Monday, January 26, 2009

#7. Chambal Cruise

Woolly-necked stork, grey heron (?),spoonill

Woolly-necked stork

Open-billed stork and stone plover

woolly necked stork, spoonbill,grey heron, painted stork Both above and below).

Pelicans and greylag geese

Man with camel on the bank. He will search for
a place where water is shallow, and cross the river.

Bar-headed geese in flight

Large Group of Bar-headed geese

Group of six ruddy shelduck (Surkhab)



Wooly-necked stork

Narmada bank


(More photographs on the site

There is a set for Chambal cruise)

The Chambal: A Heaven for Birds

Ganga, Sindhu, Saraswati, Kshipra, Vetravati cha Yamuna/ Godavari, Narmada, Kaveri, Saryu, Mahendratanya, Charmanvati, Vedika etay mahanadya vartate. Chambal is Charmanvati. However, Chambal has not attained the holy category that is occupied by Ganga, Yamuna, and Godavari. On the other hand, Chambal is supposed to be an unholy river. The folklore/mythology is that the river has originated from the blood of cows sacrificed by an Aryan King in his quest for supremacy. Alarmed, the Brahmans cursed the King and all things associated with the sacrifice, river included. That is perhaps the reason why there is no temple town on the banks of Chambal.

Originating in Manpura near Mhow in Indore district of M.P. it has confluence with Yamuna at Pachnada near Bhareh in U.P. at the border of Bhind and Etawah districts. Pachnada is unique as within one kilometer there is the confluence of five rivers, Chambal, Kwari, Yamuna, Sindh and Pahuj (doesn’t it beat the Triveni at Prayag?). I don’t know why this place has not become more popular!. Chambal drains water of the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh. At Neemuch there is Gandhisagar dam which gives water for hydel generation at Gandhisagar, Pratapsagar and Jawaharsagar dams, and irrigation for more that 5600 sq, km.

In Bollywood, Chambal is famous for the ravines and the dacoits living there, in short it is the badlands. Mansingh of olden days and Putlibai and Phoolan Devi are some of the bandits who lived and hid in these badlands and who have gone down in folklore for centuries to come.

Probably because of its being a non-holy river, Chambal is one of the most unpolluted rivers of Northern India, is perennial and it has deep pools at several places which are sometimes 60 to 70 feet, and that encouraged the establishment of Chambal Gharial Sanctuary which has Ganges Dolphins, crocodiles, turtles, and of course gharials. Gharial has a round projection at the tip of its long snout.. Unlike popular belief, it never hurts humans. It is the crocodile which is dangerous to humans. The sanctuary is spread in 5400 km in three states of Rajasthan, M.P. and U.P. and has 400 km of river length.

River dolphin is special as millennia of living in the muddy waters of Ganga and its tributaries, it has completely lost its eyesight, it doesn’t have lens ,and it sees its prey through echolocation only. The respiratory system of mammals like whales, porpoises and dolphins requires them to come to the surface of water at regular intervals. Ganges dolphins can dive at one time for 3 minutes, although it comes to the surface after every 45 seconds.

Well, with this long and probably boring introduction, let us come to the more interesting part. Every winter the Sanctuary gets 30,000 to 40,000 migratory birds. I have made it a point to visit Chambal every winter, although when I was away to Mumbai and elsewhere for postings, it was not possible. This year, I made the trip on the 19th of December. There are two routes that one could take for a boat ride. One is to start from Rajghat, just under the Chambal road bridge which connects Morena in M.P. to Dholpur in Rajasthan. From there one could go downstream to Tighri Rithora which is a small island in water, and further upto Kuthiana. Last year I had been to Kuthiana, and took the jeep from there to Gwalior. Going back to Rajghat against the current is slow, and time consumig, and one would reach back after dark only. This time the boat was at Barhi,about 160 Km downstream from Rajghat. We started from Gwalior at 7 in the morning, reaching Barhi (100 km.) at about 10 a.m. We had our breakfast in the ramshackle Forest Hut which had recently been spruced up as the headquarters for the experts who visited to search for the cause of death of a large number of gharials, possibly due to a viral disease. My friend’s wife had packed delicious sandwiches, both chicken, mutton and cheese, and I gorged on them forgetting about the simple fare of puri-sabzi which I had brought. Fragrant English breakfast tea rounded up the breakfast.

Nine of us started then in a motorized boat. Boat ride is a funny experience. On the one hand, with the continuous breeze and water spray when the boat cuts through the water, you feel cold, and on the other hand, the bright sun is on you in full glory, so much so that a cap, a muffler and a pair of sunglasses are a must. But the whole experience is bracing and exhilarating. You hang the camera with the long lens around your neck, and hold the binocular in your hands- on the whole you are too full with your clothes, accessories, and gadgets.

The first 4-5 km stretch went blank. So much so that I regretted why I had not chsen the other stretch from Rajghat to Kuthiana. But slowly the feathered ones started appearing. First it was spoonbills- snow-white with black spoon-like bill. Then the woolly-necked stork- like a lady in fur collar or very similar to what we were dressed as. Woolly-necked was generally standing alone or was in pairs, not in the flock. Then Brahminy duck. This bird is always in pair, and unluckily a favourite sport bird. In Urdu, it is known as Surkhab, and my guess is that it is the famous Kraunch bird which made Valmiki utter the first Sanskrit shloka.

Bar-headed geese were a real delight, in numbers (about 15), at the bank, eating away the crop sown by the nearby farmers. This bird breeds in Ladakh (Lake Tso-murari is one such place), and spends the winter in the North and Central India. A majestic and graceful bird, it is probably the ‘hans’ of our mythology and ancient literature. I had not seen such a large flock before as in this visit.

There was a crocodile, and a number of gharials at a distance.

There were a few black ibises and a huge flock of little cormorants which is probably the ugliest-looking waterbird in the company of bar-headed geese, flamingo, surkhab, spoonill and spotbills. Three was also a man with a camel. In a previous visit to the Chambal, I had seen 3-4 camels laden with goods crossing the river. The camel driver knows where the water is shallow enough for the long-legged animal to wade through. We also saw six surkhabs together which is a rare treat, followed by a huge flock of bar headed geese (again!). I counted 54. Spoonbills in flight, open-billed stork and stone plover. It was followed by a flock of grey-lag geese and pelicans. Then a lone crocodile basking in the sun, and moving in water disturbed by the movement of the boat. This croc was looked at by a pair of stone plovers (I think). To round up, about ten grey herons, and a real assortment containing woolly-necked, spoonbills, grey heron, and painted stork. We also saw three spot bills and a few terns in flight.

In between, we shored up on the sand, and had our lunch with the rippling river, and the yellow mustard fields in the background.

What we did not see this time and in this stretch were Indian skimmers, terns, pochards, flamingos(too early) and cranes: sarus crane and common crane.

Ultimately we got down at Chakarpur, about 35 Km from Barhi, where we had the vehicles sent and reached Gwalior when it was already dark. This visit was memorable for the flock of bar-headed geese and grey lag, and the large number of grey herons and spoonbills.

Yes, I forgot to mention that we did see a number of dolphins coming to the surface at many spots.

I am not embarrassed to admit that I am already looking forward to my next visit to the Chambal. Incidentally, the Forest Department of M.P. has started an eco-tourism cruise from Rajghat to Tighri-Rithora and back. Best if luck and I do hope that we will have several more who will experience the same thrill as we had in this trip.


agrawasis said...

wow, such a beautiful and informative writeup. i have been around but always missed the beauty of the area. bhat sahab you are using your free time very creatively and i wish others too would follow your example, give us insights and information.
thanks. the loss of more than 300 gharials in the area was indeed sad last year. did you ever find traces of pollution in the river, or any effect of yamuna pollution intruding the chambal waters, anywhere. i fear tourism in days to come will spoil the virgin beauty of the chambal land, or the badlands as you describe the area.
look forward to more writeups

brij khandelwal
i am a working journalist on the verge of retirement

Anand Kumar Bhatt said...

Thank you Braj. Pollution upstream from Yamuna to Chambal might have happened, and yet might not have happened. The cause of death has not been pinpointed. As in the case of human beings, when the cause is not known, the doctors always say that it is viral. I don't know whether it it is true in this case also.
thanks for your comments.