Having travelled much of the world variously as seafarer, media person, techie and more, I have, over the last few years, opted to be a tourist exclusively within India, and that too, as much as possible, by surface transport - rail, road and water.
There are, certainly, vast improvements in infrastructure and service delivery, especially from the private sector. There are also huge regional imbalances in the quality of products and services, with south India and north-east India way ahead of the rest of India in terms of true and real hospitality as well as basics.
But it is where governments, both state and Central, come into the picture that the realities are often totally at odds with the stated goals and objectives. As a matter of simple fact, it is very often these very so-called facilitating bodies, both Central and state, and the people therein, who work at cross purposes, usually behaving more as danda-wielding "sarkari sanstha" types, than as tourism facilitators.
This also varies from region to region and this short essay is about the ground realities in the Bundelkhand region, which is divided between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, two of our largest states in terms of size and population as well as tourism potential, and the role of the Indian railways therein.
This is not to detract from the huge success of the Kumbh at PrayagRaj in eastern Uttar Pradesh - that has been and shall remain a Superstar to remind us of all that is possible and more when we as Indians set out to put in a remarkable performance.
For practical reasons, access to the Jhansi and Orchha belt of the Bundelkhand region is best via Delhi but rail access from the rest of India is also feasible. There is minimal or almost nil civilian air access to the Bundelkhand region, for multiple reasons. So, travel to Bundelkhand is perforce by rail or by road, and therein lies the glitch.
The first solid point off the bat - in all my travels all over India, I have seldom come across more hospitable and honest ordinary people, than in the Bundelkhand areas.
Their pride, self-respect and understanding of service as different from servitude is to be saluted. From the poorest of daily wagers to the owners of massive properties, my experience with all of them has been heartening, and their history bears this out. For this reason alone I would strongly recommend a tourist visit to Bundelkhand by Indians, as is borne out also by the simple fact that about 66% to 75% of white collar tourists to this area appear to be mainly non Anglo Saxon foreigners, because this is one part of India that gave the British colonial masters the tough time that they rarely encountered in other parts of the country.
A huge group of tourists from China explained it to me thus - "We want to visit parts of India which are not just about Mughal and British era."
In Bundelkhand, women on two-wheelers and in other activities of the tourism support services like guides, shop-keepers, restaurant and stall operators, are commonplace all over, showing that gender parity is well established. Also, none of the perils of modern tourism are visible as yet - no paedophilia, hard drugs and flesh trade. In three days of roaming around in this part of Bundelkhand, I did not see a single syringe in a gutter, was not solicited for sex even once, and did not spot a single massage parlour of that looked suspicious. What you see in Bundelkhand is rock solid upper end tourists, apart from the regular Indian pilgrim traffic to the oldest temples seen in this part of India.
And honesty across the board. As well as an interesting attitude towards the Brits.
If you are British and you come to Bundelkhand, you will be reminded by every monument, museum and memory on how your ancestors were continuously on the trot here. If you are Indian, you will be reminded of how the Mughals and the British colonials were kept on the run by the intransigent people of Bundelkhand for centuries: which is also why this is one part of north India where ancient Hindu, Jain and Buddhist monuments have survived - and that is important to understand as well as to observe. It is another matter that the Jhansi Museum, maintained by the government of Uttar Pradesh, and the Jhansi fort, maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) under the Central government, still refer to 1857 as "mutiny", sadly.
Roads in and around Bundelkhand are not of the best quality, but they are totally safe for tourists, especially women, and it can take anything between 8 and 12 hours to and from Delhi to Jhansi/Orchha for example. In addition, the highways meander in and out of UP and MP multiple times, with added excursions into Rajasthan and Haryana, so moving around in yellow plate commercial vehicles is full of inter-state complications of the which have only become more complex with time.
That leaves us with the Indian Railways. Access to Bundelkhand is good via Jhansi junction, an important railway as well as old garrison town, but therein also lies another small technicality - most of the fast trains from Delhi operate via Agra and Gwalior, which swallow up most of the seats available, and so huge waiting lists for Jhansi from Delhi are legendary. It is another matter that this route also appears to block a lot of seats and berths for the so-called VVIPs. The Gatimaan Express, now India's second fastest train, is the preferred option on this route - if you can get tickets to and from Jhansi, that is.
In addition, as happens with Indian Railways, the executive lounge for 1st AC and the executive class paying passengers at the Jhansi railway station, announced with much fanfare by the ministry of railways, has been cordoned off for visiting VVIPs of the indeterminate sort. The rest of the railway station is a royal mess of the feudal sort too: the less said of it the better: and certainly not befitting that of a tourist hotspot. At the Jhansi railway station, the colonials never really left, they were just replaced by the neo-colonials and their cohorts as well as gibbering servants hiding their name tags.
Next, Jhansi is in Uttar Pradesh while Orchha is in Madhya Pradesh, and they are just about 10-15 kilometres apart. In addition, Jhansi is far away from Lucknow, Orchha is equally far away from Bhopal. The quality of services provided by state government officials on both sides, as explained to me variously, is not of the best.
Lucknow and Bhopal are both viewed as neo-colonial feudal entities which had a history of bowing to the Mughals and the British - which is not a popular theme in Bundelkhand. Delhi, incidentally, is viewed as the super slave city which bowed and cringed to the Mughals and the British.
The Bundelkhand ethos to tourism starts from there. As long as you can negotiate the perils placed in your path by the triumvirate of Central, MP and UP governments, it is a pleasant vacation for tourists. Do be prepared to be tripped up, however, at every step by babudom.
For example, to see unpaid monuments in Orchha like the magnificient chhatries and the old Chatarbhuj temple, you are expected to go to far-away Raja Mahal and buy your tickets there for the paid monument which is the Orchha Fort. In person. Why in person? "Security". Of course, the same tickets are available at a premium everywhere or you can just tip the ever present "sarkari". The numbers add up if you are foreigner, because the tickets cost 250/- rupees. In addition, random entities have started charging for tickets even at other non-ticketed monuments in both Orchha and Jhansi, such as the existing temples. However, if challenged, they do withdraw.
The best hotels in Orchha are in the Rs4000 per couple per night, including breakfast, range. We stayed at the Bundelkhand Riverside, a sprawling property along the Betwa River, and enjoyed a decent quality of air, services and peace as well as met pleasant people across the range of tourism support services, which makes us want to go back to Orchha again. Hopefully the Indian Railways will do their part, and improve tourist facilities at Jhansi too.