We’ve been in Orchha for almost a week. The tour guide came through… Orchha is the kind of gem you can still occasionally find in the third world. It’s very difficult to do it justice in writing.
It seemed promising from the moment we arrived in neighboring Jhansi. We had called ahead for a hotel and a car to pick us up because it would be late. From the open doorway of the train, we saw a young man waving excitedly and bearing a sign saying something close to WIGGINS. Our driver had found us with no problem.
It’s already dark as we drive 18 km through country lanes to Orchha, but we begin to get a sense of the town’s tranquility and simplicity. It’s remarkably quiet for an Indian town – little traffic and fewer honking horns. Sleeping with open windows gives the feeling of being outdoors. During the night, there are surprisingly few barking dogs, and before dawn, the marked absence of squawking crows. In fact in the early morning, we hear many beautiful bird songs, mingled with muffled sounds of people starting their day. It is all very reminiscent for us of the early days in Morocco.
We’re grateful not be on a tight schedule and with no time limits able to stay a while and relax. But it’s so hard for me to stay in the present; I’m commenting, “This is definitely a place I would return to…” Barely arrived and case upacked, I’m already off in the future.
A relatively simple street leads past an abandoned 16th C Rajput palace. But it’s not just the palace; dotted around the countryside everywhere we look are the remnants of smaller temples and cenotaphs. The palace sits on a small island, reached by an old granite bridge. We are reminded of Prague – but in this case the citadel is a Maharaja’s palace.
The palace is three large buildings each with its own courtyard, built over a 300 year period, but remaining architecturally coherent (Indo/Mogul).
Sitting on a hill one km out of town is the imposing Lakshmi temple. An arcade runs around all four walls, and on the ceiling are friezes in very good repair depicting scenes from Krishna’s life. It’s some of the freshest looking paintings we’ve seen yet.
Closer to the bazaar is the Chaturbhuga temple. Its tall tower provides spectacular views over the town. Late in the day, we walk south to a group of chhatris – memorials to the rulers of the time. They create a solemn row of golden domes and spires beside the river’s edge, melancholy in the evening light.
Because we have just come from Ellora and Ajunta, we cannot help but think of the different motivation behind the creation of these impressive structures. The palace and temples of Orchha were built for the gratification of one individual and ego at who knows what human cost; while the cave temples of Ellora and Ajunta were a collective project built to express a spiritual way of life. Even though this palace is awe inspiring, it definitely speaks to a different part of our psyche.
The town has not yet fully geared up for western tourists. We can walk around a large part of the ruins without having to pay; there are not a lot of guides and no red tape forbidding us to enter certain areas; the simple bazaar is more for the Indians than the western tourists. It may be hard to distinguish but the locals seem to be genuinely friendly, perhaps tempered with the beckoning prospect of increasing tourism.
The restaurants are simple and the food more like home cooking – the Nepalese have not yet arrived and set up their look-alike restaurants catering for tourists. Service is slow – yet another opportunity to practice patience. At our favorite restaurant, Ramraja, we have to walk through the kitchen to get to the “garden” in back. It is chaotic and far from hygienic, but the food is excellent (and the fresh pomegranate juice is out of this world). The saying goes that if you looked into the kitchen of almost any restaurant in India you wouldn’t eat there! We watch them make chapattis over an open firepit, dusting off the ashes before serving them to us.
Again we meet interesting people – an American woman, almost 70 and traveling alone, who manages to turn everything into a positive experience, including taking the wrong train here and finding herself miles away in a town with a similar name. She then spends days of additional bus and train rides before finally arriving in Orchha. A Punjabi Sikh, born and raised in England, who gave up his job as a journalist and fled a life of partying to try and find himself in his motherland. A postgraduate from Guernsey who knows he can never go back to the confinement of the island and is trying to figure out where in the world he can call home. We eat breakfast at Didi’s – a popular hang out run by a jolly Irish woman and her Indian husband. In a ridiculously small space, they work together to serve non Indian food and Didi provides a wealth of travel support – from where to buy clothes to where are the best hotels – and acts as a clearing house for information sharing.
Orchha feels a little bit like a scene, but it’s not. Like us, people come here often planning to stay a few days and end up staying much longer because it’s so enticing. Even Gerard is inspired to take daily walks and – holding our breath – the bites have abated!