Only a town like Orchha could make up for a train delayed by five hours in the fog. Just like Anupriya and Diana a year back, we reached Jhansi in the late afternoon, instead of the scheduled 10:30, and took an auto to Orchha. A smooth ride through sarson fields, small villages and suicidal goats running about on the road.
The Orchha skyline is full of domes and chhattris from the Bundela dynasty: Jahangir Mahal, Ram Raja Mahal, Chaturbhuj temple and the haunting row of royal chhattris by the river. From our hotel, which was to the north of the town on an incline, we could see the whole town bathed in evening light. Living amidst these medieval edifices are the warm and friendly Orchha locals in their pretty white houses, entrepreneurs from other cities and the floating population of tourists.
There are more tourists in Orchha than one would expect, but it is still an ignorable number. With the tourists come amenities that one wouldn’t associate with such a small town. Restaurants all over the place, lavish hotels and dingy inns and even cycles on hire. There are innumerable holy men, and an equal number of foreign cameras lapping up the exoticism.
After checking in, we left for the chhattris on the riverside immediately. It was already getting dark, but we discovered a short cut from our hotel. Sitting on the plinth of Bir Singh Deo’s chhattri, we watched the light get dimmer, and listened to the sounds of the river. The chhattris we would see again and again throughout the trip, from all possible sides, at different times of the day, every time acquiring a different sort of beauty.
The most endearing part of Orchha, for us, was the river. Except where the main road crosses over the river to the Orchha Forest Reserve, the water is clean, and there are almost no signs of human damage in the waters. Our best moments were trekking by the river, both upstream and downstream. About a kilometre upstream, we discovered a sangam of three rivers, each cascading over rocks to form the Betwa. There were places where there were natural rock pools where one could go swimming, and never any need to carry a water bottle though we trekked through the sunny afternoons, because the water was delicious. There were no people around at all.
Downstream, we trekked along the Forest Reserve, where we even saw a fox coming down to drink water. Every now and then we’d see the remains of a fire, still smoking, but no other signs of people. Orchha is full of wandering sadhus, the invisible lighters of the fires. Finally we met one sitting on the banks. Did he know if we could cross the river upstream? It looked very inviting on the opposite bank. Were there any wild animals about? He was vague and said maybe we could cross the river if we continued walking a little more. But could we give him a little money?
As we walked further, there were no more forest fires. No signs of people at all. But suddenly we saw the ruins of a short fort wall. Then before long, our walk came to an end. The river had become wider, and joined another river, another sangam. We could jump from little islands of rock to a point where we were surrounded by water on all sides. I discovered later (on google maps), that all the joining streams were actually part of the Betwa.
I enjoyed cycling around the town. We even took our cycles into the Jahangir Mahal complex and cycled around the surrounding ruins (see the Orchha Travel Guide, pg 14 for a map). Orchha, which according to many, literally means hidden, has many secluded, scattered monuments built by the valiant Bundelas. The Bundela king Rudra Pratap chose Orchhabecause it was surrounded by impregnable jungles and provided for by the river and made an ideal capital. Until 1783 it remained the capital of the Bundelkhand region and flourished under the succeeding kings.
Here are some photographs from our cycle trips: