After Varanasi, Orchha was an oasis of calm. The historic town has barely changed since we first visited in 2010, and the surrounding almost idyllic countryside remains undeveloped. Sitting on the banks of river Betwa, Orchha was once the capital of the Bundela Rajput kingdom, one of the largest and most powerful in Central India.
Founded in the 16th century, in its heyday its splendor rivaled any other fortified palace in India. Outside the main complex, the landscape is scattered with crumbling remains of residences, gardens, and chhatris (elaborate tombs for the dynasty). Many are in amazingly good condition, in part because Orchha seldom witnessed ferocious battles. The town reached its peak in the early 1880s and then fell into decline after Indian independence when it lost its city-state status.
The main temple in the middle of town was a beehive of activity, the lane between the temple and the walled market filled with vendors selling flowers and coconuts as temple offerings.
It took little imagination to visualize the very same activity going on hundreds of years ago. This is what has inspired us to return for a fifth time. There’s other lanes and courtyards here that have suffered little change in the last two hundred years. Gerard commented that originally he thought all of India would look like this town, scattered with ruins from the days of grandeur. Definitely not the case! Walking through the temple complex at lunchtime, we watched a couple feeding the poor with food, they’d obviously prepared at home.
It’s hard to believe Orchha has still not been discovered and exploited as a tourist destination. Tour groups arrive here not even for the day and are hustled through the main palace, shunted back on the bus, gone before the dust settles. There are a couple of upscale hotels in town, and a few more in the process of being built on the outskirts, but they don’t seem to attract a lot of business.
Returning for the third time to our guesthouse, Monarch Rama Palace, which sits on a quiet street, the garden planted three years ago with roses and shrubs is now coming into its own. The owner uses the illustrious title of ‘Dr.’ and although not seeming old enough, Ashish really is a doctor who practices in a local hospital. He has a no nonsense attitude that I like in doctors and on learning about my hearing, simply responded in his commanding tone, “Read lips!” Wish that it were so simple! While quieter here than Varanasi, it was still hard for me to hear due to constant ceiling fans and the inevitable street traffic in the background. It’s now clear I have to learn to read lips which so far I’ve found virtually impossible. If others can do it, surely I can. I fear the the older you are the harder it is.
We’ve befriended several vendors each from quite different backgrounds and with their own interesting views. There’s the young Kashmiri selling jewelry (some he designs) and shawls. Unfortunately, selling is a euphemism. He makes very little, if any, sales even though he comes for the season every year. He is well-educated, refined and articulate, speaking perfect English. This year, his new wife accompanied him and brought delicious Kashmiri tea to the shop. She had huge almond shaped eyes that she ringed with heavy kohl, making them even larger. At first she spoke very little but by the time our stay in Orchha drew to a close, she was warming to us. As is still typical in Kashmir, the marriage was arranged by their parents, they met only briefly before the engagement/marriage and I was impressed at her apparent devotion to him. He had a sad story about life in Kashmir today. Since we visited the beautiful country, twelve years ago, the conflict between Pakistan and India over Kashmir has continued to disrupt life. With a large number of highly educated people (our friend has a Masters in Mathematics, his wife, in Education), unemployment is at an astonishing 60%.
Our other acquaintance is a Hindu from Gujarat. He also sells jewelry and souvenirs and complained of a steep decline in sales. Both vendors speculated that the internet has something to do with it. But how can people buy without seeing and touching the real thing? Drinking chai in his shop (again his wife brought it to him twice a day), he expounded on his admiration for Modi and how he supported RSS, the militant Hindu organization that foresees an India free of all Moslems and Christians. He didn’t say so, but he would probably like Trump.
Our third ‘friend’ is an American woman in her early 70s who like Gerard left a small town in NH in the 60s and now divides her time between India and Spain. When we first met her, three years ago, she was taking a break from teaching in Mumbai and sitting in a gift shop surrounded by piles of books. I immediately started a conversation of authors and titles we liked. Patricia’s now retired and spends more time in Orchha, informally and somewhat haphazardly teaching young local children English. We asked her, “What happened to all those books?”
“They’re in storage until I can figure out what to do with them.”
“What are you reading now?””
“I’m mostly reading online.”
She gave me the link to the Gutenberg Free Press, a site where you can freely download books that are out of copyright, including the old classics and I’m enjoying rereading Jane Eyre!
The temperature kept rising, hovering close to 100F the day before we left. Fortunately, a dry heat. We had to get up early and make our forays into the countryside early in the morning. Oddly, the open meadows, dotted here and there with trees, reminded me of Devon. It is of course not as lush and green, but thanks to the Betwa River also not as dry and dusty as most of central India.
My favorite spot was beside a brook just outside of town. Sitting on a rock, next to the brook, we noticed a Sadhu getting ready for the day.
After a week in Orchha, we reluctantly left for Delhi on the early morning train, not relishing the same intense heat that would greet us in the city.