Bandhavgarh National Park – a national park must be a dense forest where only the wildest of animals live. Is it not famous for its tigers that oblige most visitors with their Darshan? Most of us think of national parks as isolated places where only animals live. Wait, just read the name again – Bandhavgarh – literally translated Bandhav means friend or brother & Garh is usually a suffix used for settlements and in a lot of places for forts. So should there be a fort somewhere inside this sanctuary? Logic says – yes. And yes there is a formidable fort standing on top of a giant rock standing at 811 meters in the middle of the forest.
This hill on which the fort rests almost looks like a tabletop hill with a flat top forming a very livable plateau. You can see the hill from both the Tala and the Magadi zone of the forest range. To see the heritage elements though you have to take a certain route and I was lucky to be on that route.
Heritage Inside Bandhavgarh National Park
Like most legends in India, the legend of this place also goes back to the days of the epic Ramayan. It is believed that the fort belonged to Lord Ram’s younger brother Laxman and hence called Bandhavgarh. Archaeologists date it back to the pre-Christ era based on the inscriptions found here in the ancient Brahmi script. Archeological evidence put the built heritage at around 10th CE, making it a place that must have been continually inhabited for the known historical period. Baghela kings said to have ruled from here till the early 17th CE when they moved their capital to Rewa, about 120 km’s from here. The fort still belongs to the royal family.
The first symbol of faith I saw was a small Siddhbaba temple with a make-believe Shivalinga and a Trishul. A place that is also popular for tiger sightings. After a small drive from here, we started climbing the Bandhavgarh hill. From a distance, you can see man-made structures on top of the hill. My camera could zoom into a temple that looks like a medieval structure. Sharp steep roads pass through many caves-like structures. Made by cutting out the rocks, these pillared rooms seem like shelter places for man and animals alike. Not sure what the wild animals of the region thought of these places, though.
SheshShaiyya – Vishnu Sculpture
Midway towards the summit, our jeep stopped in front of a pool – a small stepwell-style pool. Behind the pool was the famous Sheshshaiyya or the sculpture of Vishnu in his pose of sleeping on the serpent Seshnag. It is 35 feet long sculpture carved out of a single rock. It is accredited to Gollak, a minister of the Kalachuri dynasty King Yuvrajdev sometime in the 10th CE. A water source that flows from here is called Charan Ganga. Or literally, the Ganga that flows from the feet of the Vishnu. The river’s ancient name is Vetravali. It continues to be a source of water for the forest and villages inside it.
Shiva & Brahma
Vishnu is not alone here. He has his constant companions Brahma and Shiva with him. There is a fairly large but simple Shivalinga next to Vishnu. An idol of Vishnu in the Narasimha avatar inclined against the Shivalingas. The Brahma I was told is in the corner, I could not make it out but there was an impression of something being there in the corner. A flight of stairs by the side of the pool takes you up and you can have a bird’s eye view of this place. From this point, you notice the delicate semi-circular steps carved all around the pool. Trees around reflect into the water and you once again realize that you are in the middle of a forest.
I understand that further up, there are various avatars of Vishnu carved at various places in the fort. Different sources talk about celebrations at Sheshshaiyya on Diwali and Janmashtami – both days associated with avatars of Vishnu. With the current strict rules of the forest department, I am not sure if there are any elaborate celebrations that take place. I also read about a Kabir Mela on the MP Tourism website that happens here on top of the hill sometime in December. Though no one could confirm if it still happens or not.
Villages inside Bandhavgarh
One afternoon we visited the Ranchha village which was not too far from Kings Lodge where we were staying. We walked into this small village with a dilapidated school building but beautiful houses. Courtesy of our guide we were allowed to enter the house of Smt Munni. Munni Ji was busy handling her granddaughter while managing a huge house with a well and farms at the back. Her house had a beautifully decorated courtyard. Each room’s entrance was decorated with stucco work. With mud figures jetting out at the top of the door frames. We soon learned that these colorful figures have been made by the man of the house i.e. Munni Ji’s husband.
We walked around the corridors to admire the works around us. And to see a house that is probably like a relic from our past like mud Chullahs or a well that is still used for drinking water.
Work at Ranchha house reminded me of celebrated artist Sonabai Rajwar whose work I had seen at Purkhauti Mukatangan in Raipur. The style of the work was the same, small stuccowork that stands out on the walls and doorframes. The level of finesse in the two works was obviously miles apart. But it gave me a grounding in the folk art of this region for Chhattisgarh is just in the neighborhood. It tells me how the tribal people of this region give their humble homes a touch of their own personality. And how men and women express their creativity and proudly display them.
Baigas of Bandhavgarh
My wish to meet some of the tribals in central India was fulfilled to a small extent when I got glimpses of the Baiga tribe. I could not visit their village but our hosts Pugdundee Safaris had organized a dance performance for us. Where the Baigas came and performed some of their traditional dances. The folk dances that were performed on traditional wedding songs have rhythmic movements in circles that get repetitive over a period of time. Some of us joined the dance but were exhausted in no time. Men of the dance group performed some eye-popping stunts towards the end.
Baigas in full Regalia
A couple of days later we got to see the Baigas in their full Regalia – with elaborate hairdos, loads of jewelry, and colorful attires. Women wore a silver neckpiece called Sutia that to me looked quite like a Hasli. Elder men and women wore a heavy anklet made of an alloy. I was told that Baigas wear this only when the person is considered elderly in the family and community; hence you see no younger men and women wearing this. Is that something like a wisdom tooth displayed, so that everyone knows you have grown up and must be respected? However, it was their attire that made me curious. They had just too many layers of clothing on them for a tribal living in hot central India.
Puneet, a fellow traveler, however, confirmed my doubts that Baigas have adopted these layers for performance; this is not how they dress up. There are no capes that women wear and no jackets that men wear. Talk of adaptation and talk of influence. Does that make us question what is really authentic and original? Do we give too much weight to these seemingly hypothetical concepts?
The only Baiga man that I saw in his natural environment was picking up small plants inside the forest range – wearing a hat and a high dhoti, with an axe in his hands and a cloth bag on his shoulder.
Witnessing all the elements of the place together – its wildlife, tribal population, villages, farms, various art forms, hill fort, temples, water sources, and bio-diversity in one word, I wonder when and where did we lose the art of living in perfect harmony with nature. When did we humans start believing that we are the most important element that could play around with other elements for our momentary personal gratification?
Time to think and act.
Recommend you to read the following blog posts on Places to Visit on my Travel Blog.
Bandhavgarh National Park – Beyond the Tigers