This is a memoir about travels between Khajuraho, Orchha and Jhansi in February 2016. These towns are part of Bundelkhand region in Central India and though I did not fully appreciate it at first, there is a distinct attachment of the people here to this identity – of being a Bundelkhandi. So, there is a Bundelkhandi language, cuisine, dance and song, culture and ofcourse the all awe-inspiring art and architecture.
It was really for the art and architecture that my friend and I decided to do this trip.
We took an overnight train from Delhi and arrived into Khajuraho at the break of a pink dawn. The cab ride from the railway station to the hotel was among green fields and a trail of small and big hotels. After checking into ours, we hit the streets. Khajuraho is really a small town with the temples as the focal point and hip cafes and hotels making the most of it. You can walk, cycle or take autos to see most of it. The temples are spread across three main areas – western group, eastern group and southern group. We started by exploring the western group. These temples face the east so that the first rays of the sun hit the idols. So, ideally the best time to visit them is during sun rise. Each temple here is poetry in stone. The sculptures speak to you. And the voice I heard mostly was the equal right of women to their own sensuality. No subservience, no excuse for the gratification they sought and no shyness. Only the joy of being equal. We could learn many lessons on feminism from this 9th century marvel.
9th to 11th century. Most of the temples are from this period when the Chandela dynasty flourished. And then amazingly, they were abandoned to be claimed by the forest. It was only in the 1800s that an Englishman Captain Burt discovered them quite by chance. All this and more fascinating stories related to the bravery and patronage of art of the Chandelas can be witnessed at the Sound and Light show in the evening (630pm English, 730pm Hindi)
We spent the late afternoon visiting the eastern and southern group of temples. A must-do at sunset is the Chatarbhuj Temple. This is a little away from the town center, secluded and simply beautiful. This temple is the only one facing the west so as to receive the last rays of the sun. Special here is the idol which combines three Gods Shiva, Vishnu and Krishna. Close by to this temple is the site of the newest archeological find – probably the largest temple of all – in ruins but you can see the solid base.
The next day we visited Panna National Park. We were not lucky enough to see tigers but the park was scenic with the beautiful Ken river that runs through it. There is very little chance to spot tigers here but if you go with a wish to see the natural wilderness that surrounds Khajuraho, you will enjoy this very much. Panna is not recommended if you don’t have much time. More rewarding is a slow viewing of the temples.
Other than the temples, a total must-do is Raneh Falls – whether dry or in spate. This is a deep gorge with beautiful coloured rocks – with deep hues of pink, yellow, grey, black, greens. Usually when it has rained well, this gorge has multiple waterfalls and is said to be a wondrous sight. We went during a particularly hard drought time, so there were no falls and the water was in deep pools below. But the full splendor of the rocks was visible to us. Again very few tourists here so we spent some quiet time sitting with the swifts whistling as they flew by.
There are several good places to eat in but we quite liked the Raja Café with its big neem tree and views of the temples. Excellent continental stuff. The Bakery by the lake – run by Lalit hotel – is also very nice.
After two nights at Khajuraho, we drove to Orchha, at a turnoff some 10 kms before Jhansi. A nice place to stop for tea and snacks on the Khajuraho – Jhansi road is Alipura Palace. This is a heritage hotel run by the erstwhile king. We were served by Maan Singh who told us many tit-bits of Bundelkhandi food like their ber powder (made by drying and grinding ber) which is a cooler for the hot months. Also, things like badis (dried pulse dumplings) are quite popular. This food speaks of the aridness and the heat that is an essential part of living in Central India. We had lovely pakodas, green chutney and tea, said hello to the King and moved on. Alipura Palace, Maan Singh, 08085238223 www.alipurapalace.com
Orchha is bewitching. A multitude of spires and tall towers are spread around the winding Betwa river. The main site to be visited is the Palace complex along with a few important temples. There is also a sound and light show in the evening that we ditched to go and catch the sunset on the river. The reflection of the cenotaphs in the glistening water enticed us to visit the cenotaph complex in the morning. It was fantastic. Isolated, verdant and peaceful, these cenotaphs have a timeless beauty about them. The gardens are impeccably kept by the caretaker who has been at this job for the last 26 years. He also looks out for the birds that have these cenotaphs their home – vultures, parakeets and pigeons. A great place to stay at Orchha is http://amarmahal.com/
We took the train back to Delhi from Jhansi but not before making a breathless stop at the Jhansi Fort. I would definitely recommend more time here. This fort brings to life the incredible story of the Queen of Jhansi – Rani Laxmibai. We have learnt about her in school but seeing the palace she lived in when she got married at 13, the courtyard from where she ruled after she was widowed at 18 and finally the steep height from where she leapt and fled after being betrayed by her soldiers at 23. The most definitive part of the story was her decision to adopt a son and pronounce him heir after her husband’s death. This is not a story of a sad suffering widow who gave up on life. She was dedicated to ruling Jhansi and wasn’t going to give this up meekly to the British. Our guide brought life to the story of this bold and daring queen by weaving an evocative poem into his commentary. His deep voice, full of feeling will remain in my ears. I am sharing it here but if he is around when you come here, do get hold of him! Chandan Prajapati, 09598809858
Another recommendation is of our driver Zahid – 8085082155. He is a proud and well-informed Bundelkhandi. And yes, he is most respectful of feminists!!