Our first visit to Orchha in Madhya Pradesh was five years ago. This otherwise sleepy town sitting beside the BetwaRiver is unlike any other historical site in the country.
At a small crossroads you can see to the left over a bridge the giant palaces of the Orchha Rajput rulers sitting on a small island, on the right rises the Chaturbhuj temple, the pearl white complex of Raj Rama temple, Jhujjar Singh’s palace and Laxhminarayn temple. Straight ahead on the road leads you to the cenotaphs (memorials) on the banks of the river. From 1500 to the late 1700 Orchha was the capital of the entire region.
Jahangir Mahal, one of the two imposing palaces was built around Akbar the Great’s time at the beginning of the 1600s. Considering its age it is in remarkable condition. The other large palace, Raj Mahal, built around 50 years earlier boasts exquisite paintings on the walls and ceilings depicting scenes from Hindu mythology. The architecture is a blend of Rajput and Mogul.
Orchha’s history town lives on its remarkable preserved monuments which are clustered around within a two km radius. One of the things that attracts us to Orchha is the opportunity to roam freely from one monument to another, through pastures and open scrub land.
In the past five years not a lot has changed, with the exception of widening the main road through town, officially for the buses to come in and out more conveniently. The fronts of buildings were literally torn down to enable this, the rubble left beside the edge of the road. It’s ridiculous because the entrance to town is through the Royal Gate which is only wide enough for an elephant – or a tourist bus. The whole project is a disaster because it means once through the Elephant Gate traffic speeds too fast with horns screeching. Tragically, I also noticed an excessive number of limping stray dogs – evidence of being run over by racing traffic and living to tell the tale, but with only three working legs.
New Years Eve was remarkably quiet, largely because of heavy rain. Parties were hosted in the major hotels and at midnight a few firecrackers managed to stay dry enough to explode.
But we weren’t aware that New Years Day was a bigger celebration than New Years Eve. This small town hosted between 30 – 40,000 visitors who paraded up the street to the temple, ate from all the food stalls that sprang up overnight along the way, stuck their feet in the cold river water …and then left. Some came from far away, more from neighboring villages. The noise and confusion drove us back into our hotel room. But the next morning miraculously almost everyone had left, and the streets had already been cleaned and the trash collected.
The countryside is full of lovely walks. We found a spot next to a babbling brook that was so universally pastoral with its soft mat of green grass reaching down to the water it took both of us back to our childhood. We sat in silence, a rarity in India, and appreciated the moment.
Another day we went looking for the fabled Baobab tree – the locals here believe they have the only one in existence. It’s true they’re extremely rare but there’s a number to be found throughout India. They have survived since prehistoric times, originating in West Africa and exactly how they appeared in India is unclear. Some say they spread across the subcontinent before India split away from Africa.
We found the tree quite easily sitting on the top of a granite knoll quite by itself. It’s the strangest looking tree you can imagine, nicknamed the upside-down tree because its sparse branches look like roots. If you believe in reincarnation and that even trees have some level of consciousness, you can’t help thinking of the poor soul trapped inside this tree – they can live between three and five thousand years. There was something very haunting and melancholy about the way this ancient specie sat by itself.
After one day of heavy rain the fog and damp sets in and it remains bone chilling for several more. Anyone who’s traveled in the third world knows how cold concrete buildings are! We drink a lot of chai to fight it off. There are a number of look-alike restaurants in town and we try them all before settling on one. They are all hungry for business and every time we walk down the street desperate pleas echo from the empty restaurants: “Good morning, madam, good morning sir!” But we stay loyal to Raju at the Milan. If the town, weather or schedule is not to our liking, we still manage to find a restaurant that serves up good food, and here is no different. At Raju’s, the more we go the warmer the greeting and the stronger the chai.
We’ve met a couple of interesting characters in their 70s who are English. Of course, they have stories of old like making trips to India overland in the 60s… Oliver is half Belgian, and now lives in Buckfastleigh (near my hometown). An artist influenced by Flemish Masters and Victorian fairy painters, he spends his days drawing the forms of Indian pilgrims and beggars he sees sitting around the temple – fascinated by a fold of cloth, the position of a limb. Dressed in a self-designed outfit of faded beige-colored velour he looks like a Russian aristocrat from the turn of the last century. In fact we both immediately thought of Nicholai Roerich when we met him! Traveling alone for several months he has an aura of both self containment and loneliness. Because the town is so small and tourists few we frequently meet up with Oliver sitting under a tree out in the pasture his drawing pad in hand, on the street surrounded by stray dogs feeding Marie biscuits, or in the hotel in the evening over hot lemon ginger honey.
The day we arrived in Orchha looking for a hotel, Oliver appeared on the street, took us to his and thanks to him we found a gem! A large clean room, friendly staff, and an excellent cook who we later learn has no previous cooking experience and is a mere 19 years old. He began as the night watchman, sleeping on the floor of the foyer, but when the previous cook left, the owner persuaded him to take over. Since he probably doesn’t make much more, if any, in salary he’s not happy about the arrangement. But he still puts his utmost into the cooking.
Despite its relative cleanliness, Gerard still pulls out his bottle of Dettol and cleaning cloth and makes the room even cleaner. My good fortune! The man who cleans in the hotel is equally impressed. He’s not used to guests like this. “I don’t need to clean your room!” After eight days, Gerard tells the hotel owner who lives with his family just beyond our room on the upper floor, “If we stay any longer we’ll become part of the family! “You are family”, he replies, “You are special guests.” Ironically, just two minutes earlier, I had commented that I didn’t like him or trust him! I guess I needed an attitude adjustment.