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.