Orchaa with a surprise thrown in!

Another destination that has not disappointed – Orchha. Again, this was not my first visit. Subhash, Mukta and I had spent a day there with our French friend way back in the 90’s! We had reached there without a hotel bookings and while eating lunch at eh MP tourism place, learnt that all the rooms were vacant. That was the year of the ‘plague’ scare and most tourists had cancelled – except for a few brave ones like my friend. So, we spent the night at for what I remember was Rs 750/ per room in some of the grandest hotel rooms I have seen. My friend was thrilled to sleep in the Maharaja’s suite with a bathroom, almost as large as her Paris flat, whichhad half a dozen windows with the most amazing views. And Orchha itself was beautiful – withthe river and the sun setting behind the chhatris. I had always carried wonderful memories…

And the return trip did not disappoint – in fact, it had a wonderful, unexpected surprise. Situated on the banks of the River Betwa, and just 15Km outside Jhansi city it is an easily approachable destination. We, however, did it as a day trip from Khajuraho although the 182 kilometers felt like 1820 kiliometers as there was no road for 50 Km – at least no surface!! Roads are  one sector where you see “Corruption at work” more often than “You taxes at work” – a national disgrace!
Anyway, we reached around midday, walked around the lovely Laxminarayan temple, with its fading wall frescoes, had a drink for nostalgia’s sake at the MP Tourism resturant and then wandered around the main palace complex.

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The MP tourism restaurant and hotel  showed no evidence that paint or mortar had touched it since our last visit in 1995. The rates on the menu were also almost that ancient!

The dimensions of this palace  (both area and height) dwarf you and it provided a stark contrast to the previous day’s experience at Khajuraho. Whereas, the temples were rather small and exquisite, the architecture here was of scale and straight lines.

And of course, Khajuraho is pre-Islamic, while the Islamic influence is very evident here.  Orchha was established in 1501 by  the Bundela chief Rudra Pratap Singh and the palace has many additions over the centuries. The courtyards are large with many temples and smaller palaces and a large camel house.

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And here we also saw a different type of tourist – more colorful and with a different perpective of  these sights from us, I am sure. But, unless the appreciation for these treasures from the past has this  wider audience, preserving them will be a daunting  task.

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As we wandered around, we saw 2 large birds hovering around the shikars and thought they were eagles. With interest, but no great knowledge on the subject, that was my uneducated guess.  We stopped for a brief lunch, before proceeding to the riverside and  the chattris by the riverside. In contrast to Khajuraho, Orchha is a bustling and rapidly growing town with all its drawbacks. Whereas, Khjuraho town had only shown improvement since 1995,  thanks mainly to its status as a UNESCO heritage site,  Orccha appeared to have multiplied many fold in these 15 years. And of course, rapid growth of this kind is seldom pretty!

The chhatris are memorials to the various Bundela kings, built over the sight where they were cremated. They stand majestically by the  riverside, providing the most wonderful riverside view that I have seen anywhere.
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As we wandered in through these monuments, something we did not do on our previous visit, we were joined by the MP Archelogical survey caretaker who checks the tickets who gave us a spontaneous guided tour. And there were the birds again – and this time when he pointed it out to us, we realized that they were vultures.

My interests in vultures have been from a non-bird watcher perspective. Since, we had always been travellers, the lack of circling vultures as one drove through the countryside, was something we had observed. In due course, their disappearance became an established fact. And then one day, in a scientific journal I was scanning I saw an article title that had both vulture and diclofenic. The latter is a commonly used pain killer, and prescribed frequently by rheumatologists and clinical immunologists like me. The article went on to provide evidence that the autopsies of the dead vultures showed renal failure that could be attributed to diclofenec toxicity. The drug was widely used in vetenary practice and the vultures which fed on carcasses of animals that had taken the drug were condemned to die. (The whole story is well described in http://envfor.nic.in/divisions/wildlife/vulture_plan.pdf.) Since then I have always followed stories on vultures. But, had not registered that Orchha was once of the few natural breeding grounds for these birds.

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It was also ironical, that earlier in the day, on the long bumpy road to Orchha while recounting  previous road trips to my bother and niece, I had also recounted the story of the lost vultures to them. We spent an engrossing half hour watching them in their nests and flying around.And we were leaving the lovely surroundings of the river-side, we saw this group of people carrying the rafts to the river for a white water rafting experience. It only re-enforced my feeling that this will not be my last visit to Orchha.
The unexpected encounter with the vulture colony was the grand finale to a wonderful visit. And then of course we had to pot-hole our way back – but none of us regretted the eight hours of driving.

Some interesting links:

http://www.thesundayindian.com/en/story/orchha-vultures-scared/27/14781/

http://dreamsandimaginations.blogspot.com/2010/03/in-orchha-with-long-billed-vultures.html

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