If you have been dreaming of an island holiday and postponing the trip just because it would cost you a fortune, you may find some respite in the riverine islands of Lalitpur near the Matatila Dam in the time to come.
I have always been fond of long drives. So has been my friend and fellow traveller Rajesh Kumar Singh. Rajesh is a great photographer of international fame. I follow close behind as a writer and photographer. Both of us love travel and both of us love offbeat destinations. So, we are always on the lookout for new possibilities and alternate destinations. In other words, we are always on the explorer mode and are thrilled beyond imagination when we discover destinations with fresh tourism potential.
During one of our long drives from Lalitpur to Jhansi, a knowledgeable gentleman of Talbehat insisted that we should visit Matatila Dam. Uttar Pradesh has 145 dams spread across 75 districts. Lalitpur is home to fourteen of those. Matatila is one of them. Lalitpur covers 5,039 sq km out of the total area of Uttar Pradesh comprising 2,40,928 sq km.
Somehow, Lalitpur has acquired the sobriquet ‘City of Dams’ though it is certainly not the district with most dams in Uttar Pradesh. In fact, Jhansi has 18 dams, Mirzapur has 23 dams and Sonebhadra has 37 dams.
Matatila is located near the border between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. It was a joint venture project between these two states. It took all of twelve years to complete this dam project. The construction began in 1952 and concluded in 1964. The length of the dam is about 6.30 km and the height of the dam is 33.53 meters. The spread of the dam water is 20,720 sq. km and its storage capacity is 1,132.68 mcm.
The road to Matatila passes through Talbahet Cantonment. The road runs alongside Betwa river. But, almost midway between the cantonment and Matatila Dam, we hit the Zero Point of Lalitpur. The scenic beauty of the place is bewitching to say the least. Betwa River is one of the largest tributaries of Yamuna River.
The Zero Point is a landmark in itself. You will find hundreds of fishing boats moored or parked on the banks of Betwa along with a small community of fishermen. But that is not what caught our eyes. We could see some small islands on the Betwa river from a distance. That was a pleasant surprise for us. Our curious minds knew no bounds. As we were in a tearing hurry to reach Jhansi for a photo shoot, we decided to make another trip to the Zero Point to explore the islands.
It was during our next trip to Zero Point that we discovered the ten riverine islands near Matatila Dam. We coaxed and goaded the fishermen to ferry us to the islands for a scouting trip. The fishermen escorted us to the fishing contractor’s representative at the site. The gentleman readily agreed to our request. He arranged a boatman and guide and gave us one of his best boats.
As I mentioned earlier, there are fourteen dams in Lalitpur. That makes fishing one of the prominent occupations of Lalitpur after agriculture. Matatila stands out as the only dam which has 10 islands within its water-sheet. Some of these may lend themselves beautifully for development as small island resorts. The water-sheet of the other dams in Lalitpur do not have islands of any consequence. Four of these ten islands fall within the territorial waters of Uttar Pradesh and the rest of them are located on the territorial waters of Madhya Pradesh.
The prominent islands in the territorial waters of UP are Siddh Pahadi, Sehiya Pahadi and Baghson Mandir while the prominent islands on the territorial waters of Madhya Pradesh are Hanuman Pahadi, Bada Pahad, Gol Pahad, Bakriwal Pahad and Bohratwal Pahad. The island that caught our eyes was Siddh Pahadi in the territorial waters of Uttar Pradesh.
The Siddh Pahadi is made up of rocky terrain interspersed with alluvial soil which is suitable for vegetation. It offers an exciting panoramic view of the other islands in its vicinity. In fact, the 360oview from the island is a visual treat. A top-angle view of the island appears like a crab spreading its claws. I am tempted to refer to this island as ‘Crab Island.’ A small community of fishermen have a temporary settlement on one edge of the island. The best thing about this island is that it has never been flooded in the history of the island. The water level is far below the summit even during peak monsoon. The highest water level ever is etched by receding water in white.
However, the Bada Pahad is the largest island in the entire cluster. But it cannot be seen from the Zero Point because it is hidden behind the Siddh Pahadi. The Bada Pahad is located in the territorial waters of Madhya Pradesh.
About 600 fishermen are active during peak season which is usually the period following monsoon season in the case of rivers. The local people call them ‘Shikaris.’ Altogether, there are about 400 fishing boats in the area. During the season, about 200 boats are pressed into service. The rest of them are on standby mode. The fishing season lasts around ten months except for the two months of monsoon which corresponds with the breeding season of fishes.
The shikaris come mainly from Varanasi, Mirzapur, Sitamarhi, Motihari and Samastipur.
The reservoir of Matatila dam offers a rich variety of fishes including Rohu, Ketla, Jalebi (Talapia), Balm, Tengan, Soal, Padeen, Mahashir, Baschor, Silandi etc. The shikaris sail out in the evening to spread their nets and spend their night on their boats and they return with their catch the next day. The boats are equipped with solar panels which are used by Shikaris for lighting and charging their mobile phones so that they do not run out of battery while they are out fishing.
Once the shikaris return with their booty, the fishermen are paid a fishing fee according to weight and the variety of fishes they manage to net. However, the fishermen are at liberty to consume as much of their catch as they like.
We were bowled over by our experience at Siddh Pahadi. We are confident that would be true of all those who manage to visit the Siddh Pahadi. It has a faraway look from Zero Point. But the distance from Zero Point to Siddh Pahadi is around 2 ½ km. The boat ride takes hardly fifteen minutes.
What are the top island destinations in the world? Maldives, Seychelles, Fiji, Bali, Bora Bora, Mauritius etc. But that’s sure to cost a fortune which may be well beyond the budget of most travellers. What are the options in India? Lakshadweep, Andaman and Nicobar Islands etc. These may not be as expensive as the international island destinations. But, still, it is going to burn a hole in the pocket.
Compared to these, an island resort or Swiss tents at the Siddh Pahadi (I am tempted to call it the Crab Island) is going to be much cheaper and affordable. Lalitpur is accessible through road as well as rail transport. The nearest airport is Gwalior airport which is about 210 km. The best way to get to Lalitpur from Delhi is by Shatabdi Express train which departs from Delhi at 6.00 am and gets to Lalitpur a little before noon. From Lalitpur railway station, one may hire a cab or an auto rickshaw to the Zero Point.
There is one big difference between the international and Indian islands that we discussed earlier. Those are located in the middle of seas or oceans. Siddh Pahadi is a riverine island of Lalitpur. But all said and done, the view and feel one gets from the Siddh Pahadi is not much different from the islands that we mentioned earlier. Because, all that the tourists will see from the Siddh Pahadi is water as far as their eyes can see.
Riverine island destinations are nothing new to India. However, this concept has not caught the imagination of tourists, travel agents or tourism departments of the governments the way it should have.
Majuli on the Brahmaputra River in Assam is the largest riverine island of India. Some of the other important riverine islands frequented by tourists include Bhavani Island on the Krishna River in Andhra Pradesh; Quibble Island in Tamil Nadu; Nongkhnum Island in Meghalaya; and, Divar Island Goa. As you can see, most of these riverine islands are located in southern, western and eastern India. None of the riverine islands in central or northern India seems to have been developed as island resorts so far.
Siddh Pahadi is a small riverine island but it is a beautiful island. It could turn out to be a hot favourite for pre-wedding shoots and double up as a wedding destination besides being an attractive tourist destination if it is developed as an island resort. It could also become an ideal honeymoon destination for those who prefer a quiet offbeat location. Other islands in the vicinity may also be considered for development as riverine island destinations in the heart of India.
As a bonus to the tourists, the developers may offer boat trips to explore the other islands in the vicinity. That could result in some extra earnings to the promoters of the project.
Between the two of us, we feel that an island resort on Siddh Pahadi would be a welcome addition to the tourism assets of Lalitpur. If that happens, it might open new vistas for tourism here. In fact, that could open a new chapter for Uttar Pradesh Tourism. And, Madhya Pradesh Tourism may like to follow suit.
Text: Vincent Van Ross / Photographs: Rajesh Kumar Singh & Vincent Van Ross