Destination: India: Off the Beaten Path
Gwalior and Orchha
One classic itinerary for many travelers to India is the central triangle that encompasses Delhi, Agra and Khajuraho and includes the Taj Mahal, the abandoned capital of Fatehpur Sikri and Khajuraho’s erotic temple carvings. But just a two-hour drive south by car from Agra, bustling Gwalior awaits. While the maharajas’ domains in Rajasthan garner headlines, here is the lesser-known Jai Vilas, a 19th-century Italianate palace. The “ex”-royals of the Scindia family still live here, and part of the palace is now a museum. A restoration project recently began, but even now it’s worth the trip to see the curious room decors, the silver train that ran on a track around the dining-room table bringing drinks to guests and, above all, the showstopping Durbar Hall, with its two flabbergastingly huge crystal chandeliers. Each weighs about three and a half tons, so before installation, elephants were suspended from the ceiling to test its load-bearing capacity.
High above the town, Gwalior Fort sprawls over almost two miles. It is a marvel that reflects seven centuries of Indian architecture, including temples, palaces and courtyards. My favorite part is Man Mandir Palace, whose rich, flowery stonework and mosaics in electric blue, green, and yellow lend grace and delicacy to the muscular structure. I stayed in one of the non-flashy maharaja’s suites at the Usha Kiran Palace ( 22-6601-1825; in U.S.: 866-969-1825; www.tajhotels.com), which is run by the Taj Hotel Resorts & Palaces. It sits in a lovely, peaceful garden, so dine on the patio, and definitely go to the spa: having your feet washed and blessed before a massage is a meditation unto itself.
Orchha is a stone’s throw from Gwalior. I took a morning train from Gwalior to Jhansi, an hour-and-forty-minute ride, and continued by car for about a half hour to Orchha. Tiny Orchha provides a rare and refreshing view of an untrammeled Indian town, with a startling range of architectural beauty, clean streets and a small market where, amazingly for India, no one hassles you to buy anything. (My guide told me that a local group of guides works to control both littering and haggling.)
The capital of the Bundela kings for two centuries, from 1531 to 1738, Orchha enchanted me. Start your tour on the riverbank, where soaring cenotaphs, or carved memorials, honor the Orchha rulers. Majestic and serene, it seemed fitting that a holy man, rail-thin, as they always seem to be, walked by as if he already belonged to the afterworld. I then saw, in contrast, holy men in the market, chatting excitedly among themselves. Children scampered about, cows meandered at will, a woman sat on the ground, a cloth laid out before her, with foot-high pyramids of colored powder, used mostly in floral decorations on the floors of homes and temples. Orchha has many temples, each wildly different in design. The Chaturbhuj Mandir temple is pure and open whereas the Lakshmi Narayan Temple is elaborate and grand. The most magical place was the perfectly proportioned courtyard of the five-story Jahangir Mahal, a sandstone palace built for the visit of Jahangir, the Moghul emperor, who, after all that, only stayed one night. Don’t miss the painted ceilings in the Raj Mahal, still with their original colors. Plan in advance so you can see them illuminated by the sun. I spent the morning exploring, had a late lunch and drove that evening to Khajuraho. But you could easily stay a few days. An agent I trust recommends the Amar Mahal ( 7680-252102; www.amarmahal.com) and the Orchha Resort ( 7680-52677; www.orchharesort.com).
Located in the southwestern state of Karnataka, Hampi, a UNESCO World Heritage site, requires the biggest “sidestep.” You can overnight on the train from Bangalore, or drive about eight hours from Goa. I stayed at the Malligi Tourist Home, ( 8394-424505; 143/6, Jambunath Road) a noisy but clean hotel in nearby Hospet, but a better choice is Hampi Boulders Resort, (91-8539-265-939) just five miles from Hampi. Whatever it takes to get to Hampi, and wherever you sleep, it is worth the effort. For Hampi’s treasure is the spectacular architectural memorabilia of the imperial capital of the Vijayanagar empire (1336-1565), which once covered almost the entire southern peninsula of India south of the Deccan plateau. The city sprawls over some nine square miles in a desolate landscape along the Tungabhadra River, scattered with wild vegetation, hills and giant granite boulders. (Think Arizona.) It was a mercantile empire with vast overseas trade through its ports. Some 500,000 people once lived here, and a Portuguese traveler in 1520 described it as being “as large as Rome with a King’s palace more spacious than the castles of Lisbon.”
Hampi is divided into the Urban Core and the Sacred Center. Although you drive from one place to another, it is important to get out and walk, climb the boulders and sit quietly to connect with the magic. Some highlights: the Lotus Mahal, a delicate two-story structure that looks like two pavilions, one atop the other; the Elephant Stables with eleven chambers, ten with a domed top; the square modern Stepped Tank, a pool reserved for the king’s use; the Hazara Rama Temple; the Virupaksha Temple, the most bustling scene leading into a road full of stalls (buy bells and gypsy skirts).
But I have saved the best for last. (Your guide and your hotel can organize a similar itinerary for you.) After dark we drove through the silence to the Vitthala Temple, considered Hampi’s gem. I walked into the courtyard, and what I saw still fills me with awe. The pavilions, all lit up, shimmered as if coated in layers of gold leaf, stirred by a whisper. Every shadow and detail conveyed a drama absent in daylight. If this weren’t breathtaking enough, pillars said to be carved from a single stone sang out like a chime when gently struck. In Hampi’s glory days, hundreds of musicians “played” these pillars. I slept that night with gold dust in my eyes and music in my ears.
Deep in India’s southernmost state of Tamil Nadu, Karaikudi ranks as the largest town in the Chettinad area. It’s a natural detour from the “southern temple” cities of Trichy, Tanjore and Madurai. (Madurai, for instance, is two hours away). The region owes its fame to elaborate mansions, so massive they are called “forts out in the country”, which you can visit with a guide. Built by traders and financiers who earned much of their wealth in South and Southeast Asia, the mansions’ heyday spanned the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries. Though few families live here full-time, the houses come alive for weddings and other family occasions and festivals. (Unfortunately, even that use is slowly fading, and a number of the houses are in a sorry state.) The mansions, built as a series of courtyards, often take up a whole block. Most have ornate towers, turrets, and balustrades, stunning teak pillars and carved doorways, and tiled floors colorful enough to inspire a Tricia Guild fabric. Be sure to see the M.RM.RM House, part of the palace complex, with a museum dedicated to household items used by the Chettiars.
Half the fun of going to Karaikudi is staying at the twelve-room Bangala hotel (Devokottai Road, Senjai, Karaikudi;  45-65-220221; fax: 91 45-65-250221; www.thebangala.com), owned by Meenakshi Meyyappan, who, in fact, is the key to your visit, because she is related to many of the families in Chettinad. Meyyappan runs the Bangala, an antiques-filled property, like her own home. She gives excellent advice and often has dinner at the communal table. (Try idlis, steamed rice morsels served with white coconut chutney or sambar, a vegetable-and-lentil curry.)
Karaikudi is small-scale bustling India. Go to the market, then pick through the antique shops on Muneeswaran Kovil Street, repositories for furnishings from the once grand Chettiar houses. Here you’ll find goods ranging from Delftware to what I bought: paintings embellished by fabrics, beads and sequins. At Mahalakshmi Silks, you can buy traditional coarse cotton Chettiar saris, with geometric prints in earth tones. (They’re wonderful as upholstery fabric, too.)
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