October 04, 2010


Ever since the 13th century, the maze of deep ravines and scrub forests of the Chambal region of Central India have been home to generations of daring and dreaded outlaws, known locally as ‘Dakus’. Popularized in folk for performing essential social services in hard times and adjudicating local issues, and romanticized in Bollywood movies like Bandit Queen, Sholay, Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hain, Ganga Yamuna etc, the dacoits, nevertheless, unleashed a reign of terror in the nearby areas, committing countless cases of mass murders, kidnappings, rape, extortion and armed robberies, mostly targeted at people of higher castes whom they looked upon as the prime beneficiaries of an unjust, corrupt and biased system. From Daku Man Singh - the revered ‘Chambal ka Sher’ - the once poor Rajput whose fight against discrimination has got him a cult-like status among the locals to the Bandit Queen - Phoolan Devi, the dacoit turned politician who was directly responsible for the infamous Behmai massacre, these outlaws have sharply divided the opinion of the Indian masses, with some condemning them for their unlawful and violent activities while others hailing them as heroes for their Robin Hood-like characteristics. With the death of most wanted dacoit, Nirbhay Gujjar at the hands of policemen of the Special Task Force in November, 2005 and surrender by many others, dacoity in the Chambal valley has drastically declined to such an extent that it has been wiped out of most of the region.

With normalcy being restored, the Madhya Pradesh government has decided to cash in the situation. Come October, the State government in collaboration with Uttar Pradesh and a private player, Chambal Safari, is starting a special adventure tourism programme in Bhind district, aptly called ‘The Chambal Challenge’ from Oct 11th - 17th, mainly targeted at the foreigners who will visit the nation for the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, allowing them to traverse the terrain infested with crocodiles and chat one on one with former bandits. Earlier the Rajasthan government had announced special packages for the Games tourists including a visit to the ghost town of Bhangarh near Jaipur.

The bloodline of the Chambal Ghatti (Valley) is the Chambal River, which originates at Manpura in the Vindhya Ranges and forms the boundary between the states of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, before turning southeast to join the Yamuna at the confluence of five rivers in Uttar Pradesh. Legend has it that large scale Yagyas (ritual of sacrifice to please the Gods) used to be organized on the banks of this river, where animals were slaughtered and their skins (leather) was dried, earning it the name ‘Charmavati’. One of the earliest mentions of dacoity in the region comes from the travelogue of the famous Chinese pilgrim, Huen Tsang, who is said to have been robbed near present day Dhaulpur. It is believed that ever since the Tomars came down to the Chambal valley after being pushed out of Delhi by the Chauhan kings, the region has been established as a safe heaven for rebels and dacoits. The bandits are also mentioned in the memoirs of the first Mughal Emperor, Babur. The tradition seems to have continued well into the 20th century with the Chambal bandits being accused of regularly preying upon the caravans of the erstwhile princely state of Gwalior.

Thanks to the fear of the dakus that inhabited its banks, the Chambal River, unlike other Indian rivers, has largely remained pollution free and hosts an amazing riverine faunal assemblage including several species of endangered mammals, indigenous reptiles and migratory birds, even today. The area lies within the semi-arid zone of North Western India and the vegetation consists of typical thorn forests characterized by sparse ground cover along the severely eroded banks and adjacent ravine lands. However, the major eco tourism destination in this region is the National Chambal Sanctuary, consisting of the large arc described by the river in its 960 km odd journey and encompasses areas in the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. The crystal clear waters of the river is home to nearly 1300 gavials, known locally as the Gharials and also supports a 500 strong population of the Indian Mugger. Besides eight species of fresh water turtles, one can also spot the Smooth Coated Otters and the elusive Gangetic Dolphins. Apart from supporting a variety of avian species like Black Bellied Terns, Sarus Cranes and Black Necked Storks, the sanctuary is fast emerging as an ideal place to spot the Indian Skimmer.

Besides these natural wonders, the district of Bhind is dotted with myriad areas of archaeological and religious importance. The 17th century fort of Ater, located deep in the ravines, 35 km west of Bhind city was once the abode of the kings of the Bhaduria dynasty and also a favorite sanctuary for the bandits in the later period. The main attractions in this fort are Khooni Darwaza, Badan Singh ka Mahal, Hathiapor, Raja ka Bangla, Rani ka Bangla and Barah Khamba Mahal. The fort, once in a dilapidated state, is being restored to its past glory by the ASI (Bhopal Circle). Another fort in the Bhind city, the Bhaduria capital, houses two canons that tell a tale of deceit – a treacherous general filled them up with millets instead of gun powder, leading to its fall. A third fort at Gohad, built in the 16th century by the Jat king Maha Singh, located on way to Bhind from Gwalior is renowned for its ‘Kachhari Mahal’ – a unique example of Iranian Art. Another 10 km from the fort is Maharajpur, where several British officers and soldiers were killed in a revolt that took place 13 years prior to the First War of Indian Independence.

The Vankhandeshwar Temple in Bhind, dedicated to Lord Shiva was built by Prithviraj Chauhan in 1175 AD. It is said that the ‘Jyoti’ is continuously flamed since then. The centuries old Jain temples of Baranso were built to commemorate the visit of lord Mahavir in this area. Located in Gohad Tehsil, near Mau, at a place called Jamdara, is the Mata Renuka Temple believed to be the birthplace of the sixth avatar of Lord Vishnu – Maharshi Parashuram. Folklore linked to Parashuram is that his father ordered him to cut the head of his mother, Renuka which he complied and as a prize asked for the revival of his dead mother which his father, Maharshi Jamadagni solicited. The temple built at the place of this activity, has the idol of the deity Renuka, with the head being separate from the rest of the body. Another attraction peculiar to the region is the Naraddev temple, where Maharshi Narad is worshipped. The Bhind district with the Malanpur industrial area is now the new hub of development in Madhya Pradesh.

The Chambal Challenge will provide the international tourists a unique opportunity to experience the various aspects of the Chambal Ghatti. Besides getting to know the flavours, the aroma of the valley, they will also be treated to local folklore, the typical Alha and Languria style of singing. As a bonus, the tourists will be provided free accommodation in tent houses in the camping site near the majestic Ater Fort. The adventure activities planned for the tourists include Water rides (including a motor boat ride to Ater fort), Banana ride, Alligator and Dolphin spotting in the National Chambal Sanctuary, Para Sailing, Hot air Ballooning, Rock Climbing and Zorbo ball. However, the main adventure event is the Chambal Treasure Hunt – a nerve wrecking, adrenaline pumping race against time for the body and the brain where the participants have to find their way through the seemingly endless maze of the ravine topography to seek the treasure hidden deep inside the wilderness within a stipulated time period. A definite area in the Beehad region has been embarked for this year long activity. The person who finds the treasure in the shortest possible time among the participants for the whole year will walk away with the bumper prize and the reputation of being the best in brawn and brain.

However, no trip to the former ‘Dacoit Capital of India’ is complete without an encounter with the dakus of the Chambal Ghatti. The former dacoits, who ruled the valley fiercely for so many years, whose very mention was enough to strike terror in the minds of the people, now out either on parole or after completing their term in jails, will guide the tourists to the beautiful Chambal valley. The tourists now can have a live experience of the rustic terrain along with the former outlaws and even interact with them.

The State government has launched a massive publicity campaign to popularize the event. The Bhind district administration is spending around Rs. 50 lakh to build suitable infrastructure to transport the tourist to the valley. Speaking of the event, an official said “We have contracted leading tour operators and agencies, and are trying to mobilize support for our innovative Chambal Challenge and we hope this will open a new avenue of progress in this ravine-curtained territory”. In tune with their extremely popular tourism campaign entitled, ‘Madhya Pradesh – The Heart of Incredible India’, the State Tourism Department has come up with the following poem to promote the event:

Chambal ki tum Dhar dekho,
Dolphins ka Pyar dekho,
Dakuoon ki Behaad dekho,
Ater ka Itihaas dekho,
Barah Atishay Kshetra dekho,
Ghadiyallon ke Ansoo dekho,
Bhind dekhoo, Bhind dekho,
Bhind dekho, Bhind dekho.

The Chambal Challenge is truly a masterstroke of the Shivraj Singh Chauhan government to attract the visitors to the Chambal valley and put it into the global travel map. A large chunk of credit must also go to Kunwar Ram Pratap Singh, the head of the Chambal Conservation Foundation. Alumni of IIT Rourkee, he and his wife, Anu, left their lucrative jobs to set up the Chambal Safari, an eco-tourism endeavour committed to the sustainable use of natural resources and has been a instrumental in making the ambitious venture, a reality. Tourism will play an important factor in healing the wounds those years of dacoity and negligence have inflicted upon the people of Bhind. Hopefully, this novel initiative will give the whole region an image makeover and usher in a new era of peace, progress and prosperity.






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