Updated: Apr 12, 2020
The Yamuna River flows south out of the Himalaya Mountains, past Delhi then Agra (home of the Taj Mahal) where it turns southeast in search of the most-holy Ganges. The unholy Chambal River comes up from the southwest, at the edge of the Thar – India’s Great Western Desert, to join the Yamuna near the small village of Bateshwar.
Bateshwar is a quiet backwater of a place. The village and the Chambal River are in a less-developed part of India, handicapped by legends of banditry and an ancient curse. According to Hindu scriptures, the river was cursed by Queen Draupadi after the lecherous Shakuni attempted to disrobe her following a Parcheesi game played with crooked dice (long story). And there was another stain on the river – it was known as a place where thousands of cows had been sacrificed. Who would want to live anywhere near a cursed river polluted with the blood of Hindu’s most-sacred animal?
Last but not least, in more recent times the area has been the Sherwood Forest of India. Outlaws would hide out from the authorities along the Chambal, and like Robin Hood some of the bandits were celebrated as heroes for fighting against the rich and powerful and giving away a share of their loot to the poor.
With that colorful background I figured I had to visit. What I found was a tranquil setting with more than a hundred Hindu temples devoted to Lord Shiva lining the riverbank, and an animal fair in the fall that is said to be one of the largest in India.
When I got there I first wandered through the village itself. The local potters were busy building inventory for the upcoming Hindu festival of Diwali – their annual Festival of Light. Here’s a photo of one of them carrying the small, simple oil lamps that will be lit everywhere during the celebrations. She is Hindu but being in a tradition-bound rural area she still retains a bit of the Muslim practice of purdah from Mughal times (her half-hidden face).
Then I walked through the animal fair. It was the time for buying, selling and trading of bulls. Some of them were painted with pink or orange polka-dots to command a better price. Looked a little silly to me but the bulls made as if they didn’t notice.
After the bulls would come the cows, then horses, donkeys, and camels in turn, so the fair would last for two to three weeks. That seriatim smacks of animal casteism if you ask me, but they do it in series so the fair doesn’t require as much space and completely overrun the small village.
As sunset approached I went down to the river to see the many Shiva temples lining the riverbank. It’s a picturesque spot. The tradition of building these small temples started centuries ago when someone discovered a lingam miraculously occurring amongst the roots of a large banyan tree. That tree was thus determined to be where Lord Shiva had rested back in the day. Accordingly more than one hundred small temples were built along the river, each one honoring Shiva the Creator. Each temple has a lingam and yoni – male and female symbols of divine generative energy. Here is a photo of a sadhu – an Indian religious ascetic – sitting outside one of the temples with a lingam+yoni in the foreground . . .
Most of the temples wore fresh coats of white paint, received annually in the fall so as to be bright and fresh for the Diwali celebrations. That work was almost complete when I visited. I stopped at the main temple to make an offering and receive a blessing. The ancient banyan tree that had been favored by Shiva was still at its side.
Here’s one of the temple painters at work . . .
As the sun set, the area seemed to come alive with bird life. It was a beautiful, peaceful sight. Humble Bateshwar and the Chambal River have largely been left alone through time. That has been a blessing for the cursed river as it’s now the cleanest riverine ecosystem in all of India. The Chambal drains from an undeveloped and sparsely populated near-desert area, rather than the crowded Gangetic Plain which hosts and pollutes South Asia’s great rivers the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra. (The Indus River through present-day Pakistan of course being the etymological origin of Hindus – the people of the Indus – and the name India itself.)
The next morning I took a boat ride on the Chambal and saw crocodiles and their narrow-snouted cousin the Indian gharial. The gharials look positively prehistoric . . .
It was great to be out on the water. The river is healthy due to its benign neglect, thus sustains a wide variety of wildlife. In addition to the big primordial reptiles, I caught brief glimpses of the rare Gangetic River Dolphin, various turtles, a confused Himalayan Jackal who didn’t know it was supposed to be nocturnal, a few stray camels, and all kinds of birds large and small.
It was a small pocket of near-pristine wildness that I hope can stay that way. Bateshwar and the Chambal were both a nice break from the crowded chaos of New Delhi. I sustained no ill-effects from the curse, nor came across any bandits. I'd recommend you overlook the area's unsavory reputation and go exploring.
Follow this link to more photos from Bateshwar.