Former Chambal dacoits now lead a respectable, quiet life 

Former Chambal dacoits now lead a respectable, quiet life 

Driving from Agra to Gwalior, the beehad or ravines of Chambal become visible even before one approaches Morena, a district town in Madhya Pradesh. The undulating landscape, dotted with mud hillocks and thorny shrubs, spreads on both sides of the highway, the jungle cover thickening in the distance. From the highway, few signs of human settlement can be spotted in the ravines – a scattering of huts here and there and some temples along the road. “At one time the ravines of Chambal were home to many dacoit gangs. We were told stories about them as children. Today there are no dacoits in Chambal,” says the priest of one such temple along the Agra-Gwalior highway The bandits of Chambal – the river flows through Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan and the ravines are spread across the three states – were as feared as they were well known. Tales of their exploits circulated not just in the region in which they operated, but spread as far as Mumbai, where they inspired many Bollywood daku films, mainly in the 1960s and ’70s – remember Sholay and Ramgarh’s Gabbar Singh? But the real-life inspirations for these reel characters scoff at Bollywood’s portrayal of the bandits. “For one, we never came charging on horses like they showed in Bollywood films. We used to travel on foot,” says Mohar Singh. Over eighty now, dressed in a dhoti-kurta and Nehru jacket, Mohar Singh is the picture of a respected village elder. But he confides that he had 400 cases of murder registered against him when he surrendered.