We traveled from Agra (home of the Taj Mahal) to the village of Orchha by train. Indian Railways, I learned, is one of the world’s largest employers, with 1.5 million employees. The trains are reliable, comfortable, and the smooth rails are a welcome relief from the bumpy roads.
Manu, our tour guide, mentioned that we would be sleeping in tents. None of us was prepared for how luxurious these tents would be. First, they sat at the base of beautiful Hindu ruins that we would later explore. Each tent came with air conditioning, a tiled floor and full bathroom. There may have been a few ants and spiders, but most of us handled that part well. There was also a pool and a gorgeous river view.
Orchha has turned out to be my favorite place on this trip so far. The peaceful village has one main street with stalls, restaurants and a temple. The town is surrounded by ruins of palaces and temples in every direction. The people were so welcoming. Wandering through the streets, it was impossible not to meet many of the locals. Children wanted to practice their English and adults asked where we were from. Yes, some of them were just buttering us up before inviting us to buy things at their shop. The kids wanted a “pinky promise” that we would return to their stall for souvenirs. Most, however, were just interested in getting to know us and extended a warm welcome.
Highlights in Orchha included:
- A tour of the ruins, including several palaces. One of the kings had seven “bedrooms,” one for his five mistresses and wife, and another one for him on his day of rest.
- A cooking demonstration in a local home. Over several hours, we were taught how to prepare at least nine separate dishes. The small room burst with exotic smells with each new recipe. At the end, we ate the best meal we have had here so far.
- A visit to a village school. The middle school had three classes and just a few students in each class. Since school is just starting for the year (May and June are the summer vacation months here), many students have not showed up yet. The sixth and seventh graders were eager to show us what they were working on and have their photos taken. The eighth graders were unusually quiet and reserved, unlike some eighth graders I know.
- A quick tour of a smaller village nearby. We visited the family who made all of the clay pots for the village. A group of small boys followed us around and could not stop laughing every time we showed them a picture of themselves.
- Visiting a paper factory where women turn cotton fabric into all kinds of paper products.
- Entering the Hindu temple for an evening ceremony. After removing our shoes and leather belts, we entered and saw people lined up to leave offerings for the god Rama. Others chanted and prayed, and everyone rushed forward with their hands in the air when the priest began the ceremony by drawing the curtains to reveal the image of Rama. Many people, especially children, talked to us after the ceremony. It was a welcoming and peaceful experience. We were told that during important pilgrimages, worshipers will line up for many kilometers just to enter the temple and leave an offering.
Orchha was a peaceful respite after several days in big cities, and before heading to the most chaotic city of all, Varanasi. More on that next time.