In the early morning greyness, Panna Tiger Reserve seemed ethereal. The muddy path in front of me, rutted with the passage of countless vehicles, snaked and disappeared into nothingness, swallowed by mist that hung like a gossamer curtain. The path was flanked by towering teak trees interspersed with acacia, mahua, and several other species of plants and shrubs. But beyond a few feet, everything was a dense, impenetrable tangle. The driver and the guide had their eyes peeled, on the lookout for creatures, but I was mesmerised by the unfolding scenery of the forest.
As the vehicle slowly pushed into the heart of the park, the mist lifted a little and the skies brightened with the rising sun. The path we were on veered a bit to the right and suddenly the vehicle was on a narrow trail that hugged a steep, tree-filled cliff on the left. On the right, it fell several metres into a valley where the River Ken flowed languidly, tripping over boulders to form tiny rapids. It curved in the distance, like a wavy ribbon against a backdrop of blue skies, lush green forests, brownish-green grasslands, and rock clusters. My guide, Vijay Omre, lowered his binoculars to remark, in Hindi, “Panna is the most beautiful national park in the country and its landscape is as famous as its tigers”.
Panna Tiger Reserve (PTR) is spread over 1,598 sq km of Madhya Pradesh’s Panna and Chhatarpur districts. Its core zone comprises 576 sq km while the rest is the buffer zone of the reserve. The core zone is also called the critical tiger habitat, with the Ken River winding its way for 55 km through it. Located at the edge of the Vindhyachal mountain range, just before it opens into the Gangetic plains, PTR is predominantly a miscellaneous dry deciduous forest. This forest is mixed with open, thorny, and shrubby woodlands, bamboo groves, grasslands with both tall and flat grasses, as well as riverine forests. It was the hunting ground of the former princely states of Panna, Chhatarpur, and Bijawar.
Standing in an open-topped Gypsy with a 180-degree view, PTR’s uniqueness quickly became apparent to me. Against the towering Vindhyas in the distance, the park sits like a tiered cake above the Ken river valley — each of its two stepped plateaus has a distinctive feel. The tiers slope into each other in some places; they fall abruptly on the layer below sometimes, producing jaw-dropping gorges. The lower plateau drops rather suddenly into the valley; at places the drop is so steep that it forms 80-metre escarpments. In the monsoon, seasonal streams create magnificent waterfalls at some of the gorges, but in early March when I visited, they were dry and a bit terrifying: the rocks were particularly jagged and the sheer drop was dizzying. These gorges also serve as nesting sites for native vultures, which gave them even more mysterious aura.
As the vehicle wound its way through the lower (Hinauta) plateau, the paths were flanked by towering teak forests and wide open spaces with tall grass breaking the monotony. Acacia trees abounded on the steep slopes between the two plateaus, while on the upper (Talgaon) plateau, the trees were shorter with more shrubs and an abundance of flat grasslands. Both plateaus were favoured by the tigers and leopards, Vijay explained, as the dense cover provides protection and the grassland sustains spotted deer, nilgai, chinkara, and sambar, the main food of the big cats.
The flora on these plateaus includes a generous sprinkling of tendu (Diospyros melanoxylon), salai (Bosswelia serrata), mahua (Madhuca indica longifolia), ghont (Ziziphus xylopyrus), achar (Buchanania lanzan), kardhai (Anogeissus pendula), ber (Ziziphus mauritiana), arjuna (Terminalia arjuna), saj (Terminalia elliptica, also called crocodile bark tree), and shrubs such as lantana. In March, many of these were either flowering or fruiting, drawing a plethora of birds, and also proving irresistible to sloth bears, which are generally nocturnal but were out and about foraging.
Both plateaus also have distinctive, skeletal trees, the bark and leafless branches draped in a shimmering, flaky white coat. “That’s a ghost tree,” Vijay said. Locally called kullu (Sterculia urens), or the gum tree, the species changes colour thrice a year: lush green after the monsoon, pink during flowering and fruiting season, and a pale white during summer. “On full moon nights, the bark shimmers and has a ghostly appearance,” my guide elaborated. “That’s why locals call it the ghost tree.” Its sap is highly regarded for its medicinal value, but locals also use it to make sweets such as laddu, Vijay said. He pointed out others, such as the tendu tree, its leaves used for making beedis, and kardhai, whose hardy bark is used to make handles for rifles.
PTR has a rich human history, going back millennia. Some believe it is part of the kingdom of Gondwana, inhabited by the indigenous Gond people for centuries. Most fascinating to me, were the paintings on the dramatic slate and sandstone formations, deep in the remote gorges of the Talgaon plateau. Accessed by kilometres of excruciatingly bumpy, rocky trails, its sheer sides rose several metres in places, forming caves and patterns that seemed to mimic leopards and tigers in some places.
In the midst of this, protected by rocky overhangs, were a series of paintings in brick red and pale white. Some were filled in, while others were just outlines of animals such as big cats, deer, and people. They looked similar to the prehistoric rock art of Bhimbetka, about 400 km to the southwest. Though there is no clear information about its ancestry, there is speculation that the oldest of them could be more than 3,000 years old.
I was spellbound by the stories around them: locals refer to them as khoon ka chitra (pictures in blood) and consider the drawings the work of forest spirits that wish to communicate with people. Local legend has it that they depict Raja Sabbal Shah, the spirit of an ancestral Gond king and his invincible army of foot and horseback soldiers, who were tasked with protecting the forests and destroying evil spirits. The stories spooked me a bit, and the bone-jarring ride from the highest tableland towards the river was completed in silence.
The river was a great place to see the fauna of Panna. On a tall stump, sat a peacock with its brilliant plumage trailing down, watching us as we drifted close by. On the other side, a flock of whistling ducks stood motionless, while a handful of pied kingfishers further ahead took turns to bathe in a shallow pool by the edge. When the boat slowed near a cluster of large rocks sticking out of the water, the boatman quietly pointed to a large flat stone in the middle. At first, I couldn’t make out anything, but a second later, neatly camouflaged against the greyish-brown of the stone, I spotted a crocodile sunning itself.
It seemed like a young crocodile, only a few feet long, and the boatman cautiously steered the vessel a little closer to the reptile. We watched it for a few minutes, trying to be as motionless as the croc, but decided to leave when a loud splash from the bank signalled that an adult had decided to join junior.
By the time we returned to shore the sun was up, and the morning’s mist was a distant memory. The temperature hovered in the pleasant mid-20s. There were still plenty of birds, flitting from tree to tree, some flocks pecked around in the flat grasslands, but the animals appeared to have retreated into the dense foliage, seeking refuge in the shade. As my vehicle left the heart of the park and headed towards the gate, a particularly large kullu tree caught my attention. Its stark white bark supported branches that had spread wide, as if in an embrace, and it seemed to be smiling, a bit like Casper, the friendly ghost. The association could not have been more apt.