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.