Orchha: Straight Out of the Cinema, An Oasis of Crumbling Stone

Orchha’s Lakshmi temple, recently made famous by the lush stylings of Mani Ratnam and tepid acting of Aishwarya and Abhishek Bachchan in Ravaan, sits on a hill some distance from town. In the film, the outlaw Beera’s sister is to be married there, but the marriage is broken up by brutal security forces out to catch him. The movie doesn’t show the murals of Krishna dancing with his thousands of gopis that adorn the ceiling of the first floor, but the well-preserved, graceful pavilions on the roof set the scene for her tragedy.

While poor Jamuni could not be saved, it seems Orchha is destined to remain intact throughout the ages. Orchha translates to “hidden place” and even in the wake of a Bollywood spotlight it continues to live up to its namesake.

The former princely state of Orchha, the seat of the Bundela Rajput’s power, is everything that most of Central India is not: Green, unpolluted, calm, quiet, friendly and generally non-aggressive. In a stunning figure for just about anywhere in India that can be reached by a proper road, the village has only 5,000 people. After the press of Jhansi, which is only 18 kms away, Orchha appears like a dream emerging from the low jungle

I’ve traveled there twice already, once in 2004 and once in 2010. In 2010 I noticed a few more businesses on the approach to the central part of town, but on the whole it did not show much change. The main square still holds a host of sadhus singing bhajans, the chattris (tombs of the rulers) are still slowly crumbling into the river Betwa, and the air is still clean and sweet.

Like most of North and Central India, its hot in the summer and cold in the winter, though the summer is slightly more forgiving due to the lush jungle and lack of concrete heat islands. I suggest going off of tourist season to really experience the place as it should be: cheap, laid back and uncrowded.

The palace complex built on a seasonal island in the rocky river, and a room built as a guesthouse for visiting nobility now holds the Maharaja’s suite which can be had for just Rs. 4,999 (and the successful navigation of the labyrinthine MP Tourism website). Its has two tiers of slender, scalloped archways looking out onto the river, ruins and village. One has the urge to book the entire palace to throw a lavish party in the old style.

The fanned outdoor dining area is perfect for room service, and the bathroom boasts the maharaja’s own silver-plated mirror, marble bath tub. A view from the toilet, precariously perched on a jutting turret, that is quite possibly the best of the entire building. A cheaper option, also from MP Tourism, is the Betwa Cottages, a sprawling garden complex of small, independent bungalows with walls decorated with traditional paintings.

Anyone who’s traveled the Northern part India has likely been to a sound and light show at some decaying palace or another. Stained, toppled, decayed, these pockmarked beauties are tarted up with spotlights and purple gels and made to scream battle cries and nauch girl songs into the night. It’s usually sufficient to entertain the very young, but I always found myself falling asleep.

The good news is that the Tourism Ministry has finally gotten a hang of how to make these things.  The Orchha show was completed only earlier this year, and the improved scripts and voice actors really showed results. In the off season when I arrived with a friend, it was just about 50 yards away from the palace hotel. We were the only viewers that night. We convinced the restaurant to let us take down a bottle of chilled wine. So there we sat on plastic lawn chairs in the middle of the palace complex, staring at the stars and listening to the tales of betrayal and romance. One of Orchha’s rajas suspected his brother of having an improper relationship with his wife and had him poisoned. He is now worshiped in the area as an innocent and blameless martyr. He was poisoned by a cup of wine, which gave me a pause the next time I raised my glass, but, dear reader, it was only a moment.

The two palaces and the myriad of ancillary buildings on the island will take nearly a whole day to see properly. In the Raj Mandir is the original palace, which still has some mirror work and paintings to see. The Jahangir Mahal, built by the Hindu ruler specifically for the visit of his friend and emperor, Jahangir, has excellent view of both the river and the town from its parapets. Another gem is the Chaturbhuj Mandir just across from the river from the palace, whose off-the-wall architecture evokes the cathedrals of Europe. The Bundelas knew what they were doing when the create Orchha – after all, they are the same people that brought you Khajuraho.

I am always reminded of my 2004 visit here with my husband. Shy children worked up the courage to invite us into their homes for tea. The well-kept, white washed village reminded me a bit of my hometown of Ferndale, CA, another tourist destination somewhat frozen in time. The rural warmth in both places is real, though its important to note that tourism dollars play a large role in both economies. In Ferndale, that means higher prices at restaurants and shops. In Orchha, the passage of time has led the children to ask for money and pens, just like in the rest of India. However, a calm “no” and a smile are usually enough to send them away.

A couple village kids are sure to follow you down to the banks of the river, and then use the opportunity to show off their diving skills. The river itself is stunning, dotted with rounded, rocky prominences that pool the blue green water. A narrow bridge leads to a wilderness preserve on the other side, and a walk to the other side is the best way to view the Chhattris. Walking inside of them is also fun, but female travelers should take a guide or a few companions, as the area is quite isolated. My firangi friend and I had an unpleasant encounter with a bus load of slightly drunk Indian tourists that did not urge us to explore the grounds further.

I hope Orchha can avoid the creeping population growth and stay what is, a true oasis that’s just a hop from Gwalior and a jump from Agra. For my next visit, I’d like to come when its cool, bring a sturdy pair of boots and go hiking through the jungle out there. Looking out from the top of the palaces, one can see that the landscape far beyond the boundary wall is dotted with tiny temples covered in vegetation, small outlying forts and other bits of historical flotsam. With even more movie sets to discover (for a thriller, or treasure hunt, of course) I am thinking I should bring a script with me as well.

By Erica Lee Nelson