Archaeological, Cultural and Heritage Wonders in the Incredible Heart of Incredible India
We were part of an unparalleled archaeological, cultural and heritage trail, along Betwa river (aka Betrawati or Vetravati nadi) , curated by Times Passion Trails and Madhya Pradesh Tourism, the incredible heart of Incredible India.
Madhya Pradesh is truly magnificent, with a demonstrated pre-history spanning from Chibanian age (around half-a-million years ago), the period of the Narmada man, probably an ancestor of the current human species. The multicultural history and heritage of the modern period is equally extraordinary.
Archaeology is the only field that allows us to tell the story of 99 percent of our history prior to 3,000 B.C. and writing.Sarah Parcak, American Archaeologist
Sarah Parcak, American Archaeologist
Padmashri Prof. K K Muhammed, travelled with us and was part of all our jaunts. He added the garnishing required in a trip of this type by way of unmatched knowledge in the field of archaeology, architecture, history and culture. He was the experience-architect for this trail. He is a gem of a person and the amount of respect he commands from the people of this region has to be seen to be believed.
We were also joined, on and off by other top notch experts during our journey to help us understand and make the road trip enjoyable.
We travelled for six days and six hundred kilometres of the trail, following the upstream Betwa river, through the heart of India passed but still left us yearning for more.
Strictly speaking Bhopal is not on Betwa River. But this is a great starting point for tourism in Madhya Pradesh. Also river Betwa joins Kaliyasot river which drains into the Bhojtal, the Lake in Bhopal.
In the morning we made a beeline to the biggest mosque of India where Mr. Jamal Ayub, a journalist by profession, but who knows the secrets of Bhopal, guided us through the mosque and its history.
Taj-ul-Masajid, means the crown among the mosques. It may not be as famous as Jama Masjid of Delhi but it is certainly big. Probably the biggest in India which can accommodate 175,000 devotees at a time! In fact I was sceptical when I heard this and thought in a few minutes I will know for sure. On entering from the side entrance, the largest praying courtyard or Sahn, it surely looked bigger than Jama Masjid of Delhi.
The construction of this masjid had commenced, during the reign of emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, by the Nawab of Bhopal, Shah Jehan Begum. What a coincidence! It was her namesake, emperor Shah Jahan, who built the then biggest mosque in Delhi, the Jama Masjid.
Due to paucity of funds it was not completed in her lifetime. Construction resumed in 1971 and eventually completed in the year 1985, after 100 years!
Please read our Complete Guide to Taj-ul-Masajid, the Largest Mosque
The following are some of the better options for
Places to stay in Bhopal
Jahan Numa Retreat
Jahan Numa Palace
Hotel Amer Palace Bhopal
Hotel Shree Vatika
Proto-historical Bhimbetka Rock Shelters near Betwa River
Bhimbetka rock shelters are located just about 45 km South-East of Bhopal in Raisen District. There are around 750 rock-cave shelters spread over 19 SqKM including 7 hills in Bhimbetka and nearby areas. So what is special one might ask. 500 of these rock-shelters have prehistoric cave paintings and drawings in a perfect condition! The paintings are estimated to be 5000 years old or even older. Just imagine, these are older than Indus Valley civilization! In fact there are indications that our ancestors lived here as far back as 100,000 BCE!
It was not difficult to surmise why this place was popular with our ancestors. The source of water, river Betwa was flowing nearby and this little high land, caves and niches protected them from dangerous animals.
It was mesmerizing to discern how cognitive abilities of our ancestors developed. From the type & objects of paintings. and simple line drawings using a simple red color (ochre) to more complex paintings depicting daily life using other colors, speak about the evolution of the skill, technology and tools used.
Bhimbetka has the unique distinction of being the oldest cave-rock painting in India and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Bhojeshwar, Bhojpur Shiva Mandir on the Banks of Betwa River
Bhojeshwar Temple is an 11th century CE temple which was never completed. This was commenced by Raja Bhoja,an eminent architect himself, in the quaint little town of Bhojpur. Looking at the locals, it appeared that the festival of Holi had just extended by a few more days. It was the day of Rang Panchami and was as avidly celebrated as Holi.
The Bhojeshwar temple has perhaps the biggest Shivalinga in the whole of India. From the base to top, it measures 27 feet (8.23 metres). When it was discovered, it was just a pile of rocks and stones, which was then painstakingly restored by the Archaeological Survey of India, to what it looks like today. In fact Prof K K Mohammaed has a hand in its restoration. This is one of the very few Hindu temples that faces west. Was it even a temple? 🙂
By the time we came out of the temple the Sun was setting across Betwa River which offered us an amazing view..
More about this Unfinished Bhojeshwar Shiva Temple in Bhojpur
A Stupa is a commemorative structure with sacred relics of Buddha or other Buddhist spiritual leaders. About 2200 years back Emperor Ashoka built the original version of MahaStupa or the great Stupa of Sanchi interring the relics (probably ashes) of Buddha. It was made grander about 1800 years back, by doubling its diameter and building a stone structure covering the original brick structure by the Shunga Dynasty. They also built a stone balustrade around it for protection.
Sanchi is located 50 KM Northeast of Bhopal on the way to Vidisha. Emperor Ashoka’s wife Devi was from Vidisha, which is just 9 Km from sanchi. Is it one of the reasons that this Maha Stupa was built here.? 🙂 . It is said that Large stones were ferried by boats on the Betwa river.
There are 4 entrance gates with intricate carvings on all sides of the pillar and toran (ornamental gateways). These carvings and bas reliefs depict the story of Buddha, Jataka Tales and also stories about Emperor Ashoka. There are also inscriptions on the walls and the balustrade in Brahmi script, which talks about workers, donations and so on, The inscription on Ashoka pillar are his edicts about his policies and his governance model!
There is also one of the original Ashoka Pillars in three pieces. The four-lion capital, which once adorned the pillar, is in the Museum at the foothills. Remember the four-lions is the emblem of India??
Udayagiri Caves near Betwa River
Driving about 9KM Northeast of Sanchi, we arrive at a huge hill with a sheer rock face and this is Udayagiri rock cut caves. This was situated on the Bes river , a tributary of the nearby Betwa river. There were several caves with sculptures of Hindu gods, goddesses and other iconography and rock shelters too. It is estimated that these were created around the 5th century CE. Out of 20 caves, one cave (probably the biggest) dedicated to Jainism, also carved in the same period. Then it struck me. These were the temples of that era!
We spent some time appreciating the attention to detail some of these sculptures and carvings including one about the story of Varaha-avatar. We could not explore all the caves due to paucity of time. Remember to wear good hiking shoes as the caves go all the way up the hill. Expect to spend one to two hours depending on your interest.
Chanderi, the city from the Mahabharata era
Chanderi is a small town just 12 KM from Rajghat Reservoir which has been created by building a dam across Betwa river.
First stop was the Chanderi Archaeological Museum. We were met by Mr Muzaffar Ansari (Kalley Bhai). He is a third generation historian and an amateur archaeologist. He has discovered several pieces of important artefacts from this area. He has spent months in the forests all alone searching and excavating.
Chanderi museum appeared well maintained and looked quite new, considering it was constructed 20 years back. Entrance is adorned with an ancient statue of Pashupatinath but portrayed in a strange way. There are faces in places of joints and organs, snakes in place of hair on head and other animals for various parts of bodies. Chanderi city was founded in the 11th century CE and there were many exhibits dating back to that time.
Museum is divided into 5 categories namely, history of Chanderi, Vaishnava, Shiva, Jainism, and Anandam gallery. It was interesting to know that many of the items were just strewn around villages or being used by villagers for their day-to-day work.
My own favorite was the larger than life sculpture of wild boar (Varaha) (of course not as big as Eran Varaha), depicting Varaha Avatar. The intricate carvings on the body are truly magnificent detailing the story of Varaha Avatar.
Later we spent some time in Badal Mahal and Jama masjid before climbing the hill to go to Kila Kothi which was once Scindia families house but now a MP Tourism Property. We had a hearty lunch and visited a cactus garden nearby.
There was one memorial which made me sad. It was for all the womenfolk who committed johar or jauhar (when the women jumped into fire to escape being taken prisoners), when the army had lost the battle to the first Mughal Emperor Babur, in the year 1528 CE and could not stop him from coming up the Chanderi hill.
I was eagerly waiting to go to one of the places that Nisha was looking forward to visiting but unfortunately, couldn’t. I was hoping that she would live the moment vicariously. Our next stop was Chanderi Silk Weaving centre. 🙂
At the handloom park, there were many buildings; each with scores of weavers working their hand loom to create magic! The idea was to provide the weavers a quality infrastructure to weave their products and also have shops in each of the buildings to sell their products. Currently the capacity is for 5000 looms.
Chanderi fabric is an age-old fabric made of Silk or cotton and is known for its weightlessness. It has a sheer luxurious feel to it.
The weavers learn this skill at home itself from their fathers or grand fathers, and they from their fathers and so on! The story goes that Chanderi silk has been in existence since Lord Krishna’s times and since then has been the preferred fabric for the Royalty of this region.
Chanderi silk is characterised, apart from sheer transparency and weightlessness, by the unique way the motifs are hand-woven into the fabric.
Here is a list of Top Things to do in Chanderi.
Orchha, the Capital City on the Banks of Betwa River
Orchha was founded in the early 16th Century CE, by the Bundela King Rudra Pratap Singh. Some of us decided to cross the Betwa river and wait for the sunrise to hit the awesome Royal Chhatris (Cenotaphs) dedicated to various Bundela kings. We were not disappointed at all. The blue of pre-dawn had an eerie air to it. The flow of the river was slow and we could capture the cenotaphs reflections.
Even as the light changed and the first ray caressed the memorials, we could see devotees taking their bath in Betwa river before going to the Ram Raja Temple. In Orchha, interestingly, Rama is considered to be their king and the folks pray accordingly in a temple that looks like a palace. It was BAU for the pilgrims and there were a lot of them. Decidedly CoronaVirus Pandemic was furthest in their minds or not at all.
We decided to explore the Orchha fort on the way back. There were no tourists at all. We had the fort to ourselves. 🙂
Orchha fort and its king’s and queen’s palaces, the ornately decorated terraces, courtyard and so on, are a photographer’s delight.
From the top, there is a panoramic view of the city and beautiful view of the old Chaturbhuj temple from Raja Mahal (King’s palace)
By the time we came out, all tourist places started shutting down as per advisory issued by the state government. We were the last to enter the fort apparently.
In the afternoon we met the current generation of the Bundela Royal Family for lunch at Bundelkhand Riverside, a resort they own. After formal introductions at the grounds, we repaired inside for lunch. I was seated right opposite them and it was easy to strike a conversation with the sister and brother duo, Rajeshwari Shah and Rudra Pratap Shah. We spoke about wide ranging subjects and heard them relate interesting anecdotes about the history of the Bundela Dynasty. They struck to me as well educated and of a humble demeanour. No airs!
At Orchha the Betwa river enters Uttar Pradesh and travels for another 350KM before merging with Yamuna River. This is one of the very few rivers of the world that flows South to North.
As part of the Times Passion trail we continued to Khajuraho on Ken river, another tributary of Yamuna nadi and not on Betwa river. Hence we will not cover that as part of Betwa Heritage although Betwa river is not too far and even the government has envisaged the Ken-Betwa river interlinking project! 🙂
Useful Information on heritage Trail along Betwa River
- Dress modestly covering your shoulders to knees at all places of worship
- As far as possible spend the day time indoors, like a museum or inside a palace or a temple. It could become too warm outside, especially in summers.
How to reach Bhopal, the beginning of the Roadtrip
By Air: Bhopal airport is well connected with other parts of India.
By Air: Bhopal airport is well connected with other parts of India.
By Train: Bhopal Train station is one of the most important stations on the North-South line and well connected.
By Road: Bhopal is well connected to all parts of India by road. Distance to Bhopal from some major cities of Madhya Pradesh
- Ujjain to Bhopal – 200 KM
- Indore to Bhopal – 190 KM
- Mumbai to Bhopal – 750 KM
- Vidisha to Bhopal – 60 KM
- Sanchi to Bhopal – 50 KM
- Itarsi to Bhopal – 90 KM
- Hoshangabad to Bhopal – 75 KM
How to travel onward from Orchha, the last stop of the heritage Roadtrip.
By Air: Nearest airport is Gwalior which is about 120 KM from Orchha.
Another useful airport to consider is Khajuraho, if you are planning to combine visiting both Orchha and Khajuraho. Orchha to Khajuraho is 190 KM
By Train: Nearest Train Station is Jhansi , just 15 Km away, Jhansi is well connected to all parts of India. From Jhansi any autorickshaw will be glad to take you to Orchha and drop you in front of Ram Raja temple.
By Road: It is about 350KM from Bhopal. If planning to drive back to Bhopal, you may take a detour and visit Khajuraho.
Would you like us to plan a multi-days customized itinerary in this region? We would be happy to do it for you.
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Best time to undertake the road trip along Betwa river
Madhya Pradesh is a 365 days destination. Summers will feel hotter when you walk in the courtyard or on top of the walls. If you consider the weather then Winter and Spring are undeniably the best time to visit MP. You may also consider the monsoon season when the emerald green hills and fields are simply spectacular.
Other place on Madhya Pradesh
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