A brief account of our trip to Gwalior and Khajuraho. For a detailed Khajuraho trip journal, click here.
Day 1: Delhi to Gwalior
321 km, 8 hours. We leave Delhi at 8.30 AM, and crawling through Faridabad, realise we should have started off earlier. The traffic is horrendous.
It takes us over 30 minutes to plough our way through Faridabad, and then we’re on our way. This is National Highway (NH) 2. A broad smooth tarred road, flanked by green fields, and the occasional interesting sign (A miniature mall named Pappan Plaza in Palwal; an Institute for Research in Goats near Agra). The towns—Ballabhgarh, Palwal, Kosi, Mathura, Agra itself—are where we have to slow, because the roads are narrower and there’s more chaotic, slow-moving traffic such as bicycles and rickshaws. Between towns, the road’s clean and clear enough for us to travel at 100kmph, which by Indian standards is very good.
Much of this is a toll road, and we pay up at the toll plazas (‘Ticket is printed on the backside’, reads the receipt. Hmm. Whose backside?) Shortly after Mathura, just opposite the Mathura Oil Refinery, we break for an early lunch at MacDonald’s. I’m not a fan of the golden arches, but this is about the only place for miles along NH2 where you can get a clean toilet.
Agra, with the awesome Sikandra (the tomb of the Mughal Emperor Akbar) comes about 50 km after Mathura, and at Agra, we turn onto NH3, which goes to Gwalior. We’ve already passed through three states: Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Now we go through Rajasthan and then enter Madhya Pradesh. The most (in)famous area here is the river valley of the Chambal River. The Chambal Ravines were, in the mid and late 1900’s, the home of gangs of very ferocious bandits (always called dacoits in India). They’ve been largely exterminated—my father was a cop in the Chambal area back in the 70’s and was part of the police’s anti-dacoity campaigns. Those dacoits that survived have taken to more lucrative professions, such as politics.
We go past Noorabad, with its decorative old stone bridge; and 30-odd kms past Morena, to Gwalior, where the road is appalling. There are potholes and towering ridges of mud and gravel. A terrifying 45 minutes of this, with our car spattered with red mud and both of us worn to a frazzle, and we finally arrive at the Usha Kiran Palace.
Day 2: Gwalior
We hire a car and driver at the Usha Kiran Palace, for which we’ll have to pay Rs 1,070 for a half day’s hire. It spares our car the terrors of Gwalior’s roads, and we don’t need to find our way around. If we were on a budget, flagging down an autorickshaw would be cheaper.
We get the driver to take us to the Tomb of Tansen and his mentor, Ghaus Mohammad. Both mausoleums are impressive: the mentor’s for its magnificence, the mentee’s for its historicity. Enjoyable 45 minutes here, and then we go up the hill to the Gwalior Fort. The fort, with a circumference of 10 km, is the second largest in India (the fort at Chittor has a circumference of 14 km and tops the chart). It’s bursting with palaces, temples, a gurudwara, and other buildings—including a boarding school, the elitist Scindia Boys’ School. Past a series of monolithic Jain statues, we arrive at the Man Mandir Palace, where we are approached by a tourist guide, whom we finally hire for Rs 190. Our guide takes us around the areas surrounding the Man Mandir Palace (this is where some of the most historic parts of the fort are located), then to two sets of temples—the exquisite Saas-Bahu Temples and the Teli ka Mandir. That done, and having pointed out other interesting buildings in the fort (the TV tower, the old toilets of the gurudwara, the school’s ugly blue-painted dining hall, etc), he leaves us.
We head back to Usha Kiran Palace, have lunch and rest a bit before walking to the nearby Jai Vilas Palace Museum. The lack of decent labelling and the shoddy maintenance here gets on my nerves (why put silver statues on display if you have to cover them with clear plastic to stop them tarnishing?). Gwalior and the Scindias need to hire someone qualified and experienced to take a good look at its tourist sights and do some rethinking. Serious rethinking.
Day 3: Gwalior to Khajuraho
280 km, 8 hours. Time to move on. From Gwalior, we take NH 75, and are soon out in the countryside. The abundant monsoon rain has turned the vegetation a million shades of green, dotted with large bell-shaped mauve flowers in places, flaming red lily-like blooms in others. There are fields of white-flowering crops (lentils?), and bushes of lantana, with orange and red flowers. The earth is a vivid, deep red. Lovely. The road, on the other hand, is frightful, unbelievably rough and potholed almost all through.
Past Datia (we can see the magnificent Veer Singh Palace atop a hill: we plan to visit that on our way back), we travel on to the large cantonment town of Jhansi. This is where we turn onto NH76, and suddenly, things are a lot better. The road is vastly smoother, and the countryside has more variety: we pass through patches of fairly dense forest, and then through a series of small, bustling towns that specialise in schools with the oddest of names: Daisy Moral Higher Secondary School is the highlight of one place; Daffodil Glorious Higher Secondary School is another. What will they think of next? Chrysanthemum Righteous?
We realise that we’ve made a major mistake by not bringing a packed lunch. The Gwalior-Khajuraho road does not cater to travellers. There are dhabas (the roadside eateries common throughout India), but their sense of hygiene is non-existent. We finally buy bananas and Pepsi, and lunch off that.
We’re tired by now, and the milestones don’t seem especially accurate. One shows Khajuraho as being 33 km away; the next sign, 50 m down the road, reads 32 km; the next sign, another 10 m on, goes back to 33 km. Milestones arbitrarily skip 6 or 7 km in what we know is only 1 km. All very wonky.
We reach Khajuraho at 6 PM, and are immediately stopped by a shabby policeman who wants to see the car’s papers—registration, insurance, etc—and Tarun’s driving license. This is a standard ploy to bully drivers whose papers aren’t in order: many people, in order to avoid having their cars confiscated and a legal matter resulting from that, simply bribe the cop. This cop ends up looking foolish, because our papers are in perfect shape, and he gets zilch!
Day 4: Khajuraho
Fortunately for us, Khajuraho is easily traversed by car—and the biggest attraction, the Western Group of Temples (a World Heritage Site) is only five minutes’ drive from the Radisson, where we’re staying. After a huge breakfast, we go to the Western Group. Car parking is opposite the entrance to the site. We’ve just alighted from when we’re accosted by a crowd of boys and men trying to sell us everything from guide services to shoddy Khajuraho guidebooks. (These, we realise as the day goes on, are a persistent lot. They Tarun, especially, gets to bear the brunt of their peskiness. One man, after Tarun refuses to buy, tries pushing ‘Kamasutra CDs’ [with a tantalising whisper about ‘naked ladies’]. When even that doesn’t attract Tarun, the man tries to sell him some erotic key chains).
We make our escape, and go to the ticket counter. We also hire a guide—an official, licensed guide, since that increases the chances of getting someone who knows what he’s talking about. We end up with Pankaj Jain, who seems knowledgeable, and is helpful and friendly. He takes us on a 3½ hour round of the Western Group, then suggests we break for lunch. He’ll meet us after an hour at the car parking, to take us to the Eastern and Southern Groups of Temples, which are smaller. We eat a unsatisfactory lunch at the Raja Café, then meet Pankaj at 2.30 and go on to the Eastern Group (three Jain temples surrounded by a gaggle of smaller shrines) and the Southern Group (not really a group, but two isolated temples). Pankaj also mentions that recent excavations by the Archaeological Survey of India have revealed another temple, only partly constructed, that would have been larger than the ones currently extant. He also recommends that we see the Sound and Light Show that’s held every evening in the Western Group of Temples: it’s a good way of getting to know the temples and their history, he says.
So, after a break to get back to the hotel, wash (travelling in Bundelkhand in the monsoon is an extremely humid proposition—we’ve sweated buckets), and drink a cup of tea—we return to the temples and watch the 7.30 Son et Lumiere show, in English.