Until three decades ago, the area around the River Chambal in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh was inhabited by gun-brandishing, horse-riding gangs of bandits who claimed the badlands as their undisputed territory. Today, the area is better known for having one of India’s most unpolluted rivers and a rich, unique range of avian life protected by the National Chambal Sanctuary, set up in 1978. (The gangs’ leaders, meanwhile – as the joke goes – have been co-opted into the system as members of Parliament).
The Chambal, a large tributary of the River Yamuna, is virgin territory for most travellers; some of its purity, of course, stems from its seclusion. To access this region, visitors must drive 70km southeast of Agra to the hamlet of Jarar. The tiny town is home to the Chambal Safari Lodge, the area’s only resort offering organised safaris and expeditions.
The drive itself, however, is part of the experience. The fertile Uttar Pradesh countryside is packed with paddy, wheat, sugarcane and mustard fields and dotted with villages that prosper from farming and dairy. It brings to mind the quintessential landscape of Brajbhoomi, the mythical land of Krishna, the eighth incarnation of Hindu Lord Vishnu.
Abruptly, the wicked wilderness of the Chambal Sanctuary appears, with desolate tracts of scrubby alluvial plateaus criss-crossed by deep gullies and ravines. Apart from a single driveable road, there is not a shop, house, or sign of life anywhere.
From the Chambal Safari Lodge, originally a row of stables and two-storey bungalow that served as a field camp for a biannual cattle fair, travellers easily can explore the area – whether by boat, jeep, horse or even camel safari. While some guests take their own vehicles, it’s advisable to hire one of the resort’s well-informed naturalists as a guide.
Boat safaris down the Chambal mesmerise animal-lovers with glimpses of rare species. The endangered gharial – fish-eating crocodiles characterised by their long noses – sun themselves on the mud flats, their bulbous noses protruding in the air. Scarcer – perhaps fortunately so – are the larger, more menacing marsh crocodiles; they can easily overturn a boat with a lash of a tail. (Luckily, the river is wide enough for boats to keep a safe distance). Turtles plop in and out of the water; occasionally, the dorsal fin of a Ganges river dolphin flashes. The famous blind inhabitant of north India and Pakistan’s rivers and tributaries, the dolphin is so quick and agile that catching one on camera challenges even the quickest of photographers. For birders, the Chambal’s more than 200 bird species include the river tern, the skimmer and the sarus crane: the world’s tallest flying bird and indigenous to the wetlands of India.
On land, meanwhile, blackbucks and other smaller mammals such as jackals, foxes and hares are common. Domesticated camels are too, especially as they’re used by villagers as transport. Lodge-organised camel safaris go across the river to the ruins of Fort Ater, a 17th-century bastion built by royal chief Badan Singh Judeo that witnessed many skirmishes between the Mughal, Rajput and Maratha clans.
In the nearby town of Bateshwar, 7km northwest of the Chambal Safari Lodge, there are more than 100 temples dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Standing in a serene row along the Yamuna river bank, a few have interior frescoes, fascinating for the extent of their Islamic influence.
The architecture of each temple differs, reflecting domes and arches typical of various regions of India: the flattened dome of Bengalese architecture stands next to a typical Islamic dome and a pointed Hindu temple spire. Bateshwar is also famous for its annual cattle fair, one of India’s largest, expected to take place in the first week of November 2014.
Today’s Chambal may be far from an untamed region of skirmishing gangs and territorial disputes. But with its ecological diversity and cultural gems protected, it remains wild – in the best, and most sustainable, of ways.