Date: 5 May
Location: Ramaraja restaurant rooftop, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh
Notable sightings: a pre-monsoon storm.
Monuments seen: god, countless.
Tonight we're staying in tents in Orchha. But saying they're 'just tents' is a little like saying an espresso martini is 'just a drink', a nap is 'just a sleep' or India is 'just a bit hot'. Our tent has has aircon (thank the gods!), a bathroom and even cable TV. Yes, this is Indian glamping.
Orchha means hidden place, a reference to the shady teak trees that protect the village's streets and line it's precious Betwa River. Tucked into Madhya Pradesh (“Central State”), in the heart of India, it's truly tiny — home to only 10,000 villagers — and silently watched over by a disproportionate number of handsome temples, palaces and forts. In strong contrast to Delhi or Agra, the city settles down as evening falls. There are no bright lights, no bustling market, and a true darkness I hadn't yet seen in India. Into this darkness we ventured to visit the Ramaraja temple for prayer time.
Villagers and pilgrims file up the dark main streets and through the temple's gaudy orange gates and past the armed guards, jostling for position in the temple's main courtyard. We're swept a long in their colourful, glittery number. At precisely eight pm, a guard takes his place in front of two ornate doors and salutes with his rifle. The doors fly open, the drums begin, bells clang, someone plays a conch shell and the priest appears from his inner sanctum in a haze of incense. Much like they did in the Bollywood movie theatre, the crowd goes mental. This time, they're singing in Hindi and pressing forward to drop donations into the boxes, throw red and yellow blossoms towards the inner sanctum or catch the holy water that the priest casts upon the devotees. The priest himself is an impressive sight in saffron robes, with free flowing hair and a brow painted in white stripes. I step aside to allow a gnarled little Indian woman come forward with her coin offering of 5 rupees (10 cents) which she untwists from a scrap of cotton that she retrieves from deep in her sari. A handsome young acolyte sees her and steps forward to sombrely press 50 rupees into her palm. Her tiny face crumples up in a grateful smile as she drops the note into the offering box and makes a prayer sign. In the midst of this clamouring, colourful circus, that's the quiet moment I'll remember best.
The temple's name, Ramaraja, means 'King Rama'. The Ramaraja story goes that the maharaja and his maharani were building a fantastic temple but were unable to agree for whom it would be built: she said Rama (the seventh reincarnation of Vishnu) and he said Krishna (the eighth reincarnation of Vishnu). (Incidentally, the Hindus say that Buddha is Vishnu's ninth reincarnation.) To settle the debate, each went to their preferred god's holy place to find proof of superiority. The maharani eventually found Rama himself and he agreed to travel to Orchha with her in the form of a statue, provided that the maharani walked the whole 400km home on foot and did not set his statue down except within his new temple's walls. Pleased with herself, the maharani returned home on foot, only to find the temple not yet complete. She set Rama's statue down in the cool shade of her palace's kitchen to wait. Later, the grand temple complete (and the queen smug in her victory), her majesty attempted to pick up her Rama statue, only to find that she had neglected Rama's second condition and that the statue was immovable. Suitably humbled, she went to her husband who agreed (one imagines somewhat smugly) that the only way forward was to convert their palace into Rama's new temple with the kitchen as it's glorious inner sanctum. Meaning, of course, that the beautiful new temple next door could be for Krishna after all.
With our local guide we saw other temples and too many palaces and learned enough about the town, the tongue-twisting names of its maharajas and the quirks of Hindu mythology to make me dizzy (or that could be heat exhaustion). We also learned that, while India's national animal is the Tiger, Indians consider the camel the symbol of love. Why? Because if you can love a camel, you can love anyone. Lols.