Turtles, Gharials and Dacoits of Chambal

When one talks about Chambal, the first thing that comes to one’s mind is Phoolan Devi*. The famed dacoit, the savior of the downtrodden who emerged strong despite of many crimes perpetrated on her, Phoolan and ravines of Chambal are almost inseparable. Before joining Turtle Survival Alliance, all I knew about the river Chambal was Phoolan Devi and Gharials. Chambal is one of the major tributaries of the river Yamuna. It flows through three states of India, viz. Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.

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The sandbanks and ravines of Chambal

In my case, it all started with a desire to work on turtles and tortoises. Never in my wildest dreams had I thought turtles would bring me to Chambal. I Joined Turtle Survival Alliance-India Program in October 2015. Little did I know that this river would be a home to some of the most beautiful, yet little-known,  species of the world.

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A view of Chambal from the boat

My first visit to Chambal was a long 6 hours drive from Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. We were traveling to our field site, a small village named Garhaita, on the banks of river Chambal. Our group consisted of 5 people, including me. The drive from Lucknow was a long and tiring one, but the conversation with my colleagues kept it interesting. As we neared Chambal, the landscape changed. The famous Chambal ‘ghati’** started becoming visible. The expanse of water and the yellowish golden sand! We decided to take a break and got down at a bridge to have a look at the river. Because of the river being home to some of the most threatened animals of the world, the entire river is declared as a Protected Area named National Chambal (tri-state) Sanctuary covering the entire stretch, from its origin in Madhya Pradesh, flowing into Rajasthan then back to Madhya Pradesh and to its confluence with Yamuna In Uttar Pradesh, giving the animals much needed protection.

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Humans and animals peacefully coexisting

As soon as we got down, hardly a minute had passed, and we could see turtles surfacing up the water! In a very short span of time, we saw five turtles of two different species, Tent turtle (Pangshura species) and Indian softshell (Nilssonia gangeticus)! My past experience was working on all herpetofauna (Amphibians and reptiles) except turtles. So all I could make out was a turtle surfacing while my colleagues kept throwing names like no big deal. “Oh there is (Batagur) dhongoka” “Oh look at that huge (Nilssonia) gangetica” and I marveled at their knowledge!

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An Indian-tent turtle seen from the bridge

Cursing myself for my rotten luck as I couldn’t take any photos (my camera had given up and stopped working), I merely watched the turtles, craving to capture the amazing sightings they were giving us. Engrossed in turtles, I almost jumped when I heard a colleague exclaim “there, dolphin”. And there it was! A Gangetic dolphin (Platanista gangetica) swimming away, surfacing every few minutes to breathe. We also saw Gharials (Gavialis gangeticus) and Muggers (Crocodylus palustris). I had seen Gharials in the zoos before. But seeing a Gharial in its own territory where it is the king of the waters is a sight to behold! A full grown adult Gharial male can grow upto 20 feet (which is 4 times my length).And when an adult Gharial moves in the water, it is grace personified. So swift and smooth is its movement that one almost thinks that it is moving without putting any effort to it. Here Muggers and Gharials live side by side. Chambal is a treasure trove for herpetologists. Not only it has two of the three crocodilians of India, Chambal also has 8 species of turtles and many species of snakes in the scrubs along its banks. On the river, one can sight Red-crowned roofed turtles (Batagur kachuga), Three-striped roofed turtle (Batagur dhongoka) and Indian narrow-headed softshell turtle (Chitra indica) to name a few. The sand banks and the small sand islands in the river is a critical nesting habitat of rare birds like Indian skimmers (Rynchops albicollis) and Black-bellied terns (Sterna acuticauda). It was wildlife galore in the water! Never had I seen a river which offered such a treat to the eyes.

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A beautiful Gharial majestically swimming

Having heard a lot about the dacoits of the Chambal ravines, I was wondering whether we would encounter any of them. I had pictured dacoits trotting off on their horses with their old-fashioned rifles (all thanks to watching the Bollywood movie ‘Sholay’ numerous times) coming down from some far off hills to loot people. But of course there were no more dacoits left in Chambal. Phoolan Devi was murdered and rest of them either surrendered to the police or stopped operating. It was quite disappointing to find out that the dacoits of Chambal, when existed, always traveled, looted and carried out their activities on foot, unlike my ‘Sholay#’ imagination.

I have stood on many bridges before, pondered about life, have watched numerous sunsets, watched fishermen busy collecting their catch, shared a few romantic conversations, watched birds on the banks of the rivers and flying above, but never have I seen a river which has so much life in that small stretch of water. Unlike river Ganga, Yamuna and Narmada, Chambal is not worshipped. It doesn’t fall under the category of ‘river Goddess’, and probably that is the very reason why it has been so clean. Not many people burn their dead on its banks, they do not worship her, do not put all the ‘religious’ discard here. (Almost) untouched by humans, Chambal remains one of the cleanest rivers of the country.

While on the bridge, I wondered how long is it going to stay the same? If not polluted, the threats of sand-mining and poaching still remains. Gharials and some of the species of turtles like the Red-crowned roofed turtle (Batagur kachuga) and the three-striped roofed turtles (Batagur dhongoka) are the indicators of the clean water and healthy river ecosystem. And these are the ones facing major threat from loss of their nesting habitat owing to sand-mining as they need sand dunes for nesting.

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A Gharial basks at the base of a bridge

Chambal was to be my field site for coming months and here I was stationed since January 2016 till June 2016. Chambal amazes me with such sightings. And when I see entire sandbanks being cleared in a matter of merely 5 days, I wonder how long? Where will all the turtles and Gharials go for nesting? Where will the waders probe for insects? Where will the skimmers nest? What about the black-bellied tern? With these thoughts I sign off. I shall write about the amazing bird diversity that Chambal offers in a coming few days. For that, stay tuned!

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A glimpse of bird diversity of Chambal

*Phoolan Devi: Also known as a bandit queen of India, she was a dacoit and later a Member of Parliament.

**Ghati is a Hindi term for a ravine. Also valley sometimes.

#Sholay Trivia: The village Ramgadh shown in the movie Sholay was actually a fictional village (obviously. Didn’t you read the disclaimer? Any resemblance to person or place is…blah blah). Incidentally, there is a village named Ramgadh along the banks of river Chambal which was also plagued by dacoits, like many other villages along this river.

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14 thoughts on “Turtles, Gharials and Dacoits of Chambal

  1. The Chambal is a magical place! It stirs the imagination and fills my sole everytime I visit. I am not from India but everytime I am there I feel at home. It’s wild, inhospitable and at the same time beautiful and tranquil. Your blog has brought me home again

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  2. Beautifully written Sneha! Look forward to reading more from you and about your experiences in Chambal. Thanks for momentarily, figuratively(!), transporting me to the Chabal I knew!!

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  3. Very informative !! Wish I could make it there someday soon . Talking about Phoolan Devi , she was a sweet little child who was married to a older man , suffered abuses from men and became a monster ultimately paying with her life .

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