Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Riding a Boat among Gharials and Crocs - Chambal Safari in Dholpur

Last time you missed taking a ride on Chambal at Ater Fort in Bhind. On the Bhind side the boat experience is adrenal inducing unadulterated fun; it is just like being a Baghi in the ravines of the 80s. The boat is powered by the currents and oars. For company and safety, if you are lucky, you will have both men and women wielding guns. And since the boat is packed, the buffalo does not find a place in the boat; it is tied to the boat and towed away even as it floats on the water.

Gharials in Chambal River at Dholpur

Chambal Safari - Bhind Style Photo Courtesy - Vipin Gaur

Next opportunity comes your way a year later. You are in Dholpur discovering unknown gems and tripping down memory lanes. After reestablishing associations you drive few kilometers south towards Chambal River. Just beyond the Shergarh ramparts, as NH3 dips towards the bridge, you can see the sign for Chambal Safari on the left. A winding road takes you down to the banks of the river.

Chambal Safari at Dholpur Rajasthan

New Bridge of Chambal

 Shergarh Ramparts Overlooking the Chambal

Here on the banks there are two boat launch points. One belongs to a local heritage hotel and the other is for the general public run by Dholpur city. The rates are displayed. The lone boat is gone with visitors. It is time to look around as we wait. On the left, an incomplete bridge is making its way from Morena side to Dholpur side. On our left, just beyond you can see a huge squat and strong structure. We are informed that it is the Rani Ghat probably used by the royal women for bathing or just hanging out during summer evenings. The structure has miraculously escaped getting drilled by the bridge pillars. Just behind on your left perched high on the mud ravines are the ramparts of Shergarh which you saw on the way.

On your right is a halfbridge leading to some Irrigation Department structure. Next to it is the funky looking futuristic functioning bridge. Now this bridge has some neat looking never seen before pillars. While some look like thin walls of concrete, others have spread out pillars forming a triangle. High up the trucks and cars get on with their business.

The boat soon arrives. Here the boat ride is sanitized. You grab a jacket, strap it on, and you are all set to see some gharials. And no, there is no buffalo hooked to your boat. 

Chambal Safari at Dholpur

Seeing the wisp of an oily stinky trail that Yamuna is, it is always a marvel looking at rivers that actually look and feels like rivers. Chambal is alive; the water is actually clean and flowing. The centuries old curse and the river being ‘unholy’ probably saved the river. Later the baghis ensured that the river remained out of bounds. The perennial river with pristine water is a marvel while Himalaya fed Ganga and Yamuna are dying. As you glide over the calm waters, it is difficult to imagine that these gentle lapping waters could have seen so much blood, death, terror and revenge.

We head westwards where chances of sighting gharials and crocodiles are more. Yes, Chambal is known for its Gharials. Gharials (Gavialis gangeticus) belong to the crocodilian family and are distinguished by their long snouts. Gharials were found across India but now about 235 of them survive in the world (source: Wiki). The Chambal National Sanctuary is playing its role in protecting and breeding gharials. And here on the banks of Chambal you can see gharials in their natural habitat.

The outboard motor chatters away as we cross the bridge leaving behind a wake. Looking behind you can see the ramparts of Shergarh receeding. It sure is a perfect setting but the bridge and development will ensure the view will not last. On the left, ravine mud walls tower over the river. You can see people on the banks with their livestock. Birds go pecking in the water looking for fishes. It is a cloudy day with sun making an appearance every now and then. Gharials usually come out to sunbathe. Will they come out today?

Mud Ravines providing the perfect bacdrop to Gharials in Chambal

And then the boatman points out two gharials on the left. They are kind of far off. The gharials are shy and disappear into the water seeing the boat or hearing the motor. So the option is either to cut off the motor and try to paddle towards the gharials or use the zoom camera. You try to do both. With the motor off, you zoom in. The boat bobs and it not easy photographing them. The reptiles do look magnificent. Sometimes they will catch the sun and the scaly back would glimmer like gold. They look adorable and are not known to feed on humans. They prefer fish.

Let me find out how tasty those City Slickers are
We move ahead. It is time to eyeball some crocs. It is your lucky day. And we soon find one - this time on the right bank. Now the crocodile does look mean and fearsome. In comparison, the gharials look almost toyish and pet-like. You are not sure how crocs and gharials behave living together in the same waters - is there brotherhood or are they sworn enemies like lions and cheetahs? The crocodile slides into the water – not sure if it felt shy in our presence or suddenly felt like chomping on some city slickers. You keep looking in the water waiting for the croc to emerge under your boat.

Further up are the dolphins. The previous batch of visitors had returned without any dolphin sighting. You ask the boatman to return but not before you enjoy the setting one last time.

Paan Singh Tomar and his Band of Men - Photo Courtesy santabanta.com

This is bliss. The bridge is far behind; we have turned a bend in the river. When the motor dies, all becomes quiet. Birds coo, fishes create ripples in the water. In the distance you can see a group of men wading through the river. That is unmistakably Paan Singh Tomar and his band of baghis. Tall, nonchalant and proud; khaki fatigues, gun over the shoulder. On the other shoulder, a bullet belt is casually slung over. The army training and discipline is apparent. If Paan Singh Tomar, a national steeplechase champion, wanted to, he could have leapt over the river in a single bound. He does not even notice you as you stare wide-eyed. You forget to even get scared. And then the men disappear in the badlands.

India is about films and romanticism. In the deserts of Rajasthan you will see a swaying colorful Yana Gupta resplendent in a mirror dress bring you water in a pot held precariously over her head as lie sputtering to death. Here in Chambal you will see baghis emerge at every bend. Of course, Yana is a figment of imagination as the mirages in desert and here in Chambal the baghis are long gone. Some are dead and some have retired after the government offered them amnesty. Now people prefer to fight their battles in the courtrooms.  

The world around the Chambal has changed little since the times of Mahabharat when Chambal was called Charmanyavati and the Pandavs lost out in a dice game in the general vicinity. Kunti left the baby Karn floating on the river. Draupadi cursed the river and people called it unholy. Dacoits are gone but a new danger is looming that might change the river and the area completely. Mafia is at work dredging the sand, while the mud ravines that give Chambal the unique look, are being leveled. What is wrong with the people today? You just hope Chambal will overcome the modern adversaries too and continue its beautiful and perennial ways into the next century. Next time you will meet Chambal in Kota.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Tripping down Memory Lane – My Mother’s Childhood in Dholpur State

Portrait of a Man they don't build any more 

We children have grown up listening to our mother's stories of Baba Saheb from the days when she spent her pre-school childhood years of early 1940s in Dholpur State, Rajasthan. One of the most popular stories was how Baba Saheb would bring back hunted deer and in the evening there was a feast of Deer Pakoras! Of course, she is a vegetarian now. On other days, the bus would be packed up with food for day long picnics by Chambal. While the food was being cooked, Baba Saheb would go hunting for gharials and crocs. The kids would be asked to pose atop the dead reptiles. On other occasions, the Citroen would drive the family for dinner in the lawns of Taj Mahal, sixty kilometres away. And of course, all the childhood pranks mother in company of Baba Saheb’s son would play including crank telephone calling.

Major Kunwar Brijendra Singh of Dholpur State

A Few Good Men

Baba Saheb was my Maternal Grandfather’s Mother’s Brother. In other words, he was my Nanaji’s Mamaji. Baba Saheb or Major Kunwar Brijendra Singh headed the Narsingh (Dholpur) Infantry, Forests, Mines and Zakhira Departments of the erstwhile Dholpur state. Narsingh is the Kuldevta of Dholpur. Baba Saheb's family were Jagirdars who had assumed royalty which continued until 1972. Those days my Nanaji was posted as a Subedar in the Dholpur Army and lived with Baba Saheb. After independence, my Nanaji was absorbed in the Indian Army.

So finally, after all these years it is time to make real connections with the stories. You are in Dholpur and the next morning you visit the Haveli where all the stories took place. My mother last visited the haveli when her childhood friend and Baba Saheb’s son died in October 1995.

The neighborhood Kali Mandir still stands though the construction is modern. On the side of the temple is a Piao. Piao is a modern day water cooler where travelers in the old days would stop for a cool and refreshing drink of water. An inscription says the piao was built by Baba Saheb in 1945.

Next to the piao, the gate opens into an open Bada. And in the middle is the haveli. Kids play cricket in the apparently run-down premises. So while modern construction surrounds the bada, here it seems you have stepped back into time. I can actually see my mother playing in a pram with servants fussing over her.

In the early Sunday morning, I knock on the door and sleepy eyed descendents open the door. I introduce myself and I am led inside. The haveli has an open courtyard with rooms overlooking on three sides. We climb the steps to enter a room which overlooks the Bada. The doorways are real low and I am cautioned not to bang my head.

As we sit and chat, stories come out tumbling: The time when Shah of Iran came to Dholpur to hunt tigers, Baba Saheb who was trying to bring a tiger in play to enable the Shah to shoot; and in the melee the tiger jumped on Baba Saheb who fought with the tiger bare handed. Finally, the Shah was able to shoot the tiger. Baba Saheb returned home all bloodied. Dholpur was a favourite place for the English to come hunt tigers. Englishmen reportedly wet their pants just looking at the approaching tiger as they sat safely high up on the machans while Baba Saheb and his men tried to shoo the cats towards the waiting hunters.

Some Dacoit Kill!

How can we talk about Dholpur without mentioning the legendary dacoits of Chambal. Along with tigers and gators, Major Saheb bumped off so many dacoits that the dacoits declared an reward on his head. As part of plan, a dacoit entered the services in the haveli, but was found out and Major Saheb finished him off.

Those Were The Days - Maharaj Rana of Dholpur (in turban) and Maharaj of Bharatpur

Maharaj Rana Udaibhan Singh of Dholpur

And then the photos come out. All this time I was wishing they would have some. The photographs are Black & White – some are damaged while some are stained. Baba Saheb has a towering personality. I have never seen him before. He looks splendid in full military regalia and that awesome turban. His grandson while speaking to my mother on the phone remarks that I look like Baba Saheb – same height and build! And I figure, even the nose that I inherited from my mother is uncanny! My mother recalls his Amitabh Bachchan like deep baritone voice calling her Bitiya; but mostly his voice scared the kids.

Then there are photos with Baba Saheb posing with felled tigers, cheetahs / leopards and dacoits. Children would be roused from their sleep to come look at the killed cats.

Thank You Letter to Baba Saheb from the Military Secretary to the Viceroy

Invitation to Dinner at Viceroy's House Dated Oct 1st 1945

The British were really thorough - Table Diagram with Seating Order on the Invitation Card - Baba Saheb is seated on the table along with Maharaj of Dholpur

Farewell - To the Viceroy or British?

More folders and albums are brought out. I can see old British correspondence including invitation cards.

 Invitation to Wedding of Maharaj of Bharatpur

 Invitation to the Wedding of Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje to Maharaj Rana of Dholpur dated Dec 13th 1972
Apparently, the current Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje who belongs to Scindia family of Gwalior was married into Dholpur Royal Family.

All this is so overwhelming. My mother who was the first child in the household was Baba Saheb's favourite and he doted on her. He thought of her as his lucky mascot when his own kids arrived shortly thereafter. When my mother lost two fingers in a freak fodder machine accident, it was Baba Saheb who issued an ultimatum to the doctor; he will weigh the doctor in coins but the little girl should not lose the fingers. The middle two fingers were reattached though they are a little crooked now. 

For a change walking back in to the past is so joyous. I ask the family members to scan the photos and the memorabilia before it is lost. I also ask them to document the stories and life of Baba Saheb. His life certainly deserves a book. They don't make like him anymore. There is a talk to build independent houses for the different families. Maybe by the next time you come visiting, the haveli will be gone and some horrendous modern construction will come up as what is happening in the neighborhood.

In the days after coming back from Dholpur, I am still trying to thread together the pieces. Phone calls with Dholpur and seeing my mother excited like a child is priceless. Dholpur has been a revelation both in terms of heritage and personal connection. On tripping days like these I truly feel blessed. 

Photos Courtesy - Kunwar Vishwajeet Singh Rana

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Suraj Kund International Crafts Mela 2015 - Sea of Colour

The only reason you never went to Suraj Kund Crafts Mela all these years was the fear of the crowds. But it is never too late to try to be a little brave. So on the last day's afternoon you finally find yourself in the 29th Suraj Kund International Crafts Mela 2015.

And boy you are floored. You have no idea what Haryana Tourism does the rest of the year, but here they have pulled out all the stops. The mela is organized on a grand scale in the ancient grounds where Delhi's Tomar Dynasty once ruled.

29th Suraj Kund International Crafts Mela 2015

The sheer spread of colour and the decoration blows you away. This year it was Chattisgarh's turn to showcase its fine arts, crafts and architecture.

Chattisgarh is the Theme State

The best part was the trees with their trunks and branches wrapped colourfully. Lamps and other decorations hung from the branches. All in all, great atmosphere.

Let the photos do the talking.

The Four Seasons were depicted

Beautiful Spring at Surajkund
 Suraj Kund Mela - Enjoy the Summers with Juicy Mangoes

Time for a Walk in the Rains
Santa Comes to Surajkund
The evening descends

The lamps suspended from the tree branches begin to glow

Jewels in the Sky

And then the ferris wheels start spinning leaving trails of lights in the darkening evening

Suraj Kund

From the present, it is time to step back into the past. Suraj Kund, the stepped tank after which the mela takes its name is one of the oldest extant structures in Delhi region. The Tomars built it in the 10th century during the reign of King Surajpal. The ancient channels have dried up due to massive mining of Aravalli Hills and today the sun-shaped masonry tank is dry.  

If only the concerned departments had shown some spine when the hills around were getting ravaged, the mela on the banks of Suraj Kund full of water would have been spectacular.

The Mela was truly beautiful and a revelation. You will be back next year.