HILL TOP DRAMA

Es­cape the hub­bub of In­dia’s cap­i­tal to mar­vel at the mag­i­cal palaces and forts around the towns of Gwalior and Orchha

Business Traveller - - CONTENTS - WORDS AMARGROVER

A week­end es­cape near Delhi: Gwalior and Orchha

Delhi. It’s an­other long week­end. You yearn to es­cape the ur­ban jun­gle but have al­ready done the Taj Ma­hal and “Pink City” of Jaipur. Some kind of tran­quil al­ter­na­tive beck­ons, but where? Orchha (mean­ing “hid­den place”) stands be­side the Betwa River in Mad­hya Pradesh state around 420km south of Delhi. Its lit­tle-known con­fec­tion of now-empty palaces and mus­cu­lar crenel­lated walls en­clos­ing half-for­got­ten tem­ples is among north In­dia’s most ro­man­tic des­ti­na­tions.

While it’s a lengthy jour­ney to un­der­take in one go, there are sev­eral wor­thy dis­trac­tions en route. Which is why I’m stand­ing on the edge of a squat watch­tower peer­ing down be­tween bat­tle­ments. Far be­low stretch the lit­tle lanes and flat roofs of the city of Gwalior from which chil­dren fly kites amid dry­ing chill­ies and tra­di­tional char­poy beds.

GWALIOR’S FORT

Three-and-a-half hours by ex­press train from Delhi, Gwalior is famed for its colos­sal his­toric fort, perched on a plateau loom­ing over the city. With roots in the sixth cen­tury, the fort has changed hands dozens of times dur­ing its mil­len­nia-long his­tory. Although a re­bel­lious con­tin­gent of its se­poys joined the 1857 up­ris­ing, the Bri­tish took con­trol and re­turned the city to the loyal Scin­dia fam­ily in 1886. Un­til In­de­pen­dence in 1947, Gwalior was one of more than 500 princely states, with its Scin­dia ruler im­por­tant enough to merit the Raj’s most pres­ti­gious 21-gun salute on for­mal oc­ca­sions. Post In­de­pen­dence, the Scin­dias evolved into one of the coun­try’s most prom­i­nent po­lit­i­cal fam­i­lies.

Even if you’ve driven up the soli­tary ac­cess road to the fort, the set­ting is best ex­plored by foot. It’s a patch­work of ven­er­a­ble mon­u­ments from dif­fer­ent eras, with an­cient tem­ples, bar­racks, halls and wa­ter tanks con­tained within broad, sin­u­ous walls. The 15th-cen­tury Man Singh Palace is prob­a­bly Gwalior’s most pho­tographed mon­u­ment, with rem­nants of blue, turquoise and yel­low tile­work lend­ing its sturdy walls and tow­ers colour that bor­ders on the whim­si­cal. Apart from some fine dec­o­ra­tive carv­ing, its court­yards and cham­bers seem rather stern, with nar­row pas­sages and dim stair­wells lead­ing the brave on into its al­most gothic in­nards.

THE PALACES

Down in the town, the best place to stay is Usha Ki­ran Palace, tajho­tels.com, built in 1880 by the Ma­haraja as a guest­house. Among its most cel­e­brated pa­trons was the Prince of Wales – the fu­ture King Ge­orge V – who paused here over Christ­mas 1905.

Al­most next door stands the vast Jai Vi­las Palace, jaivi­las­mu­seum.org, erected by an­other Scin­dia grandee in 1874. Its Bri­tish ar­chi­tect and de­signer re­turned from a Euro­pean Grand tour in­spired, or per­haps

Gwalior is a patch­work of ven­er­a­ble mon­u­ments from dif­fer­ent eras

con­fused, and the ar­chi­tec­ture en­com­passes styles rang­ing from baroque to Tus­can with a touch of Buck­ing­ham Palace and Ver­sailles thrown in for good mea­sure.

Although still partly in­hab­ited by the for­mer royal fam­ily, sev­eral wings – show­cas­ing trea­sures, arte­facts, an­tique fur­ni­ture, weaponry, car­riages and palan­quins – are open to the pub­lic. The palaces most cel­e­brated fea­tures in­clude a pair of chan­de­liers hang­ing in the cav­ernous Dur­bar Hall. Th­ese are said to be among the world’s heav­i­est, and sev­eral ele­phants were used to test the ceil­ing’s strength be­fore they were in­stalled. The for­mal din­ing room, mean­while, boasts three run­way-like ta­bles on one of which lies a model rail­way track. Play­ful ma­hara­jahs used a toy train to dis­trib­ute Scotch and cigars to guests, an an­tic that per­fectly en­cap­su­lates royal ex­cess dur­ing the Raj.

TO ORCHHA

Con­tin­u­ing south to­wards Orchha, a jour­ney that is best un­der­taken by car with driver (you can ask your ho­tel for help ar­rang­ing this), you’re un­likely to miss an ar­rest­ing fort-palace on the crest of a hill over­look­ing a small lake. This is the rarely vis­ited Da­tia Palace, with its clus­ters of domes and cupo­las crown­ing a su­perb ex­am­ple of the Indo-Is­lamic ar­chi­tec­ture. This style was favoured by the Bun­dela Ra­jput clan, which founded Orchha State in the 16th cen­tury. Its strik­ing ap­pear­ance and unique at­mos­phere – per­haps down to the fact that the sub­stan­tial citadel was

The jewel in Orchha’s crown is the ex­otic Ja­hangir Ma­hal

never oc­cu­pied – is a tan­ta­lis­ing pre­lude to the town of Orchha it­self.

Orchha’s ori­gins lie in the early 1500s when, on a hunt­ing trip through forests of silk-cot­ton and flame-of-the-for­est trees, Ma­haraja Ru­dra Pratap paused at a pic­turesque turn of the Betwa River. What be­gan as a mil­i­tary camp be­came the cap­i­tal of Bun­delk­hand, a knot of feu­dal king­doms ruled by the Bun­dela clans.

Today Orchha is a small one-street town sur­rounded by farm­land and for­est. Its his­toric heart lies on an is­land cre­ated by the braid­ing of the Betwa. Strolling across an arched bridge I reached a mas­sive wooden gate bristling with rusty ele­phant­de­fy­ing spikes and climbed steps to­wards a court­yard and trio of palaces. To my right soared the Raj Ma­hal while ahead loomed the Ja­hangir Ma­hal.

Topped with para­pets and domed kiosks, the 16th-cen­tury five-storey Raj Ma­hal was the first ma­jor palace built by Orchha’s roy­als. Rel­a­tively plain on the out­side, its nu­mer­ous dark rooms and breezy apart­ments range around two deep court­yards. Ele­gant au­di­ence halls – once the seat of lo­cal gov­ern­ment – re­tain ceil­ing mu­rals of royal pro­ces­sions, hunt­ing and geo­met­ric mo­tifs.

ROYAL CONNECTIONS

The jewel in Orchha’s crown is the Ja­hangir Ma­hal. Built by Vir Singh Deo in the early 1600s to hon­our the vis­it­ing Moghul Em­peror Ja­hangir, it’s an ex­otic well­pro­por­tioned ed­i­fice with ta­per­ing bas­tions and elon­gated hang­ing bal­conies topped with pavil­ions, kiosks and cupo­las. For all their wealth and power, the Bun­de­las were sub­servient to their Moghul over­lords and Vir Singh sought to pay an ex­trav­a­gant com­pli­ment to them.

From the main quad­ran­gle I climbed nar­row stairs through a suc­ces­sion of ter­races with more airy rooms and cham­bers. Frescoes and mo­saics – whose turquoise and lapis came from Afghanistan – once adorned its creamy domes, para­pets and walls; now few traces re­main. Ja­hangir’s com­pact apart­ment, with its sleep­ing dais and carved lat­tice screens, faced west, to­wards Mecca. The em­peror stayed here just once and al­legedly the palace was rarely oc­cu­pied again.

Set­tling down in a lofty pavil­ion I sur­veyed the view. Orchha’s town is dom­i­nated by the Chaturb­huj, the orig­i­nal royal tem­ple with four storeys of ogee arches topped by con­i­cal tow­ers. Its vaulted in­te­rior is rem­i­nis­cent of a church and for a fee you can usu­ally reach its up­per lev­els. Down by the river, Bun­dela roy­alty is im­mor­talised with a row of im­pos­ing straw-coloured chha­tris con­tain­ing memo­ri­als to them, which are par­tic­u­larly pic­turesque when fired by the first rays of dawn. Lo­cal bathers of­ten clus­ter near here, too, soap­ing their limbs and pound­ing laun­dry on the smooth rocks.

Less ob­vi­ous yet ut­terly tran­quil are the peace­ful half-for­got­ten crum­bling sta­bles, man­sions and tem­ples of the is­land, all within sight of the palaces. Some have been colonised by vil­lagers, whose lush plots of lentils and mus­tard add to the pic­turesque scene. Strolling along a war­ren of paths and tracks, I found my­self up among the fur­thest ram­parts of the town gaz­ing down at the surg­ing Betwa. A hand­ful of white­wa­ter rafters floated by cheer­ing, their con­tent­ment echo­ing mine. BT

CLOCKWISE FROM BE­LOW: Jai Vi­las Palace in Gwalior; Ja­hangir Ma­hal in Orchha; Chaturb­huj Tem­ple in Orchha; Gwalior train sta­tion; Usha Ki­ran Palace, Gwalior

Ja­hangir Ma­hal in Orchha

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