Orchha (June 2008)

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2008-08-09

Hassath and I scraped a few days off from a busy month to visit Orchha with Ammu over a long weekend. We had a surprising and refreshing getaway that helped us to recover from the disappointment of having to cancel a visit to Munsiari in early June.

Update 2015-11-08: I started writing this in August 2008. Seven years later, I can no longer remember what happened on the rest of the trip well enough to complete the account, but I'm posting what I wrote back then.

Friday, June 20

We reached the railway station an hour early, and waiting for the train made me hungry. The New Delhi railway station has two entrances. We entered through the larger one near Ajmeri Gate, but found that our train would arrive at the platform adjacent to the Paharganj entrance, all the way over on the other side of the tracks. When we got there, we could see restaurants beginning to open across the road, so we went out to get breakfast.

We fought our way through a mob of auto and taxi drivers who thought we had just emerged from a train and wouldn't believe that we only wanted to cross the road; and then walked past a surprising number of "non-veg" restaurants that wouldn't serve us an omelette. We had a quick breakfast at the first place that was willing to make some anda-parantha.

When we returned to the station, the train was at the platform and was filling up slowly. Fortunately, we travel light (a small rucksack each), so we didn't need to fight for luggage space. The Bhopal Shatabdi is a fast train, and reaches Jhansi (the closest major railway station to Orchha) in just over five hours.

At Agra, a large and noisy troop of foreign tourists invaded our coach. They immediately started tramping up and down taking photographs. They didn't seem to know or care where their tickets were, or how many people were in the group; and they didn't speak English, all of which kept the poor ticket collector occupied for a while. I guessed that they were also going to Orchha but, to our relief, they got off at Gwalior instead.

A few minutes before we reached Jhansi, we saw the interesting-looking ruins of some old fort a few kilometres away from the railway line. We never did figure out what it was, but we'll make the time to visit it someday.

Jhansi

There is a huge display of fixed fares at the auto-rickshaw stand just outside the Jhansi railway station. The first ninety-odd entries are in Hindi, but someone has helpfully scrawled an English translation next to the one for Orchha. The somewhat-inflated charge of Rs. 225 is a reflection of where most of the arriving tourists want to go.

Orchha is about fifteen kilometres from Jhansi, and autos take less than an hour to cover that distance. We found one willing to take us almost as soon as we stepped out of the station. It was a pleasant, overcast day, and we ticked the distance off with each passing milestone.

Some four kilometres from Orchha, we saw a huge crowd blocking the road ahead. At first I thought there had been some accident, but our driver stopped and explained that the river was in flood after four days of heavy rain, and that the bridge ahead was submerged. Vehicles were being turned back on both banks, but we saw that a small number of people were holding hands to form a chain and walking across. The bridge (really just a concrete causeway) was only about knee-deep in water, so we decided to ford it and walk to Orchha.

(It did occur to us that—if it had been raining for four days—the auto driver knew perfectly well that the stream would be flooded. Perhaps he hoped to make an extra buck ferrying us back to Jhansi. He certainly was very surprised when we picked up our bags and started walking.)

We clung together and edged out onto the bridge. The water was shallow, but terrifyingly fast. Every time I took a step forward, my foot would land well to the left of where I had intended, and it took a real effort to counteract the force of the current and walk in a straight line along the edge of the bridge. Losing our footing could easily have been fatal: not only was there a sharp drop off the narrow bridge, the stream was full of (now mostly submerged) rocks. But there were some people standing on the bridge and helping others across by holding on to them and making sure they stepped in the right places. With their help, we managed to cross without too much trouble.

We emerged from the stream onto smooth, clean, freshly-laid tarmac. We carried on walking towards Orchha without even putting our shoes back on. A few vehicles loitered on the bank, hopeful of being able to cross the bridge, but one by one they turned back. Some of the vehicles were (by then very crowded) autos, which offered us a lift when they saw us on the road, but we waved them on and kept walking. (We had to put our shoes on later, when the road got muddy, but a singing Crested Bunting entertained us while we did.)

I wish we'd brought the tent, said Ammu, as we passed by a large, dried-up, broken-down old well. We could have pitched it here. At the bottom of a well… during a heavy monsoon? Sure, why not?

We didn't know where we would stay, but we were quite sure it wouldn't be at the bottom of a well. So we studied the increasingly frequent signboards along the way, and speculated about the relative merits of the hotels they advertised. A Hotel Ganpati seemed the closest and the least pretentious, and Hassath liked its name more than the others.

It was a fine day for a walk until it started raining. At first it was just a fine mist that we enjoyed while listening to the song of a pair of Common Ioras; later, it became a light drizzle that we ignored. It was only when the first fat drops of rain fell on us, and we realised that only one out of our three rucksacks had a rain cover, that we started to look for shelter.

At first we stood under the eaves of a little shed (whose owner very kindly invited us in) until the rain receded to a drizzle. We set off again towards Orchha, now only a kilometre or so away. But the brief respite soon ended, and we only just made it to a sheltered roundabout outside the town before the downpour began in earnest. We had resigned ourselves to a long wait when a passing auto screeched to a halt.

Which hotel do you want to go to?, they asked, and Hotel Ganpati was the only one I could remember. So that's where they took us in the pouring rain, and that's where we stayed.

Orchha

The Hotel Ganpati was a long, narrow hotel at the end of an alley that didn't smell particularly good. It had rooms on either side of a small open courtyard in the centre of the building, and the walls displayed gigantic and ghastly examples of faux Betwa art. The courtyard looked out over the walls of the Orchha fort to the East. A sleepy boy emerged (from a room which turned out to be a makeshift kitchen) and showed us around. The second room ("deluxe non-AC", 600/night) had a cleaner bathroom, so we took it, and started to dry ourselves and our luggage.

By this time, the manager had arrived. Both Hassath and I thought he was a South Indian (but he probably wasn't, judging by the visiting card he later gave us); and he thought we were foreigners until we spoke to him in Hindi. We learned that the hotel could give us tea, but they weren't equipped to feed anyone, and recommended one of the restaurants nearby for our long-delayed lunch.

We gave up on the tea after several minutes, when the rain had died down to a light drizzle, and walked down the road to the Open Sky restaurant, thus named because it has the option of sitting on the terrace. The menu was varied and extensive (featuring Korean and Israeli items), but the place was deserted. We asked the proprietor what we could have quickly, and he said, grandly, Whatever you want! Nevertheless, we ordered conservatively: rotis, dal and aloo-gobhi. Apparently the aloo-gobhi wasn't something we should want just then, so our host suggested we order mattar-paneer instead. Fine.

When it finally arrived, after a long wait, lunch was a complete disaster.

It takes genius to spoil a plain dal so thoroughly, but the chef had inspiration enough to spare on the mattar-paneer, which consisted of hard green lumps in a bright yellow gravy (and if that combination sounds toxic to you, you have the right idea). This was the first meal I could remember in a long time where hunger did nothing to make the food taste better, and I couldn't even attempt to finish what we had ordered.

The proprietor appeared, and asked us what we thought of the food. The floods had apparently kept his usual cook away, and he proudly informed us that his daughter had done the cooking that day. Perhaps the food was the daughter's way to protest being asked to cook. We did our best to sabotage that plan by nodding and smiling politely.

Orchha is a long thin town on the banks of the Betwa river. Through its centre passes the road from Jhansi to Tikamgarh: the road by which we had arrived from the North, and which we continued to follow Southwards after we escaped from lunch.

We passed the town post office (with its sole employee), some shops, and a temple on the way to the crossroads at the centre of town. The road to our left led to the main fort and palace complex. Ahead of us was the river. But most importantly, right at the crossroads, was a small restaurant where we were able to have a second lunch.

The Orchha fort was built in the early sixteenth century on a teardrop-shaped island on the Betwa. We crossed the bridge to the fort after lunch (which we were able to finish). A sizeable canal must have once flowed under the bridge, but the river had had the best part of the past five hundred years to change its course, and what remained wouldn't qualify even as a moat.

Inside the massive door of the fort was a stern warning against entering without tickets, but the ticket counter was closed and locked, and there was nobody else in sight. We walked down to the river instead, on a path that was inside the battlements of the fort, and explored a number of unmarked ruins on the way.

On the way back, my shoe started coming apart. The same thing had happened while I was walking along a dry river bed at the Berwala sanctuary the year before. On that occasion, I had to tear off the rubber soles and hobble a couple of kilometres back to the car on the soft insoles. A mochi in the Kasauli bazaar glued the soles back on, and I'd forgotten about them. The glue must have disagreed with my wading through puddles.

As I hopped awkwardly, trying to keep from falling over the fast-peeling sole of my shoe, a pair of cuckoos flew overhead, sleek and Hawk-like with their cleanly-barred white undersides. We had heard their call—the oft-repeated "cuck...ooo" that inspired their name—at the river, but it was a surprise to see them at such close quarters. It took me a lot of hard work to get a look at the species in the forests near Munsiari two summers earlier. (Its cousin, the Oriental Cuckoo, was even more shy, and I never did get a look at the Indian Cuckoo that called all through the afternoon from the bottom of the garden.)

I happened to look back while crossing the bridge, just as the huge, square-ended silhouette of a Long-Billed Vulture (Gyps indicus) floated silently into view over the ramparts. My sole was a small price to pay for a look at this bird, one of the very few remaining of its critically endangered kind. We saw many more over the next couple of days, perched atop temple domes, blending into the mottled grey stonework; or soaring in lazy effortless circles over the river. In Orchha, if you didn't know any better, you could imagine vultures were still as common as when I once took them for granted as a child.

But I had no other footwear at all, and the prospect of waiting out the remainder of the weekend in the dank hotel room was so depressing that I walked right past a small shoe shop right after the bridge. Hassath, not distracted by scavengers and gloom, saw it and stopped me. The shoemaker (and cobbler) didn't think much of trying to glue the sole back onto the now-sodden lining. I tried to convince him to stitch them back on, since the shoes were ruined anyway, and stitching would be faster than drying and then gluing the soles.

Ammu had been looking at the shoes hung up on the wall: everything from rubber chappals (bathroom slippers) to gumboots. She asked me to try on a few, and I had nothing better to do while my shoes were being fixed. My feet stuck halfway out of the biggest pair of leather sandals, wouldn't fit into the boots, and so on; but they slipped right into an ugly pair of square-toed brown leather shoes.

It was so unexpected that I had the shoe halfway off my foot before I realised that my foot had actually fit inside. I put them back on, got up and walked a few steps. They were hideously uncomfortable, to match their appearance. One had a pasted-over ridge across the middle of the insole, and they were both a little too wide to hold my feet securely. But they were there, and I could put my feet inside them, and I could buy them for INR650. If only all decisions were so easy to make. (The oversized pair had been commissioned by a foreign tourist for his oversized son. I might have done him a favour by swiping them.)

My feet once more shod, I could leave my old shoes to dry and continue walking—well, hobbling—down the main street.

[2015-11-08: That's where I stopped writing seven years ago. This was just the start of our weekend—we rented bicycles, rode down to the flooded river and around town (yelling at people and cows to get out of the way, because the bicycles had no bells), had dinner at the palace restaurant, visited the Orchha sanctuary, encountered snooty waiters, and had all sorts of other adventures. We eventually took an auto back to Jhansi on Sunday afternoon.]

Jhansi again

The Jhansi railway station was full of House Swifts.

We made our way to the "air conditioned" waiting room, where none of the five air conditioners could be switched on. There was a strange smell in the room, and a small mouse was running around under the chairs. Someone walked into the toilet and the whiff from the opened door served a clear warning to stay away. Someone came in, switched on a television, and then went away. Another person asked us something about train schedules, and then said, You look like you're from Africa.

Waiting for the train made me hungry, of course. Leaving Hassath with the luggage and her book, Ammu and I set off to find something to eat. Outside, in the corridors, the Swifts flew around everywhere, impossibly fast, chittering loudly, ducking and weaving through the arches of the colonial-style building. Many of them passed within touching distance as they chased insects or swooped up to the rafters where they were nesting. It's hard to get a good look at a Swift, so we revelled in the opportunity while eating fresh poori-aloo.