There are a great number of campfire stories narrated on cold winter evenings, in and around the tiny ‘ten hut settlement’ hamlets and villages at the door step of Kanha National Park. The bitter cold flows into a stunningly beautiful night sky with millions of stars silently sending down their light, providing a magical setting for the people of these lands to share the legends of great men and the jungle with all.
Of the many tales that are told, some are true, and the rest are folklore featuring mythical beings and creatures. What is to be believed and what isn’t, is totally left upon the listeners imagination.
The story of Lapsi – a shikari (hunter), however, has some truth to it, and has been passed down through generations as a story of passion, valor and courage.
In the past, Kanha had many villages within the 900 sq kms that make up its present core tiger habitat. That was before the Forest Department (started by the British government), which is responsible for managing the park, relocated a majority of the villages in the Core area to the Buffer Zone – the remaining 1100 sq kms of Kanha national park.
The National Park is paradise in every sense of the word. Dense bamboo patches open up to vast sprawling meadows with large herds of Cheetal (spotted deer) and Hard Ground Barasingha (swamp deer). Beyond are more thick patches of jungle consisting primarily of Sal trees (Shorea Robusta) and Harra (crocodile bark).
Sal tree forests are beautiful and completely surreal. Imagine trees that are 30-35 m tall with trunks as wide as 2-2.5 m, standing straight like electric poles, with a dense canopy and very little undergrowth. During early morning hours, while driving through these patches, one can see the sunlight penetrating the canopy and coming through in shafts and perfect beams, with birds darting in and out of these rays. It is the most ethereal visual experience ever.
Now, let me take you back to the days when Kanha wasn’t a national park and the Forest Department didn’t exist, around the time when the British Raj in India was still in its infancy, and Kanha was a dense jungle with the local indigenous people living inside it in tiny hamlets – the same kind one can see around the periphery of the National Park today.
Then, as it is now, the cowherds would head out every morning with their cattle, and a packed lunch of corn gruel. They would return in the evening just before the sun sets over the horizon. The men and women would go about their daily household chores and work in the fields. Such was the lifestyle of the forest dwellers day after day.
It was a peaceful setting, until one day there were reports from the surrounding villages about a cattle lifting tiger. A cowherd came back with a frightening tale of how a huge tiger had attacked, killed and carried away one of his cows. Such incidents were and still are common around the National Parks of India even today.
The alarming news travelled fast and precautions were taken, but no one expected that the situation would get worse. Slowly yet steadily, the attacks increased. First it was just the livestock that started disappearing, and what was alarming was that the description of the Tiger matched that of the first attack. Then one day, a cowherd was found mauled beyond recognition, around the same area of the previous attacks. This was followed by other attacks – a farmer and his young son returning from the fields fell victim to the Tiger.
Pandemonium broke out in the surrounding villages, everyone became very cautious. The children weren’t allowed to venture out too far from their mud and straw compound walls and the men and women working in the fields had a constant look out on a perch. The cowherds stuck as close to the villages as possible.
Normal life as the villagers knew it was disrupted. No matter how careful the villagers were, they could not avoid travel from village to village. The route would often take them through dense jungle, where in broad daylight one could probably see no more than 15-20m ahead.
This was the perfect setting for a Tiger to wait and ambush anyone that came along and it did so with perfection. The attacks on humans increased, so did the number of victims.The villages effected by this Tiger menace called of a meeting of their respective Panchayats. they debated and mulled over the issue at hand until someone mentioned a shikari who had the ability and skills to bring the beast down – Lapsi.
Lapsi shikari, was born and brought up in the jungles of Kanha. It was his home, his backyard. His skills with the bow and arrow were legendary, and his hunting tactics were tried and tested and had never failed him. He came from a family of hunter gatherers and like his forefathers, he knew every trick in the book.
Lapsi was given the task of taking the tiger down, which he readily accepted. What Lapsi didn’t realize was that he would be meeting his arch nemesis.
For a few weeks Lapsi tried everything he knew, every tactic that was passed down to him. He used several goats and cows as bait, he waited on “machans”(a platform erected in a tree, used originally for hunting large animals and now for watching animals in wildlife reserves). What Lapsi didn’t consider was how smart this animal had become in its hunting technique. It would wait well hidden and successfully get away with the bait, without giving Lapsi a chance to spot it and react. While this was going on, Lapsi’s reputation as a hunter started to take a beating. People started questioning his ability to finish his task and rid them of the menace.
Lapsi’s wife couldn’t tolerate the villagers doubting her husband’s ability everywhere she went, and she decided to do something about it and help Lapsi out. Little did she know her decision would change their fate forever.
She volunteered as human bait. Everyone tried to persuade her against it, but she didn’t relent. Lapsi was outraged at her decision but eventually gave into his wife’s coaxing and reasoning that he would never let her get killed.
The scene was set, Lapsi waited anxiously on the machan, while his wife waited below at what seemed like a safe distance, trembling. After a long wait, in a split second and out of nowhere, the tiger sprang from hiding and pounced on Lapsi’s wife. Lapsi immediately sent forth a volley of arrows aiming to kill his target, but he only managed to injure the giant beast. The tiger got distracted and Lapsi started towards his badly injured wife, but before Lapsi’s feet could touch the ground, the tiger doubled back and killed her. Seeing his wife being mauled drove Lapsi wild with agony and fury. They say his blood curling screams resonated throughout the jungle!
He pulled out his dagger and ran towards the tiger with everything he had left in him. He attacked the beast, fighting brave and hard, giving no quarter to the animal that was more than twice his size. Though in normal circumstances Lapsi would have never attempted this, the death of his wife in front of his very eyes had made him blind with fury and he attacked ferociously, like a tiger himself. A fierce struggle ensued, and Lapsi finally managed to slay the beast. Unfortunately, he was badly wounded and later succumbed to his injuries.
As the legend goes, Lapsi and his wife were buried together. Their grave still exists and is located at a crossing in Kanha National Park, now known as Lapsi Kabr (grave of Lapsi).
Don’t believe it? Come to Kanha and I promise to take you to their resting place so you may pay respects to the two brave souls who lost their lives in a valiant attempt to secure their reputation and protect the lives of the people of Kanha.
Until next time.
Peace and happiness to one and all.