Flying Lizards

Trip Start Mar 06, 2005
Trip End ??? ??, 2006

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Friday, June 10, 2005

Orcha June 10th - 11th

Orchha lies about 150 km from khajuraho in the Tikamgarh district of Madhya Pradesh close to the border with Uttar Pradesh. This small village sits on the banks of the placid river Betwa surrounded by shrub forest which allows the palaces and temples situated here to dominate the skyline.
The village is a very tranquil place and has a superbly relaxing atmosphere. Wherever you look you are treated to views containing temple spires,parapets, grand kiosks and lofty towers. This is a naturally beautiful location and during our stay we spotted Jackal, Monkeys, wild pig, 'blue' bulls, and peacocks roaming in and around the town.
We were immediately smitten, so decided to stay for two nights in a basic but friendly guest house near the village centre.

Orchha meaning "Hidden Place" was founded in 1531 and was the capital of the Rajput Kingdom for over 250 years. Its former importance explains the fantastic examples of Bundela arcitechture that dominate the town. The largest of these is the Jehangir Mahal palace built on a small fortified island reached by crossing a crenelated bridge over a broad and (normally) deep section of the river. This imposing entrance leads you to a fantastic palace complex which proved to be one of our 'surprise' finds in India. It doesnt have the reputation of other more 'touristy' destinations, groups usually whizz through in an hour or so. In our opinion it deserves greater attention, and even a little exploration is well rewarded.

The main 'royal' residence (there are two) situated on the island is an architypal Indian palace, evoking images of Emperors, Kings and Maharajas. The complex construction of passageways, balconies, winding stairways and cool secluded rooftop rooms overlooking the surrounding countryside took us several hours to wander around. I took more photos here than almost any other place in India. There is only the skeleton of a building left most of the interior decoration has long since disappeared, crumbled or simply faded away, but this faded granduer adds to its unboubted charm. We spent several hours exploring the palace ocasionally just sitting (in a shady spot) and marvelling at our surroundings. The highest points of the Palace are domed roofs at each corner and these served as perches to several huge vultures who would soar over the inner courtyard throwing black shadows across its floor. They could be seen from the village some distance away, circling the domes and floating on the rising thermals across the palace complex.

The views from the rooftop rooms and walkways are spectacular offering grand vistas of the river snaking its way through the countryside. Outlying buildings, dotted far into the distance hint at the true extent of the former capitals glory.
To the rear of the Palace lies a great wooden doorway elaborately decorated with elephant statues and carvings it leads to a paved platform which overlooks the 'camel house' a building with suitably tall doorways which used to house the 'royal' camel stable.
We were given an 'unofficial' tour of the main building and the cellars below (now home to hoards of bats) by one of the palace attendants ...for the usual 'backhander' of course.
Part of the main palace complex is still in use as a hotel and we ate here several times, the rooms available are relatively expensive but are 'original' palace rooms with thick walls, window seats and vaulted ceilings.

The second palace 'Raj mahal' (adjacent) is in poor condition and is less ornate in arcitechtural style but has some fine (but faded) murals, and we felt it only warranted a brief visit.

In the afternoon, after lunch at a 'street cafe' (one of the few in Orchha that we were prepared to use) Jane began to suffer in the heat, so she retired to our room leaving me to visit the former royal temple alone. This was another great building (very photogenic) and I toured round it followed by a group of village children who had 'attached' themselves to me.

That night (very hot and humid) we ventured out to see the main Ram Raja temple. This temple is a place of pilgrimage for hindus, bus loads arrived throughout our stay.
We approached it through a large archway at the end of a narrow street, which was lined with stalls selling 'readymade offerings' for the devotees to place in the temple. The large courtyard infront of the temple was 'littered' with hundreds of bodies, worshippers resting on grass mats, eating, sleeping, meditating or just chatting to oneanother. There was hardly room to walk, we had to pick our way through using the odd spaces between people to stand and survey the scene.
Chanting was coming from within the temple, broken occasionally by the tolling of a large bell. A couple of stout trees and a few stalls lining the outer edge of the courtyard where illuminated by tiny white 'fairy lights'. The only other light came from inside the temple itself shining out of the main doorway, a soft yellow, they blended together creating a dim halflight, through which we could see sadhus prostrated on the ground in prayer, close to the walls of the temple. It was like a scene from an epic movie... the architypal Hindu religious gathering...wonderfully atmospheric!

The following morning we visted the town of Jhansi (16 km away) the site of a large fort (yet another one) where the British contingent were massacred during the Indian uprising of 1857. The fort built in 1613, was rather disappointing after all the previous ones we had seen, apart from the entertaining half an hour we spent watching the staff trying to catch a monkey which was running amok after 'attacking' some visitors. They chased it with long poles trying to dislodge it from an archway in which it had 'holed up', and from where it screeched at them bearing its teeth in defiance.
The hilltop location afforded us good views of the town and at least there was a cooling breeze blowing across the ramparts which offered us temporary relief from the otherwise stiffling heat.

On returning to Orchha we walked around the town and wandered along some of the dusty outlying roads through small groups of houses and the crumbling remnants of the former 'royal capital'. We were greeted with curiosity as people came out of their houses to watch us pass and were soon surrounded by the everpresent group of children wanting to 'touch us' or trying to hold our hand.
Taking any more photos became impossible so we returned to the town just to soak up the relaxing atmosphere and have a cup of 'Chai'(Indian tea) which had rapidly become my favourite drink. Its a 'spiced' tea with 20 spoons (estimated) of sugar in it, served piping hot in a small earthenware cup and its delicious!! It helped to lubricate a dry and dusty throat..Infact the whole town was covered in a powdery dust, not unlike cement dust, which would 'kick up' at the slightest provocation, be it a passing cow, bus, or the act of simply walking along a street would create a cloud of the stuff, which of course would then stick to your sweaty flesh like the proverbial 'crap to an army blanket'. Everytime we showered we left a pile of 'silt' in the bath which had attached itself to us during the day.

After one such shower, as we readied ourselves to leave Orchha that night, Jane spotted a huge (nay massive) lizard darting across the floor of our room and disappearing amongst our clothes and open rucksacs, which were laying under a nearby table. Jane, almost in tears with fright, insisted that I "hunt it down" as she didn't want it getting into her bag.
So I (completely naked) started to gingerly rummage amongst our luggage in an attempt to 'flush' it out. Then suddenly Jane screammed, "its above you on the table". I felt something drop onto my back, I shot bolt upright and lept about the room (in the style of Michael Flattley doing the river dance) my arms flailing behind me to try and dislodge it!. It was then that I noticed Jane was doubled over CRYING WITH LAUGHTER!
The beast that had pounced on me was infact one of Janes 'flip flops' which she had dropped onto my back at the moment she had started to scream.
Oh how I laughed at her little joke, (NOT!). If I had of been wearing any pants I would have certainly soiled them! (the very mention of this, my heroic 'lizard episode' STILL reduces Jane to fits of laughter). I however choose to ignore it as amoment of 'weakness' rather than 'girly cowardice'.

We were to leave Orchha that night, our driving tour of India had finally ended, and we had to say 'goodbye' to Happy our companion and driver for the last three weeks. After swapping details and lots of hugs accompanied by his 'mantra' of "Oh my God" we parted company he heading back to Delhi and we to Jhansi station for the overnight train to Varanassi.

The three weeks had been incredible,we had seen far more than we would have been able to under our 'own steam' but at the cost of having to follow a semi rigid itinerary. Overall the trade off had definitely been worth it! We were pleased to be 'on our own' again and excited by the prospect of truly Independant travel ...starting with Varanassi the site of the sacred bathing Ghats and funeral pyres of the Ganges.
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