Agra to Orchha

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Another day, another travel experience. Today we were off to Orchha by Indian fast train.

We were awake and moving at 6:00 am. Majella had been ill at midnight but the worst of that had passed by morning. There would be breakfast of sorts on the train but we had black coffee and muesli bars in our room to settle our pills, showered, packed, and were downstairs by 7:00 am as scheduled.

Our bus took us the short distance to the railway station where we carried our bags through security and waited on the platform. The bus was returning to Delhi and our onward journey was to be by train and tuk tuk until we meet a smaller bus, needed for the hilly roads, in a few days.

We had time to wait for our train, due at 8:00 am, so Majella wandered along the platform and returned with 2 bananas for me and 2 mandarins for her. Those would complement what we had already eaten for breakfast.

Our train arrived a few minutes late. We boarded as quickly as possible, lifted our bags onto the racks, and took our seats. The train stopped for just 5 minutes so there was no time to waste beyond waiting for disembarking passengers to get clear. It moved off, paused, moved, paused, and was finally off and gathering speed. The onboard display indicated 132 km/hr at times which is speedy but not Shinkansen fast.

The countryside for most of the journey was green with crops, all in small plots that must be worked by hand. We crossed a few rivers and passed stretches of wetlands and eroded sandy badlands but those were minor interruptions to the green fields. There were a few stops, mostly for small settlements, where people departed or boarded.

Breakfast was served soon after departure. It included bottled water, a lime juice drink in a popper, two slices of brown bread in a sealed pack, capsules of butter and jam, and a small container of hot food that may have been similar to a samosa in a different shape. Majella tried the bread and pronounced it American style, possibly a bit sweet and lacking in texture for her taste. I stuck to my bananas but drank the lime drink and accepted a cup of hot water and tea bag for tea. Majella had the hot water with a sachet of instant coffee.

Our train arrived at Jhansi on schedule. It was a short stop and most of the people in our carriage were getting off so it was a bit of a crush to grab bags and squeeze along the aisle, out the door, and down to the platform. Once our group had gathered we followed Ruby out of the station and boarded our 4 tuk tuks. Fortunately they were a little larger than usual and could seat 3 in comfort with space behind for our luggage. The traffic as we headed through the city and out into the countryside did not seem as frenetic as we had experienced elsewhere but we wondered if that was simply that we are becoming accustomed to it. There were some near misses and we saw a group of people trying to rescue a trailer that had fallen off the edge of the road into the scrub.

Orchha is about 20 km from Jhansi. A little before we reached Orchha we paused at the Taragram recycled paper project. It was established to empower women from local tribal groups and produces paper from recycled materials, mostly fabric offcuts from clothing manufacture. We were shown through the plant from sorting and cutting, to pulping, screening, rolling and trimming. We exited through the shop where Majella picked up a couple of items. Most of their product is shipped out for use elsewhere but they sell a little to tourists.

Our accommodation was just a little further on through the town of Orchha which is flanked by an old palace on one side and a significant Hindu temple on the other. The Orchha Resort is on the banks of the Betwa River which our tuk tuk driver informed us was one of the cleanest. It was flowing well with some rapids visible and there was a sign advertising rafting but when we looked over the wall later it did not appear to be absolutely pristine. 

As we checked in around 1:00 pm Ruby explained that a woman standing to the side was the person to see for spa treatments. Once we had dropped our bags we went back to reception and Majella was straight off for a massage. When she returned we went for a walk around the site. The pool was sparkling and some of our group were enjoying it. We found the air conditioned tents that were the alternative accommodation we would have been in except that an Indian family had booked those. We did not mind since the rooms were clean and comfortable.

At 3:00 pm we met at reception for our afternoon excursion. Majella wore thongs in expectation of a short walk across the street to some ancient buildings and a temple visit that would need shoes removed. She had missed the message that we would be gone for several hours.

First stop was across the street at what we had assumed was a temple but was actually a series of cenotaphs, monuments to long dead Hindu kings. There are 14 monuments built on a large level platform above the river. We wandered through and saw a few of the endangered vultures that live among the buildings.

We walked into town and spent a short time looking at one of the old Hindu temples. It was high set with many stairs to walk up. There was a small area at the back functioning as a working temple but most of the building was apparently derelict.

The focus of our afternoon was the set of royal buildings across a stream from the town. The walled fort includes several palaces that were built and used by local rulers over the 16th and 17th centuries. We visited the two main buildings, the Raja Mahal and the Jahangir Mahal, with a local guide who was able to trace his ancestry to a military commander and adviser who served one of the rulers involved in the building.

The buildings are interesting for the mix of Hindu and Islamic influences in the architecture and decoration. The earlier Hindu rulers were conquered by the Mughals who brought their own style to construction. The buildings are undergoing some renovation work but there is a great deal of the original artwork remaining, especially on ceilings in the intact rooms.

We spent a considerable amount of time in both major buildings and were able to climb narrow staircases to access the upper levels for a view over the town and surrounding area. The steps were awkward because of the substantial height and narrow depth of the treads and some of the door openings were low. Majella was told later by Ruby that those were defensive measures that would slow attackers and enable defenders to take them down.

Our visit to the complex had been timed to take advantage of the sunset and those prepared to tackle the stairs were at the top for that. The air was reasonably clear by that time of day and there were a few clouds to add interest to the sunset.

Once the sun had gone we walked back across the bridge to town and up to the rooftop of a cafe where we had drinks – vegetarian and no alcohol locality – and something to eat. I had Pepsi and Majella had ginger lemon and honey tea which came in a glass with a regular tea bag and added ginger, lemon, and honey. she approved. We also shared a plate of French fries which we thought would sustain us while being bland enough not to exacerbate our problems.

Around 7:30 pm we set off for the Hindu temple ceremony. Once we had removed our shoes and gone inside our guide explained what was happening while we waited for the ceremony to begin. It did so promptly at 8:00 pm. We stayed for 30 minutes or so of chanting and clapping while people processed to present gifts of sweets and flowers. We were told that the priest offers the sweets to Rama, takes one, and passes the remainder back to the giver who will distribute them later to family, friends, or strangers.

By the time we walked back to the resort it was approaching 9:00 pm. Dinner would have been possible at the resort restaurant but we were still taking it easy on food and passed that up for a good night of rest. Tomorrow will be a long day here and an overnight train journey to Varanasi.