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History of Chambal

The divine origin of Indian Rivers is an article of faith for many millions of believers. Celebrated, and worshipped, the River is revered as a physical manifestation of the munificence of the omnipotent Lord. Interestingly, the River Chambal, one of the major rivers feeding into the Yamuna, and thence Ganga, is completely devoid of any such antecedents. The earliest mentions of Chambal are found in the epic Mahabharata; King Rantideva of Dasapura (Mandasaur in MP), son of Sankrti is praised for having achieved unrivaled fame by distributing beef along with food grains to Brahmans. “A great river oozed from the heaps of those animal hides and it became known everywhere as the ‘River of Hides’ – Carmanvati (carman-skin, hide) (1).

According to folklore the infamous game of dice between the Kauravas and Pandavas was also played out on the banks of the River Chambal. An enraged Draupadi, on finding she had been wagered and lost over a roll of dice, cursed the river for being mute witness to her humiliation. From that day forward whoever would drink the Chambal waters would be filled with an unquenchable thirst for vengeance. Although it is impossible to ascertain the veracity of these stories, the legend of Draupadi’s curse grew with the passage of time even as the Chambal Behad (ravines) became inextricably linked with Baghis (rebels) of every hue and disposition and their relentless search for justice and revenge. The Chambal ravines’ labyrinthine maze of deep gullies formed by accelerated erosion, were a natural ally to those seeking to hide or shelter in their folds.

The fall of Delhi and Kannauj in the twelfth century, gave a fillip to the legends, as successive waves of Rajput refugees sought asylum in the Chambal Behad. Ruthlessly ousting the aborigine Meo and Bhill tribes, the Tomar Rajputs settled vast tracts along the Chambal - territory still known as Tomarghaar (home/land of the Tomar). As the whole Northern country came under the sway of Muslim rulers, these Rajput clans were in a perpetual state of war or rebellion against the Imperial armies. The chronicles of the Sultanate and Mughal period are replete with instances of armies deployed to control yet another uprising. No sooner did the armies crush the rebels and turn back, was the banner of revolt unfurled yet again.

This state of affairs continued well into the latter half of the eighteenth century when the marauding armies of the Jats and Marathas further compounded the state of chaos and disarray. The British took over in the early nineteenth century, and attempted to restore order with a special Thagi and Dakaiti department. The great rebellion of 1857 saw a resurgence of the Dacoit gangs with rebellious sepoys and sympathizers’ taking to the ravines after the major battles had been lost (2). The problem was never completely resolved and remained a festering wound through British rule in India.

The call of the Behad retained a strong hold on peoples’ imagination and the Baghi continued to be seen as a victim of the system, a person of honour who had taken up arms as a last recourse against an unjust and unfair enemy. The Baghis’ survival depended on the sympathy and complicit support of the local population. The emergence of organized gangs, caste based vendettas and kidnapping for ransom led to an erosion of this support base. The Baghi lost the high moral ground and became more of a common thug, losing his place of honour in local folklore.

The late twentieth century saw several rehabilitation programmes combined with relentless law enforcement. Appeals to surrender by the social activist Vinobha Bhave and by Jayprakash Narayan yielded results and the 1970’s saw mass surrenders by former dacoits. Straggling groups continued to rear their head over the next couple of decades but were ruthlessly stamped out, and were rarely more than petty criminals trying to don the mantle of the rebels of yore.

The Chambal Ravines are largely peaceful today. Their romantic allure remains, but more as a part of the historical narrative of this land than as a way of life.

1. The Mahabharata, Book 7, University of Chicago Press, Translated and edited by James L. Fitzgerald.
2. District Administration in North India, Rebellion and Reform. Selected writings of Allan Octavian Hume, Volume 1 (1829-1867), OUP.