CHAMBAL From fearsome dacoits to wildlife

Chambal River was associated once with dacoits ruling over its ravines. Today the place is where rare birds and animals take sanctuary. It is also home to the critically endangered gharials

WORDS: N.B. RAO

Chmbal River, a tributary of Yamuna river, was for centuries been associated with ravines dominated by dacoits. Even today, the ‘notorious’ Chambal ravines is a dreaded place though many dacoits had laid down their arms or were eliminated in encounters.
But way back in ancient times, the river – which was also known as Charmanvati – was a water body where the ‘chamda’ (skin) of slaughtered animals, especially cows, were dried on its banks.
The river, which rises from the Singar Chouri peak on the northern slopes of the Vindhyas in

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Madhya Pradesh, turned red because of the constant slaughtering of animals on its banks. It is said a king, Rantideva, used to kill cattle and its blood would run into the river.
Charmanwati river also flowed in the kingdom of Shakuni, of Mahabharata fame. After attempt to disrobe Draupadi in open court, she cursed her tormentors that anyone who drank water from the Charmanwati river would end up in hell.
For centuries people abandoned the area and not many would dare

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use the water for agricultural purposes or for drinking. Consequently, no major cities or towns cropped up on the banks of the river.
The 960-km-long river originates from Singar Chouri peak – from a height of nearly 850 m –located near Mhow in MP. It flows north to Rajasthan, then turns east into Madhya Pradesh and finally heads south and meets the Yamuna in Uttar Pradesh. Some of its tributaries are the Banas, Mej, Parbati, Kali Sindh and Shipra.
The Chambal ravines was once notorious for dacoits who ruled supreme in the region. Many were ‘reformed’ through political initiatives and entered the national mainstream. Some like ‘bandit queen’ Phoolan Devi, surrendered and came into politics (she was in the Lok Sabha for a few years), but was killed in Delhi in 2001.
Though many raise doubts about the quality of the river water, the fact is the river is home to amazing range of water creatures including mugger crocodiles, the ‘gharials,’

freshwater turtles, otters, dolphins, skimmers, sarus cranes, black-necked storks and black-bellied terns.
The Turtle Conservation Union of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) says the Chambal is the last known stronghold for the red-crowned roofed turtle.
The Turtle Survival Alliance, the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, and the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust have been jointly engaged in a conservation programme on the National Chambal (River) Sanctuary since 2005.
“This has had good success with series of riverside hatcheries, two head-starting rearing facilities, poacher conversion initiatives, and public awareness campaigns,” says the IUCN.
According to officials of the National Chambal Sanctuary project, there are more than 550 muggers, 1,250 gharials, 75 dolphins and 400 skimmers. With gharials — on the endangered list — more than 85%

of them live here in the Chambal region.Chambal river incidentally was declared a sanctuary in 1978 to provide a fully-protected habitat for conserving the gharial and other wildlife. The total length of the river inside the sanctuary is about 600 km.
However, the number of mugger crocodiles and gharials have increased thanks to preventive measures by the authorities as the sand mafia is quite active in the region.
Today the National Chambal Sanctuary (or the National Chambal gharial wildlife sanctuary) comprises 5,500-sq km area and falls near the tri-point where Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh meet on the banks of the Chambal.
The river also generates hydropower following the construction of dams such as the Gandhisagar, Rana Pratap Sagar, Jawahar Sagar and Kota barrage. This also helps in irrigating land in the neighbourhood.