Scheduling the new festival shortly after the big ticket Khajuraho Dance Festival, the state government is hoping to maintain the spotlight on Madhya Pradesh in the spring season.
A sleepy town in Bundelkhand region may have just emerged as the key to unleashing the rich potential of tourism in Madhya Pradesh, a state that has remained for long in the shadow of Rajasthan, Kerala and Goa despite an abundance of history, heritage and nature.
Orchha, a treasure trove of forts, rivers, forests and cultures and only a five-hour rail and road journey away from Delhi, is now projected as the next Khajuraho.
Built on the banks of the Betwa River in early 16th century by Bundela chief Rudra Pratap Singh for his new kingdom, Orchha is a hidden gem of architectural wonders. With a population of only 11,000, the town boasts of a string of palaces, forts and monuments.
Its centuries-old Ram Raja temple and Chaturbhuj temple draw tens of thousands of pilgrims every month to worship Lord Ram, both as a king and god. The majestic Jahangir Mahal situated in the Orchha fort complex tells the story of a curious friendship between Bundela chief Vir Singh Deo and Mughal emperor Jahangir.
Orchha's rich history and heritage are at the forefront of an ambitious tourism campaign launched this month by Madhya Pradesh. Namaste Orchha, a new annual cultural festival organised by Madhya Pradesh Tourism Board in the town during March 6-8, gathered famous musicians, dancers and chefs from India and abroad to signal a new thinking in tourism promotion in the state.
"Madhya Pradesh is set to be one of the major growth drivers of Indian economy and tourism is a key sector with immense potential," Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath said in a statement on the opening day of the three-day festival held at different venues across the town.
The state tourism board figures show that 80 million domestic tourists and 3.5 lakh foreign tourists visited Madhya Pradesh last year.
Scheduling the new festival shortly after the big ticket Khajuraho Dance Festival (held during February 20-26 this year), the state government is hoping to maintain the spotlight on Madhya Pradesh in the spring season. The backdrop of Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book, Madhya Pradesh is known as the "Tiger state" and hosts three UNESCO World Heritage Sites — Khajuraho, Sanchi and Bhimbetka rock shelters. Its vast resources of other important historical sites like in Orchha, only 180 km from Khajuraho, are, however, little known.
"Madhya Pradesh is a very underrated destination. While its wildlife is acknowledged, the state's vast historical and architectural heritage is not. The state represents what best India has to offer. Orchha is a part of these untold and undiscovered destinations in the state," says Namaste Orchha festival director Yasmin Kidwai.
"We wanted to put Orchha on the tourism map and do it in a sustainable way, making people as part of the development," Kidwai adds.
While celebrated singers such as the French musician Manu Chao, folk singers from Madhya Pradesh's Malwa region — Prahlad Tipaniya and Kaluram Bamaniya — Hindustani vocalist Shubha Mudgal, playback singer Shilpa Rao and Kathak dancer and choreographer Aditi Mangaldas ensured an electrifying beginning for Namaste Orchha, there were interesting interventions that could have lasting impact with the local community. Designer Anupamaa Dayal painted the walls lining the town's main thoroughfare with works inspired by the Malwa region's fabled Gond art.
Dayal also went to the town's homestays, painting some of them with birds, the Gond art's leitmotif. "It is a repetitive motif albeit in completely different art styles in the frescos and the colourful Gond art," she says. "I also sense it to be a lovely leitmotif to Orchha. Light, beautiful... symbolising freedom and the link between earth (endless green fields and sense of space), the waters (Betwa river) and heaven (strong mythological element of Orchha)," adds Dayal.
Last November, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's parents Stanley Johnson and Charlotte Johnson Wahl visited Orchha and expressed their appreciation of the forts and monuments to local authorities. State tourism officials believe Orchha's proximity to the Golden Triangle tourism circuit of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur would be an advantage. "Madhya Pradesh is like a set from an Indiana Jones movie," says Ajeet Bajaj, managing director of Snow Leopard Adventures, an adventure tourism company.
"There are possibilities of nature trails, rafting, kayaking, canoeing and cycle tours," he adds.
Madhya Pradesh's new tourism policy, which underlines private investment, too backs the Orchha campaign. The government says it wants to allow the private hospitality sector to convert heritage properties in the state to hotels for increasing the number of rooms and facilities for tourists.
"The focus is on ease of doing business," says Faiz Ahmed Kidwai, Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister. Mohan Lal Rekhwal, a retired policeman in Orchha, hopes tourism will help in bringing jobs to the town. "The government is building new roads and other facilities for tourists in Orchha. It will help our people to get jobs," he adds.
The villages around the town are also building new homestays to participate in the tourism development. At the Friends of Orchha (www.orcha.org) homestay owned by Mythla Kewat and husband Munna Lal, all its eight rooms have been occupied the entire month.
"We receive domestic and foreign tourists," says Romi Samele, an Orchha tourism entrepreneur who manages Friends of Orchha homestay, which won the Best Community-run Homestay prize at the National Tourism Awards in 2018.
"We feel part of the family. The owners have a natural way of welcoming guests," says Amandine Fastre, a visitor from the south of France.
The Alliance Francaise in Bhopal has partnered with the state tourism board to train 19 tour guides in Orchha. "Seventeen of them completed the 80-hour course to develop French language skills," says Kidwai.
"We want to enlarge the tour guide training," says Bertrand de Hartingh, Counsellor for Cooperation and Cultural Affairs at the French embassy in Delhi and Country Director of Institut Francais.
"It is very good when the guides come from the local community. It is a win-win situation," he adds.As Orchha and Madhya Pradesh move towards welcoming more tourists in the coming years, sustainable development has been mooted as a key component of tourism growth in the state.
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