“All he needed was a wheel in his hand and four on the road.” – Jack Kerouac, “On the Road” page 166. Published 1957
Kerouac could well have been talking about Divyaroop Bhatnagar, the man who actually went ahead and did that which most of us discuss endlessly in the last half hour of every get-together with friends, year after year, without result. The ‘four on the road’ including Divyaroop were his wife Devi Bhatnagar, Velu Muthu and Sarada Velu. Not only did he plan and execute this dream project, he also jotted down his experience, which he generously shares with the readers of The Luxury Chronicle, so we too may be inspired to fill-up the tank and vroom off into the yonder highway, safely with masks on, without worrying about cancelled flights and trains.
By Divyaroop Bhatnagar
Delhi – Chennai
The Pandemic seems to have fueled a number of offbeat passions. One of mine is road trips. Anyway, the lockdown provided enough time to plan a journey that I had been dreaming of for years. A road trip from Delhi to Chennai. We were fortunate that Devi’s brother, Velu, and his wife, Sarada, flew up to Delhi from Chennai to drive back with us. The itinerary went back and forth for a while but eventually emerged as a fairly leisurely ramble from North to South with a focus on Madhya Pradesh.
We planned six stops along the way, breaking the nearly 2400 Km journey into manageable bits. Finally, it looked like this:
Day1: Gurgaon to Gwalior
Day 2: Gwalior to Orchha
Day 3: Orchha
Day 4: Orchha to Khajuraho
Day 5: Khajuraho to Bhedaghat (Jabalpur)
Day 6: Bhedaghat to Pench National Park
Day 7: Pench National Park
Day 7: Pench to Hyderabad
Day 8: Hyderabad to Chennai
This travelogue will not focus too much on the historical aspects of places visited but more on the travel and sightseeing that you can expect.
We set off at 6:20AM from Gurgaon. The route we chose was via the Yamuna Expressway to Agra, then through Agra City to join the Gwalior Road. It was a toss-up between using the old Delhi-Agra road, which has an Agra bypass VS the Expressway. The time taken is roughly the same (around 7 hours including a breakfast/loo stop). We avoided eating at roadside places and ate a packed breakfast instead. The drive through Agra was bad and the Agra Gwalior Road even worse. There was an army convoy with many trucks going in the same direction that slowed things down. The toll plazas on the Yamuna Expressway do not accept Fast Tag and the toll plazas on the Agra Gwalior Road are chaotic. The saving grace was the delicious guavas that we bought near Agra. The river Chambal on the way was also beautiful.
We checked in to the Neemrana Deo Bagh Hotel at Gwalior and I must say this is a phenomenal hotel! Set in a 17th Century Garden with old cenotaphs, temples and a baradari right on the premises, interspersed with fruit trees and flowers, it is a delight. The food is excellent, simple but well cooked. The service is wonderful. Clearly, a great option for staying in Gwalior.
After a quick lunch, we left for the Jai Vilas Palace, full of the pomp and grandeur of the Scindias. Furnished largely in European style, complete with crystal and Murano glass chandeliers. It has a little train that carries brandy and cigars for the men folk on the dining table after the banquet and other such expensive fripperies from the age of the Maharajahs. We had a guide who was quite knowledgeable about the palace.
We then went to Gwalior Fort. This beautiful structure has been in existence from roughly the 6th Century CE. There are Jain temples as you drive up, Hindu temples and a Gurudwara on top. Our visit was a bit hurried. It may be a good idea to provide a full day at Gwalior and that would mean staying two nights. We saw the Sound and Light show also – Amitabh Bachhan’s baritone lauding the deeds of successive owners of the fort. The setting is magnificent.
After a relaxed breakfast, we left Gwalior for Orchha. This is a three hour drive without stops but there are a couple of places in between that are worth stopping in. The road is fairly good all the way. Orchha does not have a petrol pump so it is advisable to fill up before getting there. It is also nice to plan a two night stay at Orchha as there is plenty to see.
Datia is the first point to stop for a while. The palace is supposed to have provided Lutyens with a role model for Rashtrapati Bhavan. Possible, but I did not see the architectural similarity that clearly. We saw it only from the outside but a more relaxed trip may be worthwhile. After Datia, we came to Jhansi where a visit to the Fort is worthwhile. It is a bit bare but the history and symbolism of Jhansi ki Rani, the queen of Jhansi make it a must visit. Parking is available easily.
Orchha is a short drive from Jhansi. We stayed at the MP Tourism Betwa Retreat as we assumed that the tents would overlook the Betwa River. They do not and hence the place was a tad disappointing. However, the resort more than made up on the service front. The dynamic Manager, Sanjay Malhotra and his team were really helpful at all times. The Betwa Riverside Hotel is probably the only one on the river; and the most luxurious seemed to be the Amar Mahal. There is also a MP Tourism place inside the palace that may be an option. Mr Malhotra packed us off for river rafting after lunch. A jeep picked us up from the hotel and took us to the starting Ghat which is near the Chattris. This was one of the best experiences of our trip. It is not as dramatic as the Ganga near Rishikesh but the river is simply beautiful. The rapids are gentle and the water is crystal clear. Some of us jumped in. The sun was setting and the sight of the palaces and the cenotaphs is breathtaking. A peacock was perched on a rock by the side of the river while a cormorant waited for fishes to swim past. An amazing experience!
After river rafting we went off to the palace for the sound and light show. The English show was at 7 pm. This was a 10 min drive from our hotel opposite the Ram Raja temple. Many people also attended the Aarti at 6:30 pm but we avoided it due to Covid. Do not park on the bridge but go further into the palace. There is plenty of parking available there. The sound and light show is a useful way of getting a brief history lesson. One of the main rulers of Orchha was Madhukar Shah and the legend of how his second queen brought back a statue of Ram as a baby to Orchha is very endearing. Based on that, the whole town is modeled on Ayodhya.
Food in the hotel was good. They serve liquor but you may like to carry your own as well.
We started the day with a heritage-guided walk around the Fort and the Palace at 7 am. Please do ensure that you book this in advance with the hotel. It is not a scheduled walk in that sense. Our guide, Jeetendra was truly outstanding with a wealth of knowledge about Orchha and Indian History in general. We went back to the hotel for breakfast at 8:30 am to return an hour later for the visit to the Fort and the Palace. Here again, taking a guide is important (we had Jeetendra again) though audio guides are also available. His commentary on the so called Jehangir Mahal was interesting as well as the stories of the renowned dancer Rai Praveen and the paintings on the walls and ceilings inside the main palace.
We returned to the hotel for a late lunch and some rest before walking out to see the chattris (cenotaphs) on the banks of the river at sunset. These are a 10-minute walk from the hotel.
There is a beautiful garden behind the chattris that you have to pay Rs 20 to get into. It is well worth it. An early dinner and bed after a tiring day.
We got up early and went back to see the chattris at dawn. The river is so beautiful and the monuments create a feeling of nostalgia and romance. We walked back to the hotel for a shower and set off for Khajuraho after breakfast. The drive is around 5 hours so we reached our hotel, Clarks,Khajuraho at 3 pm. Please follow the route that Google recommends. The main highway was under construction when we visited and was avoidable. Our drive was really beautiful through the forest. A single road so you can’t go fast but worth it for the views.
Clarks Khajuraho lives up to its promise of ‘Affordable Luxury’ There are better hotels in Khajuraho but for one night’s stay, this is a good option. The rooms are dated but comfortable and they have extensive gardens that are nice for walking in. After a snack, we headed off to the Western (main) group of temples. Find your way to the VIP Parking and get a good guide.Buying an entrance ticket was unexpectedly complicated by the online process.
What can one say about Khajuraho that has not been said already! My dominant feeling was of regret about the loss of the magnificent culture and civilization that is our heritage. Years of Islamic and Christian invasions have trampled on the soul of India. I hope we get it back soon. Suffice it to say that Khajuraho does not disappoint. It leaves you awestruck. We had a snack at Raja’s Café after the temple visits and then went across for the sound and light show. The setting was spectacular in the park where the Western Group is located and it leaves you with a very pleasant feeling. Then back to the hotel for dinner.
We checked out of the hotel after breakfast for the drive to Jabalpur. The drive is around five hours and there are several alternative routes. Take the one that Google suggests. It is again a pretty drive through the forest. At the last point, it joins the highway and there is some construction. We stayed at Bhedaghat for the marble rocks and there are not many hotel options. We stayed at the MP Tourism place in tents, but again there is no view of the river. Service and maintenance is quite poor. There are not many options in Bheraghat so we had to make do with the MPT place. Food was OK. After a snack, we left for the Dhuandhar falls. Take the cable car across the river Narmada for a good view. Access to the river is also less crowded on the other side. The Falls are beautiful.
After the falls, we drove across to the Ghat where the boating starts. This is just a 10 minute drive and parking is easy to find. The boat ride to see the marble rocks is spectacular. Please extend the half hour ride by directly paying the boatman. It is well worth it. An amusing sidelight is the running commentary by the boatman. He spoke in doggerel and it was simply hilarious.
We left Bhedaghat after breakfast for the Pench National Park. The road is very good with the highlight being the 16 Km elevated road that has been built over the Pench National Park to provide free access for animals to cross. This is in Southern MP and a part of it also lies in Maharashtra. This is a lesser-known tiger reserve. The forest is mostly Sal trees and the weather is quite dry.
We stayed at the Pench Jungle Camp and it is a very good option. The architecture is unobtrusive and the tents and bathrooms are great. Food is also good and the Naturalist is knowledgeable. We had lunch and headed out for a Safari. We were lucky to see a tiger but she was at a distance and we did not get any photos. Clearly if you are into wildlife watching you need a better camera than a cell phone!
We went on two Safaris at Pench. We saw a leopard eating his kill, but again our cameras were inadequate.
We made an early start with a substantial packed breakfast. and as promised by them the food lasted us till we reached Hyderabad in the evening!! The intention was to drive straight through Maharashtra as the Covid cases were increasing. The road is excellent and we made good time all the way to Hyderabad. I had picked a resort near the Outer Ring Road called Aranya. And it was a bad choice. Poor hygiene and bad food. Devi’s cousin Meena and her husband Ram joined us for dinner and they brought with them some excellent pomfret and single malt so the evening was great! The roads around Hyderabad especially the Outer Ring Road are very good.
The last day. Again, we made an early start. Aranya redeemed itself somewhat by providing an excellent packed breakfast. We made good time passing by the lush green paddy fields of Coastal Andhra on the way, all the way to Poes Garden in Chennai.
Roads have improved tremendously. We did encounter some widening work and over bridges being constructed but it was manageable. The toll plazas were disappointing. Haphazard lines, terrible speed breakers, some of the sensors do not work etc. It appears that the Expressways have not been integrated. With this current system you zip over the Yamuna Expressway and then spend 15 minutes at each toll plaza. State Highways are also not integrated. The total toll we paid from Gurgaon to Chennai was around Rs 2500 – quite a bit but no regrets as the roads were generally good.
Photography – Divyaroop Bhatnagar