As exciting as my days within Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra were, I was more than happy to escape the frenetic energy of the city for far quieter surroundings. Enter Orchha, a tiny town in Madhya Pradesh with a population of only ten thousand. Compared to the Golden Triangle, Orchha was a completely different world that seemed like it was still enshrined in the past and unspoiled by modernity. For the first time since entering the Subcontinent, my ears weren’t ringing from the constant beeping of horns and I could cross the street without fearing for my life. It was an entirely different world.
To get to Orchha, the easiest way is to take a train to Jhansi; from there, it’s about 40 minutes by tuk-tuk or twenty minutes by car to Orchha. The only glimpses of Jhansi that we got were from the back of our tuk-tuk, but what I learned of its history – particularly of its most famous queen, Rani Lakshmibai – I loved. Rani was, in no uncertain terms, a BAMF. For her time, she was an incredibly independent and well-educated woman, skilled in horsemanship, archery, and self-defense. She’s considered one of the most important figures of the Indian resistance against Britain in the 19th century; in the Indian National Armly, a women’s unit was even named after her. It seemed she was pretty stubborn: Rani insisted on leading her forces into battle against the Brits with her toddler son tied to her back, which makes her both a pretty legendary figure and a contender for Worst Mother of the Year award.
For such a small town whose primary source of income is farming, Orchha has an architectural presence incomparable to most other places I’ve been. Palaces, cenotaphs, and temples rise above the banks of the Betwa River, and on early mornings, when the town is quiet and the sun is only beginning to burn through the fog over the river banks, it’s hard to tell if you’re in the 21st century or the 18th.
Orchha is definitely a place to relax and just wander along the main town street. There aren’t too many exciting activities to partake in, but that’s a welcome contrast to the insanity of the big cities. If you’re an architecture enthusiast in particular, you’ll love Orchha. It’s difficult to pick to the most prominent, striking structure in the town, because there are multiple contenders.
The largest is definitely the fort complex, which consists of several buildings. You’ve got Raj Mahal, Jehangir Mahal, and Rai Parveen Mahal, all of which transport you back to the past with their crumbling sandstone walls and stately balconies. From the outside, the fort looks faded and monochromatic, but once you get inside, hidden corners plastered with murals still burst with colors.
Recently there’s been a lot of talk about restoring the palace to its former glory, but I think I prefer it the way it is now: weather worn and showing its years. The fact that it’s stood up so well against the test of time only goes to show how iconic the palace really is. Embalming it in the past – and in a fake cocoon of modernity, no less – takes away from the ways it’s changed, I think.
Walk five minutes down the street from the palace complex, and you’ll hit the pink- and ochre-tiled courtyard in front of the Ram Raja temple. Every evening, you have the opportunity to attend the evening aarti, or Hindu prayer service, and I’m so glad that we took advantage of that. I’m not a religious person, but it’s still easy to appreciate the simple spirituality of services like this. The calming drones of the chants, hazy smell of incense, and flickering candlelight are beautiful no matter what gods you believe in.
As its name suggests, the temple pays honor to the deity Ram, but interestingly enough, it wasn’t originally supposed to house the god idols. That honor belonged to the Chaturbhuj Temple, which is literally right next door. Legend says that after Chaturbhuj was constructed, the idols were attempted to be placed inside, but wouldn’t budge from their place on the ground. A second temple was built around the stubborn idols, and that became Ram Raja.
As beautiful and impressive as those structures were, my favorites were definitely the cenotaphs that overlooked the river at the south of the town. Cenotaphs are memorials built to commemorate those who are buried elsewhere, especially if they died during war. Orchha has thirteen cenotaphs; for me, half of their appeal came from the buildings themselves, half from the views they provided of the Betwa River. In my book, any high place that gets me a good view is automatically a winner, and the cenotaphs fit that bill perfectly.
India in general is a vegetarian heaven, but Orchha takes that a step further: the entire town refrains from eating meat. I don’t think that this is a hard and fast rule, but more of a general lifestyle choice, but you won’t find a single dish featuring meat in any of the town’s restaurants. This caused the single vegan in our group to crow with joy and two of the men to scoff in abject disbelief. (One even proclaimed that he couldn’t remember the last fully vegetarian meal he’d eaten.) As for me, I had one of my favorite dishes of the entire trip – a slightly sweet cashew curry – and what was hands down the best garlic naan I’ve ever eaten. It was only slightly buttered and deliciously chewy, rather than paper thin and crispy. I still dream about that naan…
One last highlight of our days in Orchha was getting henna applied by one of our guide’s family friends. Even if I didn’t have multiple body parts covered in ink, tattoo culture around the world would still be fascinating for me, and henna definitely falls within that category. Of course, henna can be incredibly formal, as is the case when it’s applied on a woman for her wedding ceremony.
But as my three friends and I learned, you can also buy cheap tubes of the ink without having to look too hard or long. I can’t even draw a stick figure well, so I loved watching as the woman drew beautiful designs free-hand. Each of our designs’ details were different, but all incorporated the same curling patterns. When I woke up the next morning with the dark brown swirls covering my hand and forearm, I was all too happy to wear a mark from Orchha on my skin for a few weeks. (Which then subsequently gave my office a heart attack when I returned to work.)
There’s no denying that India’s cities can be overwhelming and dizzying. It’s an important cornerstone of the culture and one that must be experienced to even begin to understand the country. But the rural, country life, where everything is quiet, there’s only two streets in the town, and water buffalos roam the street? That’s just as unmissable.