Monumental Love

The sky is getting darker, as the storm clouds gather, plump and menacing, carrying with them the faint smell of wet earth. Shivering in the cold breeze, I hug my thin shawl closer around my body and look at the tableau on the terrace. Families are sitting together inside the domed alcoves that bookend this balcony. Groups of local women from the neighbouring villages – perhaps on a day’s outing – are putting up a brave fight to hold their flimsy quick-dry saris in place. Suddenly, the clouds burst open, making them turn around as one woman, and rush for cover inside the monument, silver anklets clinking melodiously, rubber slippers flapping on the stone floor.

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I am at Rani Roopmati’s Pavilion, a three-storeyed building perched prettily on top of a hillock. From a recess in the terrace, I can see the Narmada snaking its way through the arid plains in the distance. The countryside, dotted with brown monuments, comes to life in this unexpected spell of rain.

Apart from an abiding fascination for the Taj Mahal, I don’t much care for the Mughals in general. But in case of Mandu, I have to agree with Emperor Jahangir’s words: “I know of no other place that is so pleasant in climate and with such attractive scenery as Mandu in the rainy season.” No surprise then that this town also served as the monsoon retreat of a succession of Mughals, who sought the cool breezes and green spaces of Mandu.

Once the capital of the Malwa kingdom, Mandu is all about the 16th century love story of a king and a commoner; in this case the ruler of Malwa, Baz Bahadur and a shepherdess Roopmati. The story goes that on a hunting trip, Baz Bahadur caught sight of Roopmati bathing in the Narmada, and captivated by her beauty, made her his queen. It was idyllic for a while, but like all great love stories, this one too ended in tragedy (‘happily ever after’ never makes for exciting history). When captured by Akbar’s general Adham Khan, the king deserted his queen and kingdom. And Roopmati committed suicide by consuming poison.

Despite this less than perfect conclusion, remnants of this romance lie scattered everywhere in Mandu. The Roopmati Pavilion itself, for instance, was built by the indulgent king to ensure that his queen was able to see her beloved Narmada whenever she wished to. However, Baz Bahadur’s Palace, despite its open terraces and luxuriant surroundings, does not carry any whispers of romance. Or perhaps, in my mind, I see the king as a deserter and therefore his palace as devoid of charm.

My guide, no doubt quoting from unverifiable sources, says that Mandu was once a massive fortified city, dating back to the 6th century BC. Today, it is a small dusty town in the heart of India, dotted with monuments and ruins that tell their own stories.

Standing in front of the Jami Masjid, I reflect on the way we talk blithely about global influences. As if we, our generation, thought up the very idea. This mosque, built in the mid 15th century, is modeled after the Ummayad mosque of Damascus; a long way for architectural influences to travel. I love the bleak brownness of it, with bits of blue enamel work peeping out from the walls of the inner chamber. All this brown is contrasted sharply by its neighbour Hoshang’s Tomb, also India’s first marble structure.

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At first glance, this domed monument seems plain but I walk past beautiful pink granite pillars to the other side – the main entry into the tomb – and notice the intricate latticework on the windows. This tomb is supposed to be a fine example of a marriage between Indian and Afghan styles of architecture. Here again, the Mughal presence makes itself felt; it is said that Shah Jahan drew inspiration from this tomb for the Taj Mahal.

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However, the place I return to again and again is the Royal Enclave – built around the same time – containing the Jahaz Mahal and the Hindola Mahal. While entirely willing to be charmed by Mandu, I still find it a stretch of my imagination to see a ship (Jahaz Mahal) and a swing (Hindola Mahal) here. But these monuments are the highlights of Mandu, adorning all the picture postcards sent out of here.

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Mandu6Jahaz Mahal is 120 metres long and sits between two artificial lakes, the Munj Talao and the Kapur Talao. During the monsoons, the palace feels afloat – like a ship – between the two full lakes. Seeing the barebones structure that exists today, it is tough to believe that it once served as a “pleasure palace” of Sultan Ghiyas-ud-din-Khilji, housing his harem of over 15,000 women. The only embellishments on the open terrace are the small domed pavilions and intriguing water channels on the floor. The Hindola Mahal is similarly stark, with graceful arches and sloping outer walls, and perhaps sways gently in the calming monsoon breeze.

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After a couple of days in Mandu, I head to Maheshwar, just an hour’s drive away. If Mandu feels like a place from the past; Maheshwar is very much here and now. Life in this town revolves around the ghats of the Narmada; gossiping local women wash their clothes, boatmen call out to tourists for pleasure rides, priests fill river water in their little round vessels and tourists record their visit for posterity on phone cameras.

Despite the many temples in the town, the undisputed goddess here is queen Ahilyabai Holkar, who governed this territory in the mid 18th century. The fort she ruled from is now a heritage hotel and the palace or Rajwada, a small unassuming space filled with a quiet charm, much like the town itself.

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But the star of Maheshwar is the gossamer fabric that lends itself to beautiful saris that carry the town’s name. The art of weaving Maheshwari saris was introduced over two centuries ago by the queen and revived two decades ago by her descendants. There are now over 2000 weavers skilled in this art, which came close to dying out.

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After an hour at the ghats and a quick stop at the Shiva temple on the shore, I make my way to the Rehwa Society Store inside the fort complex. A dozen women are at work here, silent and focused, the stillness broken only by the movement of the looms. Some of them look up and smile as I point my camera at them; to others, I am only a mild annoyance. And in the shop, each sari looks more enticing than the other, and I walk out with far more than I had intended to buy.

Back at the Jahaz Mahal at sunset, I think of the various avatars this overgrown village has seen over the centuries: Mandapadurga, Mandavgarh and now Mandu. My favourite name though, comes from the late 13th century: Shadiabad, or ‘City of Joy.’

FACT FILE

GETTING THERE

Jet Airways has regular flights from Mumbai and Delhi to Indore, from where Mandu is 90 km (2 hour drive) away.

ACCOMMODATION

The best options in Mandu are the government-managed Malwa Resort and Malwa Retreat. For a more upscale experience, choose Jhira Bagh Palace on the Indore Highway. At Maheshwar, stay at the Ahilya Fort.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Log on to MP Tourism

Silent forest, teeming life

It is a strange feeling, this: half hoping to spot some wildlife and half fearing that I may indeed come across some wildlife. I have never been on a walk inside a forest before and don’t know what to expect.

On a misty winter morning, we have just crossed over the Denwa river into the Satpura National Park. I am the only participant in the walking safari this morning, with six people to guide me through the lush greens and scorched browns of the forest. There are Raju and Anurag, naturalists from Denwa Backwater Escape, where I am staying. There is the official forest guide Lakhan Singh who knows the forest and its multiple, confusing pathways like the interiors of his own home.

And most importantly, there is Lakhan Singh’s lackey; nobody seems to known his name and in turn, he doesn’t open his mouth for the next three hours. He is important because he is carrying the bugle meant to (hopefully) scare away the animals that get too close for comfort. I look around nervously, thinking of all the fauna hiding in the shrubbery, watching this strange procession of humans. “Don’t worry, we have never had to use the bugle even once,” says Lakhan Singh reassuringly.

Oh great, so we don’t even know if this sound is enough to repel a bear on the prowl or a bison in a temper.

Forest walk

Spider webIn any case, it turns out that my fears are unfounded. For the first hour of our walk, the forest is absolutely still, slowly stirring to life. We make our way past dry grass, thorny plants and uneven mud paths into thickets where the sunlight is muted.

All around us are the towering sal trees typical to this part of central India and masses of teak trees, constantly calling out to smugglers. And then there are the palash trees, whose flowers (flame of the forest) paint the entire forest a rich shade of red in summer.

At this time, it is impossible to not recall poet Bhavani Prasad Mishra’s ode, where he describes these dense forests as languid, almost drowsy:

Satpura ke ghane jungal
Neend me doobe huey se…

Lakhan stops to point out interesting trees and plants; there are over 1200 species in this forest, many of them of great medicinal value. My guides say that locals once knew just the right herb to treat every ailment; from minor indigestion to severe injuries, the forest served them well.

So I learn that the milk that comes out of akona works wonders for swollen joints, when rubbed with warm mustard oil. And that van tambaku is the perfect antidote for dog bites. We walk past harra and bahera plants whose extracts go into popular ayurvedic health potions, mahua trees whose flowers are used to make local liquor and unexpectedly, clusters of lavender blossoms.

And then our first wildlife sighting: a sloth bear digging for food (predominantly ants and termites). Initially, we see only a bent back, till he suddenly looks up on hearing our muffled voices and scampers away into the bushes. We amble on, catching glimpses of giant spiders spinning gossamer webs and wild boars that rush past in a great hurry, as if running late for a breakfast appointment.

Sloth bear
(image credit: Ashish Tirkey)

Later on, after our own quick breakfast, we walk by the riverbank to watch chitals drink water, keeping a wary eye out for crocodiles. When the sun comes up in full force, we return to the resort, after an exhilarating three hours in the forest.

Unlike the more popular national parks like Kanha and Bandhavgarh, Satpura is still an undiscovered gem. Apart from the numerous varieties of deer, gaur (Indian bison), wild dogs and jackals, sightings of sloth bears and leopards are common here. So far, it is off the beaten “tiger trail” for most travellers, giving serious wildlife and birding enthusiasts enough time and space to explore its rich biodiversity.

Gaur

Chital

Birds
(image credit: Ashish Tirkey)

This also means like unlike some of the other tiger destinations, Satpura is not littered with hotels and resorts. Of the handful of luxury options, The Denwa Backwater Resort has an idyllic location, right by the river. The jetty is just a few minutes away and we head for the boat safari one evening.

In the complete stillness of the water, the only sounds are from the avian life: cormorants on top of dead tree branches, white-throated kingfishers fishing for their supper, red-wattled lapwings basking in the mellow evening sunshine, wooly necked storks building a nest for their young and Indian vultures circling high above.

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CottageAfter the boat safari, Raju is in a mad rush to get me back to my room. I cannot afford to miss the spectacular sunset, he insists. And so, from the verandah of my treehouse, I watch the Denwa river turn a molten golden, as fishing boats make their tired way home. Although many of the cottages directly face the river, my room in the treehouse commands expansive views, all the way to the boundaries of the national park across the water.

Sunset

Satpura National Park gets its name from the surrounding Satpura hills, contiguous with the more famous hills of Pachmahri. The park itself is reached only by boat, a five minute ride across the Denwa. I go into the forest a couple of times on a jeep safari. On these drives, we spot groups of langurs, gaur, chital, sambar deer, and four-horned antelopes.

Our guide, well trained and sharp-eyed, points out a Malabar Giant Squirrel, endemic to this region and now endangered. Its tail, golden brown and bushy, measures nearly two feet in length. I get a glimpse of more sloth bears, this time a mother and cub walking together. There are several alarm calls from the deer and the monkeys, indicating the presence of predators. We stop and wait patiently each time but no leopard or tiger emerges during our forest drives.

Every other activity, however, pales in comparison to the thrill of the night safari organised by the resort. The light fades early at this time of the year and we are driving in pitch darkness. The night safari is in the buffer zone of the forest, which feels just as dense and untamed. As always, an official forest guard accompanies us, standing in the jeep with a powerful flashlight. The only way to spot an animal is by its shining eyes, when the flashlight is focused on it. The drive is exciting, sometimes even scary but totally rewarding, for that feeling of being one with the wilderness. My guide tells me that leopards are often seen on these drives but I don’t seem to have “leopard luck” and find only peacocks, hares and more deer.

Of all the Indian forests I have been to, Satpura has given me the most varied opportunities to explore its beauty. Not surprisingly, this National Park regularly wins awards for being the most visitor friendly wildlife destination.

Satpura

Yet, Satpura sits quietly and patiently, awaiting discerning visitors. As the poem goes:

Ghaas chup hain, kaas chup hain
Mook shaal, palash chup hain

The grass is still, the thatch is silent,
The sal tree is mute, the flame of the forest is silent…

QUICK FACTS

Getting there: Jet Airways has regular flights from several Indian cities to Bhopal, from where Satpura is roughly 150 km away (three hours drive)

Accommodation: Choices are limited in Satpura: consider Denwa Backwater Escape or Forsyth Lodge.

For more information: Visit Satpura National Park

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This was published in the January issue of Jet Wings International as Silent Forest, Teeming Life

Hotels I love: Kanha Earth Lodge

I recently had a chance to spend a few days in Kanha, where I stayed at the Kanha Earth Lodge. Think of a small boutique resort right in the middle of a forest. Add to it the comfort of a home away from home. Throw in warm service, smiling faces and great food. And there you have Kanha Earth Lodge.

This is one of the nicest places I have ever stayed in during my travels. Here are my ten reasons why you should choose Kanha Earth Lodge when you go to Kanha National Park.

1. Getting to the lodge

Your Kanha adventure begins from the time you turned off the main highway from Jabalpur into the forest road towards the resort. It is an unforgettable experience, driving through the thickets, with barely some signs of civilisation on the way. You drive on and on inside what seems like a forest in itself, then a sudden sharp turn, and there you are.

2. Being part of the environment

The lodge is part of Pugdundee Safaris and has won several awards for its eco-friendliness and unique stone architecture. One quick tour of the property and it is easy to see why. There are only twelve cottages in all, six set on either side of the main common area, in a mild curve. The of the lodge is entirely in harmony with the environment, and feels seamlessly connected to the wilderness around. Don’t be surprised if you see a snake on your way to the cottage or hear the cries of a wild animal from far away. They also work closely with locals, training and employing them at the lodge or procuring food supplies from them when possible.

way to cottage

3. Eco-friendly cottages

Each cottage is warm and beautiful in its simplicity. I loved the smart use of earth and wood, offset by the warm reds and oranges of the furnishings. The outside is brought into the room in many ways: the verandah at the back that opens out to the bushes, the shower area with a skylight and just the general sense of being surrounded by greenery.

By the bed

Lounge

Reading nook

4. Friendly staff

Here, there are smiling faces all around, from the first welcome with a cold drink and hot towels, to the help in planning your stay so you get the best experience. And then there are the little thoughtful touches like hot water bottles in bed and in the jeep for morning safaris, that really enhance the “home away from home” feeling.

5. Warm and inviting common spaces

This is possibly one of my favourite things about the lodge and one reason I would strongly recommend it. The common spaces are beautifully designed and furnished, with several interesting curios with a local theme, and several indoor activities for adults and kids. When I was not out on a safari or walk, I was torn between sitting in my room with a book and heading to the common area to find people to talk to.

Common dining space

Social space

Bonfire

6. A chance to make friends

The common spaces are created in a way that encourages (and sometimes, subtly forces) socialising with other guests. For instance, the dining are has a long table where all guests set together at mealtimes. Here the conversation flows easily, travel stories are shared, common interests and acquaintances are discovered. Then there is the bonfire at night, where guests meet and swap their wildlife tales from the day. I made a few friends here and enjoyed sharing my jeep with them during my safaris into the forest. Kanha Earth Lodge is a great place to meet likeminded people, especially keen photographers and travel enthusiasts.

7. Superb, sinful meals

EggsactlyThe food here is absolutely delicious, the kind that will make you forget all about diets (but hey, you are on holiday). It starts at breakfast (assuming you have not headed out to the jungle really early), with a wide spread, from alu parathas and achar, homemade peanut butter and fresh muesli. Apart from the taste, the lovely thing is the way dinners are served at different locations each evening – right in the middle of the bush, by the pool and on the morning of my departure, in the open verandah under the mild early winter sunlight.

Breakfast

8. The perfect base for safaris

The area around the lodge is part of the buffer zone of the Kanha forest and offers plenty of opportunities for excellent birdwatching and chance animal sightings. Naturalists from the lodge take you on exploratory walks or birding rambles into the buffer zone.

9. A slice of village life

I went for a local mela and walked into village homes to see their traditional way of life. This was the annual Kartik Purnima mela, held a few kilometres from the lodge, across the river, which I crossed on foot. Otherwise, there are regular weekly markets that make for great excursions, especially if you want a break from the forest drives.

10. Leave your urban worries behind

You don’t have a choice: you leave behind all thoughts of mobile phone signals and internet connections at the highway. And when work, in its own annoying way, interrupted even this wilderness experience, I managed to find a phone connection (tip: if you plan to travel into the interiors of India, go BSNL) and quick email access at the main office.

Burning bright again

Tigers are back in Panna, and how!

Panna

(Published in the special Wildlife issue of Outlook Traveller in October. Click on the image to read the story in pdf form. Photographs and video not part of the published story.)

On my evening safari into the Panna National Park, my companions are not happy. They have promised to show their three year old a tiger, and a tiger is what they demand. The peacock and the paradise flycatcher? The flighty langur? The gilded leaves of the Indian ghost gum tree? The flaming sunset? They have seen it all in their farmhouse back in Delhi, thankyouverymuch. Where is the tiger?

The tiger remains elusive, as is the nature of the beast. And we drive on and on, following the abundant pugmarks, the helpful tips from the patrolling park officials and our own guide’s nose. To a man, the locals are determined to show us a tiger today. It is Panna’s reputation at stake.

As the light begins to fade, there is a rustling in the dry leaves ahead of us and we collectively hold our breath. And a leopard crosses our path and in a flash, disappears into the brown slopes. My first leopard spotting and so I am still holding my breath (all those years of yogic breathing paying off). Our farmhouse family is still unimpressed. Said three year old has fallen asleep, empty Kurkure packet crinkling in his tiny hands, lips curved in a dreamy smile.

‘Show me the tiger,’ is a common – sometimes desperate, often demanding – refrain in our National Parks but it feels particularly poignant here, given Panna’s history. In 1994, when Panna was brought under Project Tiger, making it India’s 22nd tiger reserve, the count was a healthy 23. Just fifteen years later, in 2009, the tiger population was zero. Rampant poaching, poisoning by locals and natural causes, all abetted by governmental indifference, had killed off the entire lot.

This is a sad story, but not particularly surprising, given how we have been failing our tigers consistently across the country. The twist in this tail, if you will, comes from how quickly and efficiently the Park authorities responded to this situation.

It started with the entry of R Sreenivasa Murthy as Field Director of Panna Tiger Reserve. Murthy was a man on a mission, as he got together a team as passionate about the cause as he was. In late 2009, they introduced two tigresses and one tiger into Panna from the other Madhya Pradesh Reserves, and monitored their progress with great care.

Murthy remembers how tough the initials days were, given that tigers are creatures of habit and tend to seek out familiar territory. Surely enough, the male wandered off on his own, soon after being introduced into the Panna Reserve. He was headed towards home territory and had to be tracked for over 50 days before he could be tranquilised and brought back.

A couple of years later, in November 2011, the team added to the mix, two orphaned tiger cubs from Kanha National Park, which they had earlier rescued and raised for eighteen months. This experiment in “rewilding,” another first in wildlife conservation in India – and the first such successful project in the world – has also paid off. And earlier this year, tigress T6 has been brought in from Pench, purely to correct the skewed gender ratio within the Park.

(Source: HindustanTimes.com)

Today, 21 tigers roam inside Panna National Park.

I spot one of them during my morning drive into the forest the next day. She is introduced to me – from a safe distance – as T2. But more on her later. Unlike say, Ranthambhore, the big cats here don’t have cutesy names, but are known by their lineage: the T series and the P series, to signify the tigers that were brought into Panna and those that were born here. Tiger spotting is increasingly common here now, and tourists are slowly making their way here, away from Bandhavgarh and Kanha, which lie deeper in the heart of the state.

But it is not as if anyone believed tigers would be back in Panna. Travellers who found their way to this part of the country came only for Khajuraho, our original Sex and the City town. Even at Taj Pashangarh, where I am staying, the tiger motif is glaringly missing. Instead, on the floor mats and door handles there is the ghariyal, the water crocodile found on the Ken river that flows through this region and inside the National Park. “We couldn’t even have photographs of tigers here in the lodge when there were no tigers in the Park,” says Narayana, the senior naturalist.

Taj Pashangarh is in a quiet location far away from the main forest, and far far away from mobile phone signals and television sets. I insist on calling home, so the lodge manager points to a slab on the floor inside the dining area and says cheerfully, “Airtel? If you stand on those two stones, you may catch a signal.” The lodge is all stone and earth, 12 cottages set at a comfortable enough distance from each other to ensure that I get lost each time on the way to mine. My favourite location is the gazebo in the stone verandah adjoining the cottage. There, I am surrounded by my own patch of forest, its diverse noises filtering in through the night, sometimes soothing, sometimes scary.

The morning safari begins on a cold note. My teeth stop chattering only when the mist clears an hour later and a large herd of chital appears from inside the foliage. In the pale morning sunlight, the white bark of the aforementioned ghost gum trees take on an eerie quality. I am the only tourist in the jeep that morning, along with three of Pashangarh’s naturalists. They are gratified at my wide-eyed happiness at just being in the forest. And they are determined to show me a tiger.

The terrain inside Panna is flat and it is easy to spot animal movement. T2 puts in an appearance early in the morning, her catwalk lasting for over ten minutes. There is none of the usual drama that precedes tiger spotting: frenzied alarm calls in the bushes with corresponding hushed whispers in the jeeps.

With T2 arrival, there is excitement in the air; park officials are out in full force with their walkie-talkies and tracking devices. T1 has also been spotted in the area recently and we wait to see if she or any of the cubs will emerge. However, it soon becomes clear that the action is over for the day. And so we head off for breakfast.

Panna is one of the National Parks with designated areas for visitors to hop off and stretch their legs. Narayana stops the jeep at one of these nooks, overlooking the Reserve and the Ken snaking at a distance. The picnic hampers from the Pashangarh kitchen come out one by one, with fresh muffins, muesli, sandwiches and cookies. Fresh fruit and coffee. And the killer deal, warm parathas with two types of achar.

After a mandatory pit stop at Pandav waterfalls on way, we head back to Pashangarh. I have barely got over my jungle breakfast when it is time for lunch. And lunch at Pashangarh is what they call a light meal, which means a few cold salads, followed by rice, dal makhani and a couple of vegetables. Oh, and some succulent paneer which Chef Kanhaiya grills at the table.

Perhaps because I have come without any expectations, Panna is full of happy surprises for me. For one, there is Dhundwa Seha, the stunning 200-metre gorge formed by the dozens of small canals flowing through the Park. The only sounds here are that of a couple of waterfalls trickling down the muddy face of the gorge and the buzz of the vultures high above.

In the din about tigers, Panna’s forest officials have not neglected their native avian species. The latest vulture census has shown that seven types of residential and migratory vultures – including the endangered white-rumped and long-billed species – call Panna home. Their numbers now stand at an encouraging 1300 and are increasing steadily every year.

Then there is the (almost) secret route through the Hinauta gate – most visitors use the Madla gate off the main road – which, as Narayana promises, is more secluded and spectacular. The undulating terrain on this path with its sharp ups and downs. The tiny river islands where red-wattled lapwings sun themselves in a lazy manner.

And finally, the Ken – Karnavati, corrupted by lazy British tongues – itself that plays hide and seek with me throughout the safari, like some of the more friendly fauna. There is also the boat safari on offer but I give it a miss, having no intense desire for up close and personal encounters with the ghariyal.

Keen to treat Sunday morning with the respect it deserves, I skip the safari on my last day at Pashangarh and lounge over breakfast at my own private verandah. I look up from my book at a sudden sound to see a deer scrambling into the dense shrubbery. Pankaj, the private butler for this cottage, is smiling when he comes by with more coffee. Fresh leopard pugmarks have been found just outside the parking area; at Taj Pashangarh, it’s all in a day’s work.

THE INFORMATION

Getting there

Your best bet is to fly into Khajuraho from Delhi or Varanasi and take a taxi to Panna (1/2 hour, 25 km).

Where to stay

~ Taj Pashangarh is luxury set in 190 acres of wilderness; tariff Rs. 43,600 per person, including all meals, two jungle safaris and taxes.
~ Ken River Lodge overlooks the river and offers a choice of 6 huts (all inclusive tariff for two Rs.18,000) and 6 cottages (all inclusive tariff for two Rs. 16,000)
~ The Sarai is an environment friendly project close to the Madla entrance of the Reserve. There are 8 independent cottages spread over nine acres; double occupancy Rs. 16,200 including all meals and taxes.

What to see and do

Take along a good pair of binoculars, since Pashangarh’s naturalists take great pride in pointing out Panna’s “ten star birds” – it also comes handy when the big cats choose to stay hidden in the shrubbery. Boat safaris and occasional elephant-back safaris are available inside the National Park, so check with your guide about timings. The usual suspects on the sightseeing circuit at Panna include the UNESCO world heritage site of Khajuraho, Raneh falls and Pandav falls.

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