Of crocodiles in the Yamuna

R.V. Smith recounts those days when crocodiles roamed about freely in the Yamuna river, posing a threat to the lives of washermen and fishermen alike

Published - September 11, 2011 08:34 pm IST

We wait for the monsoon every year to see the Yamuna full of water but even around 1947 the river was not so dry in the post-rainy months as now. In the 19th Century Bahadur Shah Zafar was fond of river excursions even in the months of April and May. The historian Percival Spear in his “Twilight of the Moghuls” quotes the palace diary of Zafar that he found in the Foreign and Political Department of the Government of India which mentions the last Emperor's daily schedule.

The extract for 12 May, 1851, which is worth repeating, says: “At 4 p.m. it was reported that Mirza Kalan, son of Mirza Kaus Shekoh, aged 17 years had been carried off by an alligator while fishing in the Yamuna. His Majesty was much grieved”. You can imagine the hue and cry in Shahjahanabad when this tragic news was received because many young men were fond of fishing in the river on summer afternoons. They were from the families of noblemen.

In 1883-84, the Delhi Gazetteer reported that crocodiles infested the river to such an extent that they could be seen basking near the Purana Quila and made good sport for British soldiers who shot them at leisure. Earlier Zafar had said during a dispute between washermen that his rule did not extend to the other side of the river. The dispute had arisen after a boy had been pushed into the Yamuna by a group trying to monopolise the bank for washing clothes. To make matters worse, the boy was carried away by a crocodile.

Big menace

Hunting crocodiles was common those days as they were considered a big menace for both the washermen and fishermen. A man named Fazlu and his two companions were killed by crocodiles when their fishing boat overturned in the flooded Yamuna. The shikari George Harrington (was a great one for shooting fish in the Yamuna at Poya Ghat as it flowed towards the Taj Mahal and also near the ruined palace of Birbal beyond Akbar's tomb at Sikandra) did not come to Delhi often. Once he came with a party of young men, including two Nawabzadas. His friends decided to attend a mujra. The year was 1932 and the courtesans of Delhi still attracted customers from far and near, even Englishmen. Since Harrington was not the type to enjoy such company he decided to go fishing in the river.

Looking for fish on the Yamuna bank he heard the cries of a washerwoman which made the shikari hasten towards her. The hysterical women told him that a crocodile had carried away her husband as he stood knee deep in water. Harrington saw some movement in the river and some blood too. He fired with his rifle at the moving object and then with a shriek a man emerged on the surface, struggling for breath. It seems Harrington had succeeded in hitting the crocodile, which was forced to release its prey. The dhobi had lost a leg but survived. George Harrington used to relate this incident whenever he heard that crocodiles were scarce in the Yamuna because of indiscriminate shooting during the post-Partition years.

However dhobis in Delhi are now comparatively safe on the river bank. Incidentally, wildlife photographers like the Bedi brothers have to go to places like the Chambal area to make films on crocodiles. Last month an undertrial being escorted by a constable from Madhya Pradesh jumped into the Chambal but his escape bid ended when he was devoured by a crocodile.

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