Walking With The River

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 42 No. 10, October 2022

The dynamism of the flow, both of water and biodiversity associated with a river, is mystifying unless experienced by moving with it, the journey unfolding as the river flows. Bageshwer Singh and Pooja Chand undertook one such journey as a part of Veditum India Foundation’s Moving Upstream: Sindh Fellowship, and write about their 10-day walk between February 13 and 24, 2022, along the Sindh river, from Narwar to Badarwas.

Setting Out

In mid-February, the early signs of spring were already visible with the budding of semal Bombax ceiba trees around Delhi. We boarded the train from the capital city to Gwalior, crossed the Yamuna, passing through cities on its banks – Delhi, Mathura and Agra – then turned southwards through the badlands of Chambal and Morena, looking at the deeply eroded gullies and ravines covered with wide tracts of mesquite and acacia. From there, we travelled by bus until Narwar, where we met the Sindh river.

From the Magroni-Narwar bridge, the river was just a shallow stream that we could easily walk across. Our host in Magroni village, Harsh Siddhu, shared his experiences of the 2021 flood. He told us how he and his friends had rescued people and housed them at Navodaya Vidyalaya. Signs of devastation were still evident on the banks – trees had a unidirectional bend, almost uprooted, holding on to the boulders. The community was still healing from the sudden water surge when the floodgates of the upstream dam were opened. Yet, this tragic incident strengthened their belief that no one should cross the bridge without pausing and paying respect to the river.

The next morning, we set off on a nature walk with Harsh and his friends. While they regaled us with interesting myths and stories about the Narwar Fort, faintly visible in the morning mist, we watched Brahminy Starlings, sparrows and petronias. We walked upstream from the Mohini Pickup Reservoir where a flock of Great Cormorants, Grey Herons, Ruddy Shelducks, Little Egrets, storks, and coots welcomed us, as did the Little Ringed Plovers and wagtails. To our left, we saw the neatly browsed shrubs of dhok Anogeissus pendula feasted on by goats, and the un-browsed trees on the hills, which formed almost a pure stand on the southern aspect of hills. Dhok shows an amazing adaptation here – if browsed when young, the plant grows into a small and crooked shrub, otherwise developing into a medium-sized tree. Goats were doing a rather excellent job as gardeners there, keeping the shrubs in shape. It felt as if we were walking through tea gardens, albeit a little unkempt. In contrast, the un-browsed dhok grew as high as 15 m. on the hills.

Blackbuck are an inseparable part of the agricultural landscape in this region, as seen here in the mustard fields of Sakhnor village. Photo: Bageshwer Singh.

Going With The Flow

As we moved southwards, the landscape changed dramatically, as did the biodiversity. While there were few species that accompanied us throughout our journey, most welcomed us and then immediately parted ways. Ours was a journey through two reservoirs, the Mohini Sagar and Atal Sagar dams to the ‘true’ river. The construction of the Atal Sagar dam in the early 2000s caused a sudden shift in the ecosystem, from riverine to lacustrine (lake), and it was evident how both the displaced communities and the local ecology are still adapting to this change. Although a few bird species were spotted, glimpses of major waterfowl were seen only once the dam water receded and the river was again discernable from the reservoir.

Once past the gates of the Madikheda dam, we were in a forest dominated by cheola Butea monosperma. The bark of salayia Boswellia serrata and cheola were marked by heavy bruises and cuts, the gum of which is collected by the Sahariyas (a tribal community in that region) and sold in the market. The deep red gum oozing out of cheola gave it the appearance of a bleeding wound. The kulu Sterculia urens, or the ghost tree’s sprouting buds, looked like wisps of straw at the end of ashen-white velvet branches. Likewise, the salayia too was full of buds. Both kulu and salayia dominated this forest canopy.

One late morning, as we walked, we tried to visualise the sight of spring in cheola, its scarlet blooms painting the forest. A myriad pollinators were already visiting the sprouting tree buds. Kaanker Flacourtia indica had donned new foliage; a small tree with striking pink and red leaves, it was boldly conspicuous in the otherwise grey-brown deciduous forest. Besides the occasional lone sightings of a Wooly-necked Stork that seemed to have taken an interest in us, the vast waters of the dam seemed deserted. But the forest was as lively as it could be. We heard the hoots of grey langurs from different directions, and shortly after, saw them foraging the leaves of reonjha Acacia leucophloea. It was interesting to see their dexterity in feeding on a sharp, thorny tree. While we stopped to look at a skink along the rocks, a Crested Serpent Eagle caught a snake and perched on a salayia tree just ahead of us. We spotted a kettle of vultures in otherwise clear skies. Sightings of Indian and Egyptian Vultures were not uncommon in those parts.

Film Review
Moving Upstream: Ganga by Veditum India Foundation, directed by Shridhar Sudhir

What is a river? Is it defined by its chemical composition, the wildlife it supports, or the way people exploit it? Siddharth Agarwal and his crew take a veritable deep dive into the Ganga, one of the important rivers of India, to understand the river by walking 3,000 km. along its banks, from its mouth to its source. This one hour, 45 minute long, evocative film follows Agarwal’s walk, revealing the river’s beauty and troubles along the way. Agarwal records the river’s biodiversity too, such as India’s national aquatic animal, the endangered Ganges river dolphin in the Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary. While the film explores life within and on the banks of the Ganga, the scientific and social aspects of the river merge and lead to a deeply reflective journey. This documentary is likely to spark your own explorations in India’s wilds.
Reviewed by Shatakshi Gawade

We walked past the bridge on NH-27 and through the partially submerged buildings of Amola village, an area that looked like a once-busy marketplace. After an uphill walk through a forest of chheola, kahua Terminalia arjuna, kardai Anogeissus sericea, and sehja Lagerstroemia parviflora, we arrived at the Sahariya settlements in the outskirts. A few mud houses were adorned by the pink blooms of bougainvillea, and most courtyards were filled with the drying bark of kahua. This village of Karmai Kalan was sandwiched between the forested hills, dam backwaters and the Sindh river. After storing our luggage at the home of a herder, our host, a group of curious kids led us to the dam’s backwaters, where the flowing river joins the reservoir. The place is a delight for a naturalist or a social scientist. Of the two village wells, both partially submerged, one is a potable water source while the other hosts a couple of mugger crocodiles. As we stood there, observing the waterfowl perching on snags and poles, and the waders, which foraged in the freshly-perturbed water by the livestock, a freshwater crocodile made a subtle appearance on the other well, distinctly announced by the stilts and the River Terns, perched just across it.

While in the first few days, we had a checklist of over 70 bird species as we walked around the two reservoirs, once we walked upstream of the dam, the backwaters, with the snags and partially submerged villages, provided an excellent habitat for birds – our checklists now showed up to 60 bird species recorded in a single day in Karmai! The snags were more alive than the live trees of the forest for waterbirds, providing a space for perching, nesting and also acting as reservoirs of food and as a lookout for fish hunting. Snags clearly signified their importance as a habitat for waterbird species. We spent our whole afternoon looking at the unique assemblage of wildlife and village life, and the stark contrast they provided – with proximity to the national highway and almost deserted waters of the dam – to a lively river. Away from the city’s light pollution, the starry night, punctuated only with the occasional movement of bats, was an added delight of our visit. While we were sitting there, lost in the beauty of the sunset, we wondered at the potential that Karmai Kalan, with its glorious sights and rich wildlife, has as an offbeat tourist destination.

Karmai Kalan is one of the 13 villages that was displaced during the construction of the Atal Sagar dam in the early 2000s. Unlike most other displaced villages, the inhabitants of this village returned and resettled a little uphill of its submerged location. The village is quite literally off the grid, with neither an electricity connection nor any existence in official records. Despite facing challenges, the village has developed a remarkable coordination in their main economic activity of dairy and farming with the nearest market of Shivpuri. 


The authors began their walk along the Sindh river from Narwar, covering two reservoirs – the Mohini Sagar and Atal Sagar dams – and further explored along the free-flowing river reaching Badarwas over 10 days. Photo Courtesy: Siddharth Agarwal.

Shifting Landscapes

Further ahead, our walk turned more exciting, with occasional sightings of crocodiles, fish and tadpoles in the little pools in the rocky bed and in the clear sparkling river. Finally, we were walking along a ‘naturally’ flowing river! We spotted riverine forest species of khair, jamuni, semal, chirol, sehja, kardai, kankera, rohree and tendu, with the unique pattern of its tiled bark. The opposite bank had the continuous presence of a bamboo Dendrocalamus strictus with a number of grasses and herbs growing alongside, eventually giving way to forest trees.  On our sixth day, after a full day’s hike, which involved wading through wide river beds, making our way through thick forests and a neighbourhood extensively mined for sandstone, we arrived at a quaint little Kenwaha village. Many houses here were made of stone, which created the impression of living inside a fort. This was the confluence of a stream Aair with the Sindh. Yashwant Gurjar, our host, pointed out trees and shrubs and was excited when we showed him these trees in Pradip Krishen’s Jungle Trees of Central India. He would look at the photograph and describe the location to find that tree. The next morning, he took us to the mining area and showed us kardai, aal, akol, bamoora, among many others, along with herbs such as safed musli and shankh phooli, which grow in the monsoon and are collected by locals. Small riverine islands were exclusively covered with jamuni Syzygium salicifolium, the tiny fruits of which he claimed are a delicacy in the monsoon. He recalled the sweet smell of flowers of siris Albizia procera from the forests in the rain.

Past the village Kenwaha, as we walked upstream, the landscape changed further. Vast fields of wheat, mustard, clover and legumes surrounded the villages. In Sakhnor and Badhota, we came across blackbuck wandering freely through the fields, with locals working simultaneously, indifferent to the antelopes’ presence.

The 470 km. Sindh river, which originates and predominantly flows through parts of Madhya Pradesh eventually joins the Yamuna river in Uttar Pradesh. Throughout the authors’ journey along the river, they recorded plentiful wildlife including rich birdlife. Photo: Bageshwer Singh.

While we saw a few species of mammals such as jackal, mongoose, langur, blackbuck, and signs of leopards that occasionally visit the villages, anthropological activities such as mining threaten the ecology of the region. The blackbuck had become an inseparable part of the agricultural landscape. Other than the vast, dry deciduous forests, a few centuries-old buildings provided perfect roosting sites for the bats. This region also adjoins the Kuno-Palpur National Park, which recently received attention for the introduction of cheetahs from Namibia and South Africa.

Clearly, this landscape has much to offer the discerning visitor. For instance, the satellite view of Atal Sagar dam reveals its dragon-like shape, with its mouth as the gates of the dam and tail extending until the backwaters. Instead of fire, this dragon spilled enough water to drown a dozen villages and forest land, including parts of Madhav National Park. Our journey gave us a brief glimpse of how the people have shaped the course of the river but also how the Sindh river has shaped the lives of people and biodiversity.

Yellow Rain
In the early 1980s, after the Vietnam war, a mysterious incidence of ‘yellow rain’ was seen, where sticky yellow droplets fell from the otherwise clear sky. The U.S. blamed the Soviet Union for indulging in chemical warfare while the Soviets denied the allegations. This went on for a few years, with little success in discovering the exact chemical nature of the yellow substance, until in 1983, when a biologist from Harvard University found that the substance was predigested and hollowed-out pollen, indigenous to Southeast Asia. The use of pollen seemed like a little ineffective method to be used as poison. After further research, it was realised that on warm sunny days, bees would emerge from their hives in giant swarms, defecate and then return to their hive to tend to their larvae. Kolkata also witnessed similar yellow and green rain droplets in
June 2002 when it was thought that something had incurred the wrath of gods. We did not know any of this while we were walking along the river, navigating our way through the rocks and cliffs, when we suddenly noticed a pattern on the rocks. Distinct yellow and orange spots indiscriminately covering a large area, on every object including the rocks, leaves, and twigs, made us wonder about the origin of this ‘yellow paint’. When Pooja noticed the large hives on the cliff above us, we wondered if bees were somehow involved in making this print on the rocks.

Pooja Chand is a Ph.D. student at Ashoka University and is keen on understanding how plants and animals interact with each other. When not studying flora and fauna, she enjoys dance and a lot of coffee. Bageshwer Singh is working with a youth organisation PAHAL, based in Jalandhar, Punjab and is leading a project on the Ecological Assessment of Kanjli Wetland with The Rufford Foundation, U.K. He is interested in identifying the plants he sees, and understanding their interactions with other wildlife.


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