A stone’s throw from Jhansi in the heart of incredible India lies Orchha, a forgotten old town founded by Rudra Pratap Singh of the Bundela Dynasty. Situated on the banks of the river Betwa , it was once one of the most prosperous states in pre independence India. But today remnants of it’s former glory lie scattered around the town weathering years of abandon, its bricks laid bare to the mercy of the elements and stifled by overgrown by weeds.
Since it’s merger with the Indian Union in 1950 fate has not been kind to Orchha nor her residents. A town which was once surrounded by temples, palaces and even boasted of a 21 gun salute is now withdrawn, hidden from view. The people once subjects of great and generous rulers today struggle to make a living. Ironically Orccha means ‘hidden’. Perhaps it’s fate was decided at inception.
I stayed with a family of 6 while in Orchha – a grandfather, grandmother, father, mother, daughter and son. The home stay was arranged by the grassroots organization called Friends of Orchha. The NGO gave financial support to the families to build guest rooms and clean toilets. The families then charged guests a very nominal fee for bed and food.
I sat with the mother on the raised mud platform that functioned as a kitchen beside a small fire fueled by cakes of cow dung . She was making roti and dal. That was to be our dinner.
” You use lots of coconut in Kerala, correct?” she asked.
With that we started an exchange of culture and information. I asked her all about Orchha. What she thought about the neglect and abandon of the buildings. She didn’t seem too worried about that. People who could not afford houses had moved into some of the better maintained ruins. You can see their laundry hanging from the towers she said. In her world this was alright. But I had a good laugh imagining the gun towers which once sounded a 21 gun salute to the visiting emperor Jehangir now used as a laundry line.
All she wanted to know in return was why I unmarried well past the prime age of 20. I changed the subject complimenting her on her perfect circular rotis.
To which she replied ” It’s a shame if I don’t make perfect rotis. This is all I have done my whole life. But my daughter is going to study. Doctor she will become”.
According to the 2001 census the population of Orchha was 8501 with a literacy rate of 54% lower than the national average of 59.5%.
Recently a guest had agreed to sponsor the children’s education. The mother was thrilled about it. She told me of her hopes for her children. She wanted them to have different lives than their parents. She wanted them to go to big cities and work.
” You use coconut oil in cooking” She asked me coming back to the subject of my culture.
“Please don’t mind my questions. All this I read in my daughter’s books otherwise I don’t know. I have been in Orchha all my life”.