Exploring wildlife, heritage and spirituality in Chambal

An old haveli   | Photo Credit: Picasa

As our car whizzed past the deep ravines of Chambal, we had only one question for our driver; about the infamous dacoits of the area who had a stronghold here. It was hard not to ask that question, after Chambal’s dacoits have made their way to the big screen.

In March this year, Abhishek Chaubey’s Sonchiriya saw Sushant Singh Rajput and Bhumi Pednekar essay roles of dacoits based in Chambal. Yash Raj Films too jumped on the bandwagon and announced that Shamshera will see Ranbir Kapoor play a bandit. Chambal has been the shooting spot for films such as Bandit Queen, Paan Singh Tomar and Phamous. However, our driver dismissed all dacoit talk saying they did not exist any more and instead regaled us with tales of the ichchadhari nagin that are well-known in Indian folklore. For the uninitiated, these are shape-shifting snakes that can assume different forms, including that of a human, and are known to be vengeful when betrayed. While our driver was convinced that the area was inhabited by them, it was his stories that had us in splits as we made our way to the Chambal River Safari.

Fact File
  • Chambal is 80 kilometres from Agra and can be reached by road.
  • The best time to visit is between November and March, as there are more species of birds to see, apart from the weather being pleasant too.

Nature abounds

The pristine wilderness, unpolluted wildlife-supporting waters, vibrant bird-life, stunning landscapes, architectural gems; the temples and fair at Bateshwar; the heritage village of Holipura; the warm, friendly people; and the opportunity to experience a slice of rural India, is what Chambal is all about. “We usually get upwards of 3,000 visitors per season (October-April); the vast majority of visitors are from abroad (90%), but we are seeing a promising increase in the number of well-travelled, environment-conscious visitors from Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Bengaluru,” says Anu Dhillon Singh, co-owner, Chambal Safari Lodge.

Landscape of Chambal

Landscape of Chambal   | Photo Credit: mds0

In fact, the team here has chosen to promote the unexplored heritage of Chambal, be it the natural, architectural, cultural or historical. “We have consciously chosen not to promote dacoit-themed tourism as we do not wish to hold them up as role models in an area that sees rampant unemployment. We talk about dacoits as part of the history of the land, and the harsh reality of it. We do not glamorise them,” she adds.

To highlight the positive aspects of this town, school children were invited to participate in a bird festival held on the occasion of International Wetland Day on February 2. Anand Kumar, Deputy Conservator of Forest, National Chambal Sanctuary Project headquartered in Agra, says, “In the 2017-18 season, we had 532 domestic and 772 foreign tourists, and this year, we have received around 320 domestic and 348 foreign tourists up to January 2019, and this was only at the forest; we expect more as the season continues for a few more months. As forest facilities are limited, we have renovated a rest house at Etawah and another one nearby. This will help provide accommodation for tourists.”

Call of the wild

My first stop was at the National Chambal Sanctuary that stretches over the Chambal river (that spreads to Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan also). The sanctuary was granted Protected Area Status in 1979, to revive the gharial population that was once subject to rampant poaching. Today, there are boat safaris that take you into the deep waters to reveal some fascinating wildlife. This river is home to freshwater river dolphins and my patience was rewarded when I saw them jumping in and out, offering a glimpse into their antics. The river is home to a variety of birds as well, including sandpipers and egrets and bar-headed geese. I was thrilled, however, to spot the red-naped ibis and Ruddy shelduck, as well as painted storks that added a dash of colour to the stark landscape. This is where I was fortunate to see the famed gharials, crocodiles and the critically endangered red-crowned roofed turtles.

A gharia

A gharia   | Photo Credit: Arsgera

Spiritual sojourn

Closeby, at the bend of the Yamuna, are the 40-plus white temples dedicated to Lord Shiva at Bateshwar. The temples are along the riverfront, and make for a compelling sight when you see them at one go. You can also hop on to a boat for a ride that will get you up close to the temples. There is a special aarti held every full moon and makes for a beautiful sight. November sees the annual animal fair, one of the largest in the country, second only to the one in Sonepur in Bihar.

History meets heritage

A visit to the living heritage village of Holipura is a must. It is said to be inhabited by the Chaturvedi clan who claim to be descendants of the Greek soldiers of Alexander’s army. There are several ancestral homes or havelis that are still seen here. The small village can be seen on foot. This is where you can admire the architecture of the homes that blend Mughal and Colonial architectural styles. A few havelis can also be visited, and many of them are still inhabited by the original owners, who are now very old but still retain their enthusiastic spirit.

  • The Chambal River is one of the cleanest rivers in the country.
  • Phoolan Devi, the dreaded bandit queen, lived here.
  • The wetlands here support migratory birds in winter.
  • The smooth-coated otters reside in Chambal.

In fact, the pride of the people here in their homes and culture is worth emulating. The village tour will take you into the many bylanes, each of which have some fantastically-carved doors that make for Instagram-worthy images. And if you thought Chambal was all about dacoits, think again, there is much more to explore here.

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Printable version | Mar 4, 2021 10:09:53 AM |

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