Through central India in the midst of Covid

Meenaxi Barkataki

Sick and tired of sitting at home and doing nothing most of this year, in September, my friend Hema and I made plans to go on a road trip through central India in November 2020 if the Covid situation would allow us.  ‘Road trip’ because Hema and her husband had recently bought a new Kia Seltos which she wanted to drive and take on a long drive. ‘November’ because we thought it would get colder and the Covid scene could get worse in December after the festival season, and ‘Central India’ because the Covid numbers were relatively smaller in Madhya Pradesh than in the other states that we could reach easily from Gurgaon where Hema has a home, and which would be our starting and ending point. We have just got back to Gurgaon after a 24 day long trip through central India, covering more than 2600 kms and with halts at nine places. 

We did our research well in advance and made tentative hotel bookings already in September…. We planned to drive not more than 300 kms in a day, to drive only during day as we were two women travelling on our own, we chose to go to smaller towns rather than big cities and we avoided the big tourist places like Khajuraho etc. Our Covid rules were simple — avoid crowded places,  do not eat outside, always wear a mask when talking to people and sanitise hands every time you touch bank notes and door handles etc. and wash your hands thoroughly before eating or drinking. We were lucky in that the weather was pleasant and we did not fall sick at any point, and except for the one puncture we had very early on in the trip we had no further problems even with the car.  People everywhere were very surprised to see two women travelling alone; they would be even more disbelieving when they would hear or see that Hema was doing all the driving. And believe it or not, we were not stopped anywhere along our long route, not even at inter-state borders and asked why we were travelling or whether we were Covid-free. 

The deep gorge  at the Raneh Falls

We wanted to see some historical places as well as some  nature, and so planned on doing a combination of both.  Some of the drives through the countryside on smaller state roads (rather than big highways) were simply beautiful (especially the lovely drive from Panna to Bhedaghat) and we saw plenty of everyday life in the rural areas as well as some spectacular natural formations. There were mounds of lovely guavas being sold along the roads (for twenty rupees a kilo) at this time; towards the end of our trip there were also oranges being sold by the roadside; but Hema would not stop.  I protested weakly. Not eating jilebis and samosas at dhabas was one thing (although I would have happily done even that), but what was wrong with buying guavas, washing them properly and eating them? I was also sad that we could not go ‘shopping’, not even ‘window shopping’ anywhere. But Hema was strict and she held me on a tight leash. Perhaps, just as well…

We went on a river safari on the Chambal to see the gharials and crocodiles, on two jungle safaris at the Panna reserve forest where we saw a tiger besides many other seldom seen animals (like a 12 horned deer), and on a boat ride to see the natural marble rock formations in Bhedaghat. The boat ride was a special pleasure because of the hilarious running commentary we got from the boat-men about the shape of the rocks we were seeing. It was all in couplets and even our questions were answered in rhyming couples, for instance, when I asked one of them what his name was, he replied instantly, ‘pehle kaam, phir naam (first work, then name). 

A view of the Panna forest

Inside the Panna reserve

We saw some spectacular natural formations starting with the deep ravines of the Chambal, the marble rocks at Bhedaghat and the deep rocky gorge at the Raneh falls near Panna. In the forest reserve at Panna we saw, besides the animals, incredible natural landscapes — bare rocky flatlands and golden grasslands alternating with dense thick impenetrable forests… We also saw how the thorny Kikar and the broad leafed Lantana plants that had been brought in initially to arrest soil erosion had now taken over the bare barren countryside and did not allow anything else to grow. Don’t know why these aggressive plants reminded me of the phenomenon of big fish eating small fish, of the Ambanis and Reliance gobbling up everyone and everything else around them, and so on…

The Chausath Yogini temple at Bhedaghat

The Hindola Torana near Vidisha

There were plenty of historical sites too – in Orchha, Datia, Jhansi, Kota and Bundi. The best of course were the rock paintings at Bhimbhetka and we saw some more amazing rock paintings also inside the IGRMS in Bhopal. Of all the palaces and temples we visited a few stand out — the Maladevi temple  (in Gyaraspur near Sanchi) hewn out of a rocky mountain  and the very differently structured Chousath Yogini Temple up a steep hill in Bhedgahat.  It was also educational for me, for I had always imagined that places like Bhojpur and Jabalpur were in Bihar and not in MP. We chose our night halts strategically so that often we stayed close to big towns but not really in them — for example, we stayed in Orchha and not in Jhansi, and in Bhedaghat and not in Jabalpur.  We could not avoid staying at a few big cities –  in Bhopal with its lakes and amazing museums, and home of the celebrated Pataudis,  and in Kota in Rajasthan which we were a little disappointed with. 

The Glen View Hotel in Panchmarhi

Madhya Pradesh Tourism is very active and runs some very fine hotels (especially those many splendid ones at Panchmarhi) and excursions and we were much impressed. The hill resort Panchmarhi has an old colonial flair to it. It seems very popular with local tourists as well as those from Bengal (who come between Dussehra and Diwali) and the Gujratis (who come after Diwali). We were constantly worried of being run over by one or the other of the many open jeep-gypsies that move at break-neck speeds around the dangerous narrow serpentine hill roads to take tourists to see the sights in and around Panchmarhi, which also has the prettiest church I have seen anywhere in India (now run by the CNI). It was also in Panchmarhi that we saw an open Methodist church held under an ancient tree in a little forested alcove, with a cement altar, pulpit, and cement blocks for the congregation to sit on arranged in a circle around them.

And we saw plenty of rural India in our trip as well… and could see the huge impact the Covid induced lockdown has had on people’s lives. The places that lived on tourism were hit most. Hotels and restaurants were all empty, tourist guides were selling vegetables, most of the sightseeing tour operators had shut down, and most of the shops selling mementoes and curios to tourists were boarded up.  These sights reminded me of a wounded cow that we had met on the highway during one of our drives. It was lying in the middle of the road in a pool of its own blood, one of its legs severed and lying a little apart. It had possibly been hit by a speeding vehicle.  Its eyes spoke of the pain and cried out for help — but it did not know how to help itself, much like many in our country now.

A palace in Islamnagar near Bhopal

We hired local taxis to do the local sightseeing. Most of the taxi drivers doubled as guides and fed us with local history, stories and anecdotes. At Bhopal, our taxi driver Saurav showed us the main crossroads along the big highway where he and his friends had gone everyday during the lockdown to distribute food to the many migrant workers who were walking past. He and his friends had collected money to prepare and distribute 2000 packets of food each day. [And to think that our powers-that-be have the gumption to say that they had no record of any movement of  migrant workers!] At that time they had all done what they could. But no one had imagined that the lockdown would be so long and that it would affect their livelihoods and savings so badly. Now with all their savings gone and the return to normalcy nowhere in sight, they were all getting desperate. 

The Assam Gate at the 
Manav Sangrahalay in Bhopal

The underlying uncertainty was not helping at all — people are listless and apathetic, even those who were working. The museums and gardens were open but things didn’t look cared for anymore. People were generally distracted and unwilling to make much of an effort to set anything right, after all there was a bigger cloud hanging over everyone. Although the normal market places and bazaars were crowded, there were signs of Covid-induced difference, also in people’s behaviour, everywhere we looked. In Bhopal we attended a classical music concert one evening in the large auditorium of the Tribal Museum. We had jumped at the opportunity since this was one thing we had not done at all this year. But sadly, apart from the organisers and their invited guests, we were probably the only guests in the audience. While it was heartening that the whole programme was being live-streamed over Facebook, it must be really hard for artistes to be able to perform in a near-empty auditorium. But after having taken all the trouble to organise the programme and get such renowned outstation artistes to come to perform, the Babus among the organisers decided that the programme had to be restricted to 90 minutes and sent a curt note up to the singer (who was totally immersed in her music at that point) to wind up, which she did, but not happily. I thought is was a total disgrace and left fuming.

Ganesh with his consort  in the 
Kota govt. museum

And government measures to keep Covid at bay did not always work as they were expected to. For example, in order to have ‘contactless’ payments for entry tickets, many ASI places required visitors to make payments (of their tickets that cost  as little as10 or 20 rupees) online, using smart phones. But this caused endless trouble for almost all the visitors and made them waste precious time crowding around the one person who knew to do it and could help. The amount of ‘contact’ that everyone was forced to have in order to make this contactless payment defeated the purpose of it all. And this was kind of a good example of the stupidity of many of the government measures in place to combat Covid.

The farmers in comparison were doing much better and there was not much effect of Covid that we could see in the rural heartland where people seemed to be going about their normal lives very much the same as usual.  There was not much Covid in evidence in the places we went and we only hoped that things would stay that way.  We also saw how strong family, social and religious traditions still are in the rural areas and this added to the charm of it all.  In Bhedaghat, we saw ladies going in groups to bathe in the river and adorn themselves at dawn before  praying  to mud images of Krishna every morning in the run up to Diwali, we saw the great care they took to create beautiful colourful rangolis on their house fronts for Diwali and we saw young men dressing themselves in peacock feathers and dancing in gay abandon in groups on the day after. 

Ladies returning after their ritual bath in Orchha

The pillar erected by a Greek Heliodorus near Vidisha in 150 BC had been renamed the Khamba Baba by the locals who actually offered pooja there every day. That also illustrated how faith was still strong among rural communities; this perhaps helped to give some continuity and kept them going — and also kept them generous, happy and friendly… I had only to start chatting with anyone on the street to be invited home or to be given a share of whatever they happened to be eating at that moment. This is our amazing India for you, kind, generous, resilient, and still going strong, despite everything.

The Taragarh Palace in Bundi

On the 11th day after Diwali was Gyaras, the day from which all auspicious events, such as weddings, could start to happen again. This year about 6000 weddings were scheduled for that Gyaras day in Jaipur alone. We were in Bundi that day and had spent the day visiting the incredible Taragarh palace (about which Rudyard Kipling had perhaps not unreasonably commented that it must be the work of goblins); we had plans to go to see some ancient rock paintings in some place nearby the next morning but that night it rained, and rained, accompanied by deep thunder and lightning. It did not stop raining till about noon the next day. That was the only night during our entire trip that it rained. Of course we cancelled our trip and spent a lazy morning at our lovely hotel but we wondered about the mess the rain might have caused in the many weddings that were supposed to happen that night! 

The entrance hall at Ishwari Niwas in Bundi

Bundi is named after a powerful Meena chieftain Bunda who lived in those parts. The districts of Kota, Bundi, Jhalawar and Bara make up the Hadoti area and were little principalities before they were all taken over. Our guide Jogi knew a lot about the local history of Bundi but he had not had a single tourist to guide since last March. And although we encouraged Jogi to write up the local history of the Bundi area, since he seemed very knowledgeable and interested, we wondered how he could put his mind to it when he must worry about how he can make ends meet if the tourists do not start coming soon.  We did try to give generous tips wherever we went but could see how grossly inadequate what we were doing was in the overall scheme of things. 

Everything said and done, it was a tremendous trip as we went from the Bundelkhand region in UP and MP to the land of the great Gond king Raja Bhoj, and winded up driving through the Hadoti region of Rajasthan. We were glad neither of us fell sick during the trip, and that all our bookings worked so well. The hotels were mostly empty (except in Panchmarhi) so we were taken very good care of. In Bundi, we stayed in a beautiful old stately home called Iswari Niwas Hotel. While it was good for us that we had the whole place to ourselves it felt somewhat weird that there were no other guests. Our host was a polished and polite Rajkumar whose hobby it was to collect vintage jeeps. The Rajkumar and our guide told us more about the family history and intrigues around inheritance that seem typical of such erstwhile royal lineages. 

Lea’s long-lost friends

There was more that happened in Bundi. As our plans for the last day there got rained out we decided to walk into the old city and try to locate some people that a German friend of mine, Lea, had met 15 years back when she had stayed in Bundi. One was a 

silversmith from whom she had bought payals, the other was an old lady who used to sit at her doorstep and greet Lea every time she went past and the third was the owner of the haweli —  Uma Megh — where she had stayed. She sent me a few photos but no names. The first shop in the old city we showed the photos too instantly recognised the silversmith and within a few minutes we were sitting and having tea in his house with his family after having also met the owner of Uma Megh and being told that the old lady was no more. I got Lea to talk to them and when we left about half an hour later, laden with gifts for Lea and her children, it felt as we had discovered relatives in the city. Hema, on the other hand, had an altogether different experience in the bazaar that evening — while I was busy with Lea’s old friends, she had wandered off a little on her own when she heard a woman shouting and telling the shopkeepers to keep a distance from these ‘outsiders’ who might give the disease to them. That was the only time such a thing happened to us on this trip.

The Betwa River in Orchha with chattris in the background

Another realisation during this trip — although most people in India walk, our towns and cities are not meant for pedestrians. Either there are no footpaths, and even if they are one cannot walk on them as they are either broken, otherwise occupied or so full of rubbish that one does not dare to walk there. At Kota one of the main boulevards had wide footpaths but there were huge bougainvilleas planted at regular intervals on the footpath and they were so overgrown that there was no way  one could walk on the footpath. Also at Kota there was a pedestrian zebra crossing over a busy road that led only to a high lane divider in the middle of the road which was impossible for a pedestrian to climb over, and ended right there!

But the condition of the roads have improved vastly all over the country,  at least the highways and roads that connect different places; even small village roads are nicely paved. Although roads  inside busy commercial areas in towns and cities were often pot holed and in bad condition, even in Madhya Pradesh which has always been infamous for its bad roads, most roads were good.  There was massive work going on to build bridges and widen roads to connect various parts of the country although  diversions and speed-breakers were not clearly marked, and one had to be on one’s alert all the time.  And of course old habits die hard — so cows and buffaloes would be left on the wide highways and speeding cars would simply throw out all their garbage merrily onto the road — empty plastic packets and bottles, banana peel, soiled napkins… simply anything — as they went past.

As was to be expected, signposting along these new roads was almost nonexistent. While the always careful Hema kept asking me if I had seen any signs with the speed limits, most of the time we had to depend on Google maps and the GPS to tell us what to do and which roads to take. And there were a couple of times when they took us astray. Like the time it prompted us to take a bypass to a large and congested town and we landed up at a dead end (after going through several muddy, meandering and precariously narrow paths through a village) in someone’s front yard.  This had happened to others before, so the owner of that house was not at all surprised — he just politely told us to turn back, get back onto the bigger road, drive through the town and not trust the GPS too much. Despite all that, Hema is such a good driver that we managed to get back to Gurgaon without so much as a scratch on the car, although there were times (such as that time we took the car to go and see the city palace in the old city of Kota) when we had to drive on very narrow paths through very dense traffic with parked two-wheelers blocking almost the entire road.

A crocodile in the Chambal

We ended where we began, at the Chambal river. Our first sight of the river was near Bah in Uttar Pradesh and we ended with the Chambal in Kota in Rajasthan… we had spent our first night in the lovely Mela Kothi near Bah, and we spent one of our last nights in the impressive Ishwari Niwas in Bundi, both  stately homes which had seen better times and  have been tastefully and lovingly restored by their present owners and converted into guest houses. 

And as our adventures came to an end, we were both acutely conscious of the fact that not everyone could afford to go on a trip like this… We felt very lucky and grateful that we had the physical stamina, and the financial wherewithal to make it happen.  We also realised that we were a good team — while she drove, I did the navigation; while she kept track of the to-do list I managed the bills; We also have very similar habits — neither of us is particularly fussy about food; we also have more or less the same body rhythms of going to bed early and getting up early. There was not a single occasion in those many weeks that we had a disagreement! Another way to explain this could be that even if I got on Hema’s nerves she was kind enough not to show it.  In any case, we did function well as a team, so we also quickly started talking about the places and things we missed visiting this time, and planning and dreaming of a next time… for India is so rich in things to see and do that we shall not be done in a long while even if we were to do several trips in a year. But who knows how many years of such active adventure we have left in our bones and when they shall start to complain even if the car doesn’t.  Our Gods have been very kind to us this time.

But the most enduring image of this trip will be that of an old man who we met, grazing his cattle in an open field, in full view of a majestic range of hills shimmering in the morning light. As we could not find any information in our maps about those hills we stopped to ask the old man what they were called. He turned around, looked at the hills, and said, ‘We call them just hill (pahar). Not sure they have any other name.’  As we drove on, we realised that that was the real beauty of India — its innocence. Hope it survives…

[For the record the route was from Gurgaon to Chambal Safari Lodge (near Bah, three nights), then to Orchha (Orchha Resort, 3), Panna (Greetoe Camp, 3), Bhedgahat (Marble Rocks, 3), Panchmarhi (Glen View, 3), Bhopal (Ivy Suites, 4), Kota (Sukhdham Kothi, 2), Bundi (Ishwari Niwas, 2) and Dausa (Umaid Lake Palace, 1) and then back to Gurgaon. The entire trip cost us about two lacs in all. We saved at least a lac, if not more, by not having to hire a car and driver.]