Legend has it that the River Chambal emanated from the blood of cows sacrificed by a king striving for absolute power, prompting the priestly class to curse the water and label it unholy. As a result of this, few temples were con­structed along its banks. This is possibly also the reason why, apart from Kota, no industrial town was established near it. The absence of similar polluting units is one reason why this river is known to be one of north India’s cleanest, and therefore home to a variety of fauna.

From near Ranthambhore, up to Bhind, the river forms a rudimentary state boundary, with Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh on one side and Madhya Pradesh on the other. Close to a 435-km-stretch of the river has been declared a sanctuary, established in 1979. Some 220km – approximately 20km upstream from Dholpur, down to Panchnada – of the river’s course is flanked by mud ravines, extending to 10km on either side at times. These ravines are a unique geological feature that shifts with the annual monsoon flooding, creating a labyrinthine topography, which became particularly infamous in the ’70s and ’80s for harbouring a different kind of ‘wildlife’. The notorious dacoits of Chambal found the bewildering maze of hillocks and troughs perfect to disappear into after conducting their nefarious business. While this breed is now much dwindled, the real wildlife is, happily, thriving.

Today, Chambal’s big predators are the freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus palustris) and the gharial (Gavialis gangeticus); the latter is the only surviving member of their species (Gavialdae).

In the 1970s, when the government of India realised that unchecked poaching and fishing had brought the country’s gharial population to the brink of decimation, the Chambal River Valley was identified as one of the areas where a resurrection was needed. Over the years, close to 1,400 gharials and a few crocodiles were released in the river through a captive-breeding programme. Gharials started being bred in captivity in the National Chambal Sanctuary area in Uttar Pradesh.

The river is also home to smooth-coated otters (Lutra perspicillata), at least eight kinds of tortoises, 30 varieties of fish and the acutely threatened Gangetic dolphin, a mammal particularly sensitive to polluted habitats.

The meandering Chambal river
The meandering Chambal river

Its survival in the Chambal testifies to the river’s health. In recent years, though, the protected area’s emergence from relative obscurity has been almost totally due to its avifaunal wealth: the present bird count lists 246 species of resident and migratory birds.

The vegetation around Chambal is essentially scrubby and thorny, consisting mainly of babul, ber and shisham trees.

ORIENTATION

The National Chambal Sanctuary encompasses about 400km of the Chambal river area, which begins from Rajasthan’s Kota barrage. Rajasthan falls on the north and south of the river as it courses through Sawai Madhopur. Further downstream, the sanctuary area includes Dholpur in Rajasthan and Morena in Madhya Pradesh.

When the river enters Uttar Pradesh, Agra District falls to its north and Bhind District in Madhya Pradesh to its south. Further downstream (after 40km), in Uttar Pradesh’s Etawah District, the sanctuary boundary ends 5km beyond the confluence of the Chambal and the Yamuna at Bhareh.

In width, the sanctuary extends from 1km to more than 6km on either side of the river, at different places. The total sanctuary area is about 635sq km in Uttar Pradesh, 320sq km in Madhya Pradesh and 285sq km in Rajasthan.

Though the river is easily accessible, there is very little infrastructure for wildlife tourism along its side. In Rajasthan, the only limitedly useful point of access is at Kota.

Sanjoy Ghosh
Hardshell turtles sunbathing on a rock
Hardshell turtles sunbathing on a rock

In Madhya Pradesh, there is an interpretation centre at Deori, 15km from Morena to help tourists. Deori was once a breeding centre for the Chambal Crocodile Reintroduction Project, and is still one for gharials and turtles. There is also an interpretation centre on-site, along with a four-room forest rest house and an eatery.

Entry Indians  50; Foreigners  600 Photography  100

Things to See & Do

Flow with the river – that is the best thing to do at Chambal. It has to be explored by boat, and you will get to see many birds and aquatic animals. The boat ride, in itself, is a lovely experience and it offers opportunities for sighting and photography. Walking trails in the ravines provide opportunities for close observation of the wide variety of plants.

Birdwatching

Apart from the abundance of food that the river’s clean waters generate for the birds, its banks are, for the most part, sparsely populated, and therefore very conducive for attracting avifauna. In Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, the visibility is high, especially as the river banks leading up to the ravines are devoid of forests.

Both Indian and migratory birds are seen here, the latter between November and March. From ruddy shelducks to bar-headed geese and Indian skimmers, you will see them all. The sanctuary is the breeding site of the Indian skimmer.

Besides Indian skimmer, birds such as common teal, northern pintail, brahminy shelduck, and red-crested pochard can be spotted here. Small numbers of black-necked stork, common crane, sarus crane, and black-bellied tern are also found. This wetland has been listed as a high priority wetland because of its biodiversity and socio-economic importance.

A flock of Sarus cranes at National Chambal Sanctuary
A flock of Sarus cranes at National Chambal Sanctuary

The nilgai, wild boar, porcupine, black-naped hare, Indian fox and golden jackal are some of the commonly found terrestrial mammals. The Indian wolf is reported from the surrounding areas. To protect gharial population, fishing in the river has been prohibited. This has a positive impact on the aquatic animal population.

River Safari

A river safari is the best way to see the Chambal sanctuary. The Madhya Pradesh Forest Department arranges these trips.

Safari Indians  1,500 plus tax; Foreigners  2,750 plus tax Timings 7.00–11.00am and 2.00–6.00pm

Boats are also arranged by the Chambal Safari Lodge. The boats are basic, crafts seating 8–15 people.

Safari  3,000 per person, inclusive of guide fees, for 3–3.5hrs (30km round trip). Long (100km) trips can be organised over two to three days on request

Tip Book your river trips in advance with the Chambal Safari Lodge

Crocodile Spotting

A boat ride on the Chambal river, on the Uttar Pradesh side and in Rajasthan, offers an opportunity to spot crocodiles and gharials.

Where to Stay

At Devri

The only place to stay here is the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department’s Eco Park (Contact: District Forest Officer, Morena Telephone: 07532-234742, Superintendent Cell: 09424791819, Game Ranger Cell: 09424791810), about 15km from the sanctuary. It has five comfortable rooms and there is a kitchen too.

At Jarar, Near Agra

The Chambal Safari Lodge (Cell: 09997066002, 09837415512; Tariff:  13,000–16,000 for two) is 62km from Agra and 12km from the river. It caters to tourists who have come for excursions in the Chambal Sanctuary, and organises river safaris as well as jeep and camel trips. Accommodation is in eight pleasant, ethnically designed as well as furnished, independent cottages that feature attached baths and spacious verandahs. The dining area is around the Mela Kothi, from where zamindars once conducted the fair proceedings. The food served is tasty.

Attractive setting of the Chambal Safari Lodge
Attractive setting of the Chambal Safari Lodge

Birdwatching can begin right here amongst the trees – brown hawk owls, athene noctua (little owl) spotted owlets, babblers, Indian rollers, tailor birds, drongos and starlings can be spotted here. Flying foxes (large bats) roost on the taller trees.

At Bah

The Forest Rest House here has two basic rooms (VIP  500 and Standard  200) with bathrooms, subject to availability. You will have to organise food and supplies and take care of cooking as well. Bookings have to be done through the District Forest Officer, Agra (Cell: 08174940867).

Where to Eat

The only place, apart from the dhabas of Jarar or Bah, is the Chambal Safari Lodge. The food is pretty standard – Continental or Indian breakfast, lunch and dinner. The buffet-style meals are wholesome. For variety, the lodge provides packed lunches for the safari, and it’s laid out on the riverbank, with tables, chairs and a sun umbrella. You might want to sample a piece of peda, the local sweetmeat, available at the bazaar at Bah.

Around Chambal

The Chambal Safari Lodge organises excursions into the country around the river by camel or jeep. Camels are a common means of transport in this semi-arid region. Take a camel ride around the confusing ravine terrain, amble along the riverbank, or drop in at a village to see and shop for local handi-crafts (the rates for excursions are available on request).

A standard foray is to Ater Fort, 2km from Nandgawan. Erected in the 17th century by Bhadoria rulers, Ater was annexed by the Mughals and later by the Marathas. Although it is presently in a dilapidated condition, the fort still stands as majestically as it was originally intended.

The palaces and pavilions of this 800-year-old structure display a bewildering combination of Rajput-Islamic architecture. Its bastions provide a sweeping view of the ravines, stretching as far as the eye can see, with the Chambal river in the distance.

Getting There

Air Nearest airport: Gwalior (150km/ 2.5hrs). Connected with regular flights from Delhi and Bhopal. Taxi cost is  200 approx.

Rail Nearest railway station: Gwalior and Agra are both close, but most convenient is Agra, which is well-connected with main cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Mathura, Indore, and more

Road NH2 connects Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary with Agra and Delhi

Fast Facts

When to go October to March

Wildlife/ Tourist offices

District Forest Officer

Morena

Tel: 07532-234742

DFO, Chambal, Agra

Tel: 0562-2530082

Cell: 07376439902

MP Tourist Information Centre

Hotel Tansen, 6A

Gandhi Road, Gwalior

Tel: 0751-2234557, 4056726

Email: Gwalior@mptourism.com

mptourism.com

STD code Morena 07532, Agra 0562,Gwalior 0751

State Madhya Pradesh

Location On the Chambal river near the tripoint of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh

Distance 150km N of Gwalior

Route from Gwalior Tansen Road to NH3 to SH23 via Morena

Inputs by Dr HS Pabla, IFS (Retd)