In India, jungles are full of stories. On the 150th anniversary of The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, Ruchira Bose goes on Mowgli’s Trail to discover these. Produced by Ragini Singh. Photographed by Anil Chawla. Styled by Rishi Raj.
“So Baloo, the teacher of the Law, taught him the Wood and Water Laws: how to tell a rotten branch from a sound one; how to speak; what to say to Mang, the Bat, when he disturbed him in the branches at midday; and how to warn politely to the wild bees when he came upon a hive of them fifty feet above ground; the water-snakes in the pools before he splashed down among them. None of the Jungle People like being disturbed, and all are very ready to fly at an intruder.”
Indian jungles have always inspired great stories that feature grand old trees, quirky birds, mysterious sights, heart-stopping sounds, and shadows and light that can play tricks on your mind. It is no wonder that 150 years ago, Rudyard Kipling set The Jungle Book in a forest in India he had never even visited, but knew well to have all of this.
Most of those who come to Pench in Madhya Pradesh (and the little district of Seoni), come looking just for the tiger. It’s true that a tiger sighting is really magnificent, but the other creatures of the jungle are just fascinating, if not more intriguing and elusive.
This year, to mark the 150th anniversary of The Jungle Book, and to celebrate the incredible jungles of Pench and Kanha, Taj Safaris has designed a delightful Mowgli Trail. Set through properties of Taj Baghvan and Taj Banjaar Tola, it highlights sightings and experiences that go beyond the tiger. To help you find and discover these, there is a team of exceptional naturalists. Impressive in knowledge, instinct and experience, they bring all the difference to your safari experience. Most other properties in the area have very deep insights into the jungle’s other treasures. On Taj Safaris led by Sreenidhi Jayadeva, head naturalist at Taj Bhagvan, who has spent over 12 years across not only these jungles but also lesser-known wildlife areas in India, it is unlikely that you’ll come back from a game drive without memorable sightings and a richer knowledge of the wild.
Taj has overall four properties in the tiger territories of Madhya Pradesh, and all four are headed by a veteran of the wild, Nagendra Singh Hada. A passionate and talented gourmand (it’s a privilege and a treat when he cooks for you); a conversation with this GM will not only reveal magnificent stories and amusing anecdotes about the area, the tribals, and the forest , but also long-lost recipes from the times when Maharajas went hunting.
Those close to him or special guests who have had the fortune of spending a couple of evenings with him here will give you raving testimony to his Dudhiya Keema (a dish made with only white ingredients—hence the name dudhiya meaning milkwhite). He cooks this in an earthen pot over hot coals and always under the stars.
The best place to enjoy this is the bush dinner setting at Baghvan. It has a magnificent wide-canopied Mahua tree tucked away in a secluded spot on the property. The Mahua is one of the most significant trees in the region. When spring arrives, every night the intensely sweet tasting and fragrant Mahua flowers blossom, and come morning, they fall to the ground.
The Baghvan team hangs dozens of lanterns from its leafless and flower-laden branches. Under it, a private table is set for the guest, while the chefs cook on hot coals—just as people did on shikaars in the old days. The setting is magical. The lanterns look like fireflies hovering over you, the smells of the chicken and paneer grilling over hot granite mingles with the soft fragrance from the Mahua.
Nagendra’s knowledge of shikaar cuisine is what has contributed to some of the showstopper dishes at Taj. The Jungli maas, khad khad murgh (chicken marinated and stuffed with rice and eggs, wrapped in rotis, followed by leaves and baked under the ground on hot coals) are both must-have experiences when you are here.The Mowgli Trail of course is not just about gourmet jungle experiences. The drives into the forest will bring you close to wild dogs (who have a 95 per cent kill rate as against the tiger who may be successful one out of 15 attempts), a variety of amazingly coloured rollers, peacocks, eagles, owls, jackals, vast herds of frolicking spotted deer, impressive and stately sambhars, and if you’re super lucky then the great Indian Gaur, tiger, and leopard.
In Pench, you should definitely not miss the trees for the forest. This area has a most amazing mix. In early spring you’ll find the brown forest blazing with Palash (Flame of the Forest). There are also Mahua, chironji, Arjuna (named after the warrior’s strength), frankincense, and the most fascinating of them all—the weirdly shaped and coloured Ghost trees. The Ghost tree goes through three colours that mark different stages of its life. Their bark has a soft shiny about them, making them look more like human skin. At first, the trunks and branches are green, then they look a ghastly red (like skin that’s wounded and lost its first layer); finally they are ash white.
Part of the Mowgli Trail takes one to Seoni, where the man cub’s village was supposed to be. One of the villages, Khamba, is a delight to wander through. The villagers invite you into their house, tell you about their way of life, and show you around their kitchen gardens, where you can taste fresh beans that snap between your fingers, and discover medicinal properties of plants you might overlook as random weed.
When you travel here, keep a day or two to simply enjoy the lodges. Taj Baghvan’s open rooftop machan (spend a night here so you can go to sleep hearing the night birds call and wake up to the playful chatter of langurs) and large wooden decks overlook a shady nallah (where at night you might even spot Collarwali taking a stroll). The outdoor shower is a wonderful and romantic idea for moonlit nights. The Mowgli Trail goes on to Kanha, and while you may do each segment one trip at a time, it’s perhaps best enjoyed in its entirety.