CHAMBAL. The very name invokes visions of an untamed land — raw and powerful. A land that has harboured, over the years, innumerable mavericks — from blue-blooded kings to dreaded dacoits. A land that never in our wildest dreams could have been envisaged as a recreation destination.
A visit to the region about a decade ago brought about a quick volte face as I embarked upon a truly unique adventure, one that gave me the opportunity to explore the natural, cultural and historical heritage of the Chambal valley. And get me addicted enough to make it an annual pilgrimage.The Chambal Safari, a wildlife safari that acquaints you with freshwater dolphins and crocodiles and a favourite with the birding circuit, was a bold initiative to popularise the hitherto neglected Chambal river and its surrounding ravines and terrain.
It is promoted by the Chambal Conservation Foundation through its chief patron Kanwar Ram Pratap Singh, who moved back to his ancestral farm at Jarar, a short distance from Agra, after opting out of a career in engineering. Soon after, he started developing an eco-tourism infrastructure in the National Chambal Sanctuary in the form of the Chambal Safari. He is joined in this venture by his environmental scientist wife, Anu Dhillon.
The one-day safari began at the Mela Kothi, with a hearty breakfast to sustain us for the four-hour-long boat cruise on the perennial Chambal river, that meanders through the sanctuary — a veritable haven for ghariyals, crocodiles, turtles and gangetic dolphins. As we leisurely chugged along, I was more than pleasantly surprised to turn a bend in the river and come upon a little island infested entirely by sun-basking, motionless ghariyals.
A lone crocodile lazily eyed our boat (mercifully, it was way past his breakfast hour!) before turning its attention to a couple of adventurous turtles. The shutterbugs amongst us got down to business while the remaining few tried to mirror the stillness around us, for fear of being noticed by the toothy predators.
A bird watchers’ paradise, the banks of the Chambal are an ideal habitat for numerous migratory and resident birds. The most easily sighted (pointed out for my benefit) were the Indian Skimmer, Brahmani Duck. Spoonbill, Flamingo, Pelican and many others. We were also informed by the trained naturalist accompanying us that Sambhar, Nilgai, Black Buck, Chinkara and Hyena are found here.
On our return to terra firma, we were greeted by the sight of a parachute tent, under which had been laid out a buffet lunch of the local cuisine — daal bhaati churma and haath ki roti. After a leisurely meal, we began the historical leg of the safari — a one hour guided tour atop an excruciatingly slow camel (well I chose it over the jeep-ride, for fear of being labelled faint-hearted) to the imposing Ater Fort, located a kilometre away in MP.
The Ater Fort is situated on the periphery of the National Chambal Sanctuary and is accessed by traversing a pontoon bridge. As we passed through the small villages on our way to the fort, we caught an interesting glimpse into an ancient world. It also offered us another opportunity to discover the cultural diversity of the region. This fort was once a strategic stronghold that lay at the forefront of numerous battles between the Rajputs, Mughals and Marathas. The crumbling edifice now stands a lonely sentinel over the Chambal Valley and brings alive the romantic glory of a bygone era. The bone-creaking ride back to the lodge — this time by 4W drive — was a rather tame one. I continued to mull over the events of the day as I relaxed in a cottage named Thick Knee – one of the oft-spotted birds in the region – reliving my experience in this ancient land full of ravines, wildlife, legends and folklore.
Another quick excursion from the Lodge is Bateshwar — the crescent-shaped temple town on the banks of the Yamuna. Home to over a hundred temples dedicated to Shiva, the pristine white structures make a dazzling contrast against the blue sky and the muddy hills. An annual fair is staged in this sleepy town each November and I was fortunate to catch it on one of my visits there, one winter. Unimaginable sights, sounds, smells and colours galore comprise this ill-advertised event. Sadhus gather in tented accommodation, as well as return to labyrinthine caves set deep in the soft acacia-rich hills.