Once upon a time in a jungle in Odisha,certain friends in a group were out to see the lovely flora and fauna.In the story below certain parts are true facts and many are not.We believe the reader is wise enough to differentiate between them.
"Where are the animals ?",one of us in the vehicle asked.
He has been straining his neck in all directions for a glimpse of any animal in the vicinity.An elephant,a deer,a rabbit,anything would have done.But the vast woods of Simlipal showed nothing that winter morning.
He further suggested, "wouldn't it be better if all animals in the jungle gathered at a single place for us to see?".
We all in the vehicle looked at each other and after a pause nodded in agreement.
The conversation shifted to the pride of Simlipal jungles,the tigers.
The thin ,middle aged guide who came with us inside the national park had last seen a tiger at Similipal when he was a kid but he said with confidence that around hundred tigers still roam the core area,the part of the sanctuary where we were specifically not allowed to venture.Our vehicle was the first to enter the park that morning,a fine winter morning of 26 th of January.We drove hours on end in the deserted route and the only wild life giving company was an occasional cock scurrying through the bushes and monkeys following us on trees.
Our driver said that most of the park's animals kept to the core area and they usually don't cross the tourist route which has been roughly the same since the Maharaja of Mayurbhanj used to come for hunting trips.Our guide had started giving guilty smiles when we looked at him and after a while he said,"I am just here to guide you through the route so that you don't get lost in the woods and make sure you return safely before sunset".
"And also to be a good company to you all on this trip",he added.
"When did you say you saw a tiger yourself",I asked.
"It was a misty winter morning just like this,many years ago and I had come with my uncle and little brother to see the park on a bicycle.The Goddess must have blessed us that day because out of the bush a huge adult tiger approached ,cutting through the fog and dense jungle foliage on our route.While my uncle prayed with folded hands and my brother wet his pants,I looked at the gorgeous animal in complete awe. I am not sure about it but I think I saw the tiger vanish into thin air all of a sudden" ,the guide said.
"The tiger...err....just vanished???",two of us asked.
"Yes,the locals believe that the Goddess has bestowed vanishing powers to the tigers in this area according to a very old legend",the guide said,this time without any signs of guilt.He really believed what he saw that old winter morning.
Well,we thought that when there are no wildlife to visit in the buffer zone,let old stories and legends keep us entertained.Just to amuse ourselves and keep the momentum going,we asked as to how did the tigers in Simlipal achieve their disappearing skills and since when? And more importantly can we visit these animals? The guide folded his arms in the chill of the back seat and removed the muffler from his mouth.He was to tell us of a legend ,that happened a long time ago.
"This park was once the favourite hunting ground of the local King of Mayurbhanj and he used to come with his men on this very route that we take now.It was said that the jungles were home to more than five nundred tigers back then and all animals lived in terror of these fierce carnivores.The King's pride was at stake because he had never killed a tiger before and in those days that meant he was not a man yet. He was ridiculed in the circles of his court and the king knew that.
The witty monkey came into picture on account of the King's bad fortune.
All animals who dwell here have certain skills that make their survival in the forest possible but one such animal had the skill that mattered most,intelligence,it was the old monkey of the forest.One day the black faced ape had been following the King's hunting party for long and when it got a chance , the noxious animal came down to steal the King's golden crown as the party rested in the shade.he had been eyeing the King's crown for long.While he looked at the blue stone sparkling at the center of the crown for a long time ,he heard the king's men discuss their master's fate with the tigers and immediately hatched a plan that would benefit the King as well as the monkey clan in the area.
The old ape made a donkey wear a dead tiger's skin and asked him to lead the King's hunting party straight to the place where the Tigers dwelt,a particular part of the jungle which was not discovered till then and what we today call as the core area of the National Park.It is said that the King fell around two hundred tigers in a single year and the stories of his tiger hunts reached far shores of the country.
While rest of the animals, including the monkeys rejoiced at these sudden turn of events,the Tigers were so hapless that the grand old Tiger of the jungle prayed at the local Goddess for protection .The Goddess knew that the King's ego could not be allowed to disturb the balance of nature so she gave a boon to all tigers ,so as to vanish out of sight when danger lurks around them.
She also gave them a safe home across the gorges of Bareipani falls ,where no human could reach for hunting." "That explains why many have failed to sight a tiger ,in spite of them being here in large numbers"-said our guide,while we heard in rapt attention.
Around fifty kilometers into the sanctuary area, from Pithabata gate(20 kms from Baripada town),we had come to the huge gorge where the River Budhabalanga forms many cascading waterfalls like Bareipani and Joranda.On the way we have crossed many little tribal hamlets and later found out that around 8000-9000 people inhabit these forests in and around the buffer zone. Many belong to the Santhal tribe,who depend on the forest produce for their livelihood.The name Simlipal is derived from the abundance of Semul or red silk cotton trees that bloom in the locality. Barehipani Falls is easily one of the most highest falls in Odisha and it takes it's name from a local made rope called the Barehi.
"The tiger is already powerful and fierce and this power to disappear at will would have made it even more fearsome among rest of the animals. Not to mention ,a threat even to the local humans living in the tribal villages",our sleepy and rather morose driver joined in the highly interesting narrative.
"The Goddess is wise and the one thing that she cares about is Balance in Nature.....the equilibrium of life is to be maintained according to the cosmic plan.So the tiger could never use the powers to attack or maul some other animal,it could only use it for self-protection",the guide replied.
So if I believed in the legend of vanishing tigers,then I could say that nobody actually knows the real number of tigers in this area and one can roam around for days even within the core area,without spotting a single tiger.Apparently the monkey clan was cursed to reside in the buffer zone by the Goddess for betraying the animal kingdom in the hands of the egoistic king.And that explains the gang of apes ,ravaging tree tops all around the route where we travelled. While a long silence followed in the vehicle,I could see the guide give a nostalgic look through the rear view mirror.
He could remember the days of Choudhury Sir ,the Padmashri Late Saroj Raj Choudhury The legendary wild lifer and Founder Director of Similipal Tiger Reserve.Our guide said that it was Choudhury Sir who became famous worldwide after he discovered the "Pugmark Technique" in counting tigers in a restricted area.
"He also had a foster daughter who resided inside the den of the tiger.",the guide added.
"What do you mean? A Mowgli kind of daughter ...who lived with the tigers?",I asked ,willing to listen to more of his jungle lores.
But what he said instead was pretty inspiring.The famous Choudhury Sir had a foster daughter named "Khairi" and she was a tigress who lost her parents to poaching. It was the Director who took care of her.In recent years the authorities have stepped up anti-poaching activities in and around the Tiger Reserve in Simlipal.We had the delicious home made lunch prepared by the self help groups in the village near Bareipani falls and then took a cool bath in the sparkling waters of Uski waterfalls.As we rested on the rocks by late afternoon,sleep overwhelmed us all.
By the time our guide woke us up from the deep slumber,darkness had entered the forests.Without losing a second we dashed for the exit at Jashipur gate which was still an hour away by road.The road trip inside Simlipal starts at Pithabata gate and exits at Jashipur gate or the other way round, covering a distance of hundred odd kilometers.But the day had far from ended.
In the middle of all this,the guide forgot his primary duty....that of guiding us through the route and as chance would have it ,the driver had strayed deep into the core area of the National Park.We would never have noticed,had the motorable road not ended abruptly.A huge cliff and a gurgling waterfall stood there and the guide was scratching his head ,looking furtively in all directions.Without a word,we all looked at each other again and admitted the unavoidable situation -we were lost somewhere in the jungle.Birds were returning home,twilight hovered over the canopy of tall Semul Trees.
As we stood there in the fading light,a slight noise rose into a loud chatter.Like a lot of animals had gathered at one place.We heard a lot of chirping and animal noises but the whooping of monkeys dominated the animal moot over anything else. We trekked through a path,that climbed behind the falls into a higher ground and jumped at what we came across.If I am to be believed ,then let me say it simply and in a straightforward manner.Our group saw or we thought we saw the gathering of all animals in the jungle....yes, and at a single place.A small hillock from where the fall was cascading down was being the venue of a large animal gathering.It was exactly like the fantasy we were talking about in the morning.The resident animals of Simlipal seemed to have gathered together for a meeting of some kind.But why? And more importantly how?
Bears rolling on the ground,bats hanging from branches of trees,birds chirping in groups,deers at the back row,snakes coiled on tree trunks,rabbits trembling in the cold,and above all monkeys dominating the proceedings at a higher ground.The elephants looked disinterested in the happenings.Still there were no tigers here.
And then we saw,on a still higher ground,stood a rock on which sat an old and obese monkey-and even we could see what he wore on his head from the great distance.A golden crown with a big blue stone at the center. So the story was true indeed.
The old monkey was way too aged to take part in the discussions going on but he still sat ceremoniously on the stone pedestal wearing that golden crown.
It took some time to seep in,but we got the idea of what was going on. The Kingdom of Animals was dissatisfied at the way the National park was being run by the new Forest Ranger and his staff and had gathered to take matters into their own hand.The monkeys had called the meeting and they ran the show.The simple discussions soon took a very aggressive mode when the case of the old bear came up. Apparently he had been behaving badly since he took few gulps from a glass bottle left behind by some tourists yesterday.The senior monkey officials held up the bottle for everyone to see-with OLD MONK written on the half torn label. Apparently he had been caught running behind more cars and snatching more bottles .So all nodded on the agreement that-
1.Alcohol is to be banned inside the park....it makes animals behave badly and makes them run behind tourist vehicles,a highly dangerous and self-destructive activity.NO ALCOHOL
Further there were certain grave issues regarding the vocal skills of female humans who visited the park,and this was the next point taken up specially by the old and ageing animals of the jungle.Animals tend to sleep late into the day and their sleeping patterns have been disturbed lately by the high pitch screeching and shouting of female members of the human species.Although they noticed that only in humans,the female member is far more beautiful than the male,but the noise making capacity is highly deplorable.
Everyone nodded on the second point of the agreement-
2.No shouting and howling in the park by outsiders.Although some extremist elements wanted women to be banned altogether....this was turned down in the end by elephants who said that woman often give bananas and other fruits to them on the way and hence should be allowed.
Another matter which the monkeys took up very aggressively was filthy littering of waste materials committed by humans when inside the park.Keep your plastics and all similar stuff at home. So a third agreement was drafted-
3.No throwing around wastes and littering in the park..... animals choking on plastics is horrible anyway
By sundown the meeting seemed to have been summarized and the Draft Agreement was made to be sent to the Forest Ranger.It was made clear that if these demands were not met with immediate effect....a huge rebellion would ensue where the two entry gates were to be blockaded by burly elephants ,to which the elephant community agreed unanimously.
Our guide seemed content that at least our group witnessed some wildlife in the park,he was not much interested in the matters discussed in the animal gathering.I later found out that he had smuggled a Rum bottle and had been at it while the gathering was going on.We returned late in the night after witnessing such tumultuous events in the wild and nodded to each other that this indeed had been a satisfying wild life safari...perhaps the best one till date.
One of the things I remember from the closing moments of the Jungle gathering was that we finally saw a tiger. I waited to see if it can really vanish but it did not happen.What happened instead was equally interesting.....the weak and famished tiger was presented with some viagra tablets by the Monkey King so that he can mate energetically and continue the blood line.After all the country wants more tigers in the jungles
As the brown fox and a group of peacocks prepared for a dance performance to bring down curtains on the gathering,I heard sounds of "wake up! Wake up!" in my ears.A dream within a dream? Deep into the sub-conscious ,we woke once again to find ourselves by the exit gate.The guide was giving strange looks at us.Did we sleep in the vehicle again or what?
I mean did we sleep again or did we wake up again?
Nevertheless our amiable guide still had the rum bottle with him anyway.
....deep in the woods,Simlipal,Odisha
This blog was originally published on 'The Lost Hermit'.