Agra is home to the Taj Mahal, one of the original seven wonders of the world and the posterboy of Indian tourism brochures for many decades and part of the famed Golden Triangle itinerary combining Delhi and Jaipur.
While tourism promotions on Airports still seem to bank upon allure of the Taj Mahal, there is much to offer for traveller looking beyond Agra.
South of Agra – Chambal, Orchha, Panna, Khajuraho
Chambal – Land of the Bandit Queen
Within 100 kms radius of Agra are areas adjoining the famed Chambal river, that offer a mix of heritage, rustic countryside, villages and birds / wildlife.
70 Kms South of Agra is Bah, a town set around Yamuna and Chambal Rivers, renowned for
- Bateshwar Fair – One of the largest and most authentic cattle trading fairs and cultural extravaganza (Dates are generally around Late October to Mid-November)
- Bateshwar area is set on Yamuna river having a complex of 101 Lord Shiva Temples, collectively known as Bateshwar Temples. Bateshwar is one of the few temples where entry is ok for overseas nationals and non-Hindus. Bateshwar Temple is one of the rare temples where Lord Shiva is in form of a person and not a Lingam (as seen in most Lord Shiva Temples)
- Chambal river area adjoining Bah is one of the prime bird watching sites and where the rare Indian Skimmer is spotted alongwith wide range of birds and Alligators (Marsh Crocodiles / Alligators). The river is a designated sanctuary and Boat safaris are conducted for an exclusive experience
- The ravines running parallel to the Chambal river is the very region where Dacoits and Bandits ruled and where a complete Wild Wild West kind of lawlessness prevalied till early 1980s. Jeep Safari and Camel Safaris are conducted here for travellers to experience the ravines. The award winning movie Bandit Queen was based on real story of a lady dacoit Phoolan Devi.
60 kms South of Agra (towards Gwalior) is Dholpur, that offers a mix of heritage and Chambal river experience.
- Raj Niwas Palace or Dhoplur Palace is a most exquisite heritage hotel here. Dholpur Palace was built to welcome HRH Albert Edward, when he visited in 1876. The Palace has been restored to its original glory and reflects The Palace is a unique example of the Indian fascination for European, and especially Dutch ceramics.
- Area around Dholpur is home to many heritage sites that are significant and not as touristy as Agra such as 18th Century Chausat Yogini Temple, Talab-e-Shahi (Lakeside), Machkund Temple and Shergarh Fort.
- Alligator Breeding Farm is one of the unique preservation initiatives and is popular with eco-tourists.
- Chambal River and Sanctuary areas around Dhoplur offer similar experience as in Bah (Boat safaris, ravine experience, bird and alligators etc.)
Jhansi / Orchha – Land of The Warrior Queen from Jhansi (Jhansi ki Rani)
Jhansi / Orchha are twin towns at 15 kms from each other at about 150 kms South of Dholpur and 200 kms South of Agra.
Jhansi is the capital city of Bundelkhand region and rich in British colonial history. 1853 the Kind of Jhansi died childless and his territory was annexed to British Bundelkhand. The widow, Lakshmi Bai, protested against the annexation and fought many battles with the British before she died bravely in a battle in 1958. The story of Rani Lakshmi Bai is legendary and now part of every text book of Indian primary school education as an example of bravery and national pride.
Rani Lakshmi Bai is said to be the inspiration when a few men of the 12th native infantry seized the fort containing the treasure and magazine, and massacred the European officers of the garrison, what is known in history as the Revolt of 1857.
Jhansi Fort stands even today and is popularly visited alongwith a museum nearby that provides an insight into the history of Bundelkhand.
Orchha is a quiet riverside area having surprisingly large collection of Tombs, Cenotaphs, temples alongside the Orchha Fort. Orchha’s history dates back to early 16th Century and it flourished under the Mughal rule, thus the heritage monuments around are fine examples of Mughal Architecture.
While Jhansi is urbanised losing its original character somewhat, Orchha has been largely left untouched by forces of development and urbanisation, retaining its laidback riverside, heritage and countryside character. The area around Orchha is excellent for adventure sports (White Water Rafting), Picnic lunches (There is Orchha wildlife sanctuary) and excellent view points for a magical sunset. A walk down the little town centre, some time spent by the river and drives around countryside often leaves travellers mesmerised with its sheer character.
Panna – The Vulture Capital of India
Panna National Park (180 kms South East of Orchha / Jhansi) is set on Ken River and alongwith Ken Ghariyal Sanctuary, comprises an area that is unlike any other National Park in Central and North India.
Panna came into reckoning as 4th of the famed Central India Tiger Parks (alongwith Pench, Kanha and Bandhahvgarh) and a day visit / excursion option from Khajuraho (46 kms).
While Tigers in Panna disappeared (poached out) in 2009 and were introduced again in 2010 and now the park enjoys a healthy population of Tigers, its the Vultures in Panna that are the unsung heros.
Vultures in India from a population of estimated 40 million in 1990s were reduced to a few thousands by 2010, thanks to a drug Dichlophenac, introduced in cattles across India.
Panna as per census in 2013 has a population of 1200+ and is literally the “Tiger” of bird watching in India. Panna and its terrain is best suited for nesting of Vultures and is the best place to sight the highly endangered bird species.
Khajuraho – Unravelling the artistic erotica
The Khajuraho Group of Monuments is a group of Hindu and Jain temples (9th and 10th century – 85 nos, spread over 20 sq kms) at 180 kms from Jhansi / Orchha are one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, renowned for their nagara-style architectural style having erotic carvings in the sculptures.
Temples here are decorated with a profusion of sculptures with intricate details, symbolism and expressiveness of ancient Indian art. It also offers an insight into liberal ancient India.
Khajuraho is now a fusion of Global cuisine mixed with local flavors. A walk around the town offers an interesting glimpse of what would have been. Light and Sound Show in evening is an interesting option for tourists to converge.
Khajuraho comes alive during Khajuraho Dance Festival (end -Feb), when wide range of dancers perform against a mesmerising of the Khajuraho Temples.