Orchha Travelogue: The joys of an offbeat travel destination

My journey to a sleepy town in the centre of India (includes tips on where to get the best dal fry, things to do in Orchha, and how to experience the best of this hidden gem).

Busy street in Orchha leading to the Chaturbhuj Temple.
Mixing the old with the new, the inward with the outward – the small town of Orchha is waking up to the possibilities of tourism.

Orchha is not expecting us.

We get off the Gatimaan Express at Jhansi on a Sunday. The station is quiet. Outside, we spot 3-4 men in a huddle. Taking them to be cab drivers, I bargain for a ride to our stop in Orchha. Driver though he is, the man who grabs my suitcase, takes us to a rickshaw. I look at my friend, on her first visit to India, apologetically. She smiles and shrugs, “It is what it is.”

Quiet as the station was, the road to Orchha is anything but. “Aaj Pukh hai na (it is Pukh today),” the driver yells out. I have a sense that it has something to do with the constellation Pushya – the nourisher. Over a lakh will come for a glimpse of Raja Ram today. That’s why we’re catching all this traffic, the driver explains, proud of the chaos.

According to legend, Ganesh Kunwar – the queen of Orchha was a devotee of Ram. Once, she went on pilgrimage to Ayodhya and prayed that her Ishtam (Chosen Ideal) return to Orchha with her. Ram agreed on 3 conditions: one, that he would be king of Orchha, two, that he would stay where she placed his idol, and three, he would undertake the journey only when the constellation of Cancer or Pushya was in the sky. So, in the 16th century, Raja Ram became ruler of Orchha. And he is the reigning monarch to this day. Even today, he receives gun salutes at the Ramraja temple. This is the only city in India where Ram is worshipped as King.

Today is not only Pukh but also a Sunday. Everybody has taken out the time to make pranams (salutations) to Raja Ram.

And so, I have the overwhelming sensation of having dropped by a distant relative’s home unannounced. It is mayhem. We see rickshaws overstuffed with people like a potato-laden inter-state truck. Many overtake us raising dust in the afternoon sun We cross speeding bikers with passengers clinging for dear life, a police van blaring jingles for safe driving, and a few private cars packed for never-ending journeys. And we are under attack from screechy honks like arrows shot at us from all directions. My friend takes in the scene with her mouth open. But on catching my eye, she grins, shaking her head.

When we enter the town, the houses are blue, yellow, pink, green and white. Within Orchha, it seems as though hardly anyone is home. Cows and dogs are sunning themselves. Young children peep from behind mud walls. A few old women sit on the thresholds staring intently into space.

Colourful blue house in Orchha
Beautiful blue house in the central part of town

Further on, as the rickshaw wobbles its way to the outskirts, we see men in white shirts and dark glasses yell to each other over the drone of a steamroller. Major parts of the road are under construction. The driver tells us, “Yahan highway banega. Seedhe Khajuraho tak jayega.” (They are building a highway here. It will go straight to Khajuraho). The Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh has pledged funds for Orchha’s development. I wonder why this has not occurred to the government earlier given the history and architectural splendour of Orchha and Khajuraho.

Occasionally, emerging like a spectre between the mud houses, we see an example of ancient architecture – brown with age, overrun by weeds, and speckled with bird droppings. It reminds me of why I am here in the first place. To bask in the past grandeur of the Bundelas.

The Bundelas matter because, as per my mother’s WhatsApp reply to my frantic questions, I am a Bundela Rajput. The story is that in 2019 I went on a solo trip to Rajasthan where everyone, from cab drivers to airport security to tour guides, had the same response on hearing my name “What caste of Rajput are you?” I was lost. The question had never occurred to me. And even after I became conscious of the Bundelas, their existence seemed entirely disconnected from mine.

Like Ram, legend claims, they came from the solar dynasty. One of the younger sons of the clan, having been turned away from the throne of Varanasi, travelled to the shrine of the Goddess Vindhyavasini. After a long penance he decided to sacrifice himself to the goddess. At the first drop of blood – the deity appeared. She blessed the king that his heir would be born from this drop (bund). And so, sprang forth the first true Bundela.  

And, like most heroes, he didn’t much need a mother. The Bundelas, were also drops on the medieval Indian landscape. They left light stains and disappeared. Neither did their rule last for many centuries or nor did it extend over large regions. Their legacies were stories, not stone.

When the rickshaw off-roads into a field – I am jolted out of my reveries. The field is barbed into plots, with stunted brick foundations , and barely legible signages. As of now, the earth is either bare or grass green. The landscape looks like a first draft of an architect’s plan.

At the AirBnB, the kindly staff member that checks us in tells us that we need to give a few hours advance notice for meals. Because they have to go into town to purchase the vegetables and other necessities. The kitchen is not stocked.

“What about chicken?” “Only after sunset, as they do not sell it in the village during daytime.” However, they make us some gobi (cauliflower) parathas with chutney made from guavas in the garden. On the side, the buttermilk is thick & cooling. Farm-fresh food that is not aspiring to be on trend is a novelty for a city-dweller like me.

In the evening, my friend and I decide to take a walk towards the town.

It is not an exaggeration to say I feel like a celebrity. This is why: old goat herds eye us beadily, little children yell hello – groups of little children, each about 5 times, women being sped away on motorbikes turn to look at us, and the moment we make eye contact, look away.

Young boys herding buffaloes
Barefoot young boys herding buffaloes

When we enter through one of the town’s gates, it is dusk. The cows have come home. Young calves are huddled in a pile for warmth. My friend and I stop to take pictures of the colourful pink and blue house with dried Ashoka leaves hanging outside the door. A grandfather is laughing as he balances his grandson on his knee. When I ask if we can take photos of his house and cows, he smiles (masking surprise), and nods. We walk on. An old flour grinding machine is whirring in the distance, stalls are selling the last remaining samosas and kachoris of the day, adolescent boys are hurrying home on adult bicycles. The place, which had gone about its own simple life in the day, is now winding down to a halt.

The next day we set out for the forts and palaces. In the fort complex, opposite the Ramraja temple & the Chaturbhuj temple, the main buildings are the Raja Mahal (King’s palace), Jahangir Mahal (Jahangir’s palace), and Rai Praveen Mahal (Rai Praveen palace).

Near the entrance we meet a gentleman wearing dark sunglasses, who asks matter-of-factly if we need guides. Gesturing towards a board I cannot see he says these are government rates. His mild manners decide me. As a solo traveller who has taken guided tours in the City Palaces of Jaipur and Udaipur, I understand that decibels can be incremental. Anyway, as our tour progresses, he attaches himself to my friend giving me space to pause and click.

Murals within the walls of Raja Mahal, Orchha
Murals within the Orchha palace walls. Clockwise from top: the coronation of Rama, the King riding an elephant made of 12 women, the Queen enjoying a swing surrounded by her maids, and the Churning of the Milk Ocean.

The Raja Mahal, as the guide points out, has three kinds of arches – Hindu, Persian and Mughal. It is an example, like many buildings from medieval India, of architectural syncretism. Within the rooms, so dark that you might need to turn on your torchlights, there are beautiful murals of Vishnu’s incarnations. In one room there is a painting of the king riding an elephant, and the queen enjoying a swing, surrounded by her maids.

Orchha temperatures can soar up to 50 degrees Celsius in the summers, so we see where the royals retreated to escape the heat. We also see how they made provision for hot water in the winter. But what fascinate us are the stairs. They are narrow, have considerable height, and don’t always have banisters. I can’t help but think of maids in ankle-length skirts, probably scarves over their heads, negotiating the stairs carrying plates and bowls and whatever their masters wished. How they managed, if they managed, without falling. How unsung their peril was. . .

Parts of the building are under re-construction. Parts of it have crumbled to dust in the fists of time. Here and there, P has doodled his love for S. A few walls are serving as communal notice boards.

Next, we move to Jahangir Mahal, which is in the same complex. It was built by Raja Bir Singh Deo for his friend Shahenshah Jehangir in 1605. Incredibly, Jehangir graced it with his presence for all of one night before moving on. I’m surprised he did not wish to stay longer. This is a beautiful 4-storey monument, with underground quarters for the soldiers, luxurious apartments, and much to marvel at. Thankfully, it is also under restoration.

My friend and I climb up a flight of the narrow stairs to the fourth-floor groping the walls in the darkness. The latticed windows give us a beautiful view of the grey-brown spires of the Chaturbhuj (Four-Armed) Temple built for Vishnu by Raja Madhukar Shah, husband of Ganesh Kunwar.

Chaturbhuj Temple seen from Jehangir Mahal
Chaturbhuj temple as seen from the fort

Chaturbhuj Temple was originally meant to house Raja Ram when he arrived in Ayodhya. But since the temple was still under construction when the queen returned with the deity, Raja Ram moved into the palace. On completion, the temple originally meant for him was dedicated to Vishnu. Daily worship is offered there to this day.

As we make our way through the complex, we meet 5-7 families and 2 langurs. Surprisingly, the complex is quiet.

Often, when visiting palaces and forts, I have found myself hearing different parts of the same narrative simultaneously because of the close proximity to other groups and guides. When I have stopped to take photographs, I have had to wait in queue for the Instagrammable corners, and then make way for others. It is an experience replicated across the world with Instagram squaring every nook and cranny. Orchha has not, I am relieved to say, keeled under the weight of the ‘Gram.

So, there are restaurants like Orchha Tarang, with plastic table covers, plastic chairs, steel utensils and a reasonably-priced fast food menu which covers everything from hash browns to veg manchurian. After exiting the fort, we take a window seat on this first-floor restaurant. The waiter doesn’t speak English. But he assures us, on being asked what’s good, “Ek baar aaoge toh dobara aaoge,” (If you eat here once, you’ll eat here twice). We order chholey bhature, poori bhaji and buttermilk. With the first bite we agree that his confidence is justified.

Across this street, which connects the fort complex with the Ramraja and Chaturbhuj temples, is a single-storey building with white walls – the local Municipal Office. While my friend and I are gushing about the architectural beauty, and how quiet the complex was, I remember the guide telling us about the Central Government’s grant to the State government for amping up tourism.

A sign.

As if on cue, a busload of tourists arrives with sunglasses and anti-pollution masks. My eyes chance on a tawny cow vivid against the white wall of the Office. Next to it is a painted sign in Hindi, “Orchha banega number 1” (Orchha will be number 1).

***

Next, for us, are the Royal Chhatris or Cenotaphs. They are to Orchha what the Opera House is to Sydney. A visual metonym. A defining landmark.

14 in number – these cenotaphs standing by the River Betwa are dedicated to the kings of the Bundela dynasty. As with the fort, the architecture on display here reflects a mix of the Rajput and Mughal elements. Each chhatri is dedicated to a king.

Sitting in the shade to escape the afternoon sun, my friend and I wonder – where are the queens? Why did no one think of building a cenotaph for the women who gave birth to the Orchha we know today?

Built as a reminder of death, the cenotaphs are now busy with life.

Parrots, mynas, and sparrows nest in the lattices, the arches, and the domes. We also spot vultures. A quick search on the internet tells us that these chhatris are home to an endangered vulture colony.

Vultures, in common culture, are a metaphor for the vulgar, the hypocritical, for those who might fly high but keep their sights on rotting flesh. In the Ramayana, however, the vulture brothers – Jatayu and Sampati offered a huge service to Ram. Jatayu heard Sita’s cries for help as she was being abducted by Ravana. In his rescue efforts, he received a fatal blow from the demon king. Later, Jatayu died in the arms of a compassionate Ram. Sampati showed Hanuman, who was leading a search party for Sita, the way Ravana had fled – pointing the way to Lanka. Perhaps it is owing to the service of their ancestors that these vultures now find shelter in Ram’s kingdom.

As the sun is setting, we hunt for a rickshaw that will take us back to where we are staying. There is no rickshaw rank in anticipation of tourists. So, we walk back to the main street and find one.

Monk in front of the Royal Chhatris of Orchha
Yellow-turbaned monk on the banks of the River Betwa

At the place where we’re staying the staff serve chicken curry on request. It is homely, delicious and just the thing on a cold winter night.

***

Orchha wasn’t expecting us just yet. But that will change.

I suspect that the number of shops selling pashmina, turquoise, Dokra handicrafts will rise. As will eateries with WiFi offering ventis, multigrain toasts, fruit bowls, and woodfired pizzas. There might, if the government is not cautious, come a time when the global tourism supply chain will choke this small town’s identity. As it has done to cities like Santorini, Angkor Vat, and Bali.

To avoid that fate, we will have to bring to Orchha an openness and an acceptance. A creed, like my friend’s, which can take in what this hidden gem has to offer, and know that this is what it is.

My friend and I visited Orchha in January 2020.

Why you must absolutely take a vacation | What to do when you can’t | 5 ideas for a staycation

Zen quote; inspirational quote; three monks
Photo by Nishant Aneja from Pexels. Graphic by desipostcards

It’s summer and if you haven’t been on a holiday already, you’re probably planning one. You’re thinking beach, hills or countryside. You’re craving for punctuation to the relentless run and complicated syntax of life. And that’s what vacations are. They’re like commas. Maybe like full-stops. What I’m saying is, done right, they help us to make sense of our narratives.

It means that, for most of us, holidays mean a pause or a turn. It could be a reckless adventure where we’re rafting, rappelling, racing. It could be a retreat where we’re breathing alternately through each nostril, listening to the river, and chanting at twilight.

Whatever our holidays look like, they have a meaning in, and impact on, our lives outside the Insta stories we can tell. Taking off from the humming drum of our daily routine is not a luxury but a necessity. Why? Because they’re opportunities to halt the stress cycle.

When we’re chilling, and in our element, our bodies produce lower amounts of cortisol. What’s cortisol? It’s biochemical stress. Why is it public enemy number 1? For the following reasons: it counteracts insulin, reduces bone and collagen formation, and slows the healing process.

So what happens when we fail to get out of the zone of stress? And our bodies continue to make cortisol like China does electronics. What happens when we fail to jump off the hamster wheels? According to Psychology Today, “Your sleep will suffer, you won’t digest your food as well, and even the genetic material in the cells of your body may start to become altered in a bad way. Mentally, not only do you become more irritable, depressed, and anxious, but your memory will become worse and you’ll make poorer decisions. You’ll also be less fun to be with, causing you to become more isolated, lonely, and depressed.”

Rishikesh, 2018: Magical sunrise

In fact, taking time off, whether to go on a pilgrimage or a party destination, a road trip or a resort chill, is so important that British researcher Scott McCabe of the University of Nottingham “recommends that families be given some form of financial assistance if they are unable to afford vacations on their own.”  These are some reasons why we absolutely must take vacations!

But sometimes a hamster’s got to wheel right? There are times when no matter how much we might need a break, we can’t have one.

Don’t worry. In that case the solution is to just plan a vacation. Mark calendar dates on the phone, think about the places to visit during the season, google hotels or search Airbnb, and scan property galleries, check AccuWeather, browse recommendations on things to do, and imagine yourself doing them. Maybe, being extra, we can also think outfits and add them to our online carts. Possibly even create a what to pack list.

You might think it would make one feel worse. All that FOMO. Quite the contrary, Science argues, vacation planning can channel amazingly positive emotions. Robert Kwortnik (Cornell University) and William Ross (Penn State) found that human beings start to feel amazing when they just plan experiences. And experimental psychologists Leaf Van Boven, from University of Colorado Boulder, and Laurence Ashworth from the Smith School of Business, asked undergraduates to rate their emotions as they pictured a ski vacation. The students reported feeling more intensely about the imagined vacation than the remembered one.  It’s called the ‘pre-trip high’ or the ‘rosy view’.

Also, this planning is way more fun when our imagined vacation is closely aligned to how we see ourselves. If you fancy yourself an adventurer, plan that ski vacation. If you’re an amateur historian, set yourself up to explore Mohenjo-Daro. If you’re a zen monk in the making, consider that Shoganji Zen retreat. The mind will swoosh right off that wheel, and out that cage.

One more thing to do pre-vacation (which should accurately describe our lives, either on vacation or about to be) is talk about it. According to a happiness researcher Prof. Elizabeth Dunn, an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, people bond more by talking about experiences than things. So, it is easier to connect with other people by talking about wanting to drive all the way to a shack in the hills for a sweet cup of milky tea than by flaunting the first-flush boxes bought from Darjeeling.

relaxation, chilling
( Experiences > Things – good rule for life)


Another option is to do a staycation. It might sound boring or pointless. But with staycations we can save money and travel time, and they’re easier to organise. That opens up the possibility of change. It works if we switch over from your daily routine and circadian rhythms, and do things we don’t get to do otherwise – like seeing a familiar city as a tourist or going swimming or marathon Netflix and chill (although moving about is recommended for that endorphin hum).

Here are 5 ideas for a staycation:

Staycation, 2018

  • Buy a slender volume of the history of your city. Go exploring major spots.
  • Take a picnic with friends and dog. (Dog attendance compulsory).
  • Spend time volunteering for a cause that delights you.
  • Check in to a hotel and spa your body, mind and soul.
  • Go for a heritage walk with a group of strangers. Arm yourself with snacks, shades, and camera.
  • So, yes get that vacation. Fire some new synapses in your brain, lower that cortisol, and breathe. If you can’t, don’t worry, plan a new trip. Or a staycation. And live the good life.

    Best of Pushkar: the small town and its tall tales | Offbeat Pushkar

    Pushkar is a small town but immensely popular with travelers. Is it the lake, Pushkar’s resorts, the Brahma temple, Pushkar’s famous holi or the camel fair? Let’s look at the true Pushkar experience.

    Pushkar Lake

    Shiva thunders the final syllables of the curse, and from Brahma’s trembling fingers, the blue lotus falls. Down it floats to a valley and rests where a lake forms. There Brahma follows, to live his remaining years among the forgetful.
    This is Pushkar.

    ***

    Pushkar Lake by day
    By daylight

    Once, there were mountains here. Tall and erect in the first flush of youth. Now, like old men, their spines weather-sawed, they squat and peer with dim eyes. They have seen.

    Temples and worship. Waves of destruction. One king raise what another had razed. Resilience they have seen and surrender too. But they hunch over the lake for one reason: to greet the gods and goddesses who gather every sunrise and sunset.

    ***

    Pushkar persists. Today it is a hipster’s paradise, a hippie’s den, an easy weekend-getaway, a speed-date with the desert, and Rajasthan’s very own rose-garden. It is also one of the very few places in the royal state not known for its forts.

    The lake, which is the centre of this circumstance, is rimmed by temples and restaurants. You can sit on the ghats, barefoot for an evening, and watch as sky and water change their colours in tandem; you can see the flock of ducks showboating; shirtless fire-eaters, girls with hula-hoops, waiters with call-centre accents, local women selling fish food, old couples with the faces of compromise, young ones smiling for their selfies, pandits who insist you cover your head before they give you prasad, families and friends chatting as they complete the parikramas.

    If you choose to have dinner at one of the lake side cafes, you will find dishes such as risotto, lasagna, and ratatouille vying for space with the predictable pizzas, pastas and parathas. It is all vegetarian. You will also have the Insta Yogi favourites: mango lassi, honey lemon ginger, and chai teas. The question is will you be adventurous enough to have a Rajasthani risotto? Or will you stick to the tested kachori? It will be a tough decision to make. However, if you journey all the way from Zaragoza to Pushkar only to order gazpachos, there is little justification other than a sense of humour. On the other hand, I tried something labelled coconut cream – it was grated coconut and water – inedible.

    Your success with dishes will vary from café to café. As will your success with understanding the waiter’s accent. And he will, naturally, attend to the diners who can reward him with a tip that’s bigger than the bill for your entire meal.

    Preferring foreign customers to locals is common across India but you cannot ignore it in Pushkar. The economics of it, I can easily understand, but the politics of it is harder to digest. Maybe Pushkar finds itself in the shadow of tourism hotspots like Jaipur and Udaipur and seeks to mirror them. Maybe it aspires to Varanasi. But is it a city of religion or resorts? Both, you might feel, without conviction.

    Local shopping in Pushkar
    An artisan making blocks for printing

    You see it in the shop selling Rajasthani staples: silver wares and jewellery, bound journals, leather bags and shoes, namkeens, pickles, marble statuettes, puppets, fabrics and so on. What is truly Pushkar’s is the desi gulaab. This rose is smaller and less sturdy than its English cousin. It has a lovely fragrance and is used in teas, jams, water and oils. But Pushkar, often lost in the shadows of its neighbours, sets little store by what is its own.

    What it touts instead are borrowings, and new age shops offering to kit you out for enlightenment. These are dingy little affairs, advertising crystal malas, rudraksha beads, chanting CDs, and chakra oils. If only monks would shop at Pushkar – enlightenment would cost them nothing more than a few thousand rupees and a couple of hours.

    ***

    However, there is Pushkar’s holi when the town transforms into a rave. There is, too, the camel fair – a calendar event for many a traveler. Pushkar knows to make way for plentiness, it knows how to yield inches of self for the other.

    ***

    Pushkar camel rides
    4 year old Rajesh, a sweet natured boy

    If you move away from its centre to the calm of resorts, you will find an Ananta, a Westin or a Taj Gateway. Experts in hospitality, they will offer you samplers with Udaipuri ghoomars and Jaisalmeri kalbeliyas, lal maans and camel cart rides.

    ***


    Still, Pushkar persists. Perhaps, as you thread its lanes, as you spend time on one of its spartan ghats, you will stumble across its ancient soul. Perhaps you will meet it disguised as an old man in white cotton, sitting by noon on a mile-marker, watching cars race by; or in the guise of a woman hurrying around the temples, urging the gods; perhaps, when the sun is setting and the lake is a blue-pink-gold shimmer, you will feel your heart bloom.

    That will be Pushkar.