The Agra-Gwalior-Orchha-Khajuraho is a popular heritage circuit that many do starting on the road from Delhi. Dholpur, just 65km from Agra is often overlooked by many travelers in a hurry to get into the bigger and wider-known Gwalior. Read on to find out what so many are missing!
The historic Bundelkhand region – now divided between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, with the 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 Vindhya Mountains to the south the route is not shorn of some very memorable vistas. Be on the lookout as it’s more 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.
The distance is tame – just 65km – but the road is nothing much to honk about save for a decent stretch of the North-South Corridor where you make good time. 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 have found Dholpur a great place to not just unwind but rewind as well. The Talaab Shahi was built by Shah Jahan as a hunting lodge. Humayun Nama recounts an episode where Babur took his entire entourage of wives and consorts to Dholpur to ostensibly recover from the death of his son Anwar. Akbar zeroed in on Dholpur before shifting loyalties to Fatehpur Sikri that too following local dissent. The city was founded as Dhawalpuri by Raja Dholan Deo Tomar in 700 A.D. The framework for the new Dholpur town, the way we see it today, is believed to have been laid down by Dholan Deo’s descendant, Dhawal Deo in 1050 A.D. From 1779 onwards, Dholpur was a protectorate of the East India Company and in 1949 joined the Indian union. With the States’ Reorganisation Act of 1956, it ceased to exist as a princely state. In 1982, it was notified as a district. Dholpur town is the headquarters of Dholpur district which is the eastern-most part of Rajasthan bounded by UP to the north and MP to the south.
The Legend of the Dholpur Stone
‘Dholpur stone’ is more or less synonymous with red sandstone and looking around Dholpur town you will know why. Many historic buildings which are now converted to the municipality office, the public library and other common amenities are all made of this red sandstone. If ever a ‘red city’ then this should be it. Most of the red sandstones are mined from Bari which is one of the four tehsils which make up Dholpur. Dholpur stones have gone into making not just the local structures, but also faraway ones in Delhi such as the Rashtrapati Bhawan, Red Fort and Humayun’s Tomb.
The Machkund Temple
Along the NH3, two kilometres from Dholpur town towards Gwalior, you will reach a junction. Turn right from here and follow the road that is almost deserted, through the overlooking Aravali mountain ranges. A scenic four kilometres later you climb up to a red sandstone-cobbled mesa which is the Machkund Temple complex; an ancient temple which 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 different deities. Pedal boats are available on hire if you want to surprise petition your deity – from the pond-side. Save for a microphone rendition of a puja in progress, the vast complex is otherwise quiet for there are only very few tourists here. The water is dirty and wading in or bathing is neither allowed nor advised. Definitely worth the slight detour for the photographic contrast laid out by the sprawling red sandstone structures on one side and the whitewashed cenotaphs on the other. That is, if not for the myth: Raja Machkund – who ruled 19 generations before Lord Ram – was resting here when he was woken up from his siesta quite rudely by the demon Kaal Yaman who was in hot pursuit of Lord Krishna. By dint of powers vested on him by the Lord, the Raja managed to reduce the demon to ashes.
In Dholpur: The Raj Niwas Palace
Of the many local attractions in Dholpur town, the most prominent one but hidden from public view is the Dholpur Palace aka the Raj Niwas Palace. A high-end heritage hotel today, the Raj Niwas Palace was built to welcome HRH Albert Edward when he visited in 1876. Wonderfully preserved, the property proudly flaunts the native stone on the exterior – the bland redness adds to your surprise at the sheer opulence inside.
Van Vihar and Ram Sagar Wildlife Sanctuaries
The Van Vihar Wildlife Sanctuary is 20km from Dholpur town and is spread over 59 sq.km. Van Vihar is divided into two – the Van Vihar itself which is situated on the Vindhyan Plateau and the Ram Sagar Sanctuary by the Ram Sagar Lake. Both the sanctuaries are home to exotic flora and fauna including sambhar, chital, nilgai and even an occasional leopard. Besides spotting rare migratory birds, you can also go for a spot of angling in the Ram Sagar Lake during season.
This is a picturesque lake and a palace – a hunting lodge, rather – built by Shah Jahan in 1617 A.D. Talaab Shahi is 28km from Dholpur and is home-in-transit to tufted ducks, teals, wigeons and the delightful red-crested pochards.
This is towards the south of Dholpur Tower and can be reached easily from Dholpur town. The sprawling defence tower was built by Sher Shah Suri, the sultan of Delhi against the marauding rulers of Mewars during the 16th century. Some beautiful Hindu and Jain motifs still line the walls of the Fort.
National Chambal Sanctuary
This is a must-visit especially if you have given up on the conditions of rivers in India; the Chambal is among the cleanest rivers of the country. Must be the reputation of the region that precedes it – the numerous ravines surrounding the river once made it the preferred hideout for notorious dacoits like Phoolan Devi, Fakkad Baba and Mann Singh to name a few. A boat ride along the river will not only bring you up and close to the areas once terrorised by these feared bandits but also to the endangered Gangetic river dolphins and gharials. The sanctuary itself is a 400km protected stretch of the river and rides lasting up to four hours are available.
There are several points along the river from where you can hire a boat; all are conveniently next to where you can park your vehicle too. Alternatively, you can request your hotel to make a booking. Set aside an entire day for the Chambal experience.