My fascination for the big cat crept upon me very quietly and unexpectedly as I was painting one day. I suddenly found them enchanting … all that sienna and orange swirling with the stripes…..and I kept my eyes open for pictures I liked so that I could recreate them on canvas.
That said, I had never expected to see a real tiger in the wild.
I had, of course, visited Calcutta zoo as a child and had known that the stinky area was where the tigers were. The section was usually very crowded and I was never too keen on it. I remember seeing an excellent specimen of the animal in Duisburg zoo but that was a very touristy thing to do when you were travelling with kids. Back home in Calcutta, one winter I took the girls to Calcutta zoo. It was crowded. A tiger sat resting with its back to us, the cage was rather small for him. Sadly, maybe it was my imagination, but he looked thin and unhappy and the crowds milling about outside the cage and calling out did not help. I came away sad..and swore never to visit the zoo again.
But nothing prepared me for the sight of a Panthera Tigris in the jungle.
Having visited a good many national parks in India, ranging from Bandhavgarh to Kanha to Kaziranga to Chitwan to the Sunderbans and not having seen much more than a few chitals, monkeys, rhinos and the like, I was quite indifferent to the idea of visiting Tadoba when the spouse suggested it. My cousins were coming down from Scotland and we wanted to go on a holiday together. After much deliberation, everyone agreed on Tadoba.
“When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”
It was dawn. The sun could not be seen behind the trees but morning had stretched a finger into the forest when we saw her: our first sight of a tiger that walked regally ahead of our vehicles. It was a sight to be seen, one that I will never forget: the click click of cameras and fumbling for the zoom…
The lady was unperturbed. And indifferent. She turned as if to survey us and with one haughty shake of her head, strode back into the forest.
She owns the forest and she made sure we knew it.
We then found out that this particular tigress, P1, also known as “Chota Tara” as in “Small star”, had two cubs. one male and one female. Over our three day visit we would see the male cub and catch a glimpse of the female. We also saw P1 again as in the evening she condescended to make an appearance as we waited, still and quiet in our jeeps. We also saw another tigress (P2 or Maya), a beautiful leopard as it climbed onto a tree, we saw sloth-bears, crocodiles, chital deer, sambar deer, langurs and birds of every imaginable size and colour.
But this is not a checklist of the animals and wildlife we saw….or the resort we stayed in or the people we met.
This is about that first sight of a tiger. In the wild. A utterly stunning image that I will cherish forever.
“Tyger, tyger burning bright
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry.” (William Blake)