From Khajuraho Ollie and I travelled on to Orchha, via Jhansi, and then to Gwalior. Neither place sees a huge number of tourists but both are, in our opinion, worth visiting. We prefer to travel to more off-the-beaten-track destinations, so the lack of hassle in Orchha and Gwalior and their architectural bounties made them two stand-out destinations of our trip.
Orchha is a very small village that sits on the banks of the Betwa River; it is surrounded by brown arid countryside and traditional farming villages. The stunning Mughal architecture in Orchha is quite something else, unlike any other in India. Crossing the bridge from the village centre brings you to a fortified complex dominated by two imposing 17th Century palaces, Jehangir Mahal and Raj Mahal.
Jehangir Mahal and Raj Mahal
Jehangir Mahal is a huge architectural triumph, complete with steep staircases and precipitous walkways. The medieval Islamic architecture is simply beautiful. Behind the palace are the camel stables, which overlook a brown landscape dotted with monuments.
In the nearby Raj Mahal it is the frescoed ceilings and walls which really catch the attention. Scenes depicting Rama, Krishna and Orchha royalty play out stories of wrestling, hunting, fighting and dancing.
Downhill from the palace compound are the smaller Raj Praveen Mahal, a pavillion and formal Mughal garden, and Khana Hammam with some exquisite vaulted ceilings.
On the other side of the village is Palki Mahal, the palace of Dinman Hardol; adjacent is his memorial in Phool Bagh, a traditional formal Persian garden.
Orchha also has several impressive 16th Century temples that receive thousands of Hindu pilgrims. There is the pink-and-gold domed Ram Raja Temple, the only temple where Rama is worshipped as a king, the Chaturbhuj Temple, a very atmospheric towered building, and the Lakshmi Narayan Temple, another stunning piece of architecture just outside the village.
Lakshmi Narayan Temple offers wonderful rooftop views and has some very well-preserved murals on the ceilings of its towers.
The Chhatris of Orchha
The Chhatris of Orchha are cenotaphs to past rulers; they are immense and extremely photogenic, especially at sunset. There are seven chhatris located a kilometre south of the village, beside the river. This is a very serene place at any time of day, though the scene is most atmospheric at dusk. Here, on the river ghats, children splash and play in the Betwa River while cows laze in patches of shade, as nonchalant as ever.
Orchha is a wonderful, laid-back place to kick back and relax for a few days. There are no hassles and no touts; the local people are extremely friendly and welcoming and the surrounding pastoral landscape is refreshingly simple.
Where to Stay in Orchha
If you really want to experience local village life, there is a fantastic homestay initiative in the nearby village of Ganj. The initiative is run by the non-profit organisation, Friends of Orchha, who organise for travellers to stay in the homes of local people in the village. This is a wonderful opportunity to interact with villagers and experience what living in a rural Indian village is like. Friends of Orchha also run an after school youth club for village children, where volunteering opportunities are available.
As we were short on time we stayed in Orchha itself at Temple View Guest House, a small family-run place. We made friends with the lovely owners, who cooked us homely meals and gave us free samosas and chai; the lady even painted my hands with henna! We highly recommend Temple View Guest House if you’re heading to Orchha.
On route from Orchha to Agra we stopped for one night in the city of Gwalior, which is famous for its medieval hilltop fort. The 3km-long plateau, upon which the fort sits, looms over the city; from the plateau there are fantastic views over Gwalior and the surrounding area.
This 8th Century hilltop fort is an imposing sight, the circular towers of Man Singh Palace ringed with turquoise tiles. The best way to access the fort is from the steep eastern entrance, allowing wonderful views of the fort as you climb up. As you ascend from this approach you will pass through five gateways; there are also a number of small shrines and temples lining the path.
One of the main sights within the fort is Man Singh Palace, which you’ll come across at the top of the eastern approach. This imperial-style palace is unusually decorated; on the outer walls there is a frieze of yellow ducks! The palace consists of two open courts, surrounded by apartments on two levels. Below ground there are a further two storeys, constructed for use in hot weather.
Nearby are the ruins of Shah Jahan Palace, Karan Palace and several other dilapidated palaces. There is also the Archaeological Survey of India Museum, which was a hospital under British rule.
Perhaps what made a visit to Gwalior Fort most memorable and enjoyable for Ollie and I, however, was our visit to the Sikh Gurdwara, a short walk further along the plateau. Not only is this impressive complex stunning on the outside, but we were also heartily welcomed by one of the leading Sikh members and given a guided tour.
This wonderful man told us up front that he didn’t want any money for his time, such is the Sikh custom of hospitality, and then went on to provide us with free chai and a full explanation about each part of the gurdwara and his involvement in it. Sikhs are some of the warmest and most hospitable people on the planet; their religion welcomes all people, no matter their creed, colour, religion or background.
Not far from the Gurdwara are the Sasbahu Temples, otherwise known as the Mother-in-Law and Daughter-in-Law Temples, which date from the 9th to the 11th Centuries. The Mother-in-Law Temple is dedicated to Vishnu whilst the Daughter-in-Law Temple is dedicated to Shiva. Both contain many sculptures and carvings.
Nearby, lies the Teli ka Mandir, which is the oldest monument in the compound. On the Western approach to the fort, don’t miss the Jain Rock Sculptures, which represent nude figures of the 24 great Jain teachers, tirthankars. There are more than 30 sculptures, including a 17m-high standing image of Adinath, the first tirthankar.
Tomb of Tansen
Just before the sun set, Ollie and I squeezed in a visit to the Tomb of Tansen, which is tucked away in the winding lanes of the old town. It was a little difficult to locate, so we had to ask repeatedly for directions. Tansen is held to be the father of Hindustani classical music; in the compound there is also the larger tomb of Mohammed Gaus.
Gwalior itself is a large, bustling Indian city that is quite overwhelming when you first arrive. We took a very early train from Jhansi and arrived in the city before 9am. We therefore had the whole day to see the sights of Gwalior and just stayed one night. One busy day exploring the city was enough.
The best place we found to eat, which wasn’t far from our hotel or the train station, was the Indian Coffee House. They specialise in South Indian fare, such as dosa, but also do North Indian cuisine too. The food is tasty and clean and the portion sizes are huge. We enjoyed very large, cheese masala dosas that had inch-thick-layers of cheese.
If you’re in Orchha, don’t miss the nearby city of Khajuraho, which is sure to be a real trip highlight!