Saturday, 29 May 2010

Orchha, soon to be unveiled

I was invited to a workshop at Orchha, Bundelkhand in the middle of this summer.  The logistics of travel from Hyderabad were rather de-motivating - fly to Delhi and then travel back several hours to reach Jhansi in the middle of the night or waste a full day of work to travel by train from Hyderabad!  “Aah this is not going to work out,” I thought and my secy, sensing the reluctance, kept the tickets on hold till the last hour. 

But Orchha was tantalizing – tales of valour of the Bundela rulers, Jhansi ki Rani, the magical Chandela palaces…  I decided to go for it with two wait-listed tickets for DelhiJhansi in hand.  Reached Delhi by an evening flight, after a full day of work and luckily got a confirmed seat on the Delhi – Bangalore Rajdhani which had Jhansi as its first stop at 1 in the night!  Managed to catch some sleep despite the cantankerous co-travelers.  Why is it that people in slow trains traveling by sleeper classes are a happy and merry lot and those in super fast a/c trains and coaches always grumpy and complaining? 

We reached Jhansi a bit late, at 1.40 am. As always no one in the family knew I was traveling alone and would end up in the land of dacoits in the middle of the night.  My secy had researched Jhansi and told me it was a Maoist infested area too – I didn’t believe that one.  But happily a large and robust jeep and driver were waiting for me.  We drove through the quiet streets of Jhansi and were soon on a narrow state highway, running through the rather sparse forest of the region.

Bundelkhand is at the cusp of two states – UP and MP and there is a long pending demand for the region to be formed into a separate state.  At some point, which I did not register, we crossed the border to enter MP.  The drive was meant to take only 20 minutes but I felt was longer.  “Am I being taken to the famous Maoist hideouts”, I wondered idly.   But the milestones rather morosely said we were nearing the famous Orchha. 

It seemed like a regular village with narrow roads and tightly packed houses opening onto the streets.  But for a welcome arch, most of the houses appeared `modern’ – small concrete structures that mark prosperity and new money in most villages.  A sharp turn to the right and we seemed to have reached the resort zone.  It was about 2.30 am by now. 

As we cruised into a sprawling resort I saw an amazingly beautiful structure gleaming in the moonlight.  It was at least 3 storeys high, with graceful arched roofs, lovingly plastered and hand-polished with lime centuries ago. The dark patches left by the passage of time, such as on the roofs, only highlighted the beauty of the architecture and like the laugh lines on a beloved face, emphasized the pearly, glowing finish elsewhere. I stood mesmerized for long minutes while the driver fidgeted and the hotel staff took away my luggage.  `What is this?’ I asked.  And the driver nonchalantly said, “Just one of the forts of Orchha madam, now please sign here”.  Thus firmly brought back to earth, I dragged myself to my room which could have been anywhere in India – from the Heritage village in Gurgaon to dear old Alankrita in Hyderabad

Next morning I had time to walk to the river Betwa, spanned by a lovely old bridge and thence straight into the forest.  It was populated by an amazing assortment of birds and the usual bunch of hyper active rhesus monkeys.  My day was made by the bird songs alone but it still held other pleasures – the Ram temple, Jahangir Mahal, several chatris by the river side and so much beauty just beyond the roofs of the concrete houses that line the roads. 

I was there for a workshop so of course had no time to explore any of these structures but I promised myself I would be back, with family and more time, as I had done to several lovely places discovered through work related travel. 

But Orchha is truly special, seeing it unveiled at 2 am has started a new romance.  That moment will be with me forever, to be savored when surrounded by the ugliness often produced by modern architecture.

Orchha will be on the big screen soon, a soon-to-be-released Maniratnam film,  `Ravaan’, has been extensively shot there.  Not sure if this is good news or bad for Orchha (deluge of honeymooner with nifty cameras and loud cars?), but the experience was great for the local people, many of whom got bit roles in the film and Rs. 500 per day!  Reminds me of the dacoit of Octopussy I met in a village near Udaipur, but that’s a story for another day.


Rupa Mukerji
May 2010

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