River of bandits, haunt of dacoit queens, she is fearless and wicked in her glory. She carves a path through high ridges, forming a honeycomb of ravines where wolves and hyenas roam. The howl of the jackal is her night song, the drill of sand miners her day accompaniment. The source of life in an arid landscape, she holds secrets that none dare to unearth. In the erratic monsoon, she is explosive, reaching far into the sandy soils and uprooting lives. In the dry season, she is a mere trickle, a shadow of her monsoonal glory. This is a river that does not like to be tamed. Where she is trapped, she wriggles through the porous soil to feed her many tributaries, and eventually joins the mighty Yamuna. Her banks are the haunt of tigers, sloth bears, hyenas, wolves, jackals, blackbuck, gazelle, and her waters are home to the gharial and mugger crocodiles. This is a river of mischievous intent. This is a river of ghostly laughter and grim tales. She is sensual in her winding path in her palatial labyrinth of ravines.   

Home to the famed Bandit Queen Phulan Devi, the Chambal is as spirited as the lady who once commandeered her banks. She flows northeast, originating in the Vindhyas of Madhya Pradesh and draining a vast section of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan before joining the Yamuna in Uttar Pradesh. Having drunk her sweet water first-hand, I can agree to the research indicating that her waters are pollution-free. These clean waters hold an array of aquatic life and were the first site for the reintroduction of the endangered gharial. The National Chambal Sanctuary occupies 5,400 sq. km. of this river, created for the protection of the gharial, Ganges river dolphin, and red-crowned roof turtle. It falls under the jurisdiction of three states – Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. The Chambal’s riverbed is a geologist’s dream, as is the Badland topography that distinguishes her valley from that of other rivers that I have met. I first became acquainted with this languid river when I was tracking carnivores in her sandy ravines. She was a beacon, a source of life, and a source of optimism for me each time I caught glimpse of her silvery body winding through the browns and topaz. I welcomed the first monsoon shower of that field season by the Chambal’s sandy banks, rushing to reverse my jeep as the waters climbed higher and higher, chuckling at my sudden fear. This is a playful river, despite her three massive dams, and one that holds a special place in my heart.

2 thoughts on “The Bandit Queen (Rivers of India Series Pt. 2)

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