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Madhya Pradesh galore!

Just when we think we’ve exhausted all possibilities of doing guidebooks on Madhya Pradesh, newer ideas come up! 🙂

Our two latest publications on this wondrous state are Temples of Madhya Pradesh and Rock Art of Madhya Pradesh.

As the titles indicate, these are thematic guides put together for travellers with specific interests — those interested in exploring the temples in Madhya Pradesh (and believe you me there are many and numerous!), or in trailing the rock art sites in the state (with many of them dating to prehistory!). Visually attractive and readable, the books are as much delight for curious readers exploring these subjects.

With these two guides we’ve completed 17(!!) titles on the ever-surprising Madhya Pradesh. And it goes without saying that the state has acquired a special place in our hearts!

The Pioneer’s feature on the release of the two books: http://www.dailypioneer.com/state-editions/bhopal/59077-tourism-dept-launches-three-new-guides.html

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Day out in Gwalior!

While places in Rajasthan, Himachal and Uttarakhand are seen as most viable for planning short excursions from Delhi, few realise that Madhya Pradesh too is just round-the-corner! One of the many options here is Gwalior — a mere 3.5 hrs from Delhi by the Bhopal Shatabdi. Here is an account of our day trip to Gwalior!

The train ride to Gwalior itself is a pleasure ..particularly for it cuts through the enchanting Chambal ravines. Formed due to erosion by rainfall and the fast flowing Chambal river, the sight of the rugged and barren hillocks stretching for miles is truly awesome! Moreover, its notoriety for sheltering inter-state dacoit gangs in the past, adds a huge sense of mystery to it..drawing images of dacoits running on horseback even in broad daylight! A sight i always forward to when travelling through this part of the country!

As the train pulled into Gwalior station well before 10 in the morning, we walked with hurried steps to make the most of the day we’d got to explore a new city.

Without doubt it had to begin with a visit to the much-acclaimed Gwalior Fort.

The scene of many a battles and conquests, the Fort was held to be the most impregnable fortress in all of north and central India.

A Hanna Motana pinup at the back of an auto caught my eye.

Driving up to the Urvahi Gate of the Fort. Presently the main entrance to the Fort by motorable road. For those who prefer trekking up, access is from the Hathi Gate.

While there are varying accounts of the construction of the Fort, it was under the Tomar dynasty, founded by Bir Singh Deo, that it was rebuilt to achieve its present scale and grandeur. The magnificent Man Singh Palace was built by Man Singh Tomar, the most celebrated scion of this dynasty.

Gigantic images of Jain tirthankaras flank the road leading up from the Urwahi Gate. These were sculpted in the 15th century during the reign of the Tomar kings who were great patrons of Jainism.

First glimpse of the Man Mandir Palace on entering the Fort complex.

Embellished with blue mosaic tiles, the Man Mandir Palace is the most identifiable image of the fortress.

Row of yellow ducks on the walls of Man Mandir Palace

The guide entertained us with colourful stories of the royal life its kings lived, which made the otherwise empty pavillions and corridors come alive. One particularly charming story was of how the dasis would wear ghungrus (anklets with bells) in the morning and lightly dance around the king’s chamber to politely indicate that it was time for him to wake up! Gosh, what pampering!

Goodearth guides on sale in the small cafe near the entrance to the Palace complex <glee!>

The built structures in the Fort stand far apart from each other, accessed by motorable roads. Thus having a car to yourself drastically reduces the walking required. Our next stop in the Fort was the Saas Bahu Mandir.

Literally meaning the temple of the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law, the pair of temples was built by king Mahipal around 1093, supposedly for his mother and wife. Built in nagara style, both the temples are richly decorated with carvings of deities, human and animal figures, and geometric patterns.

Saas Temple, with the Bahu Temple in the background. The larger of the two, the Saas Temple is dedicated to Vishnu, while the Bahu Temple is dedicated to Shiva.

Intricately carved panel above the sanctum doorway in the Saas Temple.

Peering in to see what the sanctum holds. Presently, nothing but bats!

Carvings on the ceiling

Base of the pillars. Most dieties, figurines carved in the temple stand defaced.

Fort walls enclosing the temple complex

Bahu Temple sitting pretty on a high platform.

Quiet musings sitting on the Fort walls

The fort complex also encloses the Data Bandi Chhod gurdwara, believed to have been built where Guru Hargobind Singh was imprisoned by Jahangir for over two years. The name ‘Bandi Chhod’ meaning ‘free the prisoners’ comes from the story of how with his own release, the Guru aided the release of his 52 royal companions as well.

Walking across the central courtyard in the gurdwara

Like most gurdwaras, Data Bandi Chhod is a modern marble white structure.

While our original plan included lunching in town after the Fort visit, the early morning start and the sun growing sharper made us stop for langar in the gurdwara, which, nevermind the soupy dal, was more than welcome.

Langar being prepared in the courtyard.

Teli ka Mandir, seen from across the sarovar in the gurdwara

Our last stop in the Fort, the Teli ka Mandir is the largest temple in the complex. A mix of north and south Indian temple architecture styles, its gopuram like shikhara is mounted on a nagara base.

Teli ka Mandir, seen through its arched entrance.

Striking a pose against the towering walls of the temple

We discovered rock art on its stone walls!

Peek-a-boo! Gurdwara Data Bandi Chhod seen from Teli ka Mandir

After good 2.5 hrs spent in the Fort, and the sun beginning to beat down, it was time for a refreshing lunch break in town. We headed straight to Usha Kiran Palace, a heritage hotel managed by Taj. The choice befitted our day’s iterinary of heritage visits.

Before lunch began, it was time to cut the cake!

Yes, part of the reason for the day out had been the birth-day!

Rejuvenated from good continental food, we head out for our post-lunch plan – of visiting Jai Vilas Palace, the opulent residence of the Scindias, the erstwhile royal family of Gwalior. In fact, it is part of the same complex as the heritage hotel, in Lashkar.

Jai Vilas Palace. Though it continues to serve as the Scindia residence, a part of it has been converted into the privately-owned Jiyaji Rao Scindia Museum.

Starting with a gallery displaying the Scindias family tree and old photographs, to their belongings (including Madho Rao Scindia’s royal golf set!), the museum has several of their rooms on display — the dining room, queen’s dressing, scent room (?) with vessels that carried fragrant oils and perfumes.. The locals seemed to take in every little detail with a lot of awe, reverence and delight.

Inside Scindia Palace

Of the many stories abounding its splendour, perhaps the most impressive is which recounts that two enormous Belgian chandeliers, weighing 3.5 tonnes each, had been bought to be hung in the Durbar Hall. And to make sure the ceiling could take the weight, ten elephants were made to parade on the roof of the Hall!

It is also in Gwalior that the legendary musician Mian Tansen rests, and thus the city plays host to the annual Tansen Music Festival. His grave rests in a small marble tomb in a gardened compound along with several others. The most striking here is the tomb of Mohammad Ghaus, a 16th century Sufi saint and Tansen’s spiritual Guru.

Mohammad Ghaus' tomb viewed from the side. The sandstone mausoleum is a specimen of delicate craftsmanship, with intricate stone screens on all sides.

Lounge and gossip

Stunning jaali screens around Mohammad Ghaus' tomb.

By this time we were sapped of energy, and after walking around, lounged on the lawns just like the umpteen locals there (it turned out to be a popular hangout place) ..and waited for it to be time to drive to the station to catch our train back to Delhi.

Arriving back around 11, we looked forward to our soft mattresses and deep sleep. Long day no doubt, but amazing that we managed to see a whole new city in just that long! Day well spent!

* For someone wanting to stay for longer in Gwalior, the city offers enough! Our Gwalior City Guide can help you plan your iterinary.*

 
 

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In Lands of Yore

It doesn’t take much doing for Madhya Pradesh to catch my fancy. There are so many destinations, so varied. As Parvati and I headed to Bhimbetka  and Bhojpur, we wondered if there was a way to connect their attractions, like the NH-12. I had visited both sites earlier as part of a school trip and what loomed large in my memory were a) the massive shivalinga of the Bhojpur Temple, among the largest in the country and b) the mosquitoes of Bhimbetka, with a swiftness to match prehistoric predators.

Bhojpur, located 11 kms into the countryside on a rocky hilltop, seemed grander than I remembered.

As we walked around the ASI-enclosed space, we looked for clues to the unfinished character of the temple we had read about…architectural plans, a damaged ramp, fragments of loose sculpture….

but the most striking feature that stands out like a beacon of faith in a desolate landscape is the shivalinga.

Parvati and I watched the priest-caretaker, a very knowledgeable and engaging elderly man, perform the ritual abhishekam (or milk-bath) of the linga. He then climbed down and approaching us, signaled to us to make coconut offerings. My coconut took some persuasion to crack but the priest didn’t require any to launch into an engrossing narrative, peppered with shlokas and folk-sayings, of the history, legends and mystery of Bhojpur.

From Bhojpur, we headed straight to Bhimbetka and the excitement grew as soon as Parvati spotted the silhouettes of rocks that led the noted archaeologist VS Wakankar  to this incredible site in the first place. Unlike my last visit, 14 years ago, Bhimbetka now had a cosy Highway Treat hotel-cum-restaurant run by Madhya Pradesh Tourism, which, other than snacks and beverages, offered a great opportunity to observe trains brushing past on the adjacent track every 10 minutes.

Nourished and pepped, we headed to the caves, which captured our imagination, almost making us forget time. The UNESCO World Heritage Site provides evidence of human art (cave paintings) from as far as 100,000 years ago. From layer-marks of sedimentation revealing that the rocks here were once below the primaeval Tethys sea to the Zoo-Rock with thousands of overlapping centuries of animal sketches, to the precariously balanced Turtle-Rock, the sights of Bhimbetka are fascinating. A word of advice though: don’t go by everything the guide says. In fact, he probably won’t show you the the coolest, and most ancient, green paintings, that are 2kms uphill. But if you want to needle him, do ask about rhino sketches.

Interestingly, the mosquitoes were still there, and the bites did swell but not before we had completed two rounds of the complex. Armed with tripods, we looked a bit mosquito-like ourselves.

By evening, we were back in Bhopal where the ASI scholar, Manuel Joseph discussed more interesting points about Bhimbetka, but once we reached Bhopal Station, the train chugged in and we knew it was back to the 21st century.

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2011 in goodearth guides, travel

 

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Orchha by the River

Only a town like Orchha could make up for a train delayed by five hours in the fog. Just like Anupriya and Diana a year back, we reached Jhansi in the late afternoon, instead of the scheduled 10:30, and took an auto to Orchha. A smooth ride through sarson fields, small villages and suicidal goats running about on the road.

The Orchha skyline is full of domes and chhattris from the Bundela dynasty: Jahangir Mahal, Ram Raja Mahal, Chaturbhuj temple and the haunting row of royal chhattris by the river. From our hotel, which was to the north of the town on an incline, we could see the whole town bathed in evening light. Living amidst these medieval edifices are the warm and friendly Orchha locals in their pretty white houses, entrepreneurs from other cities and the floating population of tourists.

The view from the hotel

There are more tourists in Orchha than one would expect, but it is still an ignorable number. With the tourists come amenities that one wouldn’t associate with such a small town. Restaurants all over the place, lavish hotels and dingy inns and even cycles on hire. There are innumerable holy men, and an equal number of foreign cameras lapping up the exoticism.

Tourists are easily ignored by other tourists, but the locals are hounded even into their baths

After checking in, we left for the chhattris on the riverside immediately. It was already getting dark, but we discovered a short cut from our hotel. Sitting on the plinth of Bir Singh Deo’s chhattri, we watched the light get dimmer, and listened to the sounds of the river. The chhattris we would see again and again throughout the trip, from all possible sides, at different times of the day, every time acquiring a different sort of beauty.

From the opposite banks at sunset

The ghostly line-up

Through fields of gold

The most endearing part of Orchha, for us, was the river. Except where the main road crosses over the river to the Orchha Forest Reserve, the water is clean, and there are almost no signs of human damage in the waters. Our best moments were trekking by the river, both upstream and downstream. About a kilometre upstream, we discovered a sangam of three rivers, each cascading over rocks to form the Betwa. There were places where there were natural rock pools where one could go swimming, and never any need to carry a water bottle though we trekked through the sunny afternoons, because the water was delicious. There were no people around at all.

where the streams converged

natural pools in the Betwa, and the forest reserve on the opposite bank

Downstream, we trekked along the Forest Reserve, where we even saw a fox coming down to drink water. Every now and then we’d see the remains of a fire, still smoking, but no other signs of people. Orchha is full of wandering sadhus, the invisible lighters of the fires. Finally we met one sitting on the banks. Did he know if we could cross the river upstream? It looked very inviting on the opposite bank. Were there any wild animals about? He was vague and said maybe we could cross the river if we continued walking a little more. But could we give him a little money?

As we walked further, there were no more forest fires. No signs of people at all. But suddenly we saw the ruins of a short fort wall. Then before long, our walk came to an end. The river had become wider, and joined another river, another sangam. We could jump from little islands of rock to a point where we were surrounded by water on all sides. I discovered later (on google maps), that all the joining streams were actually part of the Betwa.

From the Forest

I enjoyed cycling around the town. We even took our cycles into the Jahangir Mahal complex and cycled around the surrounding ruins (see the Orchha Travel Guide,  pg 14 for a map).  Orchha, which according to many, literally means hidden, has many secluded, scattered monuments built by the valiant Bundelas. The Bundela king Rudra Pratap chose Orchhabecause it was surrounded by impregnable jungles and provided for by the river and made an ideal capital. Until 1783 it remained the capital of the Bundelkhand region and flourished under the succeeding kings.

Here are some photographs from our cycle trips:

Jahangir Mahal

Dearly Beloved Chungul Bird, which I wrote about in the Orchha Travel Guide and just had to find on the walls of Raj Mahal

Against the fort walls. Cycles abandoned in the gate in the walls behind me.

 
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Posted by on March 2, 2010 in holiday accounts, travel

 

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Walking on the Buddhist Trail – Sanchi, Sonari, Satdhara

 Sanchi is a small and charming central Indian town. It is so small, that wherever you decide to stay, the Buddhist stupas are walking distance. They are on a low hill and can be seen from the National Highway running through Sanchi, from the trains that pass through Sanchi, even from the pool in our hotel!

The Great Stupa at Sanchi

The most enduring image of Sanchi has to be of the Great Stupa and its toranas (gateways). Begun by emperor Ashoka in the 2nd century BC, it was added to by succeeding dynasties. Till the 13th century, Sanchi was a spiritual centre where Buddhists would come from far and wide. Monasteries, temples and stupas were built here, patronised by the prosperous merchants from nearby Vidisha. Now a lot of them are in ruins, but they are well preserved. The site is a World Heritage Site and is protected by the ASI.

Temple 18 - that's what its called. Quite an uninspiring name for those towering pillars which look uncannily Greek.

Stupas have a terrace where devotees circumabulate. This is the medhi or terrace of stupa 3 (again, that's what its called)

So what were we doing in Sanchi? We were there for a work trip for a book that we were doing with Madhya Pradesh TourismBuddhist Circuit in Central India. Apart from Sanchi, we also had to visit some Buddhist sites around it, which are not part of the regular tourist circuit – Sonari, Satdhara, Andher and Murelkhurd. Getting to these sites is an adventure in itself. Except Satdhara, the others are not connected by motorable road and are well-guarded by jungle, hills are streams.  

 The people of Sanchi are courteous and always willing to help. Even though Parvati and I walked to and from the stupas at odd hours, we never felt uneasy. If you’re the lazy type there are always autos at the base of the hill willing to ferry visitors up and down for a small sum. But for those who have the time and inclination, there are the ancient stone steps leading up the hill. The walk is a good way to meet people: other travellers and locals.

Sanchi Town at dusk from the Stone Steps

Pilgrim-travellers, Monk-guide. This is a group from Sri Lanka with their guide. Lots of pilgrims from Sri Lanka visit Sanchi annually, and most stay at the Mahabodhi Society-run Guest House

 

 

Sonari was where we went next. The car would only go as far as Sonari village from where the stupas were a three kilometre walk – over two hills and across one stream. Our guide, Surender Singh Baduria navigated through the shrubbery.

In Sonari Village. A woman and her house.

Phew. The uphill task

Our guide took this picture of the stream on the way. Notice the two river nymphs perched on the rocks.

There were times when the landscape looked completely untouched by any human presence, not even small huts in the distance. Would it have looked just the same 2000 years back when the Buddha’s followers trod over the same hills to reach the stupas? Or would there have been cart tracks, and footprints and frequent human settlements?

  There are two main stupas at sonari and a monastery. The site is on a clearing, which is surrounded by unending forests on every side. The caretaker of the site, Bhagwan Singh, came to greet us with his dog. The only resident on the site, he has lived here for a year now and says he will never leave.

Mr Surender Singh, Bhagwan Singh and Parvati who's taking notes

 Of the four, only Sonari and Satdhara were accessible, so Satdhara was our next destination. Parvati and I were tossed about in the car during the drive (which can only be done in a four-wheel drive). There are some 8 stupas here set in some really breathtaking natural beauty. The stupas overlook a river which flows in the valley below.

Mr Surender Singh showed us some ancient paintings on a rock-face on the mountainside which takes a somewhat steep climb downwards. Parvati wouldn’t come, so I risked my life alone (and barefoot). Here is the proof:

See? The rockface is twice as tall as Surenderji. The photographs of the rock paintings are in the book

The Grand Stupa of Satdhara

Our book is almost out on the stands. The Buddhist Circuit in Central India will appeal not only to Buddhist pilgrims, but to anyone interested in Buddhism, Madhra Pradesh, our built heritage, Sanchi, the excursions from Sanchi (like Gyaraspur and Udaigiri)….

 Here’s the cover, so that you know what to look for when you reach the bookstore:

 
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Posted by on November 24, 2009 in goodearth guides, travel

 

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Pachmarhi Ahoy!

Last month, work took me to perhaps the prettiest place I have visited in a long time – Pachmarhi. Our clients, Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Developement Board had commissioned a string of books and Pachmarhi is a part of it (Check with your nearest book-shop for our travel guides on Bhopal, Indore, Gwalior, Jabalpur, Indore, Mandu and Orccha).

Where I dared!

This is your typical Pachmarhi landscape with tall, rocky mountains, plunging ravines and in this case, two feet from where I am standing, a thousand-feet drop. What you see in the pic is the insignificance and helplessness of man vis-s-vis nature. What you don’t see, however, is the effort it required on my part to keep a straight face.

God made it that way!

Another of Pachmarhi’s marvels. The rock, as big as three buses put together, rests as it does between two rock faces. Below it is a pond which is considered holy by the local people. I wonder how big the splash would be if one day, the rock decides to take the plunge!

For him, the bell tolls!

I finally manage to reach to top of the Chauragarh Hill, after 3.4 kms of uphill treks and negotiating 1,380 stairs. The view from the top made me forget hunger, fatigue,  sunburn, thirst … pretty much everything I was afflicted with at the moment. Now I know what Led Zeppelin were thinking when they wrote ‘Stairway to Heaven’

Him!

Pachmarhi is a land full of legends related to Lord Shiva. My guide, conspicuous with a bright vermillion tilak on his forehead, explained how this is where He stays when He is not in His penthouse atop Mount Kailash. On the way to Chauragarh, I stopped to rest in a cave and there He was! He did not speak to me though.

trishul!

More signs of his Presence!

Mother!

With the coming of the British, came a different deity – Jesus of Nazareth. A different god demands a different temple, so churches were built. Different people worship differently, hence there was built a Catholic Church and  a Protestant one as well! They are however, closed to the general public. Same tree, different wood.

Bee Falls

The Bee Falls is one of the busiest places in Pachmarhi and also the source of the town’s potable water. For the latest trend in waterfall-wear, consult the bathers at the bottom of the falls!

Pachmarhi can be visited throughout the year! If you are coming from Delhi, like I did, catch the Delhi Jabalpur Sridham Express which will drop you off at Pipariya at 0400 hrs. Right outside the station, from in front of the Strate Bank of India ATM, you can get a bus or share a taxi to Pachmarhi, 54 kms away. Dont sleep on the journey, you dont know what you will miss!

For more information, please buy our Pachmarhi Travel Guide…hang on..we’re still working on it. It should be out by the first week of September.

Till then…

 
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Posted by on July 16, 2009 in goodearth guides, travel

 

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Orchha – Behind the Scenes

Travelling in Madhya Pradesh (see our Madhya Pradesh guide) is possibly one of the pleasantest experiences affordable for the tourist in India. The roads are a dream, the people hospitable, and the lodging and transport facilities absolutely godsent. Orchha was no different. But that said, Orchha is a destination that will always counter expectations.

The gateway to Orchha

The gateway to Orchha

We arrived on a warm winter afternoon, the fog having delayed our morning Shatabdi and put us in a mild state of apprehension regarding our packed itinerary. But what took our breath away was how, with the clearing of the fog, the spectacular ramparts of the Palace Complex arose out of a decidedly small and sleepy town.

The impressive ramparts of the Palace Complex

The impressive ramparts of the Palace Complex

But daylight was fast disappearing and Time (the ruling factor on work trips) was laughing diabolically in our faces. So we decided to head to the Betwa river to catch a glimpse of the lovely chhatris of the Bundela kings reflected in its waters with the sunset.

The Chhattris of the Bundela Kings

The Chhattris of the Bundela Kings

Heading back to the fort and our MPT lodge within it (called Sheesh Mahal), we realized we had traversed the length of the town in under ten minutes! The lodge itself was a real bargain for the setting, the food and the facilities. Diana pigged on butter chicken and I had some stew as we watched some local troubadours perform in the hotel restaurant-cum-lobby.

At the Sheesh Mahal restaurant

At the Sheesh Mahal restaurant

And then we happily turned into bed in preparation for an early morning. Of course, the fog didn’t agree with us and morning couldn’t start as early as we had hoped. But we still managed to cover Jehangir mahal, Raj Mahal, Rai Parveen Mahal, Chaturbhuj Temple, Ram Taja Temple and Dinman Hardaul’s Palace. Laxminarayan Temple was out of bounds what with Ram Gopal Verma shooting his Ravan, with Abhishek Bachchan, inside!

We lunched at a beautiful terrace eatery aptly called Open Sky where the owner actually refused to give us a bill. ‘Humko sirf khilane mein khushi hai. Meri beti ne banaya hai’, he said, nudging a shy, pretty girl, who was studying for her B.Sc exams.

Open Sky Restaurant and its welcoming owner

Open Sky Restaurant and its welcoming owner

Leaving Orchha, we knew we’d come back again and bring more people with us. We hope the Orchha Travel Guide captures some of this longing.

A family in Orchha poses for the shutterbug

A family in Orchha poses for the shutterbug

The Orchha Travel Guide is now available in bookstores. Here’s a sneak preview:

A spread from the chapter Exploring Orchha

A spread from the chapter Exploring Orchha

Another spread from Exploring Orchha

Another spread from Exploring Orchha

 
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Posted by on May 28, 2009 in goodearth guides, travel

 

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