A wordy and visual account of my travels in Orchha, India.
Choosing to visit Orchha after finding it mentioned on a state tourism brochure was a difficult decision to make. The fact that it was off a brochure was not very encouraging. It is India, after all, everyone can find something to sell. I couldn’t find much information online to set my expectations right. So I kept them low. Incredibly low. Prepared to find ‘yogis perform secret cult magic’ low.
I went with three of my friends hoping to have a simple affordable vacation. On arrival, we found a town waiting to be discovered but happy to be left alone. To say that I loved the town the minute I saw it is a lie. But a cocktail of low expectations, travel fatigue and tranquil surroundings gave me one of the best and simplest vacations I have taken so far.
FROZEN IN TIME
We learnt in history books how cities in ancient India were build around temples and forts. And while places like Agra and New Delhi have expanded in all possible directions, the fort in Orchha stands remarkably close to its temple and the main market envelopes it. It is easy to cover the whole town in one day, and the flowing Betwa river helps the aura of the city by making it richer.
Postcard perfect town of Orchha does less to energise and more to soothe the nerves from living in a metro city. It felt surreal to recall that few hours prior I spent my time navigating traffic and dodging beggars at New Delhi railway station, wherein Orchha gave me a capsule environment of slow paced living. It is the architecture, looking dated and frozen, transitions one from life in cities made of grey blocks and dusty clouds to a history book setup of India during the Bundelkhand era. My first day there was oddest of them all, unusual surroundings and the complete lack of traffic noise made it a whole lot harder to sleep. It was an effort to find something to like, both with the town and our living quarters. I was put out of place in a town that moved slower than time.
WARMTH OF OUR HOSTS
Our accommodation was unique and challenging. We had rented two rooms with the organisation Friends of Orchha, a social enterprise located in a village right outside of the town that helped families living below poverty line create assets and generate income through eco-tourism. Our welcoming hosts were eager to have us over, and we were given modest but comfortable rooms to spend our nights in.
Octobers in Orchha get hot during the day, and the lack of air conditioning threatened to lower our spirits. But a fresh set of clothes and walk around the village prepared us to enjoy Orchha in its small offerings.
GHOSTS OF THE PAST
Much of what I love about Orchha lies in the walls of the ancient cenotaphs, the ignored ruins and the wonderfully maintained Orchha fort. To explore them, we rented rickety bicycles for merely 50 rupees a day and rode them in the direction that looked most promising. Somewhere we found ruins, while on one end of the town we saw the cenotaphs. I stopped once to buy samosas and relished them by the river. Another time I stopped thinking I dropped something, and realise that my friend rode herself in to a drain. With smelly feet and cheeks hurt from laughing, we learnt to embrace the town.
The cenotaphs were empty yet surrounded by yogis or babas and the smoke emerging from burning wood. It gave our mouths a thirst only beer could fix, and we found a small cafe gave us just that with the view of the Orchha fort.
The Orchha fort must be one of the best places to haunt, a popular site in the ghost community. It doesn’t look sad and ruined, but old and proud. Historically the fort has not faced much torment, and even today one can see bright blue tiling along its walls. The passages slim and long are ideal for triggering claustrophobia. The palace is open for public to explore, perhaps more than necessary, for we spent so much time going up and down and back and forth to find ourselves facing the same courtyard.
Part of the establishment is used by a hotel, and a cup of coffee and chicken sandwich is a must to end the fort visit. Blazing sun only amplifies the glory of the fort, most of which you can learn about at their evening light and sound show. A display of grandeur, history of which is barely brushed over in school, the Orchha fort is a towering proof of an architecture of function blended seamlessly with beauty.
While the fort is the most time consuming activity at Orchha, with another day at hand it is best to visit the Orchha Wildlife Sanctuary. Just across the river crossing a bridge without railings is the sanctuary, best to be explored on foot with a spare change of clothes at hand. A brook joins the Betwa river, passing through this area with great gusto. Exploring it further and cautiously led us to a tiny waterfall that instantly became a natural spa. With water falling so luxuriously on the shoulders, it is dangerously easy to lose track of time.
The setting sun brought higher current, and though we safely crossed the river back, my one tumble in the water was enough to get my heart pounding and my friends gasping and immediately laughing. Almost fell off that bridge while going back to town, but what’s life without a few near death experiences? I used it justify all my alcohol intake then on.
Secluded, unique, relaxed and devoid of distractions
SOMETHING IN DOING NOTHING
While I learnt a little about the history and ate heavy meals throughout the trip, leaving the town was difficult. It felt a little sad to say goodbye to the lovely family hosting us, and to see the town’s unique skyline growing smaller was a reminder of the temporary rest my mind received, that I was heading back to a madhouse. Maybe because it was so secluded, unique, relaxed and devoid of distractions that I spent my time with my friends finding pleasure in company and surroundings.
Orchha as a vacation is a form of meditation, there is more living than doing, more listening that talking and more remembering than photographing. More often than usual, we need reminders of that.
S A V E F O R L A T E R
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