Sunday, July 26, 2015

Orchha - Old Temples and Young Tycoons

From Agra we caught the train to a town called Jhansi which seems to be home to the most decorated Tuk Tuks in India. We were greeted by a very young boy and his Tuk Tuk and driven for half an hour into the countryside to the village of Orchha which has more temples than people - surprisingly common in India.

We were staying in The Orchha Resort, one of the few hotels in town and where the tourists were again treated like royalty for a budget with an actual chlorinated pool and massive buffet lunch. Rather than reuniting with these Western luxuries we walked along the dirt road back into the village to be hawked down by numerous street sellers -  however again a somewhat western novelty. The street sellers here were different to what we were used to; although children are often the ones making the sale it was more often than not young boys whereas in Orccha there was a business ring of young girls selling gifts. As usual they were attentive but rather than just pestering they would  literally sit with you giving you henna tattoos and ask things about you. Only then once they built trust would they ask if you wanted something and more often than not their charm worked. We were all impressed by their business skills and amazing customer service that we almost didn't notice spending so much money in their stores - except when you finished at one stall a girl would go "You coming to visit my shop?" and before you knew it you were following a trail of henna and incense to the next stall. After a few days in India  your patience for street sellers usually wanes but here we were only impressed and it was a refreshing to see that it was entirely girls in charge of the face of the business.

About 45 minutes into what should have been a ten minute walk we made it into the village centre where I found a sari shop and through broken Hinglish I got measured for my first sari. That evening we went to the the Ram Raja Temple which is the largest Hindu temple in Orchha as well as a pilgrimage site for Hindus. We caught an evening ceremony(forgive me for not catching which one) where the smell of incense, sound of bustling prayer chants and Chinese cymbals added to the spectacle of the building itself (Indiyaaaah dahling!).


The next day we were off to visit the cenotaphs which were conveniently right next to our hotel. They were build for the Rajay and Ramani of the area. However, it's not really because of the history that people visit but it's because of the scenic beauty of the place. Through a rather unassuming gate guarded by some stray cattle there were some well tended gardens surrounded by intricate cenotaphs lined up along the river. Those in the complex were reasonably well tended too but I fell in love with those outwith it which were taken over by greenery and vultures looking like something you only see in fantasy computer games. As we climbed to the top of one of the cenotaphs the views kept getting better and better and I think it was honestly one of the most beautiful man-made scenes I've seen.

Jahangir Mahal

It was then off to play the game of running around to find the best view at the Jahangir Mahal which was a palace in Orchha. Again it was made up of tiny staircases leading to daringly small edges or up turrets where you could climb to get a better view of Madhya and Uttar Pradesh. The presence of the British empire hadn't entirely faded as the weathered outline of a tennis court could still be seen at the palace entrance.

In the afternoon we went to visit a development project where local women made paper from old rags and we got a tour watching the bleaching and pulping processes before finally watching then press the paper. At the time they were actually creating the paper for the degree certificates for a nearby university showing that the hard work was supported by local organisations. Back in Orchha it was time for the part I was most excited for on the whole trip - the cookery class!

She's not impressed at my skills...

We were taken away from the familiarity of Orchha's main road to a family home which was converted into a demonstration kitchen with all members of the family on hand to chop and collect utensils for a a Blue Peter style "Here's one I prepared earlier!" cookery show. Our host was Rajni who couldn't have been much older than me but had bucket loads more business initiative as it appears she was the face of "Rajni's Cooking School." First up was a chai masala which was the best we'd ever had and she kept throwing recipes at us making the alchemy that is indian cookery look easy. She finished with making chapattis and poori and watched our failed attempts at rolling anything resembling a round chapatti. At the end the girls took me aside as they noticed my sari in a bag and wanted to dress me up - there is nothing more amusing to Indians than a gori (white girl) in a sari. It turned out the measurements were slightly off and it was too tight to fit over my boobs which is a problem I rarely encounter. As I was to discover, saris only work with an arsenal of safety pins holding them in place so all the female members of the family started hacking at the top with safety pins to loosen the stitching to make it fit perfectly! A small first hand sample of the resourcefulness and hospitality of the Indian nation!
Sari purchase no. 1..

Back at the hotel we indulged in the luxury of the pool after wandering all day in the sticky heat and relaxed before our 12 hour night train to the pilgrimage site of Varanasi...

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