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Mahua Kothi, Bandhavgarh National Park, Central India

Nothing can prepare you for India. It is like entering and exiting a dream. It is puzzling, wonderful, funny, profound, mad and delightful. Emma Wright found her idea of a safari turned on its head when she visited Mahua Kothi and experienced a luxury safari ‘India style’, riding on elephant back to view tigers in the bamboo forest and enjoying generous hospitality that made her feel like part of the family

Text Emma Wright
Photography courtesy andBEYOND and Taj Hotels

Over our three weeks of pink cities, painted elephants, goats in t-shirts, peacocks in the desert, palaces and far pavilions, the tiger had tracked us. From the corner of a miniature painting we glimpsed it peering out, reflected in a mirrored ceiling, in books, tales and temples and, sadly, in one too many displays of Rajput hunting prowess.

Tigers are high on the endangered species list. Victims of their ‘fearful symmetry’; so beautiful, powerful and mysterious, they (or their bones, teeth and skins) are believed to be powerful medicine. Add to that the destruction of their natural habitat and overpopulation in many of the areas where they occur and it is little wonder that most people doubt that seeing a tiger in the wild is still likely.

These sorts of conservation conundrums are familiar in Africa, so it is understandable that leading eco-tourism company andBEYOND (formerly CC Africa), in collaboration with Taj Hotels, has expanded into India. Their hugely successful model, a holistic approach to conservation, which cares for the land, people and wildlife through beneficial, low-impact high-end tourism, has won numerous awards and more importantly shown visible results.

Mahua Kothi in Bandhavgarh National Park is the first of their four lodges to open in India. Like a lot of places in India it is tough to get to, especially when hooting is a national pastime and drivers average about 50 km per hour. Creeping through the countryside like a flatulent snail is funny in hindsight but it made the arrival at this quiet, beautiful lodge tucked into a bamboo forest feel like deliverance. Especially when the staff wave at you welcomingly with delighted smiles as you approach.

The lodge is comprised of the (beautifully renovated) original homestead and new guest accommodations. Local people using local materials built the kutiyas (village huts) that serve as suites in the Central-Indian style, with minimal interference in the natural habitat, so there is an immediate sense of place. The homestead, which serves as the public area and looks on to a pretty plain and the forests beyond, has a sublime lounge, a generous verandah and a rooftop for outdoor meals. The twelve kutiyas are scattered among the bamboo forest behind, each with a private courtyard.

You may anticipate the palatial opulence characteristic of Taj hotels, but while the interiors are design savvy, spacious and beautiful, they are outfitted in a more reduced form of plush with a restrained palette of brown, white and orange. Personalised touches like yoga mats with instructions, a chowpa set (an Indian board game), home-made sherbets, traditional sandals for slippers and charpoys (daybeds) for naps outside, ground the décor and carry through the unassuming contextual elegance of the architecture.

If, on your travels, you have ever made the acquaintance of an Indian public toilet, you may feel inspired to fall on your knees in the bathrooms here. Large and luxurious with the most exquisite amenities, you will be very happy to find your bath drawn, marigold petals scattered on the floor (andBEYOND butlers are known for this) and your drink waiting on your return from the evening game drive. Mahua Kothi is just outside Bandhavgarh but has a resident population of chital (spotted deer) and is part of the habitat of the area’s dominant male tiger. The people living around the borders of the park also come into contact with tigers, often in their backyards. It is rare to find this sort of interaction in Africa anymore and where there is contact, there is usually a gun around for protection.

In India, the attitude is more inclusive, local workers ride bicycles and walk through the park at all times of the day and rangers do not carry guns, even when they’re on foot. It’s one of the many surprising things about a safari in India. Perhaps they know their tigers’ behaviour well enough to trust they’ll come to no harm, or believe that Durga – the tiger-riding warrior aspect of the supreme goddess Devi – will take care of them on earth or in the afterlife.

Mahua Kothi, India - sporeAlmost every animal is associated with a deity in India and as such they are revered. This is also true in African folklore but folklore does not influence the African wildlife experience today so directly or openly. Travelling with a naturalist through the tangled, light dappled forests in an attitude of prayer felt very different to gunning over the African savannah with a tough ranger. Here there’s a sense of merging with the environment that a weapon, though perhaps necessary, would interfere with.

There are few open spaces in jungles so trackers depend on alarm calls to locate predators. Chital and samba (a larger antelope) make a kind of whooping and barking noise respectively – both are spine-tingling and carry their message for miles. Everything is suspended in the echo of their announcement.

One morning another sound followed – a deep guttural exhalation – the call of the dominant male tiger as he padded through the undergrowth in search of the females. He moved closer and closer, camouflaged despite his orange and black markings in the stripes made by the thin trunks of bamboo and the spaces between them. The sound is rare and wonderful. The sight explains the mythology; there’s divinity in these majestic and threatened animals, but it is only possible to see when they are alive and well. He disappeared quickly, merging with the jungle and igniting it with possibility.

We saw four tigers in all, the next three from elephant back. These massive creatures patrol the park with their mahouts (keepers) looking for tigers. If they are spotted, the call goes out and visitors line up to clamber on to the elephant’s backs to be taken through the jungle to wherever the tigers are. It is enormous fun, though very brief in this park, and the communication through a series of foot prods behind the ears by the mahouts is fascinating. Try to stop in at the elephant camp to see them being bathed in the river or being fed the huge breads baked by their mahouts.

Mahua Kothi, India - bedroom
Mahua Kothi, India - exterior Mahua Kothi, India - pool Mahua Kothi, India - lunch buffet
Bandhavgarh also has a temple at one of its highest points, 12th century ruins (reminiscent of holy sites returning to the jungle elsewhere in Asia) and ancient statues of Indian gods aplenty. The toppled Vishnu resting above a natural pool, covered in moss, is exquisite. Walk up to the temple with your naturalist and a tracker from here and you may see a tiger on its way down. The priest often sees them drinking at the reservoir the temple overlooks. Up here, sitting in suspended stillness against the exposed roots of an old tree, the scent of sandalwood (from the paste on your third eye left by the priest’s blessing) on the air, watching birds darting over the water is likely to bring you close to Nirvana.

Failing that, there is always the food. Mahua Kothi’s kitchen serves honest, sublime, fresh, nourishing and delicious food. Such things as carefully selected freshly ground spices, organic produce grown on site, home-made ice-cream, family recipes (some updated and toned down to foreign tastes) and loving preparation will broaden and inspire your ideas on Indian cuisine. These are meals you will dream about – home made jalebis, kulfi (something like a combination of ice cream and cheesecake), paranthas (salted pancakes filled with potatoes, paneer and cauliflower), tandoori chicken, ambrosial lassis, traditional curries, freshly squeezed juices, wonderful fruit, and hot and buttery naan. There are so many places to enjoy them too. On the rooftop, in the garden, beneath the Mahua tree, up at the temple and in your private courtyard where your butler will light incense and prayer lamps and quietly bring you course after course.

India can be a chaotic place to travel in and very few visitors will pass through without feeling confronted. Certain precautions are necessary – against illness, scams and sometimes despair – and this caution can flavour your experience by imposing a critical distance. Thanks to a homeopath, a turbaned tea planter and a naturalist who had spent time living with the desert wolves in Rajasthan, we were able to move closer to the heart of this country. These interesting, intelligent and delightful people are the key staff members at Mahua Kothi.

We heard lyrical tales about tea gardens and the art of tea selection, learned about arranged marriage, the importance of the moustache in Rajasthan (our naturalist jokingly twirled his in the rear view mirror before setting off on game drives, making us giggle every time) and the remarkable behaviour of wolves. We were introduced to the Gayatri chant, Shole (a beloved Bollywood classic) and Khan market (back in Delhi). Whenever we returned from the park, we were greeted like family and looked after like we’d been away for years and needed spoiling.

We left with full hearts. It was before dawn, the chital were calling in alarm right outside our window but our butler moved jauntily down the path with our suitcase on his head. The tiger was close, tracking us again as we went on our way. We had tempered our African concept of safari though, where man and wildlife maintain a watchful distance, and trusted that all was in its rightful place.

What to pack for Mahua Kothi

You’ll get a comprehensive list of essential items from &BEYOND but here are a few things to add:

* In India, have a pair of Jodphurs made if you’re passing through Rajasthan and wear them on safari.

* Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book is set in a forest neighbouring Bandhavgarh, so bring it along.

* Body Shop Tea Tree wipes are essential for travelling across India.

* Earplugs help when the incessant hooting on the roads becomes unbearable.

* Mahua Kothi has yoga mats and instructions so bring your practice gear.

* In terms of music, try Govinda, Nirvana Lounge, the Gayatri chant and Deepak Chopra and friends.

* A notebook to sketch or write in.
Mahua Kothi, India - bath Mahua Kothi, India - veranda Mahua Kothi, India - drinks