There was a gaping void in the door of the unreserved train carriage we had managed to force our way into and no space was available aside from the floor. The gaps to the outside world created a howling winter wind that swept past us throughout the night as we laid wrapped up in each other, shivering inside our thin summer sleeping bags and trying not to imagine exactly what the suspicious stains were that surrounded us. We were heading towards Orchha in Northern India, and we were experiencing the joys of last-minute train travel when you’re too unorganized to book in advance.
We arrived at the break of dawn; frozen to the bone even underneath a thick blanket a sadhu had given us as a parting gift in Maheshwar, a previous stop-over town. We bartered for a tempo (a shared auto-rickshaw or tuk-tuk) and quietly absorbed the surroundings of a new part of India as we raced between cows, potholes and motorbikes that somehow continue to work despite their outward appearance. The tempo kicked up clouds of dust as the warmth of the morning sun began to slowly thaw us out.
The road leading into Orchha was notably underwhelming, and my heart began to sink as we passed more and more ugly concrete buildings and uninspiring scenery. “Here we are”, said the tempo driver as we pulled up, with a smile that began to creep up underneath his moustache with the knowledge he had just made the equivalent of five or six trips full of locals by overcharging us. We hesitantly got out and were ushered by a teenage boy through what looked like a disused shop-front into the courtyard behind.
I lowered my expectations of what would lie behind the glass windows that had provided the initial impression of this guesthouse, and reflected my impression of Orchha itself. We lugged our backpacks through the courtyard, traipsing after the boy, nearly collapsing due to lack of adequate sleep. The sight that awaited us stopped me dead in my (albeit very slow) tracks.
I felt like I had just stepped into a lost fairytale kingdom. All the concrete buildings we had passed had been covering up the spectacular scenery and architecture that put Orchha on the map; and we had front-row seats. What had opened up before us was an incomparable view of the palace complex, which on it’s own is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful series of buildings I have ever seen (and also one of the best examples of classical Mughal Architecture to still exist today). Combined with the surrounding landscape and wildlife, though, it turned into an absolutely unbelievable sight.
The morning light created silhouettes of the fort and palaces and lit up the pools of visible water that were scattered in-between the mossy green stream that split off from the Betwa River. A handful of colourfully-dressed locals and tourists leisurely made their way across a bridge into the maze of the complex, navigating up and down stairs that were hidden in strange alcoves and down long passageways. The palaces themselves were magnificent, large buildings with incredible intricacy and detail that gave the impression that they still possessed not a fraction-less of their original grandeur.
A dense, green forest consumed the rest of the remaining space, which is one of the reasons Orchha was so hidden from the world for so many centuries (and why Orchha literally means ‘hidden’). Giant majestic birds, which I later discovered were vultures, flew in the distance, and songbirds provided a beautiful soundtrack accompaniment that completed the sensory feast.
I put my bags down and indulged in the moment before the bartering for the room began.