Asia » India » Uttar Pradesh » Fatehpur Sikri » National Chambal Sanctuary - 28 February to 3 March 2013
28.02.2013 - 03.03.2013 30 °C
A week into our wildlife adventure and we still had another three days to go. What I'd hoped would be a leisurely ten days had so far turned out to be anything but!
It had been a hive of activity, involving chilly early mornings and hot, sunny days in the open-air, with much hurtling around in jeeps or bumping along on cycle rickshaws. It had been exhausting, educational and exhilarating in almost equal quantities. Okay, I did get one lazy morning - but, boy, did I need it!
Although a veteran of many places on our itinerary, the last two animal sanctuaries, Ranthambore ('Hooray, we heard a tiger roar!') and Keoladeo ('A Birder Paradise in Rajasthan?'), were entirely new to me. While I won't hurry back to the first of these, the latter was fantastic!
Now, we were off to a third, the National Chambal Sanctuary, about 125 kilometres to the east of Keoladeo. It's little known to travel bloggers. In all probability, mine - the one you're now reading - is one of very few to have 'National Chambal Sanctuary' as its location!
But first a sentence or ten about a well-known place through which we had to pass on the way - Fatehpur Sikri.
In the second half of the 16th century, the capital of the Mughal empire was right here on the Sikri ridge. It was originally called Fatehabad (Fateh, an Arabic or Persian word referring to military 'victories') and later Fatehpur ('pur', as you'll know if you've read one of my previous blogs, meaning 'city').
Built by the Emperor Akbar, this massive city was 'considerably larger than London and more populous' according to Ralph Fitch, an English traveller who passed this way in 1585. It comprised palaces and public buildings, harems, and residences for the court, the army, royal servants and a huge population.
There were mosques too, the largest of which, the Jama Masjid (not to be confused with one of the same name in Delhi), was designed to accommodate 10,000 faithful and, according to the dedicatory inscription, deserved no less respect than Mecca itself.
Here too was the late-16th Century tomb of the Sufi saint Salim Chishti, who foretold the birth of Akbar's son. That son was named Prince Salim after the saint. He later succeeded Akbar to the throne of the Mughal Empire in his imperial name of Jahangir. It's a superb piece of Mughal architecture with particularly fine jali (perforated marble screens) enclosing the entire shrine.
The city's architecture is impressive and, perhaps more importantly, it's perfectly preserved for, although completed in 1573, it was only lived in for a dozen or so years before being abandoned. It was a bit like the thousand-piece jigsaw you bought at a charity shop. You had a place to put it and you had a picture of what it would look like. You spent ages putting it together and started to enjoy it. Then, just as it was more or less finished, you discovered there was one tiny piece missing! In this case, the Emperor's capital without a future was beautifully built in the right place to govern an empire - but there wasn't enough water to sustain the Emperor or his thousands of subjects!
Akbar's loss is our gain. It's a wonderful example of a city preserved in time.
And so we continued, along the way passing overloaded taxis, halting momentarily to photograph them for posterity. If they'd been in the UK, the Health & Safety Executive would have had kittens!
Although very familiar with the area, our driver encountered unexpected roadworks and lost his way, taking a wrong turn somewhere on the Agra ring-road. The sun had dipped below the horizon by the time we arrived at our destination, the National Chambal Sanctuary.
The Chambal River is part of the Gangetic drainage system and a tributary of the Yamuna (the river which runs beside the Taj Mahal). The sanctuary, in existence since 1979, is situated near where the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh meet, and is co-administered by all three states. It covers a large area where the river cuts through ravines and hills to create a long and narrow eco-reserve, about 450 kilometres long and two to six kilometres wide.
It was established primarily to protect critically-endangered small crocodiles called Gharials (Gavialis gangeticus) and it now supports the largest population of this creature in the wild.
It's one of the cleanest rivers in India, one of very few places where you might be lucky enough to see the rare Ganges River Dolphin and the endangered Red Crowned Roof Turtle, and the only place where Indian Skimmers are known to nest in large numbers. It certainly is a very special place.
High on our list of things to do was a boat ride on the Chambal River. Now this wasn't to be any old boat ride. We needed a guide and he came in the shape of Gajendra Dagar, a young naturalist provided to us by our hotel. He proved to be a brilliant spotter, extremely knowledgeable and very pleasant to be with.
In the space of a few hours, he found us several of the long-snouted Gharials (pictured above), Mugger (also called Marsh) Crocodiles (pictured below), some turtles and an array of spectacular and rare birds. There was also a Jungle Cat somewhere just above the river bank, although I would have needed better eyesight or binoculars to see it. Alas, there were no sightings of freshwater dolphins or the endangered turtle.
In the grounds of our hotel and among adjoining farmland, we were introduced to a wide variety of smaller birds and some owls.
Returning from an excursion to nearby temples, we encountered a pair of mongoose moving fast through the undergrowth just outside the hotel entrance. That night, in the gardens, by torchlight, Janice had a glimpse of a palm civet (a small tree-dwelling wild cat - similar to those that, in Indonesia, are responsible for Kopi Luwak, coffee made from the part-digested beans found in its droppings, yummy!).
In the mornings, I was woken at some unearthly hour by a colony of Fruit Bats, some with their stretchy black wings wrapped tightly around themselves, others showing their ginger, fox-like faces. As the sun set on the previous evening, these giant, web-winged mammals had swirled around like dragons before leaving their roost in the tall tree overhanging my bungalow. You simply would not believe the amount of noise involved when they returned after their night's feeding foray and emptied themselves onto my roof!
A downside to staying for a few days amid this truly wondrous area is the lack of good accommodation. Perhaps you could stay in Agra, about 70 kilometres away, and visit it on a day trip or book a room at one of the government Forest Rest Houses or Public Works Department Inspection Bungalows at Bah, Chakkar Nagar or Pinahat. Failing that, you'd have little option but to stay where we did, at what's called Chambal Safari Lodge. The name suggests that, like others elsewhere in the world (I'm thinking East Africa, Australia, Thailand even), this might be a smart, lodge-style hotel close to all the action. Wrong! This one's a former farm with fields and arid scrub around it and the journey to or from the river sanctuary, through small towns with narrow streets, markets and traffic could take three-quarters of an hour each way. It's run (not very well) by an Indian couple, who usually live in south-west London and who, although well-meaning and pleasant, seemed lacking in good hotel management skills. There's no competition in the vicinity, so it's grossly over-priced too. A pity really.
Perhaps one of the few compensations we found here was the nightly gathering with a glass of something around the fire-pit, swapping stories with other guests of what they did or didn't see that day. Oh, and for some maybe, a highlight might have been recognising a pungent 'weed' growing alongside a path to the cottages!
We enjoyed visiting a neighbouring village, where we met welcoming, smiling people eager to show us how they lived, where they cooked, where they slept. This was a true rural community of subsistence farmers living in tiny home-made houses of mud and brick. Many had a buffalo or two tied up outside to provide the family with nutritious milk and cheese, as well as fuel handmade from the copious dung. Villagers congregated around a communal standpipe to fill plastic containers with water. Girls in smart blue and white uniforms, their hair neatly-tied in loops, made their way to school. Boys bunked off school to play cricket on dusty, bare ground at the edge of the village. Dogs languished in the shade and bright-eyed small children proudly carried puppies to show us. It was a charming interlude which gave us a glimpse of a life that's lead by so many in this land and so seldom seen by visitors from the developed world.
A short drive from the 'lodge' brought us to a remarkable complex of ancient white temples and shrines grouped along one bank of the Yamuna River at Bateshwar.
This important spiritual and cultural centre contains more than a hundred edifices to the glory of the Hindu deity Shiva, the 'auspicious one', the Supreme God. Inside some, bare-footed worshippers and visitors alike had to step with care as many large bees littered the floor, attracted by flowers and sweetmeats offered to the 'lingam' semblance of the deity.
Brave youngsters swimming in the fast-flowing river, a sari-clad woman washing her clothes, priests and monkeys, bells ringing out, little stalls selling all manner of food and temple offerings, a hijra (a eunuch) in conversation with sadhus (ascetics/holy men) and the smouldering remains of a cremation on the river bank visited by a wandering dog all reminded us that this was very much a living place. A colourful, fascinating, busy, living place.
We spent three nights at Chambal Safari Lodge. No hyperlink to this hotel as I do not recommend it.
I can do no better than refer you to my TripAdvisor review, an extract from which reads: (quote) ‘Great for birds’ (unquote) That's all I wrote in the hotel's guest book. I resisted the temptation to add: ‘Not so great for humans’.
We spent Rs.5,500 plus taxes (about £75/US$115/€87) per night per double bungalow (all paid in advance) and another Rs.1500 + taxes (about £22/US$33/€25) per person per night for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For a price tag that was more than hefty by Indian standards, we expected better things all round - it was two-star accommodation, food and service at five-star prices. And where, I wonder, was the friendly, welcoming atmosphere?