Escape the hubbub of India’s capital to marvel at the magical palaces and forts around the towns of Gwalior and Orchha, says Amar Grover.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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 elephant-defying 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.
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 well-proportioned 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 white-water rafters floated by cheering, their contentment echoing mine.
This three-day itinerary uses India’s fast, comfortable daily Shatabdi Express trains, with a 0600 departure from New Delhi reaching Gwalior at 0928. The return leg departs Jhansi (near Orchha) at 1840 arriving New Delhi at 2330. A return fare in an Executive seat is Rs2915/£34. Tickets can be bought online through irctc.co.in
By far the most stress-free way to take the trip is via a company such as Delhi-based Bridging Journeys, bridgingjourneys.com, who can arrange tailored tours. A three-day/two-night excursion from Delhi with trains and car with driver for two days, staying in the hotels below, costs Rs47875/£551 single occupancy or Rs28750/£331pp double occupancy and includes breakfast and entrance fees.
In Gwalior, the Usha Kiran Palace, tajhotels.com, is a good accommodation option with deluxe double rooms from Rs7375/£84 including breakfast. In Orchha, try the Amar Mahal, amarmahal.com, deluxe double rooms from Rs5880/£67.