We leave Seoni for Kuraigarh around 9 am after breakfast. It’s a larger than usual group out to conquer the Garh. Besides my forester friend, Shashi Malik, there is one young forest officer, posted as Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO) before getting final posting as Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Sidharth Gupta, and another old SDO, Tej Bhan Pandey, and one forester and a forest guard. Sounds like a gang. But jokes apart, Garhs (forts) in good or bad old days used to be attacked often to be conquered. In fact, that is the only work the kings used to do.
From Seoni we take Nagpur national highway. It is like flying – newly constructed four-lane road with trees and towns far off. The flying stops as soon we reach the forest area, largely Pench Tiger Reserve. The road narrows down to old two-lane. The forest and hills close in. You can see, feel and smell forest. This road has been a bone of contention between developers and the environmentalists for about a decade. Besides the rich forest proposed to be chopped down, the broad road would act as a barrier for wild animals to cross across, thus leading to fragmentation. Those animals who dare to cross can get killed by fast moving vehicles. There have been litigations against the expansion of this road but at the end of the day, the developers win. There has been a fait accompli kind of situation – Highway has been developed at both ends and this forest patch has become a bottleneck. The traffic density has increased tremendously. The narrow hill road with twists and turns leads to frequent traffic jams with huge trucks plying on this highway. Only compromise is that several under passes would be developed at the identified animal-crossing points to avoid disturbing wildlife to some extent.
We enter the Pench buffer area from Rukhad FRH side. Kuraigarh is about 10 km from here. It’s monsoon time. The forest is wearing its greenest colours. We drive slowly. There are temporary cross bunds put across the road to protect it from getting washed away or damaged due to water flowing at various angles across the Kachcha track. The ride becomes bumpy.
This is dry-deciduous mix forest. I can see tendu, saja, amla, salai, dhora, teak, semal etc. The ground is full of regeneration, herbs and shrubs in most places. The bamboo is present in conspicuous number and volume. But many of the pure bamboo patches do not have a blade of grass growing on the ground besides the bamboo clumps. No chance, since little light penetrate on to the ground.
In the hilly area the path is narrow while in the plain area there is larger opening in the canopy and there is much more clearing on both sides. The monsoon season as well as late morning time means very little sighting of animals.
The vehicle ahead stops with a screech. The road is narrow. The grass is growing on both sides as well as in the middle of track where vehicle tyres do not roll. The people emerge and walk forward to see something. We are not sure what has happened but do not want to miss action. We get out and rush ahead too. One forester whispers, “Sir, tiger pug marks.” He whispers as if he is watching a tiger actually! In the rain soaked mud the foot prints are crystal clear. It is certainly exciting. It is always thrilling to see tiger foot prints. It adds value to the forest. You are assured that a tiger is present in the forest. In fact, as a matter to habit, in such situation, I always look around, to assure myself that the tiger is not watching us from too close a distance.
I look at the pug marks little closely. Make some mental note and look at the photos later. Though I am no expert but I find that foot prints are squarish, and on drier ground the toes are roundish, indicating tiger may be a male. Furthermore, there are set to two impressions each with two foot prints. They are both sets of left feet. What I could make out is that left hind foot is falling ahead of left front foot. This indicates the tiger may have been walking fast. In normal speed, the hind superimposes on the front and in slow speed the hind falls behind the front.
We see large, colourful spider with webs spread between two adjacent trees which can be 4-6 feet and with similar or more height. I remember, seeing these webs shining in sun at certain angle making each and every thread clear. But not so much today, it’s cloudy. If it rains, no worry. The web is water proof from all indications. I have see, water droplets hanging from each and every thread but the web does not break down. Even if it is not rain, it can be dew-droplets at times in winter. I just thought, let me be sure. I quickly glance at internet. I find myself correct. But there is more to it. Discover reports of one Chinese research where they find the science in the method of collection of dew-droplets by web which can be used in high tech water collection from air. Another article talks of potential of man wearing spider web silk in future.
I think, “What intricate work? What labour? What wonder?” On second thought I realise, “But then what else. Life is this only. Work, eat, rest and move on. This is what the whole animal kingdom does. Some may pretend to be different but…”
Slowly we are gaining height. Then the road ends. We are done. It’s about 200 metres steep down and up and we arrive at the rocky plateau of Kuraigarh. It’s top of the world kind place – Highest in the surrounding. As has been the practice, in the days gone by fort used to be built at the highest and most inaccessible place. That way, the site fits in for Kuraigarh. But there is no fort. There is not even a ruin to indicate any part of the buildings in the fort. The forest guard accompanying us shows me an arrangement of stones circling the rocky plateau to some distance. I am told this is all that remains of the fort.
For a Delhite like me, fort brings in mind pictures of Red Fort, which is intact even after more than three & a half centuries or Purana Qila (Old Fort), which is 2000-3000 years old, renovated in 16th century by the then rulers, retains many of the old structures.
This would be wrong and unrealistic to imagine such forts in Seoni. This is a tribal land. These must have been very small forts and not of sturdy kind.
Nevertheless, the site is exciting. There is 100 percent density forest all around in the valley and hills. Only in far left we can see hint of some habitation of Kurai village which is also the developmental block headquarter – Kurai Tehsil.
Cool breeze is blowing – ballooning my shirt and caressing my hair. The rocks have blackened with exposure. Here, there is nothing but nature. I see a pile of scat (excreta). I suspect this may be tiger’s. Shashi confirms, “Yes, its tiger’s.”
It’s not difficult to visualise a tiger lazily walks over and after relieving, sits on a rock, dog style, and brood over his kingdom, realise ‘I am the blessed one to have such rich forest as my territory.’ It lords over the fort landscape which can very well be now called ‘Shergarh (Tiger Fort)’.