Royal Retreat off the Beaten Track
By Thommen Jose | Published: 22nd August 2015 10:00 PM |
Once you hit the road from Delhi, Agra-Gwalior-Orchha-Khajuraho is a popular heritage circuit. However, Dholpur, formerly a set of the princely state of the same name and located merely 65km from Agra, is often overlooked by many travellers in a hurry to get into the bigger and better known Gwalior.
Bundelkhand—now divided between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, bulk of it falling in the latter—forms the backdrop of your drive from Agra to Dholpur. Though believed to have been heavily forested during ancient times, the area is now mostly scattered vegetation and arid hills. But, being sandwiched between the Indo-Gangetic Plains to the north and the Vindhyas to the south, the route boasts memorable vistas. It’s more of an unhurried kaleidoscopic transformation than an around-the-bend surprise. Random craggy hills spring up out of nowhere; the unfriendly scarps provided the local kings with the best sites to build forts and other strongholds. Their remnants stand in proud ruin, the perfect build-up to the heritage-rich towns you pass by on the way—Dholpur, Gwalior, Datia and Shivpuri.
A little over 10km from Agra, a strange sight makes you squint—it’s the sun glinting off the rows of stainless steel microphones fitted on the numerous pushcarts lining the roadside. Kakua looks like the wedding band capital of the country. Being daytime, the musicians are resting. The route is mostly a straight line and flirts with the UP-Rajasthan border. Even at well-below-the-radar speeds, you reach Dholpur in a little over an hour from Agra.
Unwind and Rewind
Many ancient rulers found Dholpur to be an ideal place for a retreat. The Talab Shahi was built by Shah Jahan as a hunting lodge. Humayun Nama recounts an episode where Babur took his entourage of wives and consorts to Dholpur to ostensibly recover from his son Anwar’s death. Akbar chose Dholpur before shifting loyalties to Fatehpur Sikri, following local dissent. The city was founded as Dhawalpuri by Raja Dholan Deo Tomar in 700 AD. The framework for the new Dholpur town is believed to have been laid down by his descendant, Dhawal Deo, in 1050 AD. From 1779 onwards, Dholpur was a protectorate of the East India Company and in 1949 it joined the Indian Union. With the States’ Reorganisation Act, 1956, it ceased to be a princely state. In 1982, it was notified as a district. Dholpur town is the headquarters of Dholpur district, the easternmost tip of Rajasthan, with UP to the north and MP to the south.
Legend of Stone
‘Dholpur stone’ is synonymous with red sandstone, and looking around Dholpur town you will know why. Many historic buildings—now converted to the municipality office, public library et al—are made of this red sandstone. Most of the red sandstones are mined from Bari, one of the four tehsils that make up Dholpur. Dholpur stones also adorn Delhi landmarks such as the Rashtrapati Bhawan, Red Fort and Humayun’s Tomb.
Along NH3, 2km from Dholpur town toward Gwalior, you will reach a junction. Turn right and follow the road that is nearly deserted, through the overlooking Aravalis. A scenic 4km later, you climb up to a red sandstone-cobbled mesa that is the Machkund Temple complex—an ancient shrine that finds mention in the Puranas and is believed to have been built by Raja Machkund of the Suryavanshi dynasty. Surrounding the ‘kund’ or pond are structures housing various deities.
Raj Niwas Palace
Of the many local attractions in town, the most prominent but hidden from public view is the Dholpur Palace, aka the Raj Niwas Palace. A high-end heritage hotel today, the palace was built to welcome Edward VII in 1876. It flaunts the native stone on the facade—the bland red adds to your surprise at the opulence inside.
The Van Vihar Wildlife Sanctuary, 20km from the town and spread over 59sqkm, is home to exotic flora and fauna including sambhar, chital, nilgai and even an occasional leopard. The National Chambal Sanctuary is a must-visit, especially if you have given up on the conditions of rivers in India; the Chambal is among the cleanest and promises you an encounter with the endangered Gangetic river dolphins and gharials.