Rocks! Cabbages? Phew, just three curled leaves. “What was it,” says Shome, the tone barely masking his fear. “Nothing, don’t worry,” I say, certain that he can hear the thud-thud of my heart. We are both very scared, and since the sun set half an hour ago we’ve been imagining things. It doesn’t help that we are passing through a dead-quiet forest. It doesn’t help that every second person on a bike has a gun slung across. It certainly doesn’t help that we are in the dreaded Chambal belt.
All my fault: I have planned this trip without adequate research. The names Shivpuri, Chanderi and Orchha sounded good; the MP Tourism people at Hotel Janpath said they were excellent (places), their tourist map showed roads connecting all three, and that was it. I never noticed the dull grey text ‘CHAMBAL RAVINES’ cutting across NH3 between Dhaulpur and Morena. Such sneaky people, why couldn’t they have printed it in boldface? And though their state has more of the river, the only place where they named it was near Kota in Rajasthan.
Would you believe we were clueless about the river till we came upon it? It was a little after our lunch and tank-up at the Reliance A-1 Dhaba near Dhaulpur. The drive had been excellent till then, first on NH2 up to Agra, and then on the even better (scant traffic) NH3. But suddenly, the dual carriageway had shrunk into a narrow road, and the flat countryside had turned into deep ravines. And then, we had seen it: a long, narrow bridge over a wide stream.
The plaque on the bridge didn’t say which river it was; but judging by its size in November it had to be a major, perennial stream. “Which river,” we asked the men returning from a cremation on its bank. “Chambal,” they said. “Oh, it’s a long river,” I told Shome, reading the alarm in his eyes, “Worry not, the dacoits are confined to the Bhind-Morena belt.”
Reassured, Shome wandered off to the pyre while I sat down to chat with some villagers beside a pillar. “How high does the water rise in the rains?” I asked them, “What do people do for a living hereabouts? Do the daakus ever come down to this side?” “This side?” they laughed, “You are in Morena, don’t you know?” I saw Shome hurrying over, probably impelled by a similar revelation. Thank God, the car was where we left it, but three men had appeared on the muddy cliff beside the road, one of them with a long-barrelled gun. We jumped into our seats and fled. Shome looked back to see whether they would take a shot at us. They didn’t.
I made the Honda City VTEC roar all the way to Gwalior after that. The smooth car made short work of the wide road, and we reached the Scindia capital well before sunset. But getting out of the city took a while, and when we found the highway again it wasn’t a dual carriageway anymore. Yet, it was even quieter than the Agra-Gwalior run. Eerily quiet. It also killed our conversation. Since then, we’ve been too busy looking out for milestones and imaginary dangers, like the curled leaves.
“Trucks,” says Shome. There’s a string of them, then lights — a dhaba. The forest is finally behind us. The miles start flying, and half an hour later, at 7pm, we reach Shivpuri. Getting to the Tourist Village across the town takes a few more minutes, and when we finally leave the car alone for the night, we’re 469km from home.
The Tourist Village is a quiet little place, lit entirely by CFLs, so it’s only in the morning that we get a clear picture of it. What seemed a dense forest behind my ‘cottage’ at night turns out to be a lake inside the Madhav National Park, with crocs in it. And, that high beam-lit stretch behind the trees is not NH3 but NH25, the Shivpuri-Jhansi road.
Before breakfast, we visit the ‘Chhatris’, massive cenotaphs of Madho Rao Scindia (not the one we know) and his mother Sakhya Raje Scindia, built in the early 20th century. Then, after breakfast, we drive into the National Park. It is seldom visited and very quiet past the Sakhya Sagar Sailing Club. Our guide warns us against stepping out anywhere near the lake for fear of crocs. As for tigers, he assures us there’s only one, inside a cage. So we have just the birds, langurs, deer and neelgai to look out for. We spend the maximum time at the hilltop George Castle, built to receive George V in 1911, and finish the 20km circuit in around three hours.
From the Park, we take the Jhansi road to visit the fort at Surwaya, about 15km away. The fort lies off the road, at the end of a village, and isn’t very impressive at first sight, but past the inner wall lies a big surprise: an ancient Shaivite monastery and ruins of several temples. We climb up one of the fort’s bastions with the caretaker, Komal Singh Yadav, to take in the hills and the woods. Yadav is very friendly and talkative, and when we broach the subject of dacoits, he turns out to be an authority on it.
He tells us about the Narwar Fort, 35km from Shivpuri, being a stronghold of the Gadariya gang. He tells us about the deluxe bus from Ahmedabad that was robbed a few weeks ago. And when we ask him whether dacoits ever strike around Surwaya, he says, “Often.” Half an hour later, we are at the Tourist Village, gulping down coffee.
Next morning, we’re up early and on the road to Chanderi by 8am. The now familiar NH3 brings us up to Lukwasa, where we turn left onto SH10. The narrow road lies amid fields, and its muddy shoulders are way too low for the City to cope with. The first time we attempt to pass a tractor, we scrape the car’s bottom. After that, we simply wait for oncoming vehicles to give way. We continue thus for the next 20km. Then the tarmac gives way entirely to a wide, smooth strip of red mud, some 50km long, evidently a highway under construction. We raise a dust storm, and when we stop at Koshak Mahal just outside Chanderi, the car is a sight to behold.
But Koshak Mahal is a finer sight. Built in the 1440s, this robust palace is in an advanced state of restoration, and the caretaker shows us around without begging for a tip. Chanderi town turns out to be less pleasant. Its only road is taken over by the Saturday market. Passing through, we note interesting relics like the city’s wall, the Jama Masjid, small tombs, etc. But coming back through the crowd to explore them is out of the question.
The sarkari hotel Tana Bana, where we are staying, lies across the town, on a quiet bend in the road. From its terrace, the Betwa’s reservoir is clearly visible. After lunch, we ask a self-styled guide, Mudassir, to show us around the town. He’s quite ignorant and unscrupulous, but he lets us know that the forest in Chanderi is a continuation of the one in Shivpuri. And dacoits? “Never really far away.”
Till late evening we are the only guests at the hotel. There’s a power breakdown and no backup. But under the full moon, the cold roof is perfect for a long chat and dinner. I find Shome there the next morning as well, shooting the sunrise. Both of us have had a bad night due to the short beds, but are raring to go. At 7.30am, we reach the Chanderi Fort overlooking the town. Little of it remains but it gives us our best view of the town.
A late breakfast, and we are on our way to Orchha, fully assured that the road is good, which is true, but it has too many peasants walking herds of buffaloes. It’s a test of ‘horn power’ and the City’s horn dies with half an hour’s use. The best spectacle on this route is the wide Betwa at Rajghat, flowing packed amid the banks.
Instead of heading for Lalitpur (marked on the map), we hit NH26 at Taalbeht, just 50km before Jhansi. Close to the intersection, there’s a lake with a large Tughlaq-style building on its far side, but we are in a tearing hurry now. Jhansi comes up in an hour, and another half hour gets us to Orchha, where we’re staying in Swiss tents at MPTDC’s Betwa Retreat, within sight of the river.
Shome is familiar with Orchha and I am aware of its touristy credentials. It’s going to be a cakewalk. So, after a leisurely lunch, we stroll down to the cenotaphs of the Bundela kings. Seen together, they are a grand sight, but each so similar that going over every one of the 15 seems a waste of time. We walk up to the river, to the spot where tourists are rafting. It’s fun watching others in peril.
We next visit the temples: Shome likes the painted Ram Raja temple while I prefer the towering Chaturbhuj temple, standing across a street from each other. By 5pm, we’ve done enough sightseeing. More importantly, our memory cards are almost full. The lizard-like thing on the tent cloth is still there when I return. And unmoved when I wake up at 5am next morning. It’s too early to even think about the Orchha Fort yet, so I switch on the telly. There’s breaking news on the ticker: the Gadariya gang has killed five Gujjars in Shivpuri’s Karawa village.
The fort is a must-do, so we do it, and then hit the road. NH75 between Jhansi and Gwalior is not as good as the stretch of NH3 between Gwalior and Shivpuri, but the City is very forgiving. Some 30km from Jhansi, at a place called Datia, we spot a beautiful old building that looks like Orchha’s Jahangir Mahal (it’s the seven-storey 17th-century palace of Raja Bir Singh Deo), but now’s unfortunately not the time to stop.
We get out of Gwalior by 1pm, and reach the familiar A-1 Dhaba by 2pm, where we take a long break (no point getting caught in the traffic jam at Faridabad). This time, we also discover the Agra bypass, a narrow, rutted road, dangerously close to a canal, blocked by four railway crossings and used only by trucks. Never take it is our sincere advice to anyone crossing Agra. After one last coffee break at the McDonald’s near Mathura, we make a mad dash for Delhi and are home at a comfortable 10pm.