Can you do it? That was the question I faced from many when I shared my travel plan with them. It included 4 states, 5 cities and over 5000 kilometers of travelling by 6 trains, all within 9 days!
How did I come up with such a weird plan? It all started from the Indian Railway map hanging on my office desk. The ancient mystical land of Khajuraho was the spark, Orchha and Varanasi got into the list thanks to their geographical accessibility to the former. But when Kolkata and Puri got into the plan after jumping off from my bucket list, surely it made the whole plan look a little stretched, exhausting and kind of a round trip through India’s heartland. But with the great Indian Railways out there with its tentacles spread across the country, it was not difficult to fill up the dots between them.
Orchha – the hidden gem
A long 30 hours of train ride in the Karnataka Sampark Kranti Express (12649) from the garden city, Bangalore cutting across the country in the middle, brought me to the city of Jhansi in Central India on a chilly morning, courtesy the monsoon clouds. Jhansi – the historic city, once the home of the brave queen Rani Lakshmibai, a symbol of resistance against the old British Raj, has a few sites of interest in itself that includes an old fort and a government museum. How many rebellions against the imperialistic forces had this land witnessed over the centuries? Too bad my tight schedule did not allow for a visit there. Anyway, one more reason to come here again, then! But for now, my destination lies 18 km far to the east on the shores of Betwa river. Shared autos from the main bus station of Jhansi are the most common way of reaching there, so be it.
Orchha means ‘hidden’, this beautiful small town situated in the Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh is really a hidden gem in the whole of Indian tourism, I felt the moment I landed there. The majestic fort complex, centuries-old towering temple and the small town itself, all make you feel like you have travelled back to the time of the late medieval period or something. To be honest, this wasn’t a town that I was familiar with from the history books or any travel magazines. I totally stumbled upon it while making the travel plan and I’m glad that I did.
Founded by the Rajput king Rudra Pratap Singh some 500 years ago, Orchha was a princely state for centuries which had very close ties with the Mughal Empire. The exquisite fort Jahangir Mahal near the fort Raja Mahal that was built for the reception of the Mughal emperor Jahangir is a prime testimony for that.
Undoubtedly the Orchha fort complex which consists of magnificent and elegant forts like Jahangir Mahal, Raja Mahal and Rai Praveen Mahal (all erected in different times during history) is the main attraction of the town. The long and broad battlement wall that covers up the complex along with the stone bridge across the now drained river for the access, and the huge spiked gate following it, all of them must have provided a great level of security to these royal buildings against the battles that shook the Bundelkhand region over the years.
King Rudra Pratap Singh, the founder of the town was the brain behind the Raja Mahal also…… which was once the house of the royal family itself. But the king wasn’t fortunate enough to see the completion of its construction as he got killed while trying to muscle out a cow from the clutches of a tiger. Holy cow!
The interiors of this royal building are decorated with beautiful mural paintings which depict the famous Hindu mythological epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata. The carvings on the window sides are so exquisite that it creates a dance of the lights during the day and also at night provided with the lightings.
A perfect blend of Mughal and Hindu architecture is what the Jahangir Mahal is. Though both this citadel and the Raja Mahal stand a few meters apart from each other, there is a gulf of difference in style between them in terms of architecture. The presence of the beautiful domes and the porches on the Jahangir Mahal shows you what happens when two cultures combine beautifully to produce a marvel.
The steep stairs inside the fort without any rails are a potential hazard especially in some parts of the complex where the sunlight is absent. When you consider the fact that the famous Mughal king Humayun, father of the great emperor Akbar, had died by falling from the staircase after missing a step, it looks like the architects of that time didn’t learn a lesson!
As the monsoon clouds of July slowly vanished after losing the battle with the sun, the mercury level started rising gradually in the town. Surely Orchha won’t be a good option during the summer, as a matter of fact, most of the towns in Central India aren’t.
Rai Praveen Mahal is where I headed next. Built by the Prince Indramani as a tribute to the famous poetess and court performer Rai Praveen, it is a small palace country yard which has nothing to boast about its architectural beauty but must have witnessed many performances of the renowned dancers and musicians over the time.
Besides this building, there is a garden known as Phool Bagh which is in an abandoned state now. During the princely time, it would have been a plush area. The dry shrubs, the only residents of the garden on this day, make a tasty meal for the flock of goats owned by the villagers. I too wandered along with them for some time through the paths that once the renowned poets, dancers and the royals walked.
The long untarred road that starts from the backyard of the garden leads to many small temples and cenotaphs on its way, clearly not favorites among the tourists. The farther from the crowd, the better; with that motto, I walked and explored as far as I could under the scorching sun.
Make sure you reserve the first half of the day for the exploration of the fort complex. The sheer size of it really demands that.
With so many beautiful forts and other sites in this town, this shouldn’t be the level of attention that Orchha should be getting from the outside world. Maybe the inadequate facilities provided for the tourists could be the reason for Orchha’s hiding from the travel map. Surely the monuments have done their part, but some good budget restaurants and hotels are what this town needs the most, I think.
Chaturbhuj Temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu, was my favourite place in the town for a nice relaxing spot in the afternoon. But believe me, it’s not an easy task to find out the way up to the roof through the pitch dark stairs inside the temple. Twice failed, I had to give a bribe of ₹20 to the gateman to finally get on to the top. Though the archaeology department has taken good care of all the monuments in Orchha, this one I feel, is not getting proper care, though the building itself is 5 centuries old. Or is it because they are not able to enforce the rules on the public since this is an active temple?
Though the temple is just of two stories, its height is just remarkable. From the top of the temple, the forts on the opposite side looked more majestic…. in fact I had the same feeling about this temple while I was at the other end! With the help of the much needed cool breeze that was provided by the monsoon clouds that paid a visit again, I could have sat there for hours immersed in the beauty that surrounds there, but with so much more yet to be covered, how could I?
Moving from Chaturbhuj Temple, my attention went to the picturesque cenotaphs near the river called the Royal Chhatris. Over the centuries the rulers of this region built many beautifully crafted cenotaphs with beautiful gardens surrounding them. Good thing that they still preserve it unlike the one in Rai Praveen Mahal.
There is a 2 km long nature trail inside Orchha wildlife sanctuary across the river Betwa, so if you like a stroll through the forest enjoying the lush greenery of nature with utmost silence all around you, go there well before it closes by 5pm.
The riverside also provides a vantage point to see the sun kiss goodbye to the day by painting the sky with its golden colour which helps to make the view of the Royal Chhatris look like a picture postcard. Believe me, the visuals of those miniature lookalike cenotaphs will stay with you for a very long time!
Reserve the late evening for the Light and Sound show (₹ 130) at the Raja Mahal. It is a little bit cheesy but very enjoyable. Choose between the English version at 7.30pm or the Hindi version at 8.30pm.
The cinematic narration of 500 years of this region’s history with the music and vibrant colors that put the ambiance of the forts to some mystic mode, was the perfect ending that I could ask for the lovely time that I spend in the little, hidden gem of a town called Orchha. As I lied down on the bed for the day, my mind was still stuck somewhere in the intriguing events those forts had witnessed during Bundelkhand’s pinnacle period…
How to reach
Jhansi is the nearest major railway station which is well connected to the rest of India. Shared autos from the bus station are the common way of transport from Jhansi to Orchha (₹ 20).
Places to visit
- Raja Mahal (Light and Sound show 7 pm in English and at 8 pm in Hindi)
- Jahangir Mahal
- Orchha Fort
- Chaturbhuj Temple
- The Royal Chhatris (near river bed)
- Rai Parveen Mahal
- Lakshmi temple
- Orchha sanctuary
- Forest resort park
Where to stay
- Fort view guest house (Budget hotel)
- Sheesh Mahal (Managed by MP Tourism)
Best time to go
- September to March
Khajuraho – the exotic city
If Orchha was a hidden gem, then my next destination was a well-known jewel in the tourism world; the ancient city of Khajuraho, a small town in the north of Madhya Pradesh which is famous for its 1000 years old temples with erotic sculptures.
The initial plan was to go to Jhansi first and then take a bus to Khajuraho, but that got changed immediately after I came to know that there is a direct passenger train available from Orchha to Khajuraho (54159/51821) which runs daily. Starting from Jhansi, the passenger train reaches Orchha railway station which lies 5 km far from the town, around 7.20 in the morning. It is a link train, which means a part of the train will go some other way when it decouples in between. In this case, it happens in Mahoba station and the first half goes to Allahabad. So make sure you sit in any of the last 3 coaches of the train or else you will end up in the wrong state itself!
My love for the trains is something that I cannot describe. The hustling sound of the diesel locomotives that spreads the pungent smell of the fuel in the air hooks me in every single time. And if the journey is in a snail-paced passenger train, the better. The locals who travel between the villages, the food vendors who squeeze through the crowd to make a living and the snake charmer who takes up space for his performance in between all this hurry burry; that 5 hour long train journey through some of the most rural parts of India, by seeing many lives that go in and out of the train, was so overwhelming. For me, these unplanned events are what make the trip more thrilling. But it got me thinking also. “The future of India lies in its villages,” said Mahatma Gandhi once. If so, then I’m a little skeptical about that future. All this talk that we hear about India’s GDP growth, the ever-growing consumer market and so on; actually there is a long way in front of us to become a global superpower.
When the train pulled its breaks for the day, it was half-past twelve in the noon. The railway station of Khajuraho is around 8 km far from the city. Just like in Orchha, shared autos are the common way to reach the town from the station. For the first time in my travels, I had actually booked a room in advance well before I started the trip, at the famous backpacker hotel called Zostel. So without wandering through the town searching for a room under the scorching sun, I checked in smoothly and got freshened up as fast as I could. After the delicious lunch from the nearby Marwari Bhoj restaurant, I was all pumped up for my search for the antiquity.
The temples here in Khajuraho were built during the powerful Chandela dynasty who ruled the Bundelkhand region from 9th to 13th century. History says, during the Chandela kingdom’s prime period there were close to a hundred temples spanned across this region, but now only 25 of them are left. These temples can be categorized into different groups based on their geographical locations. There are western, southern and eastern groups of temples. The western group, the main attraction of Khajuraho, is at the center of the town and just a minute away from my hotel. So my plan was to reserve them for the next day and visit the eastern and southern group of temples that shattered across the suburbs of the town, in the afternoon. Thus I started pedaling through the streets on a bicycle that I rented from the nearby shop; the best option for travellers who come here without any private vehicle.
At the eastern end of the town, there are 3 temples. Vamana temple, Hanuman temple and Brahma temple. The dirty road leading to the temples, filled with tiny little houses and shops on both the sides, made me a little apprehensive about the conditions of those temples. But I was wrong; all the temples were very clean and beautifully kept. The locals here know and value the importance of these thousand years old monuments. Built on high platforms, these temples have an almost similar structure. Even the intricate yet exotic sculptures that decorate the walls look identical.
Beware of the local untrained guides near these temples who try to lure you around the town… that includes kids from 10 years old. If you are not interested, don’t be afraid to say no.
It is not just the Hindu temples that adorn the town. To the eastern side, there are a few very old Jain temples also. But unlike the former, these are active temples and invite hundreds of devotees every day.
Moving from there I rode to the Shiva temple near the Khudar river, which was my favourite in the group. The temple situated in the vast park with beautiful meadows is a great place for someone who seeks some time alone. At the southern edge, there is one more temple named Chaturbhuj temple.
Like in Orchha, there is a Light and Sound show here as well, at night in the western group of temples, but due to a drizzle in the late evening, it got cancelled. Without anything to do for the night, I went to bed early.
The Renne waterfalls, 20 km far from the town, is in many people’s itinerary when they visit Khajuraho. “With the monsoon having just started, the water level in the falls won’t be enough to excite you, after all the effort you put in to reach there in the first place.” This was the reply I got from Ram, the friendly caretaker of Zostel when I shared my plan to visit it in the morning. Hearing that, I crossed the falls from my list without bothering for a second opinion. That gave me enough time for the exploration of the western group of temples, the main attraction of the town, until I leave in the evening.
Undoubtedly, it is the western group that houses the biggest and most important temples in Khajuraho. There are six big temples here in the well-maintained park with greenish meadows that span across acres, all facing the eastern side. With their elaborate exquisite carvings on the walls, which have withstood all the weathering that had happened in a millennium, they have deservedly got into the list of UNESCO world heritage sites.
It is the Varaha Mandap that welcomes the visitor first upon entering the site. This small pavilion consists of a huge statue of Varaha, the boar incarnation of god Vishnu. Opposite to that stands the charming Lakshman temple. “Don’t always go by the name of the temple. The name comes from the ruler who built the temple, not to whom it is dedicated to”; I overheard a guide speaking to his group of foreign tourists. So it means, though this temple’s name is Lakshman, it is actually devoted to Vishnu, not to Lakshman, the brother of demigod Ram.
Behind that, at the end of the park stands the most magnificent jewel of Khajuraho, Kandariya Mahadev Temple. The biggest of all in the group, this giant symmetrical structure with its amazingly detailed stone carvings, along with the presence of Devi Jagadamba temple right next to it, provides a visual treat to all the visitors. I sat there on the wooden seat near the lawn, thinking of the plans and efforts that the craftsmen of that time had put together to build this gem of a building. Yesterday I was in another town in the Bundelkhand region, hardly 200 km from here. But the architectural difference that I could make out between the buildings in these two, is simply astonishing.
Many temples from south to the north of India have erotic sculptures carved on their walls but nothing like to the extent of the temples in Khajuraho. So what is the story behind the erotic sculptures? Well, there is no concrete answer to that but many historians believe that it was a way to bring back the people to Hinduism from Buddism and Jainism. India, as we now know, is a country with a majority of Hindus. Buddism and Jainism combinedly form hardly one percent of the entire population in today’s time. But there was a time in our ancient history where Hinduism feared the loss of its followers who got found to ascetic thinking of Buddism and Jainism. So the kings came up with a brilliant idea; they instructed the carvers to decorate the temples with sculptures that depicts different sex positions. That is some thought!
There is a common misconception about Khajuraho that these temples are full of these erotic sculptures, but in reality, it hardly combines 10% of all the artworks on the walls. But without any surprise, that is what attracts the crowd, the most! The rest of the sculptures depicts goddess, war, kings etc etc.
Vishwanath Temple, Chitragupta Temple and Parvati Temple are the other temples that houses the site, all with elegant artworks that is no far behind from the formers. Anyway, the monotony of the temples is what made me disappointed about Khajuraho. Maybe a keen observer or an architecture scholar could see tons of difference between them but for an art illiterate like me, most of them looked the same.
There is a small Archaeological Museum right next to the building of Zostel, filled with beautiful carved big stone sculptures which were collected from the various parts of Khajuraho. Too bad they don’t allow a camera inside it.
There wasn’t much time left for me for some relaxation after the tiring walk under the sun the whole day. When the sun sheds its rays for the next day, I had to be in a town that is far from here. The very ancient, vibrant and famous city called Varanasi. There is a direct train from Khajuraho to Varanasi (21107/Bundelkhand Link Express) which runs triweekly, but unfortunately for me, that particular train had to cut shot its service till Allahabad for a month, due to the maintenance work happening in Varanasi station. Knowing this early, I tweaked my travel plans a bit. Satna, the town that is 120 km far from here became my destination then. The major railway station in there got numerous train running to Varanasi. Though there is a direct bus to Satna from the town at 3 pm, knowing my train leaves at 7.30 in the late evening I didn’t want to take chance. Ram came to the rescue again. As per his advice, I headed to Bamitha first, the small neighboring town on the highway and then took the 3 hours long bus ride to Satna.
The journey through the town of Panna was much more interesting than I thought that would be; the road that snaked through the greenish Panna national park got me hooked all that way. Just like the other the day by evening the monsoon clouds gathered around the sky and gifted a shower. As I boarded the Lokmanya Tilak-Varanasi express (12167) from Satna, my mind was wondering what things Varanasi is going to offer me for the next two days….
How to reach
Khajuraho has an airport as well as an railway station, though the number of trains conecting to the major cities are very less. Satna which is 120 km far from Khajuraho is the nearest major railway station.
Places to visit
- Western group of temples – Indians (₹ 30), Foreigners (₹500) – (Light and Sound show at night)
- Eastern grioup of temples
- Jain temple
- Archaeological Museum
- Renne waterfalls (20 km far)
Where to stay
- Zostel (backpackers hotel)
Where to eat
- Marwari Bhoj hotel
Best time to go
- September to March