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.