Tuesday, October 14, 2008

First Trip To India: Gwalior and surroundings

Chapter Four - Gwalior and surroundings

Gwalior was a nice place to spend some time. The Mohammed Gaus and Tansen tombs were interesting, but the buildings inside the fort's walls were really impressive, especially the Sas Bahu temples of which the first was really baffling. With views all over Gwalior (you can see the Gaus tomb very good from here) this made a great place for a picnic, something on which a couple of Indian families seemed to agree with me. The Teli Ka Mandir was great from the outside (especially due to its height), but was a bit of a disappointment on the inside. The Man Singh Palace's exterior made the most photogenic spot in the fort.

Chhatri-ShivpuriFrom Gwalior I went to Shivpuri. The chhatris are really mind-blowing, on the outside as well inside. There's a small entry fee being asked, but what's more important, the chhatris close at 12 noon, only to re-open at 4 or 5 PM. If you have the time (like me) it's nice to go in the morning as well as in the evening. At night the monuments are very beautifully illuminated. I spoke to someone who told me that this is not standard procedure. There has to be paid for the light and "a rich family" had done so. Price for having the lights on was Rs 25. At night there are often (I heard) people making music and singing inside the chhatris. It's nice then to sit down for a while, listen and just suck up the atmosphere. Great ! In the mother chhatri ask some official to lift the white sheet or carpet (or whatever you call it) for you on the side of the shrine. Under there is a 10 meter long snake skin.

In Shivpuri I also went to the Madhav National Park (entry : Rs 10), but I found it a disappointment. There wasn't much to see and I felt very lucky to see a wildcat, some vultures and a nilgai (a type of large antelope), just to give me a break from boredom. In a special enclosure some tigers are contained. Supposedly they can wander around in there at will, but when I was there they were kept in zoo-style, meaning that you get a very up-close look but there's no sense of the wild anymore at all.

A nice viewpoint in the park is from King George's Castle. This architecturally unusual castle is built on the highest point of the park by a Maharaja for King George the Fifth's visit. He stayed there exactly one night. After that the building has been mostly abandoned. It would make a great place to stay, but you can't. Inside is a small exhibition about the National Park, if you can still make out something under the dust. The reason to come here are the magnificent views from the roof (for which you also have to climb on a small ladder). The lakes are very beautiful from here. If you bring your own food, this can be a great picnic spot. Tea is available : an old woman sells cups for Rs 3.

If you want to stay in Shivpuri and are planning to visit the park, then you can stay very nearby at the old boat club (founded in 1923) which isn't a boat club anymore, but a place to accommodate visitors. You can stay there in a (rather ?) basic room for about Rs 100-120. There are seven rooms. Better is to go to the Tourist Village which has really excellent, comfortable cottages. A single (which actually is a whole cottage) without air-con cost me only Rs 275 (plus 10% luxury tax). This was the best price/quality deal of my whole trip. The room was spotlessly clean. There was a sitting corner and a good bathroom with hot water shower. Mosquito coils were lit for me. The whole staff is very friendly and helpful. There's also a good enough restaurant. At the reception several postcards and leaflets were available for a few rupees. The people are informative.

If you travel from Shivpuri by road to Jhansi, you can make a stop on the bridge over river Sind. There are good views. Another bridge to spend a few minutes is over the Mahuar river. From there you can see Karera Fort which looks impressive enough. There are also people bathing, swimming and doing laundry in the river.

Jhansi itself was a disappointment for sight-seeing, as I had expected after reading about it. Sight-seeing here is definitely only to be done to kill the time if you're waiting for transport. The Rani Mahal's museum collection was so exciting that even the insects seemed to had died of boredom. At least the entrance price is right : it's free. Jhansi fort was good for a walk around, but the views were not that great. Down the walls on one side, the history of the fort is shown in a display of life-size metal dolls, including the Rani of Jhansi leaping of the walls with her horse and charging against the British with her adopted child on the back. It's very simply done (though nicely), but it gives an idea of what happened here. You'll need somebody to translate the signs for you as they're only in Hindi. Entry to the fort is 25 paise.

Even the Jhansi Hotel was a bit of a disappointment. Okay, you can still tell that the place has been British in a very distant past, but the whole made a bit of a neglected impression. A single room with good cooling (no A/C) was Rs 250 (without the 5% luxury tax). There was a shower, but it didn't work. Well, the room was okay enough, but coming from the Tourist Village in Shivpuri with similar prices, this was like the difference between day and night. The problem in this hotel was the restaurant and especially the head waiter. He was an old and very annoying, rude man. First, he came up with identical menus that had different prices quoted. Then, when I ordered the things I wanted, almost nothing was available. There was virtually no choice for me than ordering Shami Kabab, white rice and chapati's. When I did, he very rudely answered : "How can you eat chapati without curry ?" I answered something in the sense of that I would have ordered a curry dish if they only had it available. This seemed to piss him off even more. Also when I ordered another drink or so and he had to come over to my table, he looked annoyed too. I noticed him behaving in a similar fashion against other customers, so it wasn't a personal thing. It wasn't a temporary habit either, as he was exactly the same type of guy the next day. Everyone I spoke to found that the hotel took a serious dive in their opinion because of this person.

The trip to the palace of Raj Bir Singh Deo in Datia is really worth it ! It's just fantastic. The caretaker of the place guided us around for a small tip. I recommend taking him, because a guide is useful in this place. If you're standing at the entrance of the palace and you're looking back towards the town, you can see a couple of other buildings. The one close-by is a former prison. The palace-like building in the distance is indeed that : Bhawani Singh Palace, built in 1620 by Singh Deo. The best time to be here for a visit, I think, is about an hour before sunset, so that you can walk around inside and be at the top when the sun is setting. This was one of these magical places, where you could really sense the past. This is a place like Agra Fort, where the threshold between the expected and the reality is high. The views in all directions are great. Vultures and swallows were all over the place; the palace's towers with vultures sitting on top of them in the evening light made great pictures. Places in the palace which were worth seeing were the dancing room with its decorations (unfortunately a bit blackened by smoke when in the first part of this century some refugees resided here), the court, the queen's room which is in the middle of a long row of pillars, the chief minister's house and the Maharaja's room.

Orccha was also more than worth its time. First I wanted to go to inside the Ram Raja temple but no leather items could be brought inside. I decided to give it a pass then, because there are some leather pads stitched on my photo bag and I didn't want to leave it outside unguarded. Externally, the temple with its pink and yellow colours looks out of place between the other structures. The nearby Chaturbhuj Temple is worth a visit.

Dinman Hardaul's Palace may have an interesting story behind it, I found it somehow disappointing because it had a neglected appearance. So were the Phool Bagh Gardens. In the same complex of buildings are the more interesting Sawan Bhadon pillars, which can be seen from the street and represent the rainy and spring seasons, and the Hardaulka Bhaitaka, Hardaul's resting place. Here in a garden, Hardaul used to lie and rest in a bed which stands in some kind of pavilion. It's a strange sight to see a bed outside, in the open.

The Jehangir Mahal is worth a closer look. The views towards the Betwa river are stunning and created a great photograph with a mysterious feeling about it ! I would have passed its neighbour, the Raj Mahal, if I wouldn't have read about its murals. It's so plain boring on the outside. The caretaker showed up as soon as I arrived and unlocked the rooms with the paintings. They were very beautiful and definitely worth my time. Top magical place in Orccha was the Lakshmi Narayan Temple which is beautiful and specially built. The murals are interesting, especially the large scene depicting a British attack. The views from upstairs are great, esp. towards the town centre and the chhatris. This is another one of those places where I just sat down for a long time, day-dreaming about the past whilst looking in the distance and writing down some impressions. The caretaker is a friendly guy who kept me company.

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