Written by phileasfogg on 10 Sep, 2010
This is part 3 of a trip through the region of central India that’s known as Bundelkhand. On a week-long drive starting from Delhi, we first went to Gwalior (best known for its fabulous fort) and then to Khajuraho, with its famous temples, a World…Read More
This is part 3 of a trip through the region of central India that’s known as Bundelkhand. On a week-long drive starting from Delhi, we first went to Gwalior (best known for its fabulous fort) and then to Khajuraho, with its famous temples, a World Heritage site. Click here and here for the journals of those trips. What follows is an account of the third destination we covered in our journey: Orchha.
Day 5: Khajuraho to Orchha
180 km, 5 hours. We retrace our drive from two days back, driving back almost all the way from Khajuraho to Jhansi. Shortly before Jhansi, there’s a fork in the road: one leads to Jhansi, the other to Orchha, 9 km away on the banks of the Betwa River. This is where we turn, and the road continues, as pleasant and pretty a countryside—if not more—than it’s been all this while. I do think, the more I look at it, that Bundelkhand in the monsoon is eye candy all the way. The fields are a lush, rich green, flecked with the white of blossoming crops. There are wildflowers: deep purple morning glory, orange and red lantana, and some gorgeous red and yellow tiger-lily like flowers.And the birds. We spot plenty of Indian rollers, a dull buff in colour until they spread their wings, and bright blue feathers fan out. Lovely! All the rollers sit on wires well away from the road; one that we find posing perfectly on a roadside sign—positioned so that its blue wings and tail are visible clearly even from where we sit in our car—watches us until we get our camera out, then flies off cheekily.
We don’t get to photograph any birds, but we see plenty of them: little green bee-eaters, slender birds with spectacle-like markings; a brown-and-black coucal or crow pheasant that flaps heavily into a small tree; a pair of elegant grey, white, black and caramel tree pies, their long tails flowing behind them; grassy green rose-ringed parakeets; doves, large-billed crows, sparrows, whitebreasted kingfishers, and the intelligent-looking common mynahs, that spend most of their time pecking on the fringes of the road and then sauntering across the highway at a daringly leisurely pace. Why not fly?
The local people are a picturesque lot too. The women are, most of them, in bright orange or red saris, all nylon with shiny tinsel embroidery. They balance gleaming stainless-steel waterpots on their heads as they walk to or from the village pond. We see old men, dressed in white dhotis, sitting on their haunches in the shade of a big black umbrella by the side of the road, watching over a herd of grazing goats. Or there are young boys, watching over water buffalos that wallow in the thick, muddy waters of roadside ponds. The buffalos emerge looking like they’ve been through a mud bath (which they have, of course): muddy in every pore, which thus gets protected from pesky and/or disease-bearing insects. Occasionally, we see holy men, sadhus with long dreadlocks gathered up into a knot atop their heads, spare bodies dressed in orange or yellow robes.
We arrive in Orchha at 3 PM, and are immediately entranced by the very visible historicity of the town: spires and domes, ruins and imposing towers soar up above the horizon all around.
After a quick lunch at our hotel, Amar Mahal, we decide we’d better see some of the sights today, since we’ve realised that tomorrow is Janmashtami, the birth anniversary of the Hindu God Krishna: it’s an important religious festival, and some sights may well be shut for the day.
At the Orchha Fort, we are told that that isn’t so: despite Janmashtami, the sights will be open tomorrow. But we may as well see all we can today. So we hire a guide—not very good, as it turns out, and inclined to sit down wherever he can after giving us a very brief explanation and telling us that we should ‘look around on your own’. But we do see the Jahangir Mahal, Raja Mahal and Rai Praveen Mahal at the Orchha Fort, followed by a trip to the Lakshminarayan Temple (already closed for the day, but commanding a fine view of Orchha) and a drive down to the Betwa River for a panoramic sunset view of the chhatris, the 16 cenotaphs of the Bundela kings. The view is so-so (some people are doing their laundry here), and the stink is awful. We’ve had enough of Orchha for the day.
Day 6: Orchha; Day trip to Datia
51 km, 1½ hours each way. When we’d hired a guide the day before, he’d made huge promises to show us all of Orchha—the palaces in the fort, the chhatris or cenotaphs by the river, the temples in town. After showing us around two of the palaces in the fort, he’d started hinting that the rest of the sights in town were either not worth seeing—too dirty and poorly maintained—or didn’t need us to take a guide along. Tarun, who can detect shirking and stall it, decided to pay the man only half his fee until he agreed to come along with us today too, to show us the rest, no matter if it’s dirty. So, after a late breakfast, we set off with the guide, first to the cenotaphs along the river. We see at close quarters only the most important cenotaph, that of the king Veer Singh Deo. It is dirty—bats roost here and cows wander in, depositing dung wherever they feel like it. But still.
Veer Singh’s cenotaph done, our guide insists on taking us into town, to the renovated and brightly painted cream-and-yellow Ram Raja Temple. This is a big draw for Hindu pilgrims who come to Orchha. For me, it lacks religious attraction, and the unfeeling way in which they’ve obliterated all signs of the temple’s historic character earns my silent wrath. The Ram Raja Temple is a unique one, because it’s the only temple—in all of India, supposedly—where the deity Ram, who was also the king of Ayodhya, is worshipped in his regal form. All other temples and idols of Ram only focus on his divinity. We have a quick look at the idol, and are then shooed off by a priest who’s keeping the queues moving—not that there are vast crowds around. A disappointing place, and not one that I’d recommend visiting unless it’s for the sake of religion.
After the Ram Raja Temple, the guide takes us to the Lakshminarayan Temple, which we hadn’t been able to see yesterday, since it was shut. Today, it’s open, and we spend a rewarding few minutes admiring the beauty of the paintings decorating the interiors of the temple—before we head back to our hotel, dropping off the guide on the way. After something sweet, cold and fizzy to shore ourselves up, we do the 1½ hour drive to the town of Datia, which we’ve been told has a palace worth seeing. Datia is dusty, very crowded and chaotic. Guns seem to be an important commodity here: we pass many ‘gun houses’, shops that sell arms and ammunition.
45 minutes of looping back and forth, getting lost in one neighbourhood and then another, and we finally arrive at the palace. It seems deserted, but as we enter, we discover four men sitting in the dim recesses of the first chamber. Yes, it’s open for visitors, says one of them; there are no entry fees. Tarun asks if someone can show us around, and one of them—a young man—is elected. The first few rooms are unpromising, dark and smelling faintly of bats. But higher up (the Datia Palace has seven storeys), we arrive in what is among the best-preserved medieval painted plaster I’ve ever seen. It’s beautiful, and worth all the trouble it’s taken us. By 2 PM, we’ve finished, and begin the drive back to Orchha and a very late lunch.