Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Orchha – India the slow way

Today I played my first game of karom. Ram Babu, the fruit and juice vendor, turns out to be a champion and was quite happy to teach me how to play. I lost eight games in a row.(But I did improve. At the start I couldn't even hit the pieces. By the end I was turning in two or three good shots a game.)

I wandered up river, having found a little gate in the high wall that surrounds the town and its hinterland, and defends against a riverside attack; I turned right, where previously I'd turned left, through fields muddy with the previous day's rain to the banks of the Betwa. I scrabbled on shingle or plains of great rounded grey pebbles that rustled and turned under my feet, and climbed over pinkish granite rubbed clean and flat by centuries of monsoon floods. A man carrying a bucket picked his way from rock to rock as delicately as a bird; women were doing their laundry in the shallows downriver, and the towers of the Teen Mahal shimmered in reflection. I saw the spires of a temple I'd visited two days before reflected in a still pool. I saw a mysterious tower in the woods on the opposite bank, and no way to reach it. I gave up when the bank became a cliff, and the water too deep to paddle across, but I could still see shallows in the middle distance, and women in pink and yellow saris doing their washing.

Like so many Indian hikes this turned out inconclusive, reaching a dead end, so that I had to follow cow tracks back to the main road, relinquishing my plan to follow the river. I came back on the 'bye pass' (Indian spelling, as always with its own idiosyncratic charm) past a fine ruined haveli, its three storey gate tower topped by the curved roof that's typical of Bundela architecture. I looked for a way up, but the stairs had caved in. I had to make do with the natural rise of the land for my view of Orchha in the valley below.

I ate lunch from Bal Kisan, at his little stall in the busy pedestrian street that runs up from the main road to the Ramraja temple. His little girl recognised me and grinned; he's more ceremonious, said 'namaste', started making my patty. The potato patties sat already made, light golden, on the side of the huge iron pan; he swept one into the centre, chopped it into segments with what appeared to be a bolster chisel, piled chickpeas on top, then fresh chopped onions and coriander; swished it round a few times, mixed, swished, chopped again, and swept it all off the pan into a paper bowl, topping it off by ladling on sweet sauce and adding a pinch of ground coriander. Total cost: twenty rupees – which is standard for the fare, but I've rarely had such a huge and tasty version of it.

I wandered down to the chhatris at the other end of town to see the sunset. A
dog bounded towards me – a dog with neatly trimmed fur and a brass-studded collar, whose German owner turned up later. We chatted; the underlying violence of India was his story, the way he'd nearly been lynched when he tried to help a road accident victim and the mob somehow got the idea he was responsible for the accident; robbery in Manipur, a crash on the bridge by the Jhansi turnoff. I've never encountered more than hopeful 200 rupee scams in India – but that violence is always there; things can turn nasty in a moment, situations are always volatile. Someone sits in the wrong seat on the bus and suddenly fists are flying... but not in Orchha, somehow, where when my bus to Sonagiri passed the road to Ramraja Temple, one man opened the window and let fly a devout and very short prayer (and five voices joined 'Hey!' at the end) before sliding the window decisively shut again. That's as eventful as things have been in Orchha this week.

I spent an afternoon picnicking at the farm near the Laxminarayan temple that my guesthouse family own. Being one of the two vegetarians who wouldn't eat any of the mutton from the goat that had been slaughtered for us; the other being younger brother, who said later, "I saw its eyes, it looked at me, I could not eat it." Playing with the younger children, watching the chapati making – hard work, pushing into the resistant dough with whole fists – chatting with Korean students sitting on a mat under the shade of slender trees, feeling the cool breeze, listening to birdsong.

The end of the day comes. Ramraja Temple's two clear, fine treble bells ring the day to a close; ting-tang, ting-tang, ting-tang, calling to rest in the gathering dark. A sound that is sweet and melancholy and you hardly hear over the chatter and the sound of frying food in the guesthouse kitchen, unless you listen for it.

From time to time I leave Orchha for an adventure; a day of torrential rain in Gwalior, saved by a sudden outburst of sunshine that made the huge Jain rock carvings shine like gold, and the streams falling from the cliffs glitter with rainbows, and from which I returned three hours late, to be warmed at the cow-pat fire that smelt like creosote; a wonderful day climbing around Sonagiri's temple-encrusted hill; a trip to Datia with its bat-haunted palaces. But most of the time I spend just wandering, taking life easy, enjoying the fact that I've found somewhere in India I can call home.

Disclaimer: just a happy customer of Temple View Guest House and consumer of the complimentary chai offered - no affiliation, and no money off my bill for writing this. :-)

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