Madhya Pradesh tour follows road to ancient India

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Room Key: Usha Bundela Hotel

Address: Usha Bundela, Temple Road, Khajuraho, India 471606

Phone: (011) 91 076-86 272-386

E-mail:[email protected]

Web:www.ushashriramhotels.com

Rooms: 66

Rates: $66 per night, double, for a standard room; $89 for a deluxe room. Breakfast is $5, lunch and dinner $20 each.

Commission: 15%

ORCHHA, India -- At first, only a trickle of pilgrims walked beside the road as we drove toward Orchha and the Raj Rama temple there.

Orchha is located in the northwest part of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, about 250 miles to the south of Delhi, and the pilgrims were hurrying to reach the small town by dusk, when the festivities relating to their worship of Raj (Lord) Rama would take place.

Gradually, the number of devotees increased. They were dressed in brightly colored clothes, and some had a small bedroll or other items perched on their heads. Many would walk up to 18 miles to their destination.

In the evening, my guide led me through chanting crowds as they pushed forward to see the image of Lord Rama in the hot palace-turned-temple.   

Outside, the festivities included eating (stalls sold sticky sweets made from milk) and the purchase of trinkets. Some people daubed their foreheads with red or yellow dots from the piles of dye for sale. 

In the narrow streets of Orchha, cows wandered about or even slept on the road unconcerned by the traffic, and pigs rooted around in the rubbish.

Buses were packed to overflowing, and telephone kiosks offering facilities for local and international calls were doing a roaring trade.

In the early morning, I was awakened by the sound of voices coming from the riverbank near my accommodation in the comfortable but basic Betwa Cottages alongside the Betwa River.

Hundreds of devotees were taking their morning ablutions, the ladies washing their saris and hanging them to dry on railings or large boulders. Men soaped themselves from head to toe before immersing themselves in the river.

It was a colorful scene, enhanced by the beauty of the location, where the 14 cenotaphs  grouped along the river provided a dramatic backdrop.

Men soap themselves before dipping into the Betwa River in Orchha, India. Cenotaphs line the riverbank. Photo by Roger Allnutt.Orchha was founded in the 16th century by the Bundela Rajput chieftain Rudra Pratap, who chose the site as his capital.

In the following centuries, a number of temples and palaces were built, noble structures full of wonderful carvings and murals depicting religious and secular themes.

The interior of the Laxminarayana Temple is covered with vivid paintings and murals; one long panel depicts local tribesmen fighting against British cavalry.

Three palaces make up Orchhas fort complex. One has been converted into the Sheesh Mahal Hotel. Enormous rooms enable guests to live like a maharaja, yet one of the rooms I was shown costs about $30 for a double. 

Flanking the hotel are two other palaces, the Jehangir Mahal and the Raj Mahal, the ladies palace noted for its colorful murals.

Orchha lies on the road from Gwalior to the famous temple city of Khajuraho via the railhead city of Jahnsi.

Before reaching Jahnsi, the road passes the town of Datia, which contains the imposing seven-story palace of Raja Bir Singh Deo, a unique example of 17th-century Hindu architecture, currently undergoing extensive renovation.

Nearby at Sonagiri is a hill containing 77 temples that are sacred to the Jain religion.

Situated on a flat plain surrounded by distant hills, the city of Khajuraho has been designated by Unesco as a World Heritage site for its archaeological and historical monuments.

Built over a period of 100 years, from 950 to 1050, only 22 of the original 85 temples survive, but they are a remarkable testimony to the skill of the craftsmen and the vision of the Chandela rulers who ordered their construction.

The temples lay forgotten for many centuries and were only rediscovered in the early 20th century. The main group of temples, the so-called Western Group, are especially renowned.

Standing on a high masonry platform, each of the temples is covered with a dazzling display of sandstone carvings.

The figures cover a range of scenes: gods, goddesses, celestial maidens and lovers, royal processions, hunting scenes, dancers and animals. Many of the carvings are erotic, a sort of kama sutra in stone, and if you cannot get good photos of them, the postcard sellers outside the gates will hound you until you buy one.

The most impressive temples are Lakshmana, Kandariya Mahadev and Deva Jagdamba, Chitragupta, and Vishwanath all located within a walled compound and separated by grass and gardens..

In the evening, a son et lumiere spectacle, narrated in both English and Hindi, evokes the life and times of the Chandela rulers.

Not to be missed is the new State Museum of Tribal and Folk Art, which contains a fascinating collection of the art and craft of the Madhya Pradesh state, including tribal and folk painting, masks and tattoos.

Khajuraho is a major tourist center (it also has an airport), and the choice of accommodations is better than in most Indian cities of the same size. 

The comfortable Usha Bundela Hotel, part of the Usha Shriram Hotel group, is recommended (see Room Key, above right). It is set on four acres of greenery in the heart of Khajuraho. Its multicuisine restaurant serves Indian, Continental, Chinese and Mughlai dishes. The hotel has a swimming pool, a cyber cafe, a health club, room service, a valet and laundry service.

Panna, one of the many national parks and wildlife sanctuaries in Madhya Pradesh, is close to Khajuraho and is reputed to have both leopards and tigers roaming its grounds.

The ruins of the imposing fort at Kalinjar are gradually being restored.

The roads are pretty bad, and you share them with buses, huge trucks that play chicken on the narrow central strip, cows and masses of people.

The mass of humanity, especially the incredible numbers of small children eking out a subsistence living, is an eye-opener.

Every village and small town is crowded with tiny shops, markets and repair shops, and out in the fields the tools for tilling are unchanged from centuries ago. 

Late in the day I saw women coming home with a pile of branches or a basketful of cow dung (both used for cooking) perched on their heads.

For more on Madhya Pradesh, visit www.mptourism.com.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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