The gardens themselves (entered after you’ve bought a 5-rupee ticket) turned out to be unimpressive. The lawns are pleasant, and the flowering bushes of jasmine and hibiscus are pretty, but the path-side `drinking water’ taps, the benches and playpens and slides and crowds of chattering families out for a picnic detract from what might’ve made for a pretty riverside area.
Fortunately, though, the Chambal Gardens offer one more attraction: a boat cruise down the Chambal. We’d thought this was basically just a joyride – seeing the city from the river, so to say (and we were willing to even do that, just for the experience of it) – but we were pleasantly surprised to discover that there’s more to the boat cruise. At the ‘boat cruise ticket counter’ down at the riverside, we learnt that there are two separate tours: if you pay Rs 50 per person, you get a seat on a shared motorboat (with about 8-9 other people) and are taken on a quick ten minute cruise down the river. A joyride, really. But if you pay Rs 1,200, you get a small motorboat of your own, in which a boatman-cum-guide takes you on an hour-long cruise, well into the Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary area.
We didn’t have to think; of course, we’d take the ride where we could go at least a little way into the wild. While we waited for our boat to be readied and our guide to call for us, we read the brochure we’d been given. These cruises are operated by Cygnus Adventure Tours; they also offer bird-watching tours, treks, jeep safaris, camping, boat cruises and a host of other adventure activities all across Rajasthan, besides customised tours.
When we were called (after having waited only about five minutes), we were given life jackets to put on, and helped into the boat. Less than a minute later, we were off, cruising down the river. We soon discovered that our guide was friendly and knowledgeable without being obtrusive. As we drew away from the Chambal Gardens and went past an old three-storied palace, more rugged than pretty, he told us that it was a hunting lodge built by Maharaja Umed Singh. In the 19th century, this stretch beside the Chambal had such a high population of tigers that the maharajas and their honoured guests would go out on hunting parties in boats, shooting at the tigers from boats. Next to the hunting is a large rock that slopes down to the river; Queen Mary once shot and killed a tiger here.
Within less than ten minutes, we’d left the modern city of Kota behind; we’d see the occasional medieval chhatri or pavilion, but that was about all (much later, close to where he turned the boat around, our guide pointed out the remains of a 12th century fort wall, high up on a cliff). This fort had been built by the original Hadoti Bhil tribals who ruled Kota until they were defeated and displaced by the Rajputs, who held power until Kota became part of the Republic of India.
Along the way, the gently sloping banks of the river had changed to cliffs – cliffs that, as our guide told us, steadily rise higher and higher as you go along the river. They aren’t thickly forested, but there are occasional trees, and plenty of scrub that still harbours animals like monkeys, chinkara gazelle, blackbuck, blue bulls, porcupines, civet cats, hyenas, and even sloth bears and panthers. As may be expected, you’d be lucky to spot bears, panthers, hyenas and other rare species on such a short trip. But we did see a few Rhesus macaques and langurs (yes, both species very common in Rajasthan, even in towns!), and some of the many bird species that the riverside is known for – darters, for instance, lapwings, and river terns.
Later, after the sun had set, the air was filled with darting house swifts whose nests dot the sides of the cliffs. Looking up, we also saw huge bats – "Fruit bats," our guide explained. He turned the boat round shortly after we’d crossed a huge bridge that’s being constructed across the Chambal, and started back towards the Chambal Gardens jetty. He seemed genuinely regretful that we hadn’t seen much in the way of wildlife, even though we’d been excited by what we did see, and hadn’t uttered a word of complaint. "Come in the winter," he said. "Then take a cruise in the morning, or at evening – say, about 4.30 PM. We do a two-hour cruise – we’ll even provide tea and coffee for you – and you can be almost sure to see some interesting birds, turtles, and gharial." So, on that happy note, and making promises to ourselves to return in winter, we headed back. We may not have seen much wildlife, but we’d had a very enjoyable, relaxed trip; we’d had a glimpse of history and of nature, and we’d been away from the city for a brief while. That was, to us at least, money well spent.
New Delhi, India
September 11, 2011
From journal Kota: More than Saris and Stone