After breakfast, we had to tear ourselves away from the luxury that was the Hotel Lalit in Khajuraho; and it was a rift, I can tell you. But Sachun was very keen to get going, and he was right, because we had a lot to cover over the course of the day. The route to Orchha took us first through the town of Chhatarpur, which Sachun wanted to show us because it was where he was born and still lived. He waxed lyrical about it, but as far as I could make out, it was just another town. Apologies to anyone proud of their relationship with Chhatarpur. We stopped for some bananas from a man with a banana stall, and I agree they were delicious. I’m sure Sachun could have made a case for the finest bananas in the world coming from Chhatarpur, but he stopped short. He pointed out the road where he lived. For an awful moment I thought we were going to have to take tea with his mum, but we continued on.
I’m being unfair, because Sachun’s local knowledge was excellent and he took us to a few places off the beaten track that I expect few tourists get to see. About ten miles north west of Chhatarpur, on the road to Nowgong, we stopped off at a lake. Mr Singh took the car a short way down towards a causeway that led to a little island on which perched the Shani Temple. We walked towards it as far as we could without getting our feet wet. As we got closer, I could see that a priest on the island had decided to wade out to greet us. Would we like to cross the water to see the temple? Not really, to be honest. We were happy enough seeing it from afar. The priest seemed a little disgruntled, having got wet for nothing. It is, however, an extremely picturesque location. There were a group of boys wandering down the causeway too. Sachun suggested we had a chat with them, although he thought they would probably be quite embarrassed and tongue-tied. As expected, they were supremely polite, but got very animated when we mentioned cricket.
We got back to the car and then just a mile or two later we arrived at a village that Sachun called Mahusanian, but in maps appears to be called Mau-Sahaniya. It’s just on the other side of the National Highway 75. It’s a sleepy little place that leads to another lake, but just before you reach it you find the remains (and I use the word wisely) of the Hridayashah Palace. It was originally built in 1733 for the eldest son of Maharaja Chhatrasal, and work is underway to restore it to some of its former glory. It might take some time – the workmen we saw there were definitely operating at an unhurried pace.
Just a little beyond the palace, you reach yet another lake; a couple of guys had parked up their motorbikes and were having a bit of a wash and a splash, as you do. Adjacent to the lake is the austerely named Maharaja Chhatrasal Interpretation Center. This is nothing to do with language skills, but a museum, which our travel agents referred to as Dhubela Museum. It contains the Maharaja’s cenotaph; and many other interesting artefacts of days gone by. It was opened in 1955 by none other than Prime Minister Nehru. It’s a good display of locally found carvings, Jain statues, pillar inscriptions, Nandi bulls and yet more erotic sculptures, a la Khajuraho. There’s a collection of weapons and instruments of torture; and, totally unexpectedly and out of place, a hall of mirrors like you used to get at the funfair that distort your image, making you short and fat, or long and tall, and all other combinations in between. I guess the Maharaja had a sense of humour after all.
Another drive, and 66 miles later we arrived at Orchha. We checked into our hotel, the Amar Mahal, which our travel agent said was the best they could provide in the town but it “was only 3-star”. You only have to look at the homepage of their website to understand that 3-star can encompass a whole new world of luxury. We were booked into a Luxury Deluxe Room, that offered us more comfort than you could imagine. It’s true – the wifi was patchy, and the restaurant was a little… agricultural in its service, but it was such a splendid setting that you could forgive them anything. Although, I have to say – at breakfast, they offered the most disgusting croissants I have ever had the misfortune to leave on a plate. Don’t go anywhere near them. There’s a shop outside with an A-board in front of it that genuinely reads: “Ladakhi handicrafts, Tibetan jewellery, Pashmina Yak wool, shawl’s and scarf’s (sic), Cashmere pullovers – visit for more junk”. Well you can’t say fairer than that. We did indeed visit, and Mrs Chrisparkle came away with three more scarves, because she really doesn’t have enough scarves (there are drawers and drawers of the damn things at home.) Always room for more scarves.
Orchha is a charming town, attractively positioned on a rocky island, enclosed by a loop of the Betwa river. Its main sight is the extravagant Jahangir Mahal Palace, built by the Bundela king Bir Singh Deo, and named after the Mughal emperor Jahangir who overnighted there. It’s right in the centre of the old fortified town and dominates the view. The decorations, including the glazed tilework, are still in outstanding condition, and it’s a very beautiful, as well as intimidatingly grand, palace. Wandering around, there are so many little archways, and tiny rooms and nooks and crannies where you can get lost thinking about how it would have looked almost 300 years ago. One side overlooks the river, and gives you stunning natural views all around. It’s noticeable that there are many wild vultures all around, perched at the top of domes, on window ledges, and so on – a little more interesting than the pigeons we’d have in the UK. The vultures are encouraged, as vulture conservation is very important in this area.
Outside the old town, we dropped down to the road level and where it crosses the river. The road, from one side of the river to the other, is extremely perilous and you really wouldn’t want to cross it at night. Even walking across by day was scary, especially if you had to move to the sides to let a car or, even worse, a bus go past. It was getting late too – and by the time we’d walked across the river and back again, and headed towards the town centre, the lights were coming on and Orchha was moving into night mode. That meant lots of activity at the temple, and Sachun encouraged us to stay out – or go back to the hotel and come out again – to witness what I understood to be some kind of “extreme worship” at this one particular temple. It sounded genuinely fascinating, but we were too tired. A return to the Amar Mahal was a must.