Discovering the Chambal River
Rivers in India hold a special place in the people’s hearts. It is impressive that these sources of life were historically considered important, especially during these times when water is scarce and polluted. Water management was part of civic management and city planning before the early 20th Century when cities started growing out of proportion. Rivers in India are prayed to and Indian mythology speaks volumes of rivers and the stories behind them. The Chambal river is one such – but different in every way.
Origins and the curse
The Chambal originates near Indore, flows North-West towards Rajasthan. It then bends East towards Uttar Pradesh and finally draining into the Yamuna. While most rivers have been prayed to, the Chambal has been considered cursed. For many reasons, the river has been considered unholy and villagers did not grow crops on its banks. Some say it was where Shakuni – the devious uncle in the Mahabharata – resided. Many say that the river was cursed so that blood, instead of water ran through it.
The bandits were a more recent curse. The river, and the deep ravines that surrounded it, served as great hiding spots for the famed bandits of Chambal. The bandits were some of India’s hardiest outlaws and were known to indulge in looting, kidnapping and extortion. As a result, no one strayed into outlaw country.
All this served a very important purpose. The Chambal remained clean as a result of the curse, the fear and the ensuing lack of human involvement. It served as an important catchment area, and remained a safe haven for the myriad species that it was home to. It still plays a very important part in the riverine biodiversity of India. The Chambal serves as an only home for the Indian Skimmer. It is also one of the few homes for Gharials (the knob-nosed crocodile) and the Gangetic River Dolphin, apart from being a winter home for a host of migratory birds.
The river flows through 3 states:
The river starts in Central India and to trace it to its origins, one must travel to Indore. Indore itself is a beautiful medley of food and history. It is known to be the perfect microcosm of the demography of India. The commercial capital of Madhya Pradesh, Indore is known for palaces of the 19th Century. It was an important capital of the Holkar Dynasty during that period. The city now boasts of a vibrant streetfood scene which includes some of the best chaats and poha (flavoured boiled flat rice) in India. The military training area of Mhow lies beyond the outskirts of the city. The origins of the Chambal river lie beyond Mhow. This rainfed tributary to the Yamuna acts as a 960km catchment area. The Chambal starts playing host to a lot of small wildlife even at its origins.
The river is first damed at the border of Madhya Pradesh and Rajastan near Kota. The Jawahar Sagar dam is now a tourist spot near Kota – one of the larger tourist destinations on the banks of the river. The region is known for all that Rajasthan is known for, including distinctive weaves, palaces, temples, museums and paintings. Kota is now the third largest city of Rajasthan and a place of historical importance. The town traces its origins back to the 12th Century. The town is known for its fort, the Maharao Madho Singh Museum, the Jagmandir Palace and for having the National Chambal Gharial (Gavial) Sanctuary. You will have the opportunity to explore the sanctuary, the knob-nosed crocodiles fishing, and a host of birdlife if you take the boat in the evening. You may also find leopards, sloth bears and wolves deeper in the sanctuary.
Photo by prerakpatel93
The Chambal River then winds its way along to the Ranthambore National Park – the quintessential tiger park that attracts travellers from around the world. The best time to visit the Park is from 1st October to 31st March when all the zones of the park open up and the chances of spotting a tiger is more. You can take on a river safari along the Chambal River to spot the magnificent Gharials and marsh crocodiles – something that many travellers don’t. The National Park also has some great places to stay and winding up the river, is a great place to cool your heels.
The river then comes into its own in Bah – a 60km drive from Agra. The river is clean as there is little human interference and its banks serve as the only home to the Indian Skimmer. Short-legged and long -bodied with a bright beak, the Skimmer is a pleasure to see from your boat. The river here also boasts of endangered turtles, marsh crocodiles, dolphins and Gharials. The Taj Mahal lies 60km away and you can also take jeep safaris to spot blackbucks and Sarus cranes during the winters. The river changes completely in appearance during the time as numerous visitors – migratory birds – descend upon its fresh waters.
The Chambal finally drains into the Yamuna.
The environment around it has protected the river for years. At present, population and urbanisation is putting an increasing pressure on the river. The water released by the dams floods the turtle nests. Straying fishermen catch crocodiles and dolphins in their nests. More people using the water now means increasing pollution. With the Chambal though, there is still some hope.
Like other Central Indian rivers, the blue water of the Chambal flows through lush green gorges with a plethora of wildlife on both sides. Both the nature enthusiast and the history buff will find the Chambal a great place to explore. The river has harboured many a dacoit and thus, many a film plot. The ravines that surround it and are quite famous in common memory. In these quiter days, the Chambal has not lost its character. It remains one of the more beautiful rain-fed rivers of India.
Featured Photo by Mike Prince