The 'Chambal ki Ghatti' needs no introduction as it is known or rather infamous for its association with the 'Bandit Queen' Phoolan Devi. As a kid, I remember my elders panicking and praying while passing through the Ghatti as quickly as possible on our way to Gwalior. Once we were even forced to shut our train windows because there was about to be a Bandit attack. Years passed but the history of Chambal ki Ghatti remained the same as it continued to live with its myths, in deep isolation, away from the world.
Recently when I got an opportunity to explore Chambal with UP Tourism as a part of Travel Writers Conclave 2015, I could not resist and was thoroughly excited. After all it was my dream to see what resides inside this mysterious, remote area. Its reputation only made me more curious about this uncharted land.
The thought that it's a land yet untouched and unexplored and home to outlaws is such a thrill in today's world, where every place has been mapped out to the last inch.
The very name evokes a picture of a land untamed, raw and powerful. A land that over the centuries has harboured countless mavericks from blue-blooded kings to self-styled rulers of the wild. Now I was going to relive the experience in this ancient land full of ravines, wildlife, legends and folklore and embark on a unique adventure – the Chambal Safari, an opportunity to explore the natural, cultural and historical heritage of the Chambal Valley. What I saw left me completely astonished and surprised.
The rare Gangetic dolphin is one of the main attractions of National Chambal Sanctuary. The Chambal Gorge is created by the mighty and the pristine Chambal River, creator of the unique landscape of the gorge which, oblivious of time, is busy meandering along this immense landscape. Some other inhabitants of this sanctuary are magar (crocodile) and gharial (alligator), chinkara (gazelle), sambar, nilgai, blackbuck, and wild boar. The National Chambal Sanctuary was set up in 1979 as a riverine sanctuary for Chambal's wildlife, along the approximately 425 km length of the Chambal River and its ravines, some of which stretch 2-6 km wide alongside the river.
The Project is managed by the Wildlife wing of the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department and is head-quartered at Agra. Located on the Chambal River near the tripoint of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, it was first declared open in Madhya Pradesh in 1978, and now constitutes a long narrow eco-reserve co-administered by the 3 states.
National Chambal Sanctuary is the main area for the species reintroduction programme of the crocodilian species Gavialis gangeticus (Gharial). Also called the National Chambal Gharial Wildlife Sanctuary, it is a 5,400 sq km (2,100 sq miles) protected area in northern India for the critically endangered gharial, which was almost on the verge of extinction before it found a natural home here. It is a natural breeding ground for this marsh alligator, swimming in the Chambal river and often hunting for prey, or basking lazily in the sun.
Stretching for 400 kilometers, the transparent river of National Chambal Sanctuary in UP is considered pollution free, and hosts an amazing riverine faunal assemblage including the endangered and rarely spotted, wonderfully graceful Gangetic Dolphin. Chambal has the largest population of dolphins in north India.
Chambal is a habitat for rare and endangered bird species and an absolute paradise for bird lovers. The Sanctuary boasts the rapidly increasing and impressive bird list of over 330 species of resident and migratory birds, and is gaining popularity as one of the most reliable places to see the Indian Skimmer, which are categorised as threatened. Black-bellied terns, Sarus cranes and black-necked storks are some other stars. Migratory birds from Siberia form part of its rich avian fauna.
Chambal is also home to the Smooth Coated Otters.
These are fresh water carnivores with webbed and clawed feet and thick brown fur. Besides this, Chambal supports 8 of the 26 rare turtle species found in India, including the red-necked turtle, Indian narrow-headed softshell turtle, three-striped roof turtle and crowned river turtle. Other reptiles who live here are Indian flapshell turtle, Indian tent turtle and monitor lizard.
Other large threatened inhabitants of the sanctuary include muggar crocodile, wild dog, striped hyena and Indian wolf. Mammals of lesser concern which live here include rhesus macaque, Hanuman langur, golden jackal, Bengal fox, common palm civet, Indian small mongoose, Indian grey mongoose, jungle cat, northern palm squirrel, porcupine, Indian hare, Indian flying fox hedgehog, amongst others.
The pristine Chambal River cuts through mazes of ravines and hills with many sandy beaches inside the sanctuary. The red cliffs are made of obsidian rock created by volcanic lava from an ancient upheaval in the earth. With a rich heritage which dates back many centuries, the Chambal Valley has much to offer – from its breathtaking landscapes, splendid wildlife, rural badlands feel, crumbling ruins of forts and temples, historic exploits and many myths. It is a legendary river and finds mention in ancient scriptures.
The ancient name of the Chambal was Charmanvati, meaning the river on whose banks leather (charman or skin) is dried. According to ancient Indian texts, the river is considered to be cursed as it is believed to have originated from the blood of thousands of cows sacrificed by the Aryan King Rantideva in his quest for supremacy.
Threatened by the King's ambitions, the Brahmins placed a curse upon his head, and all associated with him, including the bloodied river. Chambal was also part of Shakuni's kingdom of Mahabharata fame and the dice-game between the Pandavas and Kauravas was played thereabouts. After the attempted disrobing of Draupadi (the daughter of Drupada) she cursed anyone who would drink the water of the Charmanwati river. It is believed that due to the curse and the fear of dacoits, Chambal survived unpolluted by man, and its many animal inhabitants thrived relatively untouched until recently and it's probably the cleanest river in India.
Chambal, the largest tributary of Yamuna river, flows through UP, MP and Rajasthan. It originates in Mhow (Indore District) of Madhya Pradesh at an altitude of some 800 meters. From there it travels nearly 900 km northwards for a confluence with its alma mater – River Yamuna in Etawah district of Uttar Pradesh. The Chambal Ki Ghatti or the 'beehads' start from here, covering areas like Karauli, Dholpur, Gwalior, Bhind, Morena, Datia, once infested by dacoits and bandits, though now they are a endangered species just like the Gharials.
Today, they mostly act as tourist guides in Chambal! One of the earliest mentions of dacoity in the region comes from the travelogue of the famous Chinese pilgrim, Huen Tsang, who is said to have been robbed near present day Dhaulpur. It is believed that ever since the Tomars came down to the Chambal after being pushed out of Delhi by the Chauhan kings, the region was established as a safe heaven for rebels and dacoits.
The boat ride on the calm blue waters of Chambal, combined with a hike over the cliffs, close-up views of splendid landscapes and astounding abundance of wildlife, were the highlights of my visit.
The Chambal Ravines host a series of tourist lodges and other facilities which aim to promote Eco-tourism in the sanctuary. It offers camel and jeep safaris. A large chunk of credit must go to Kunwar Ram Pratap Singh, the head of the Chambal Conservation Foundation for attracting the visitors to the Chambal valley and putting it on the global travel map, of course with the help of UP and MP governments. A project started by Ram Pratap Singh in the area, Chambal Safari Lodge, is one such property which is committed to the sustainable use of natural resources and promises the grand experience of living amidst Nature in its purest form, yet with all basic necessities. The Lodge also takes care of the boat safari and security at Chambal.
Certainly a magical land far removed from the chaotic madness of modern cities, the land is mostly flat and immense in its whole length and breadth. It is only in the places which are cut open by the river that gorges are formed, and at places the elevation ranges between 800-1000 odd feet. With the sun high above, wind blowing through my hair, seeing the cattle herds grazing, with the bells tinkling round their necks, and the entire gorge stretching around me, it was a thrilling experience to finally be standing in the midst of this great barren landscape and witnessing one of nature's true wonders.
The land is covered with thorny shrubs and bushes and one can see a great canyon stretching long into the distance like a maze of saw toothed ridges dissecting the whole plateau. It is a magnificent canyon between two huge cliff almost symmetrical in shape, with the river Chambal flowing in between in the gorge.
The width between the two cliffs is enormous, with winds blowing like harmonic hymns. The river seems serene, motionless almost, as seen from above. One feels so alone and humble in this vast land, and the solitude is overpowering, with the wind creating strange music in your ears …… driving your attention again and again towards the panoramic landscape, which looks like a canvas painted by some divine genius in monochromatic colours. I kept looking down in the water for some gharial or crocodile sightings, for which Chambal is famous, and finally saw one showing me a part of its submerged back, but it refused to lift its head up for the camera! There are many nature watching opportunities available for visitors to the National Chambal Sanctuary.
The best opportunities for sighting and photography of gharial and dolphins can be had by hiring a boat with a driver and guide. Take a river safari with a naturalist to learn more about the wildlife, flora and fauna of this river, which will also offer many viewpoints for photography of water and shore birds and landscapes. Walking trails in the ravines and along the river offer opportunities for close observation of the wide variety of plants and animals in the sanctuary. Here you can also visit the Bateshwar Temples at Bah, 80 kms South of Agra. Home to an ancient temple complex of 108 Shiva Temples set on the banks of the Yamuna, it is unique, as Shiva is depicted as a person, not a Linga, and it has thousands of brass bells that chime in unison. It is famed for its annual cattle fair.
There are public vehicle entry points to Chambal Sanctuary at Pinahat, Nandagon Ghat, Sehson and Bharch. Boating and visiting arrangements can be made with the help of UP forest Department or the office of the Conservator of Forests, at Kota. On the Rajasthan and MP side there are a number of dams and bridges, hydro-electric and nuclear power projects, as well as Shiva temples, caves and sites of the Mahabharata era, like the Gaipernath and Garadia Mahadev temples. Visitors may also explore Ater Fort, a beautiful but dilapidated landmark and historical site near Ater town, 35 km from Bhind.
The fort was built by the Bhadauria kings on the banks of the Chambal River and can be reached by bus, jeep or boat. There are forest rest houses at Bah and Chakkar Nagar and Public Works Department inspection bungalows at Bah and Pinahat. There are several commercial hotels and eco lodges at Agra, Etawah and Bah. The nearest airport and railway stations are at Agra. The Chambal Safari is an endeavour to acquaint visitors with a land that has retained its unique landscape and rugged charm.