(Pictures at https://picasaweb.google.com/109837841352688899289)
I’d very nearly not come to Orchha but I’m so glad I did, as I write this I am sat up on the roof top of a nice restaurant, though most in town are more like café’s, so I climbed up to a high place and settled in I just wanted a little space to get down to this.
I’m looking out across the most beautiful scene, the picturesque and dramatic golden battlements of the Beautiful Raj Mahal Palace, its turrets domes tiered balconies and latticed windows, glowing in the afternoon sun. In front across the moat the little town of Orchha with its flat roofed houses scattered and tumbling away into the farm land that surround the painted and picturesque town. If I scan 180 degrees the horizon is dotted with domes and temple flags, there is a voice ringing out across the landscape from a temple between the River Betwa and the palace. I found out later that the singers who sang all the time I was there had been singing continuously now for 12 years night and day, they were singing their prayers to God, it got right into the core of me whilst I was there. Also guy passing by last night and told me that the creator God Rama had appeared in the hands of the Queen Ganesh Kunwar sometime in the 1600’s as she was washing down by the rivers edge, I can see why the gods would visit this place. The palace is to me all that I dreamt India would look like, the surrounding grounds dotted with green trees and surrounded on three side buy bright green swaying barley fields that stretched into the sunset as I sat there. I have gravitated to the Raj Mahal every day I have been here. On the first morning I made a Bee line straight into the heart of the place.
Building was begun in the 15thcentury but due to various political intrigues the ruling dynasty started to decline by the 1630s and from the 18th century has stood deserted, incredible really for such a remarkable place. Inside the core, there are courtyards surrounded by tired balconies and windows some latticed others open, steep stair cases ran inside the walls to what seemed secret rooms and chambers and on the lower floors some of the paintings still remained on the walls and ceilings, at its time the whole interior would have been painted and tiled and the domes themselves tiled in blue. To me it seemed it was built for the eye and for senses and it felt very sexy or at least that is how I felt wandering up and down the stairs through some of the 236 rooms and court yards and then across roof tops and dropping down into other parts of the place, every thing interconnected, you could be seen or you could make your way unseen for a rendezvous it seemed. I imagined it must have hummed with music chatter and the sound of pleasure, beautiful place, a person who ruled from such a place would have or at least should have been a generous ruler.
Green parrots fluttered above and in the trees around the palace lands and even the bus loads of tourists that came and went seemed to be well behaved. Talking of which and talking of beauty I have noticed that in the heart of such a places, everybody with a camera will see something different, everybody see’s beauty from their own perspective and their own angle its how the world is isn’t it. I saw my version from up there on the battlements and I got a good idea of the countryside, the lay of the land, the river and a path led and through the crumbled ruins and dissolving walls of the old town that had once stood inside the walls of the fort. That’s what I’d been looking for, I was off, I was hungry for it again.
I had it all to myself, I jumped over old walls stuck my nose into ancient unused temples found a breach in the castle wall and dropped down onto the river side and I was climbing boulders again making my way towards a cluster of white washed temples and orange flags fluttering on a rise that overlooked the boulder lined banks. I approached respectfully and came across 3 Young bare chested Sadus in orange sarongs and a woman who they called a Matagee who was sat upon a rock looking down on the scene, I was asked to take my boots off I was all apologies and took them off immediately. They let me look around but seemed quite surprised to find me in their midst. I thought I’d get out of their way and asked if it was ok to go swim down to the river there. A guy who was obviously in charge by the way they all related to him and the fact that he had a great big silver ceremonial axe across his neck that he rested his arms on. He nodded and waved me to go ahead. So I padded down the well swept sandy path to the river bank. I was really tempted to skinny dip but didn’t think it was proper to show a pale white ass in the presence of a Sadu.
I went down to the river each day I was there just to swim across it and back. Then lie on the warm rocks and recharge myself. It’s called The Betwa River and had strong currents which obviously flowed against hidden rocks pushing the flow up to the surface creating whirl pools that were swept along at a fair old speed. I swam straight out into them and the current. It was exhilarating and again I felt strong, I was enjoying my strength, swimming across the current, playing with it, then swimming up stream where the current was weak on the other side then stretching out again into the flow, working against it and coming in the other side level with where I’d left my clothes. I’m not a fool, if it had looked really dangerous I wouldn’t have done it, it was just right and I chose my spot well.
I climbed out the other side and looked back to see all 4 of them stood up on the hill watching me. I waved and they all waved back. I was again peaceful and deeply happy. Later when I walked back through their camp the head Sadu asked me to sit. I had found a huge feather whilst I had been up in the palace and had stuck it in the belt of my trousers; he saw it and said to the others
They asked me questions about England and the Hindu religion there, I explained with diagrams I drew in the dust about the various religions there. They told me that this was a Haunuman temple, the Monkey God. I still haven’t got my head around him yet, not sure what he does or what attributes he a monkey God has, I’ll find out. They head Sadu asked the young boy who asked me
“King or Queen in your country?”
I said “Queen”
They nodded and umed and ah’d, asked if I was married and did I have children. Everybody asks that here even the Sadus
It was a nice moment but I realized the conversation was limited. So I said my good byes and made my way along the rocks of the river bank and back up into the fields which were also scattered with many fare sized but still used decaying temples. To my astonishment at one a family appeared at a draped doorway, it just seemed remarkable, although when you think about it completely practical. The green fields that they worked surrounded the old temples and so they lived in them, ready made homes and cattle sheds. Over the next few days I discovered that the whole area was a warren of lanes and fields dotted with shrines that had a whole farming community living in them with the river close by and the Palace as back drop the scene was remarkable and another world to me, beautiful and back breaking I supposed, but perhaps simple and uncomplicated. The Irony that these were once beautiful royal palaces and temples, brightly colored and revered and now home to cattle and the desperately poor didn’t go amiss on me, at one point I literally almost stumbled onto another family who asked me for nothing but waved and smiled and pointed me in the right direction, they seemed glad to see me, I think I was a pleasant surprise. I heard
“This might be a good opportunity to give” so I did, again it was peanuts but a delight to the women and children who were all smiles. It just felt good.
As I made my way back towards the main village I passed an old lady carrying a heavy load on her head. I was pausing and looking and just taking my time so she caught up with me a few times and so I indicated did she want me to carry her load, she looked strangely at me but brushed me aside. She caught up again or I caught her up over and over again and each time I tried to insist that I take her load, in the end she got so exasperated with me that she started laughing and told me, I think, too
“Bugger off and stop being a bloody pest” It was a laugh and at the same time frustrating, a culture clash, in England the old dear would have given me the load perhaps and we would have talked, but its not the way here. Women carry the load.
All that day I heard the strange voice singing prayers that floated on the air and the breeze all across the town, the castle and the river and most importantly the fields that afternoon, in fact every afternoon I was there. I got the impression there were 3 of them who took in turns to sing prayers continuously I would love to have known what was being sang but maybe that was the point with what happened, it didn’t matter, it was the sound that was important. At times in certain pockets it would be seem loud and at others like a far away whisper. I was of course drawn to the source of it.
I came through an old stone arched gate way back into the palace grounds and there it was, a strange looking temple painted white sort of tucked into the side of the hill under a great tree that had great boulders that seemed as if but could not have been placed there for aesthetic reasons, the tree had to have grown up through them. Orange flags fluttered above the green tree top. I stood for a while listened then walked on a little. Then I just stopped and hopped up on a wall and sat there. The old woman passed me again and we smiled at each other. Then I listened more intently and I began to see.
In front of me was a big green field of barley stretching away to the castle walls the temple was at the T of 3 dusty lanes Tucked into the castle walls next to the ancient gateway. A lane stretched along the edge of the field that was fringed with brown brittle thorn bushes, behind me was the Raj Mahal Palace golden yellow, the green parrots flew around the trees above the white temple, a woman in a bright red sari worked in the field in front of me. As I sat there the singers voice slowly began to cast its spell, he had a voice like an aged wine full of character and exotic charm. It echoed back off the old walls just beyond the field, he seemed to phrase it perfectly and gave chance for the full phrase to return. It was incredibly peaceful and perfect. I suddenly saw the scene and how joyous it was and I was actually over come with emotion that welled up in me, and in fact I let the tears come. The priest or who ever he was, was singing for and too the countryside and who ever or what ever was out there, I’d seen the woman stop her work and stand hands on hips maybe listening maybe not, I had the impression she was day dreaming she looked profoundly peaceful and at one, we smiled at one another, the barley swayed a little on the breeze the sunshine bathed every thing and even the birds seemed happy and at one with the spell that was being cast. It was truly a beautiful moment for me, I just saw it. That is what singers are really for, that’s what they do. Over the next few days I returned again and again to the same spot and it was magical, and going on the other westerners who were at times sat upon the walls above or walking along the dusty lanes it was having the same effect upon them too, magical profound and real.
A day later as I’d got up to go a procession of women led by a single incredible male drummer were singing their way to the temple from the village, the voices and the drums and the prayers all melded together, I turned and followed them back to see what would happen, once there some of the woman sat and some began dancing wildly outside the temple in their greens blues and yellows and sliver jewelry flashing on raised arms with nimble fingers writhing and waving in that wonderful characteristic Indian way.
Orchha is a laid back place, but there are things just happening everywhere seemingly randomly and the beauty is there was very little traffic and no crowds. I walked back to my hotel The Hotel Mahal that night, and came upon a shrine just around the corner. In the darkness orange light silhouetted a group of maybe 30 or 40 people who all seemed hushed and reverent as great clouds of scented smoke billowed out and was swallowed by the darkness, I walked quietly up, people noticed me and made room for me to go closer, I love that about the Hindus, they genuinely usually push you forward so you can see what they are doing, the crowd were very gentle. A man appeared in front with the wildest eyes he took me back and scarred me a little at first in the darkness, but then he whispered to me and pushed me gently forwards
“For the baby” It was a Hindu version of a christening and once I had looked he said
“Something for the alter, for the baby, for the life of the baby” so I put something down to which everybody seemed happy with, I went to blend back in the crowd but the priest called me back made a little wrap of paint and oil and blessed it for me, the man said
“Put it here” indicating my forehead “Everyday, you will have a good life”
This is the wedding season apparently so there were weddings in town too with booming deafening techno sound systems, brass bands and organs were also all playing at the same time at full volume in a big car park outside the great big orange temple that seemed to be the civic hall. It sounded absolutely insane, a musical car crash, but still found the rhythm and they danced. The market too was what I had dreamed a bazaar would be like, rows upon row of colored bangles, and brass Gods, in the square itself women sat selling fruit and vegetables men cooked bread on concave pans over open fires, there were stall after stall of the most delicious sweets, I don’t do sugar but bought some honey cake, it was so delicious I honestly nearly fainted with the shock. There were the usual tourist trinkets too but somehow it all blends together in a place like this and it seemed to me the town is just at a nice balance and had a nice colorful but easy going vibrancy. The streets at night are pretty as there are plenty of little cafes and cheep guest houses colorfully painted in different pastels and decorated with lanterns or Christmas tree lights that spill color across the sleepy dim dusty roads with the mournful voice of the still singing priests far away. The odd car with burst through now and again and drive noisily down the streets horn blaring for some reason, vanishing as quickly as they had appeared, maybe they’d come upon a cow or more likely they didn’t want too.
There were of course amongst all of this the beggars and the people sleeping in the streets, the cripples the toothless ancient men and women and the just simply down and dirty broken hearted. There are the mad looking Sardus dressed in orange with painted faces who hang around on the old bridge across to the Raj Mahal Palace sitting directly in the sun. I saw one in the derelict part of the old town on my way to the river sitting crouched in a window high up above the ruins he must have squeezed himself in up there. It looked totally bizarre.
I met a young woman there called Andrea from the Czech Republic who always seemed to be pulling carrots out of here bag and offering them, She reckoned that India carrots were special and who ws I to argue with that. She was a political journalist back home for a weekly and was here to see what it was she wanted to write about. As she said
“Writing about the infighting and BS of politicians had become really uninspiring.” It turned out there was more to Andrea that she of course let on at first and we became over a few days quite good friends as is the way I think when your travelling.
It was interesting listening to her experiences and watching the reactions of India men to a modern western woman travelling on her own. She’d had a couple of unpleasant experiences but had brushed it off as just the way it is. Young people here she said have no outlet and no real connection between the young boys and girls and so don’t really know she said, how to handle conversation with the opposite sex particularly with western women who are approachable in a way that Indian girls just are not and I deduced, not just from Andrea that it is really provocative to a lot of men here as they are just not used to being able to talk to women openly and freely so conversation is nearly always loaded and leading somewhere. It is a shame as it didn’t allow anybody to relax and be normal.
She’d got herself embroiled with a young Indian guy in town who had said he wanted her to be his teacher, (yeah right mate.) He’d offered to be her guide but within a day had become very possessive but she hadn’t had the courage to stop it. It had all got a little out of hand. Then I roll up and we are chatting and all of a sudden I’m her boyfriend, and he’s sulking, it all seemed very juvenile to me and I resented being pulled into a drama when I was having such a lovely time.
They seemed genuinely puzzled when I said one morning that we weren’t, as we had been seen talking in the market square and if you’re talking in public you are boy and girlfriend. Sexuality is a complex thing anyway at 18 in any country, never mind in a little backwater village in the middle of India. Western women are free of the shackles and able to converse with whom they choose so a person needs to tread very carefully here as the rules are different. If lines are not made perfectly clear it can all get a little silly. Andrea had liked it in Orchha but was rattled and all set to bolt, which I though was a shame. I thought that perhaps that was one of the reasons she was in India, she needed to say No for once in her life, if she just ran it wouldn‘t solve anything. Perhaps she was his teacher but not a lesson he had anticipated and perhaps there was a lesson for her too.
She told me about a family she had been invited to visit with and had been able to talk with the young girl of the family who had told her she was expecting an arranged marriage for her with a doctor or somebody like that, she had had very little freedom or contact with boys her age. Andrea had said
“Don’t you mind, it’s your life you have the right to live it how you choose right?” the girl had apparently said
“Oh no, I have many lives”
Point was it was the way it was, we talked a great deal about it and I saw her the next day and she’d decided to stay, had talked to the guy, taken responsibility for her part perhaps being a little naïve. She’d told him it was making her uncomfortable; he seemed to get it and backed off. She looked a whole lot better and seemed to have gained a bit of much needed self respect as it turned out.
Maybe that is another reason for being out on the road, it’s a slightly different angle from a vacation as you’ll be faced with yourself and with situations that you’ll have to sort out and you’ll notice them glaringly as there is nothing familiar to pin it on, it’s a funny thing, one side of the coin could be that your hiding out here and the other side is you are directly in connection with your self and there is no hiding.
Just to add one more thing that really made me laugh, Andrea had a lot of ideas. She’d mentioned Stephen Hawkins whom she liked and so I’d asked
“So you don’t believe in a God or a creator then right?”
“Oh no” she’d said sincerely “I do, just in case” classic.
I’ve just walked back to the hotel through pools of light thrown out by open doors of the huts and houses along the main street cows dotted the road in the shadows their great dark shapes nosing around for the last left over’s of the day, A scabby yellow dog with rows of long droopy teets that I had been feeding half a litre of milk too and three chapattis at breakfast each day stood in the middle of the road she looked up at me nervously as I approached in the shadows.
“Hello sweet” I whispered to her, stopped slowly, crouched and patted her gently, her tail wagged when she felt the gentleness. I left her stood in the lane, the colored fairy lights were still switched on, on the great tree that leant across the road and the closed cafes and restaurants above the shuttered shop fronts, the priests were still singing, a little light visible from their temple in the darkness behind the castle. Anybody I mentioned them too just nodded and smiled dreamily, everybody loved it, it really worked. They will sing me to sleep tonight and I will remember them. Tomorrow again as always I will be slightly melancholy to say goodbye to this enchanted place, so until then, sweet dreams.