Our first day of sightseeing started with a trip to the city's imposing fort. The fort sits atop a hill that has two routes leading up to it. As there were enough to see along both the routes, we decided to walk the whole thing on foot. We huffed and puffed our way up the western route past some gigantic sculptures of Jain Thirtankars to the signature building of the fort - Man Singh Tomar's palace which still holds a good proportion of its blue and yellow tiled exterior. After taking a guided tour of the palace and a quick look at the beautifully proportioned Sas-Bahu temples, we made our way down the eastern slope. At the bottom is the Gujari Mahal, the erstwhile home of Man Singh's favourite queen and the current home to some of the priceless sculptures of the fort. The most pricey of these possessions is the famed Salabanjika, a stone sculpture often referred to as the Indian Mona-Lisa for its portrayal of a lady with a mysterious smile. For me, just like the Mona Lisa, the mystery was not in the smile, but in the fact that the diminutive piece of art somehow managed to outshine the bigger and better pieces of art in the very same museum! After lunch, we headed to Jai Vilas Palace, home of the Scindias where every tourist heads to in order to get dazzled by its lavish dining room with the one and only cigar train and its grand durbar hall housing the world's largest pair of chandeliers. The day ended with a brief stopover at the dirty, yet impressive, Tomb of Mohammed Gaus.
All of the following day was spent driving to Orchha with a brief halts at the Chatris of Scindias at Shivpuri and the fort at Jhansi where the brave Rani tried in vain to do a David against the Goliath-like might of the British Empire. Orchha, our next destination, was the capital of the Bundelas, who with some smart political maneuvering managed to have some sort of autonomy under the Mughals. The bonhomie lasted long enough for the Bundelas to indulge in magnificent architectural projects. Orchha is also one of the worst kept secret amongst travel circles - everyone who has done a bit of travelling eventually ends up here and each of them somehow manages to get convinced that they have uncovered a lost city.
Orchha's royal enclave houses two of the best buildings in town - Raj Mahal, the seat of the Bundelas housing some fantastic murals and the Jehangir Mahal, a lavish palace that Bir Singh Deo built to cozy up to Jehangir. Sheesh Mahal, a non-descript wing between the buildings has been converted to a hotel by MP tourism and its Maharaja suite was where we spent our two nights in Orchha. Watching the sun rise on Jehangir Mahal and set on the Raj Mahal, all while sipping hot chai from the comfort of our room was an absolutely priceless experience. The only thing that keeps you from looking at the two palaces all the time is the Chaturbhuj Temple, an imposing fortress from the outside and a complete hollow shell from the inside. The reason for the bare interior being that the statue of Rama painstakingly carried from Ayodhya managed to get stuck to the floor of the building next door and refused to move into the grand temple. The more likely explanation could be that the entire story has been fabricated by a clever tourist to keep the hordes of devotees from getting in the way of the perfect picture of the royal enclave from the Chaturbhuj Temple. Apart from these three buildings, Orchha also has an impressive mural filled Laxmi Narayan Temple and a series of Chatris dedicated to the Bundela kings. The chatris look quite magnificent when viewed across the river at sunset.
A four hour drive the following morning brought us to Khajuraho, the place where North Indian temple building reached its zenith under the Chandelas during the turn of the last millennia. We started at the Western Group of temples which has the "best-of" collection and best of these were the Lakshmana and Kandariya Mahadev temples. They were perfectly proportioned to mimic the towering Himalayas and their walls explode with hauntingly beautiful sculptures, so life-like that they look a heartbeat away from stepping off the walls and joining us in the real world. The more I looked at the sculptures, the more I am convinced that there was a dearth of models in 10th century central India. All gods seemed to have the same baby faced male model and you can tell one god from another only by looking at weapons he/she carried. The only other male model is one lucky bearded dude who seems to have all the fun. The women (goddess or otherwise) all looked alike and were obsessed with either dressing up, removing thorn from their feet or pleasing the bearded dude. 10th century India should have been a great place and time for growing a beard. Before we left Khajuraho, we also checked out the less visited eastern and southern group of temples. Chaturbhuj, Duladeo and the Prasvanath temples are the pick of the lot, the last one housing most of the iconic sculptures of the region.
A 45 minute drive from Khajuraho brought us to Panna National Park, the first of the four tiger reserves we were scheduled to visit on the second leg of the trip. The trip now changed from checking off sights to checking off mammals and birds from our bucket list. A couple of safaris in Panna and a cold night in-between bought us loads of pretty landscape pictures, but no wild-life sighting of note. We had now gone on six safaris without even seeing a pug-mark. "One should not be obsessed with tigers when visiting a national park and enjoy the park for what it offers" - a sound advice that is far easier to follow after you have seen a tiger in the wild.
Our luck changed once we made it to Bandhavgarh National Park, the park where everyone and their legally blind uncle "gets a good sighting" as it is referred to in this part of the globe. It all started as usual, we spending many hours searching for signs of a tiger, but eventually we did manage to end up in front of a thick undergrowth with a tiger hiding somewhere inside its bowels. Little by little, a crowd of jeep started building up and finally a forest employee took pity on the crowd and got on top of an elephant and rushed into the bushes. It scared the living daylights of the poor cat which rushed out in panic giving us well, "a good sighting". It was a pretty shameful way to check the tiger off our bucket list, but at least we can start pompously declaring that it should not be all about the tiger. Thankfully, things only went uphill from here. On our next safari, we spotted pug-marks entering a small hill and not leaving it in any direction. We picked our spot and waited for it to come out. Every other jeep seemed to have the same idea and the hill was soon surrounded by jeeps. Tiger did eventually come out and, to our complete amazement, it decided to do so right in front of us. We got our perfect "tiger walking on the jeep track" picture. Next safari went even better. We were casually following pug-marks on a secluded portion of the park and would have surely run over the tiger if it did not move a few feet off the track on hearing our approach. There was a moment when it was lying at a hand/paw shaking distance from the jeep and could have swatted all of us in one big swipe (and it had every right to do so as it was us who intruded upon its afternoon nap). For reasons beyond my comprehension, it was the tiger that was more scared contemplating the unspeakable damage that a vegetarian South Indian couple could inflict upon it than the other way around. After trying its best to hide behind a blade of grass, the tiger slowly walked away from us into the forest. That heart stopping few minutes was easily the highlight of our trip.
The following day was the state assembly elections in MP and also the day we were to drive to Jabalpur. Elections are the time when the fundamental right of a citizen to drive through small towns gets suspended because as we all know, tourists jinx elections. When we got to Shahpura, the only town en-route, as expected, we found a road blockade. Staring at us was the Seventh Gorkha Regiment valiantly defending Shahpura from the prying eyes of the tourists. Instead of returning like most other tourists, we stared right back and unleashed our secret weapon, Pranav. Apparently, travelling with a non-verbal autistic and chronically motion sick child is considered some sort of Paramvir Chakra worthy act by the Indian Army. The army regiment melted away and the unconditional surrender of Shahpura happened at thirty minutes past noon and the city gates were thrown open to us for a triumphant entry. All this ensured that we reached Jabalpur with enough daylight left to visit its famed Marble Canyon and Dhuandhar falls. It would have been a pity if we were to miss it.
Kanha National Park, the largest, densest and prettiest of the parks was our next destination. We stayed at the Baghira Log Huts, the only accommodation inside the park limits where you are literally surrounded by wild-life. All that sounds pretty neat all right, but the downside is that the safari jeep that picks you up at the hotel must drive you out of the park for an inane ID check, ensuring that you are always the last jeep to enter the park. Last jeep has no chance of spotting a pussy cat, let alone a tiger and we had seen the latter to our hearts content anyway. So we instructed our driver to show us things that are relatively rare elsewhere - barking deer, dhole, gaur and the famed barahsinha (the last one, found only in Kanha). Since these don't hang out with the tiger, we spent most of the time in parts of the park devoid of road traffic. That alone was worth all the trouble getting to Kanha; but the fact that we did eventually spot all of these in the wild was just icing on the cake.
Before the trip came to a close, we did have couple of safaris to complete in Pench National Park, the smallest and southernmost of the parks. We had pretty low expectations from it. What can a tiny speck of forest show to the veterans of Kanha and Bandhavgarh? Thankfully, Pench did have the last laugh. It humbled us by showing a leopard and a pack of hunting wild dogs. We have now taken fifteen safaris all around India and we did see something new in every single one of them. I don't think one can ever get tired of game drives.
Click here for more photos from Gwalior, Shivpuri and Jabalpur.
Click here for more photos from Orchha.
Click here for more photos from Khajuraho.
Click here for more photos from Panna and Pench National Parks.
Click here for more photos from Bandhavgarh National Park.
Click here for more photos from Kanha National Park.