The river and its ravines

Exploring the Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary, Anurag Mallick and Priya Ganapathy discover the wild heart of the lesser-known natural paradise of Madhya Pradesh

If there is one region that captures the imagination of every wildlife enthusiast, it is the central province and the second-largest state of India, Madhya Pradesh. Drawing visitors literally into the heart of the country’s wildest jungles that provided the perfect backdrop for Rudyard Kipling’s classic The Jungle Book, this is where wildlife enthusiasts and tourists can witness the sheer diversity and wealth of our forests, where wild creatures like gaur, deer, antelope, leopard and the royal tiger roam free.

With nine national parks, six tiger reserves, 25 wildlife sanctuaries and a fascinating reserve for ancient fossils dating back to several million years ago, Madhya Pradesh has a whopping 95,221 sq km of forest area and nearly 10,862 sq km of protected forests. Each zone discloses a variety of scenic landscapes and nature in all her raw untamed beauty. From the worldrenowned Kanha and Bandhavgarh National Parks that highlight the state’s reputation as the tiger capital of India, others like Panna, Satpura and Pench are equally popular, making up a habitat that holds nearly 20 per cent of the country’s tiger population and about 10 per cent of the tigers in the world today. Even though Madhya Pradesh’s wilderness draws thousands of visitors every year, there are several stretches that are not high on the tourist circuit. The narrow meandering belt of the National Chambal Sanctuary is one such terrain, presenting a unique wildlife experience. Carved by the eponymous river and eroded by flood and rain, the Chambal ravines run in a wide network of mud cliffs around scrub forests, on either side of the river. For centuries, Chambal’s beehad (wilderness) had been the perfect hideout for those wanting to go off the grid – from Rajput soldiers
escaping enemy persecution after the fall of Kannauj and Delhi, freedom fighters and the ‘rebel’ sepoys during the 1857 War of Independence and villagers absconding after any major dispute to renegades, castaways and bandits. This riverine maze at the tri-junction of three states – Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh – is also home to several species of animals and plants, endemic to this dry and hot region.

The river allegedly originated from the blood of thousands of animals sacrificed by a power-hungry king. It is said, though, that this gory legend kept traders and even industries away from the river banks, making it one of the most pristine water bodies in the country! It was on the banks of the Chambal, believed to be a part of Shakuni’s kingdom, that the infamous game of dice between the Kauravas and Pandavas took place, as narrated in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. When Draupadi was humiliated after being wagered in the game of dice, she cursed the river for silently witnessing her plight. She cursed it, saying: “Henceforth, anyone who drinks from its waters would be filled with an unquenchable thirst for vengeance.” The legend seemed to ring true as long as bands of dacoits roamed the ravines seeking retribution. It was in 1979 that the pristine riverine tract was declared a wildlife sanctuary to help revive populations of gharial (a crocodile variant native to the Indian subcontinent) and marsh crocodiles.

For us, this was a trip to discover the unique region – much talked about but rarely visited! From our base, at a safari lodge near the border of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, we set off on a jeep ride past Bah to Nadgavan Ghat boat jetty. We watched in amazement as camel herders guided a retinue of camels loaded with firewood across the Chambal. One could go on camel safaris along the ravines, but we opted for a threehour- long boat cruise and were awarded with a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

It was early morning and as our boat started cruising down the river, we spotted the first of the many turtles basking on the bank. Next came large open-jawed crocodiles as they lazily sunned themselves and baby gharials peeping from tiny burrows in the river bank. The distinct ghara or pot-shaped snout gives them the name gharial. The gharials are masters of camouflaging and it is tough to spot the brown-skinned reptiles merging with the muddy river banks.

Chambal is one of the best places to see large populations of birds like Indian skimmers, black-bellied tern, thickknee and pratincole. We spotted a large flock of skimmers, their curved orange beaks gleaming in the sun. As our boat approached, they took flight, putting on a synchronised airshow with their wings literally skimming the water’s edge. Our naturalist guide trained his binoculars to spot black ibis, black-necked storks, shags and greater cormorants on sandy islets. Apart from birds, we also spotted Gangetic dolphins breaking the water surface gracefully. A sudden movement in the dry scrub near the river bank shifted our focus to a lone wild fox. Camouflaged perfectly; he stared at us warily before skulking away. We were happy having spotted so many wild residents but didn’t know the best was yet to come. A few metres further down, our guide gestured us to stay silent. As the boat drifted slowly, he pointed to a patch of dry grass near the water; and blending with the yellow and brown was a leopard. The majestic animal stared at us for a fraction of a second before disappearing into the shrubs. Our guide explained that sighting a leopard here is very rare!

The leopard dominated our conversation even while we trekked across the northern bank, for about two km to the fort of Ater in Madhya Pradesh. The following morning we set out on a jeep safari around the countryside to spot blackbuck, Indian coursers and the sarus crane. Next on our itinerary was Bateshwar, a complex of temples, nine km away. From the rooftop of a private retreat by the Yamuna river, we admired the sweeping crescent of Bateshwar’s temples.

Perched on a raised platform with ghats leading down to the river, the complex was once said to have 108 Shiva temples. Sadly, only 40 remain, thanks to the Yamuna’s shifting course. From the retreat, one can take boat rides and a guided tour of the temples, ending with a brief ritual performed by the priest. Our prayers, however, had been answered by Mother Nature herself!

The authors are ardent travellers and the views expressed in this article are their own

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