"Hello. Sam?"

"Hello! When are you guys getting here?"

"Sam. We missed our train. We are at the wrong train terminus."

"Crap. Can you catch it at the next station?"

"Of course not."

"Now?"

"We'll see. What are the flight options to Jhansi?"

"Not many. Fly from Bombay to Delhi and then take a train from Delhi to Jhansi."

"Alright, we'll figure something out."

We lied about missing our train. Monday 8 pm and we were waiting at Bombay's Dadar terminus for the Punjab Mail to Jhansi. We would arrive in Jhansi on Tue 2.30 pm and leave Jhansi again on Wed 12.30 pm for Bombay. 40 hours in train to be in Jhansi for 22 hours. It had to be a good friend's wedding for this insane a travel plan! Yes, our school-buddy Sam was tying the knot with Shweta.


Jhansi fort, North Indian baraat and the winter wedding

Jhansi surprised us with its cleanliness (for a north Indian town). The cantonment area especially was neat with wide roads and planned spaces. Just 22 hours in the city was no excuse for not seeing the places around. We dropped our bags in the hotel and prompty set out for the Jhansi fort. Harpreet and Bhakti also joined us.

The fort was of Jhansi was built in early 17th century by the rulers of Orchha. 250 years later, it shot into prominence when Laxmi Bai, the Rani of Jhansi fought a no-surrender battle with the Britishers in the mutiny of 1857. The fort has been maintained in good condition. The gardens were watered and pruned; and several falling walls and ramparts were being restored.

We stood at the point on fort ramparts from where Rani Laxmi Bai, along with her infant adopted son, tossed herself from the bulwark on to her horse below. Now which history text book in India has not taught the lesson where Rani Laxmi Bai jumps in desperation? As I child, I always thought it was a heroic plunge. But today, it looked like a safe jump. The drop was about 15 feet; defnitely not more than 20.

At the exit of the fort, we met a gentleman with a white beard in his sixties selling 'Dimaag ke Khel' (Mind Games) on a bicycle. He held a bundle of lead wire under his arm, which he twisted to make remarkable puzzles. He spoke chaste Urdu and threw in generous amounts of wit and humour in his sentences. "It would be a small miracle if you are unable to solve this," he assured us.

Later that evening, we had a Bobby ki Baggi pulled by two white-brown horses, a Cacofonix with a keyboard synth, electric petromaxes and lots of military band drummers. There was dance, music, noise, crackers, food and much fun as Sam wedded Shweta.



The Temples of Ram Raja and Chaturbhuj, Betwa river and the incredible architecture of Orchha

Thanks to the persistent Kanupriya, we did an early morning inspite of a 3 am the previous night. Around 9 am, Rahul, Kanupriya and I were driving towards Orchha - 15 km south east of Jhansi.

Established at the turn of 16th century, Orchha was a Bundela kingdom of medieval India that paid its loyalties to the Mughals and later to the British. The line of Rajas (and subsequently Maharajas) at Orchha continued till 1950 when all princely states were acceded into the Indian Union. Orchha, lit. "a hidden place", is a real sleepy town lost to the world in the wilderness of central India; except, perhaps, to the tourists on the Khajuraho trail.

As we rolled into the town, temple spires tore the jungle landscape and extended towards a dusty pale sky. Young morning light caught the melancholic ruins of abondoned palaces and cenotaphs sitting along the banks of Betwa river. Orchha seemed to be living on a life support of religion and tourism.

In the heart of the town was the Ram Raja temple - the only temple in India where Ram is worshipped as a king and not as a god. A narrow bazaar lane led to the bright yellow quadrangle of temple complex. Shop owners called out for prospective customers. Mountains of sweetmeats, hot fried snacks doled out into leaf cups from large woks of boiling oil, fresh flowers and incense for the gods, and knicks knacks for tourists - it was all there. Madhya Pradesh state police guarded the entrance to the temple. No leather items were allowed inside the temple. That meant we not only removed our shoes, but also left our handbags and belts behind. No photography was allowed inside the temple.

After paying our respects the resident deities, we headed to the Chaturbhuj temple beside it.

From amongst the single storey chaos of souvenir shops, eating joints, sweetmeat shops and internet cafes rose the magnificent brown ruins of a towering temple. A steep flight of stairs climbed up to the elevated platform on which the temple started. It was several stories high with elaborate work on exterior walls and majestic shikharas on the top. The peeling plaster revealed that the temple construction was a mix of stone work and fine brick masonry. Inside the complex were two expansive halls with high vaulted ceilings, and several rooms, arched balconies and stairwells that played hide-and-seek along the periphery.

Humans had abandoned the temple and nature crept in from all sides. Several hives of wild bees hung from the third floor chattris. The eagles circled the skies above and swept down to the domes for a brief rest. Green chirping parakeets flew in and out the pigeon holes on the exterior walls. And black langurs built their den on the terrace.

After a brief bow of reverance to the deity, we looked for the stairs that led to the terrace. A young boy held the keys to the tiny locked door. "Please come. Beautiful view up. Some money you give me," he told us. He saw a foreign couple walk in behind us and quickly repeated the same message in several languages till they responded to his broken French. The stairwell was pitch black and several steps were reduced to rubble. Kanupriya decided to stay back on the second floor. The French girl with us also stopped with her while her buddy tagged along with us.

The view from the terrace was a celebration of the Bundelkhand style of building. On the east were the Raj Mahal and Jehangir Mahal palaces in the fort. Far in the west was the Laxminarayan temple sitting on a ridge. On the south lay scattered the pensive and desolate cenotaphs of Orchha rulers. The Betwa river glimmered as it made its way through the terrain. All this magnificence for ten rupees - sometimes its amazing how far a rupee can take you in India.

When we got back, Kanupriya was happy to introduce us to her new "friend" from France. She ditched her complex French name and christened her Maya; and simplified her own name to Priya.

We spent some time on the banks of Betwa. The river seemed to be the nucleus for the villages around where men and women came down to bathe and do their chores. A narrow concrete strip that allowed just one vehicle at a time formed the bridge to the other bank while clear serene waters flowed below it. The bridge was a great place to catch the reflection view of the cenotaphs that lined the eastern bank.



Orchha is tucked away in an obscure corner of Madhya Pradesh. But Orchha is that incredible India. It has the ability to sedate you and surprise you at the same time. For the next couple of days after returning to Bombay, I had that same spring in my step as a dork hero in a rom-com would after scoring with the college hottie.

"Yeah, been there," my face beamed.



Tags: India

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  1. Orchha is quite something. In the maddness of my wedding, I hadn't quite figured out where to take my better half for a honeymoon, mostly cause she had been to every part of India. I faintly remembered seniors from my B. Arch days mentioning this mystic place where nobody bothers you. 3 days of sublimity will never be forgotten. - Bharat Singh