Saturday, November 12, 2011

Orchha – Land of the Maharajahs

Dedicated to Harold Gross (01/21/1927 - 11/05/2011) 

Water buffalos rule the roads
Another thing about India:  no one likes to give you bad news (so they lie a lot, or leave out main parts of the story).  We were told that the drive from our town of Khajuraho to Orchha would be about 4 hours, but in actuality, the ride took 7 grueling hours (with two stops).  The distance was only 180 km (about 115 miles), but the roads were the worst we have seen yet.  For most of the way, we drove on a single lane road that both directions of traffic had to share.  When 2 cars were coming at each other, one or both often had to give way by pulling over to the ditch side of the road. 
Overloaded tuk-tuk with people hanging on the back
Tuk-tuks, cars, people, and every conceivable bicycle contraption was attempting to use the road surface, often so pockmarked and potholed that it was almost undriveable.  For those of you who ski, the road was the equivalent of a ski trail full of moguls!  Every once in a while, we hit a relatively smooth stretch of macadam, but for the most part we bumped along at 10 miles an hour, dodging every obstacle on the road (including cows, goats and water buffalo), veering around treacherous road craters, and playing a constant game of chicken with oncoming traffic as every vehicle vied for the “best” section of roadway.
Camels are part of the workforce here in India
The situation would be confounding to all but the most intrepid; one broken car axle or tie rod would leave us stranded for days.  Needless to say, it was a long, bumpy, dusty day, but the sights along the way kept us fully entertained.  Never a dull moment with cows and goats all over the roads, tuk-tuks filled to overflowing (the legal limit is 4 people but we saw overloaded tuk-tuks with a dozen or more passengers including young guys hanging on the back and sides), delivery trucks painted with the most colorful designs (almost like circus cars), motorcycles carrying as many as 4 passengers at a time, and buses of Diwali revelers blaring the loudest and strangest sing-songy horns we ever heard.  And that was just the activity ON the road.  Our journey took us through tiny villages and larger towns all teeming with people wandering around the markets, getting haircuts on stools in dusty parking lots, good old village boys drinking at the local café, etc.  We even saw our first elephant – “parked” in front of a school.  We never get tired of all this fascinating action that you’d never see back home.  
Local milkman makes deliveries of water buffalo milk
We made two stops along the way: one stop to stretch our legs at a so-so museum of Hindu statues and a second stop to eat lunch.  Both the museum and the restaurant were located in palaces formerly owned by Maharajahs.  These Maharajahs lived like kings, reigning over large tracts of land out here in the countryside.  The architecture of these palaces is wonderful with lots of arches, fancy balconies, and minaret-like turrets.  On the surrounding hillsides, we could see the ruins of forts and hunting lodges that were once part of one Maharajah’s huge estate.  Descendants of the Maharajah still own (and sometimes live in) these palaces often operating them as hotels.  But they have no real power anymore and no political influence (unless elected to a specific political post).
The Bundelkhand Riverside Resort where we stayed
We arrived in Orchha (at last!) and rolled down a long unpaved lane to the Bundelkhand Riverside Resort Hotel located along the scenic and sacred Betwa River -- a refreshingly tranquil walled estate with gardens and colorful flowers everywhere.  In keeping with the Maharajah theme of this part of the trip, our hotel was once owned by another Maharajah.  We have a huge room, actually a bedroom and sitting room, all furnished with antiques.  The bathroom has more than a few quirks, but the ambience is well worth some minor inconvenience.
Maharajah Palaces of Orchha

Sunset over the chattries
 (cremation sites of the Maharajahs)

The highlight of our time here was our tour of the palaces of Orchha with our latest guide, Hemant Singh.  Hemant gave us a fun tour, and playfully called us Maharajah and Maharani.  But all kidding aside, these Maharajahs and Maharanis sure knew how to enjoy a rich regal lifestyle on the backs of the people.  They were king and queen on a small regional scale.  When the royal pair would make a grand entrance into their palace, servants would lean out of an opening high above the main arch to drop flower petals over their heads.  Then, the Maharani would spend her day being gently pushed on a swing while the Maharajah went out hunting tigers.  The palaces are a fascinating mix of Islamic and Hindu architecture because during this time period, the two religions coexisted quite comfortably.   
Frank leads the local kids in a rousing rendition
of "The ABC Song!"
Anne gets her palm and arm "tattooed" Hindu style!
The following day, Hemant took us to a small government village where the homes and the public school have been provided by the government in an attempt to improve the lot of the poor rural people.  We visited a school here, and got a warm welcome from the friendly young students.  We also got a really close-up look at village life: cow patties drying in the sun (used as fuel for cooking), and we even got to watch a guy hosing down his water buffalo!  Later, we took a stroll through Orchha’s market for some good souvenir shopping.  Anne even got her palm and arm stamped with various designs (hopefully, the vendor was telling the truth when he said it would wash off!)
Villager hoses down his happy water buffalo
One of the many things we find hard to understand here is customer service.  In general, the hotel staff mean well (or maybe just mean to get a good tip), but they can really drive us crazy.  We know that we are constantly being observed, and lots of times, they follow us around (or as Frank often says, “they track us like a bad fart!”). 
Cow dung patties drying in the sun (used as fuel for cooking)
Sometimes, with our guides, it is hard to pin down details like the daily schedule (which keeps changing).  They can even be a bit dishonest or vague, or language-challenged at a convenient time.  For example, the day we were scheduled to visit the small village, our guide Hemant arrived late and announced, “We have problem.  No car for you today.”  This was “interesting” since we had discussed this just the day before, and our itinerary clearly stated that we had a car at our disposal today.  So, we pulled out our master schedule (the revered “programme”) to show Hemant.  He made a few calls and guess what?  “Car is coming!”
"The Saylorsburg Slugger" knocks one out of the courtyard!
While we were waiting for that car, talk of a game of cricket began circulating.  Frank had never played cricket before, but a cricket bat and ball suddenly materialized and Hemant invited Frank out into the quadrangle for some cricket playing!  Frank, the “Saylorsburg Slugger” did himself proud, hitting one pitch after another.  He even hit one so far “out of the park” that it disappeared into the vegetation.  No problem, one of the staff quickly found another ball.  By the way, the staff (and a group of Indian guests) loved watching Frank, the white-faced foreigner play cricket – he became quite the star of the Bundelkhand Hotel that day, and “the boys” who work here talked about the cricket match for the rest of our stay.
Elephant saunters down Main Street in Orchha
The animals of India are a study in overpopulation by themselves, and could be a good thesis for some animal husbandry grad student to explore.  We are never sure which animals are considered the “sacred” ones, and which are not. Certainly, everyone knows that the cows are sacred for sure, as they could be somebody’s brother reincarnated; but how about goats?  Or pigeons?  Or even flies?
There are lots of pigeons everywhere, and nobody seems to get fussed-up with the daily mess they make; in fact, many locals feed these birds, so we assume they must be sacred too.  Dogs wander around everywhere, seemingly belonging to no one in particular.  Nobody seems to be trimming the dog population, or even discussing it as a problem.  They just lay sleeping in the dirt on the side of the road, or walk around aimlessly thru traffic, in parks, or in vendor areas.  They never seem to beg passersby for a handout, and we never saw them threaten anyone.  We were told to avoid them by some of our guides, as many of them are rabid.  Same with the monkeys, which seem to be everywhere too. 
Goat herds clog the roads
Nobody seems to be doing anything about rampant rabies, tho.  Shouldn’t you destroy rabid animals?  Maybe they’re all sacred too, and aren’t allowed to be destroyed.  We just don’t know.  Interestingly, we never see any cats.  In other countries such as in Europe, cats run stray everywhere, but cats don’t seem to exist in this part of the world, or, if they do, we haven’t seen them.  We don’t think the Indians eat cats, as we’ve never heard talk of such, and we’ve never seen them on any menu.  Frank has a theory that the monkeys may prey on the cats because they are furry and look like “little monkeys”; this may threaten the monkeys somehow, which are much larger than any cat, and cause them to attack the cats(?). 
Pedestrians on the back roads
Oxen, cows, water buffalo, camels, elephants, monkeys, goats, pigs, dogs, chickens, et al roam the streets at will, strutting down main highways and mingling with pedestrians, and the all too frenetic traffic.  Imagine rounding a bend on a high speed highway, and encountering a herd of 20 water buffalo, each animal weighing 2000 pounds or so, slowly ambling down the center of the highway right in the direct path of your vehicle.  Drivers don’t seem to panic; they just make a high-speed skirt around them and keep on zooming. 
Everything in India gets carried on the head
Occasionally, we see a wild peacock (national bird of India), and also cobras being “charmed” out of their shallow woven bamboo baskets by some dude sitting yoga-style on a blanket, sporting a turban, and blowing on a flute.  Wild birds include the colorful kingfisher with its brilliant iridescent turquoise feathers, bright green parrots, and some red bird that we don’t know the name of.  We’ll try to get some answers to our questions on the “sacredness” of the animals if we come across anyone who can explain it.
We had a late check out on our last day, so we decided to indulge in a special Indian treat: the “ayurvedic head massage”.  Frank and Anne were each shown to separate hotel rooms where our masseuses were waiting for us.  (Masseuses here in India are always assigned this way: a woman for women and a man for men – to avoid any man/woman “problems.”)  The head massage was quite a workout for our skulls and heavy on good smelling Indian oils.  The final oil had a strong peppermint scent, leaving us thoroughly mentholated (& anxious for a good shower)!

Some of the faces of India:

1 comment:

  1. Hello, I am Marc's friend and I have to tell you that I really enjoyed reading your posts about your trip in India. The photos are beautiful.

    Thanks for sharing.