Between the Betwa and the Jamnia Rivers in Madhya Pradesh, is a small strip of land called Orchha, or the ‘Hidden Place’. Legend has it that the Bundela chief Rudra Pratap Singh set off in search of a new capital, and discovered this ideal place hidden from the eyes of outsiders in 1501. He built the Orchha fort, from the top of which you can still see the remains of the old city and its walls.
The fort is well worth the climb. (I always wonder at the steepness of the stairs in these old forts. Surely people were not taller then than we are now? Probably just way more fit and agile.) Just avoid the edges of broken balconies and windows, and you will be rewarded with stunning views of ruins rising out of the forest.
Walking through the narrow streets of the old town, I was transported back to the sixteenth century. It’s not just the ubiquitous ruins – forts, temples and cenotaphs built to honor the Bundela Kings – but the people themselves, their occupations and dwellings. Small whitewashed houses with decorated wooden doors. Cobblers, blacksmiths, flower and sweet sellers, cowherds.
And mixed with the old, the presence of the new. A cacophony of autorickshaws, bikes and buses crossing the narrow bridge over the Betwa River. A computer shop between two shops selling sweets. A ‘hospital’, consisting of a single, tiny room. Foreign tourists, taking photographs of the poor people waiting for alms outside the Raj Mandir. Without, of course, asking for permission. Would they take photographs of people in their own countries without taking permission? Of course not. But they travel to a developing country, and the rules change. People, especially poor people, become part of the landscape. Poverty is something to be photographed. Been there, seen that.
There’s plenty to see apart from poverty, if you have the eyes for it. People are quiet and helpful, devout and hard working. Orchha hums with activity, whether it is near the temple or the bridge, or in the alleys that wind up to the old fort. On our second day, we inveigled an autorickshaw driver into taking us 35 km away, across the Betwa and the Jamnia bridges, through a forest sanctuary, and up the hill to a medieval temple dedicated to Achru Mata.
Achru Mata, as near as I can divine, is the Mother Goddess Durga. The temple is famous because of an underground spring that keeps the inner sanctum supplied with holy water. I bought a coconut to offer the Goddess, and, leaving both my twenty first century rationality and my shoes outside, entered the temple. At the main shrine, the priest smashed the coconut open and offered me holy water. I sat on the steps outside the main shrine, eating bits of coconut and shooing away dogs.
There are a number of minor shrines at the Achru Mata temple – to Ganesh, to the Mother Goddess, and to Shiva. I noticed that people left bits of sweets and coconut at these shrines, which the dogs then promptly ate. At first this bewildered me. Unlike cows and monkeys, dogs are not considered sacred in India. So why were they a) allowed in the temple and b) allowed to eat the offerings, even licking the statues of gods and goddesses? Why such indifference?
Then I realized that the answer lay not in indifference, but in tolerance, as in – if God does not mind it, then why should we? Dogs are God’s creatures as much as we are. They are probably fulfilling an important role in the ecosystem of the temple, keeping it clean and free of scavengers. There is even a temple in Rajasthan called Karni Mata Temple that is home to 20,000 rats. Yep, rats. Holy rats. Who am I to question all this?
I digress. Orchha is beautiful and a must-visit for those who want to go off the beaten path. Take the train from Delhi to Jhansi and you can get a car or autorickshaw to Orchha, 15 km away. Do not make the mistake I made of trying to stop in chaotic Jhansi to visit the ruined Jhansi fort – which was also built by a Bundela king, but is in a state of complete neglect, and is infested by aggressive packs of monkeys who can spot the bright wrapper of an unopened biscuit packet a mile away. (You can guess what happened to me and my biscuit packet).
Why the difference between the two towns? Easy. Orchha is in Madhya Pradesh, where there is some effort at conservation, and Jhansi is in Uttar Pradesh – they are two utterly different states. M.P. is worth visiting – U.P. is not. And I am allowed to say this because I belong to one state, and was born in the other.
I spent new year’s eve on the Taj Express train back to Delhi. There is nothing ‘Express’ about the train – it was four hours late. On the plus side, vendors selling tea and snacks made regular appearances. I love Indian trains, despite the state of the bathrooms and the endless delays. I never panic, as I do on planes at the slightest turbulence. Indian trains get you there – eventually. You can look out of the window into a different reality from yours, and understand – a little, perhaps – how rural India lives.