x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Travel tales from the banks of India’s Chambal River

The Chambal River and its surrounding area is an off-the-beaten track Indian joy, writes Amar Grover.

Chugging up the Chambal River from Nandgaon Ghat, where all manner of wildlife can be spotted, including the endangered gharials, a species of crocodile that is unique to the subcontinent, turtles and a variety of bird life, Photo by Amar Grover
Chugging up the Chambal River from Nandgaon Ghat, where all manner of wildlife can be spotted, including the endangered gharials, a species of crocodile that is unique to the subcontinent, turtles and a variety of bird life, Photo by Amar Grover

“You’ll need real luck to spot those Ganges dolphins, but they are around,” said Ram Pratap, or “RP”, Singh. “Still, the Chambal River’s lovely and India’s crowds seem far away here.” By crowds, he’s alluding to the throng and din of Agra, just 70 kilometres to the west. Yet before even reaching the nearby river, India’s most touristed destination and iconic monument – the Taj Mahal – already seem a world apart.

Along with his wife, Anu, RP owns and operates the Chambal Safari Lodge near the Chambal. Rural Uttar Pradesh is not the most obvious place for a tourist, but just as India’s burgeoning economy ushers new opportunities, so its vast countryside offers alternatives for travellers who have already visited the area’s much-trammelled hot spots.

At nearly 2,000 square kilometres, the relatively little-known National Chambal Sanctuary (NCS) (www.nationalchambalsanctuary.in) lies on the Singhs’ doorstep. Established in the late 1970s and encompassing a slender 400km-long riverine corridor in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the NCS was created primarily to safeguard diminishing populations of endangered gharials, a species of crocodile that is unique to the subcontinent, turtles and Ganges, or river, dolphins. Its allure is boosted by prolific bird life, an unusually (for India) clean, undeveloped river and the enigmatic Chambal ravines, while the Lodge’s comfort takes the edge off the region’s earthiness.

RP’s great-grandfather was a prosperous feudal chief. He built the main mansion, the Mela Kothi, in the 1890s as part of a field camp that became the base for a biannual cattle fair. By the 1980s, this fair was no longer viable and the lodge was dilapidated. Rather than let it crumble, the couple returned in the late 1990s to renovate and convert it into an eco-lodge. Today, the mansion boasts an airy annex and, across the lawn, a cluster of tamarind tree-shaded cottages with individual names like Barbet, Skimmer and Spoonbill that reference local ­bird life.

Later that afternoon, we head to the Chambal on a country back-road that is edged by hamlets, with munching buffaloes tethered to trees. Oblivious to bikes and a handful of vehicles, carefree children spin hoops as women toil with bundles of fodder and men work the fields. A sandy track signals the river’s proximity at Nandgaon Ghat and we dip through strands of mesquite, acacia and gently sloping vegetable plots to reach the gently flowing Chambal.

The pontoon bridge here is long gone. Instead, a solitary flat-bottomed, engineless boat ferries villagers and the odd motorbike across the serene river to and from Madhya Pradesh state. Its banks are edged with shrubbery and seasonal fields, and there’s hardly a building in sight. The Chambal’s calm and cleanliness along much of its length springs from a curious irony. Cursed in religious folklore, it has never been holy or worshipped and so lacks temples, pilgrims and much of the human activity that makes, say, the Ganges so revered yet polluted.

The Lodge’s river safaris typically operate during early mornings and late afternoons, the best times for spotting wildlife, especially birds – the NCS has about 200 species. Sitting by our boat’s prow as we slowly chug upstream, I gaze at the riverbanks, incised with murky ravines. Within minutes, we see black ibis, teals and beautiful orange-billed skimmers, whistling ducks with their distinctive white heads and tan bodies, and pied and white-throated kingfishers. Dinesh, my guide, tentatively glimpses a distant Pallas’s fish eagle and, later, a falcon and a distant osprey.

We soon come across several slender gharials with their distinctive, long, bulbous-tipped snouts. Basking by the sandy shallows at the water’s edge, they remain stone-still until we are just metres away, before quickly slipping into the river and disappearing.

Despite intensive conservation efforts, the gharial population has plummeted catastrophically in recent years – but may now just about be clawing back. Classed as “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the latest NCS census indicated that about 800 adults remain in the wild. Much as it has been for decades, the breeding population remains threatened by a combination of upstream dams (which diminish water flow and habitat), gillnetting, sand-mining, disease and poisoning.

Nearby, stouter, open-mouthed muggers, or marsh crocodiles, laze – they are listed as “vulnerable”. It’s probably these rather than gharials that are responsible for the annual handful of attacks on people, usually children, though careless media reports often blame gharials. We catch no sight of the endangered Ganges dolphin, with its fragmented population – perhaps no more than 2,000 across India. Yet I’m not disappointed; much of the thrill is in the chase. At dusk, I see a line of camels, used locally as beasts of burden, padding into a ravine.

Most locals using the crowded ferry across the Chambal at Nandgaon Ghat are bound for nearby Ater village and beyond. Out of sight from the river stands Ater Fort, a wonderfully atmospheric 17th-century edifice with muscular walls and rounded bastions that have, just in the last decade, been saved from total dereliction by the Archaeological Survey of India. I visit the next morning.

Beyond a dusty pitch dotted with cricket-playing youngsters, I stroll up to its walls and the main, arched gateway. A ramp ascends through more arches to the first of several courtyards. Chirpy parakeets flit from rampart to rampart. There’s not another soul around; the stillness is magnificent. It feels like an elaborate, grown-up playground, childhood suspense and mystery wrought large in its corridors, rooms and halls. Intact stairs access roofs and parapets and, to my amazement, you can still safely reach the top of a watchtower that looms over the fortress’s heart. From this vantage point, I survey the scene; a mongoose scuttles into nearby undergrowth, while a solitary striped hyena stealthily crosses the road.

Back at the lodge that evening, I notice a pair of old, framed maps by the library. They show the terrain around the Chambal and nearby Yamuna rivers, with its intricate network of ravines dotted with babul, or acacia. These have taken on an almost mythical status in India as the centuries-old redoubts of dacoits, or bandits. The late, notorious Phoolan Devi – the so-called “Bandit Queen”-turned-politician, who hid and operated in ravines to the south-east – was among the best-known, and subject of a controversial 1994 film. There were others before and after her, their ilk tinged – somewhat fancifully – with noble, Robin Hood-esque folklore. Although barely valid today, this exaggerated reputation has endured in India’s popular imagination and “Chambal” remains almost a byword for lawlessness.

I want to see more of this hinterland. RP clarifies directions with my driver and early one morning we set off for Bareh at the confluence of the Chambal and Yamuna. Once off the main road, there’s almost no traffic and, framed by the meandering, out-of-sight rivers, we head east along an arrowhead of land, the tip of which represents their confluence. To the south, I catch occasional glimpses of the Chambal, but most of the time we pass tiny farming villages with simple houses, a few schools and the occasional local flagging a lift.

Filled with irregular fields of lentils or mustard, with flowers that are a blaze of yellow, the complex ravines prove unexpectedly picturesque. One can readily see how, especially for outsiders, it was a difficult area to navigate. At road level, it’s hard to glean where a ravine begins or ends, and they range from narrow, elongated gullies to steep-walled basins almost the size of a football pitch. Once down inside, their crops and mesquite or acacia thickets make it tricky to proceed and rob the landscape of obvious landmarks.

Bareh proves little more than an oversized village. Having taken the trouble to come, I climb the 70 or so steps to a modest temple that overlooks the confluence. Locals claim that several famous dacoits used to come and pray here before embarking on their crime sprees. Though appearing smaller than the Chambal, downstream from here, the Yamuna’s name, if not flow, is dominant. On a nearby hillside, I notice the ruins of Bareh Fort. During the 1857 Mutiny (or, as Indians prefer, the First War of Independence), after its raja sided with the rebels, British forces sailed down the Yamuna to attack it.

Later, I return to the Yamuna at nearby Bateshwar. It’s an auspicious spot, a kind of low-key Varanasi, with a hundred or so whitewashed riverside shrines and temples with bathing ghats, or steps, leading down to the water. Come late October or November, there’s an annual livestock fair here (among India’s largest), then a few days’ interlude followed by a religious gathering that draws tens of thousands of pilgrims. Both these elements are rooted in antiquity and I’m lucky enough to attend the latter.

Few tourists make it here and, unlike Varanasi, there are no touts or hustlers, petty con men or cremations. Country folk stream down to the river in their hundreds, laden with flowers, coconuts, pale, sugar-rich sweets and garish powders – the essential accoutrements of a Hindu pilgrim. Shrines stand knee-deep in casually discarded offerings, bells clamour and loudspeakers crackle with distorted hymns and a three-day-long continuous reading of the Ramayana. As the setting sun dips into a smoky gauze enveloping the thronged riverbank, barefoot devotees begin launching little leaf rafts of marigolds and burning candles that bob away while dusk seeps into the sky.

Yet Bateshwar also wears the look and feel of a country fair – there’s a lethal-looking Ferris wheel and a rudimentary roller coaster. Myriad snack stalls and greasy eateries, a firmament of fairy lights and an exuberant good-natured atmosphere all speak of a good day out. Except perhaps for the puzzling old lady who I notice patiently dragging a weighted string through the riverbank’s shallows. “She has magnet – searching for coins …” explained a man at my side. For her, I suppose, this is just a day’s work.

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