INDIA
2001


"In the Python's Grip"

Chambal River, Madhya Pradesh State

 

Map of Rajasthan & Madhya Pradesh States, northwest India showing primary and secondary locations
(click on map for enlarged view)

 

In Dehli we met with Location Manager Pradip Asharya and set off my road for Morena, via Agra where we stopped briefly to view the outside of the Taj Mahal, and then onwards to a small village called Babu Singh Kaghera, on the Chambal River, where we were being bedded down in a primary school.

Driving down to the river in the darkness, across a virtually trackless wasteland, we lost our way but came across two policemen in the act of arresting, rather violently, two men accussed of stealing sand from the river. This might seem a trivial offence but large scale sand theft, presumably for the construction industry, can cause erosion of the river bed and banks, and lead to flooding. The police officers offered to show us the way to the village, while the bruised and handcuffed felons begged us not to leave them, but what could we do.

General views around Babu Singh Kaghera village
Everybody was fascinated by the odd strangers, children, and even the cattle, watched our every move

Babu Singh Kaghera was a quaint village, thatched roofs, carts, children patta-caking cow dung as fuel, not a single hint of the 20th Century apart from the vehicle we had arrived in, yet somewhere there must have been a satellite dish because people where whispering "O'Shea, O'Shea, O'Shea" when we walked down the street the next day.

We stayed in the school

 

Tree squirrels,
Funambulus palmarum,
resting on a Babu Singh Kaghera tree

Babu Singh Kaghera was our base to take a boat out onto the Chambal River with crocodile specialist Dr RJ Rao, in search of Mugger crocodiles (Crocodylus palustris) and Ganges gharial (Gavialis gangeticus), but in the event we only found the latter. At the time the Chambal had a healty head of gharials but in recent years this population, and others in India, has been in serious and rapid decline due to unknown causes. Rom Whitaker has been investigating the decline, the numerous sudden deaths of apparently healthy animals. His excellent film Gharial Blues (Icon Films) highlighted this problem.

The Chambal River is a calm and beautiful place but in the past it has been an extremely dangerous location because the hills, ravines and caves overlooking the slowly meandering river were once inhabited by dacoits (Indian bandits) including one of the most famous, a women called Phoolan Devi who was the subject of the hit film Bandit Queen, set on the Chambal River.

Views of the Chambal River
Who needs a ferry ?

Today the river is much calmer, and much safer, unless you happen to be a gharial, or a sand thief. We passed one fellow walking his bicycle across the river through a particularly shallow stretch.

Adult Ganges gharial, Gavialis gangeticus, in the Chambal River

There were also turtles in the Chambal River but the only ones we saw were a few basking Western Indian tent turtle (Pangshura tentoria circumdata).

Western Indian tent turtle, Pangshura tentoria circumdata

 

Crew at Chambal River,
(l-r) Thomas Viner (producer), Rashid Charles (unit assistant), Asif Ali (expedition doctor),Terry Meadowcroft (sound recordist), Mark O'Shea, Mark Stokes (cameraman), and Hugo Smith (director)

From Babu Singh Kaghera we also made a two-hour side trip to a captive breeding station for both crocodilians. Here I was able to photograph young Mugger crocodiles and Ganges gharials which were to be released into the Chambal River. The gharials have long slender snouts for fish-catching while the muggers are much more conventional freshwater crocodiles, but with an attitude.

Ganges gharial, Gavialis gangeticus
Mugger crocodile, Crocodylus palustris

The breeding station was also hatching river turtle eggs for release into the wild, ie. Western Indian tent turtle (Pangshura tentoria circumdata), Red-crowned roofed turtle (Batagur kachuga) and Northern Indian flapneck turtle (Lissemys punctata andersoni).

Western Indian tent turtle, Pangshura tentoria circumdata
Red-crowned roofed turtle, Batagur kachuga
Northern Indian flapneck turtle, Lissemys punctata andersoni

 

We arrived back at Babu Singh Kaghera around 18:00, packed and drove to Agra, then on to Jaipur in Rajasthan state arriving at a hotel that was not prepared for us around 01:00 in the morning. Some of us did not get rooms and sleep until 06:00.

After the exhaustion of the trip to the Chambal River it was a shame none of the gharial footage made it into the final film.