanity—half of a massive sal trunk sliced lengthwise down the middle—balances porcelain sinks that look like overfed vanilla jelly beans. The only colonial reference is a tufted bench with exaggerated cabriole legs, set at the foot of the bed. The shower stall isn’t a shower stall, it’s a shower room, and it doesn’t even share space with a tub. The tub has its own space.
The kutiyas are paradise, almost. They were originally built with deep glass panels under the eaves on three sides. To bring birdsong and the sound of animals probing the vegetation into the rooms, they were replaced with screens at the last minute, just as Mahua Kothi was getting ready to welcome its first guests. This turned out to be a huge miscalculation. I was at the lodge in December, and I wished I’d packed a sable bathrobe. Nighttime temperatures dipped to 36 degrees. Hot air from feeble units installed near the ceilings was sucked right outside before I had the chance to take off my mittens. Multiple hot-water bottles kept me warmer than a small whirring space heater, which, um, produced the same unwanted effect as the glass. Now CC Africa is reversing its decision: the glass is going back.
The meals were so good and diverting it almost made me forget my chilblains (the fallout from the hot-water bottles). Food is Mahua Kothi’s secret weapon. The best thing about it is not its variety or its quantity, which are giddy-making, but the fact that it has not been namby-pamby–ized. There’s no sucking up to Western palates. Executive chef Manish Chandna, late of the Oberoi New Delhi, gave me 23 recipes, and every one of them used fresh green chiles, even the skewers of apple and pineapple he passed around one evening with drinks (the fruit had also been tossed with salt, cumin, mango powder, black pepper, and tamarind chutney). Ginger-garlic paste was practically as ubiquitous. A typical dinner began with a thin soup, then moved on to multiple dishes served at the same time: double-marinated leg of lamb and chicken, the former spit-roasted, the latter wrapped in a banana leaf before being encased in dough and lowered into a pit; whole (for mouth feel) and split (for body) black lentils simmered with mustard oil, garlic, and onion; charcoal-grilled eggplant cooked a second time with tomato and coriander; a stew of green beans and potatoes zapped with cumin and turmeric. Sweets, including cottage-cheese dumplings bathed in rose-scented sugar syrup, are in the great silky-creamy-perfumed Indian tradition.
In four days I never dined in the same place twice. Every time I turned around a table was being set up in some surprising location—on the roof of the pavilion that houses all the public spaces; beside the beautiful crumbling brick wall of the kitchen garden; in a field under an ancient mahua tree, whose fleshy flowers villagers ferment and distill into a fire-breathing liquor that is not being bottled for export any time soon. CC Africa insists that it’s not what it does, but how it does it. In any case, the tigers are gravy.
Beyond the Safari
Four nights at Mahua Kothi (www.ccafrica.com/india; $600 per person per night) is the least a person of even baseline sanity would commit to, given how isolated it is and the suffering involved in reaching it. The lodge has an airstrip in the works, designed to receive charters, but for the present there are no easy ways to get there, only ones that are more or less painful. If you use a travel agent and he has you doubling back on yourself at any point, fire him. More advice: Only you know how many transfers you can handle in an often chaotic country before falling apart. When in doubt, build in more days. Finally, make the safari the centerpiece of a larger trip. There are a lot of fascinating places on the way to Mahua Kothi, and it would be reckless not to visit them.
I told the first agent I spoke to that I wanted to experience Indian train travel. He must have thought I meant write a book about Indian train travel. The trip he put together had me arriving in Delhi from New York at 2 a.m. and boarding a 13½-hour milk train for Katni the very next afternoon, disembarking at my favorite hour, 4 a.m. The costliest ticket would have had me sharing a sleeper with up to three strangers. The last leg of the proposed journey called for two hours in a minibus. We all know about the limitations of the infrastructure in India, but I was sure there was a better way.
I was in much more practiced hands with Cox & Kings (91-11/2680-7750; www.coxandkingsusa.com). Just to be safe, I had the itinerary Cox prepared for me vetted by India Safaris and Tours (91-11/2680-7750; www.indiasafaris.com), a new, Delhi-based company partly owned by CC Africa. Give or take a transfer, the two outfitters were in agreement. I flew direct on Continental, arriving at the much more civilized hour of 9:15 p.m., and stayed two nights at the Imperial (91-11/2334 -1234; www.theimperialindia.com; doubles from $425), the minimum recovery period after the 14-hour flight, unless you want to feel like a mummy rather than merely a corpse. An Art Deco landmark, the Imperial is a good choice if you like big, expensive, full-service Indian hotels with palm trees and liveried doormen. Another thing this institution has going for it is its location, across the street—you can walk, if you dare—from Central Cottage Industries Emporium, an all-in-one purveyor of crafts, carpets, antiques, jewelry, fabrics, and more.
On Day Three I took the Taj Express (www.indianrailways.gov.in) to Agra. I’m glad I did, but I wouldn’t be sad if I never did again. In just under three hours the express cured me of my curiosity about the Indian rail system. I had somehow imagined the train would be romantic. It’s not. It’s tired, or rather exhausted, and the opposite of romantic, with obsolete upholstery that stinks of curry.
Moorish meets Moghul at the Oberoi Amarvilas (800/562-3764; www.oberoihotels.com; doubles from $600), the only hotel you need concern yourself with in Agra. Every room has a view of the Greatest Monument to Love, a.k.a. the Taj Mahal. So what if the Amarvilas is a little flashy, a little pastiche-y, a little grandiose (well, maybe not a little)?You need two nights to get your money’s worth out of all the terraced gardens, jazzy fountains, and domed lounging pavilions, which are not just eye candy but also good for the soul, I find.
Most people go straight to Gwalior from Agra—a mistake, for it means bypassing Dholpur and the Raj Niwas Palace (91-11/2643-6572; www.dholpurpalace.com; doubles from $202), a hotel you do not want to miss, not if you like animal trophies and towering interiors lavished to the ceiling with custom-made majolica tiles from Europe. India is a place where people who don’t usually hire drivers, hire drivers—partly because they’re relatively inexpensive, and partly because they’re often the only efficient way of getting around. I had one for the 90-minute trip from Agra to Dholpur, plus all the transfers between Dholpur, Gwalior, Orchha, and Khajuraho—I spent one night in each—and on to Mahua Kothi and Jabalpur.
The Raj Niwas was completed in 1876 under the patronage of the great- grandfather of the current owner, Maharaja Dushyant Singh VI, whose mother, Vasundhara Raje, happens to be the chief minister of Rajasthan. The minister uses the house part-time, so get ready for passing her in the hall on the way to breakfast.
Raje’s ancestors once ruled Gwalior (her father is the Maharajah Jivaji Rao Scindia), 90 minutes from Dholpur. In 1875 the Scindias built the Usha Kiran Palace, now a hotel (91-751/244-4000; www.tajhotels.com; doubles from $195), to receive the overflow (including Queen Mary’s retinue) from their adjoining Jai Vilas Palace, where the prince still lives and a museum invites you to ponder the meaning of a crystal staircase. The maharajah’s palace is a trifle compared with Gwalior’s 15th-century fortress, planted on a ridge 300 feet above the city and the real reason for stopping over. The Man Mandir, within the citadel, is the finest, best-preserved example of an early Hindi palace in India.
Three hours from Gwalior, the Betwa River slips like a noose around the medieval island palaces of Orchha. Amazingly, one of them—the Jehangir Mahal, a monument to Indo-Islamic architecture—has a hotel, the Sheesh Mahal, within its walls (91-7680/252-624; doubles from $90), and when the tourists go home at the end of the day you have the Jehangir to yourself, to wander through at will in the moonlight. The Maharaja and Maharani suites are vaults of comfort. The hotel is government-owned, spick-and-span, and a nice break from self-consciously "fancy" places like the Usha Kiran.
Four hours stand between Orchha and the famously erotic carvings of Khajuraho’s Hindu temples, constructed between the 10th and 11th centuries. That the Chandela (91-7686/2723-5564; www.tajhotels.com; doubles from $110) has no idea how successfully its lobby channels the hotels of Miami’s first Golden Period makes it that much more fun. This Taj property is the best Khajuraho has to offer in preparation for the Mother of All Transfers: bumbling along, sometimes, on rocky roads at 18 miles per hour, seven hours go by before the woven-palm gates of Mahua Kothi swing open.
It would be nice to report that returning to Delhi after a stay at the lodge is quick and simple, but it entails not only a four-hour drive to Jabalpur but overnighting there (don’t get your hopes up) at the Samdariya Hotel (91-761/231-6800; www.thesamdariyahotel.com; doubles from $30) before flying out the next morning. If you have a late flight home from Delhi, the nicest gift you can give yourself is a day room at the Imperial. You will have earned it.