It was at about this time in the course of our trip to Orchha that I started feeling stupid for not having carried the better cameras available to me, kind courtesy grown up children who keep their father in good humour by giving him new electronic toys every now and then. Smartphone cameras have made us lazy: even though they are great for taking quick photographs of each other, for quality pictures they fall short and your writer is going to start carrying proper cameras henceforth.
A German tourist from Dresden explained to me, "To do justice to what we are seeing in front of us, we must use a better camera." I promised him I would abide by his advice, because, our visit the next day to the cenotaphs, locally known as chattries, was, even to my well-travelled eyes and inner senses, amazing. So much so that we went again in the evening, to try and make sense of the shadows in the two hours before sunset, as well as get a more neutral light to really get a better grip on the whole architecture and precision laid out in front of us in a garden that was the cleanest piece of real estate for miles around.
The cenotaphs at Orchha are about 1km upstream of the fort and temple, on the Betwa river as it flows in a north-easterly direction, on its way from Hoshangabad towards the Yamuna. The gradient, cleanliness and speed of the river here is quite impressive, and white water rafting over some challenging rock faces as well as paddle boats for tourists in the easier parts, are available.
On its own, a visit to Orchha to see the Betwa river itself is worth the effort, with many of the hotels being built on and along the banks of this historic river. There are also a large number and variety of migratory birds returning to this part of the whole Chambal - Betwa - Yamuna wetlands, largely due to more awareness on the part of the people who live there, and good work done by the governments of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh in this context.
We did not see any plastic waste floating past us in the river throughout our visit. Do you know how amazing this is? The water is clean enough to drink straight from the river or the many streams emerging from the small hills in the area. The moat around the fort is green with scum and is a breeding ground for flies and mosquitoes right next to the municipality offices there. And only crows inhabit the area.
The good bird watching spots are away from the government offices and fort area, both sides of the town. I am not an expert in bird watching but if the number of serious looking tourists with huge camera sets is an indication, it should be serious business here.
The riverbank is people by fine, enthusiastic young boat operators, well-trained in life-saving by the navy, who displayed their certification with pride. Enquiry revealed that they had obtained it from Goa. There are no motor boats here, no casting off if you don't wear your life-jackets, no human entry into the swampy areas, and absolutely no boating after sunset, at any cost, as it is not good for the environment.
Back then, to the cenotaphs. There are 14 of them grouped together at one location, built from the 16th to the 18th century, as memorials to the Bundela rulers there. These 14 are very well maintained, probably counting amongst the cleanest monuments seen in a while, and each one has some design brilliance which requires much more than a rapid spin around. There is a very interesting square-circle design element which needs to be seen to be understood better. There are also a large number of similar cenotaphs scattered around in the forests nearby, many abandoned, waiting to be discovered.
The vulture population, seven species according to the local people (four according to some reports) is being consciously conserved and nurtured through local participation in Orchha. Local people are very well aware that this will improve Orchha’s tourism potential, so the vultures are not disturbed, hunted or given access to the dead carcasses of buffaloes which caused their almost total extinction in other parts of India.
We spent a lot of time at the cenotaphs, and would recommend a full day there, with time off for lunch. Do remember to wear a hat, though, and pack strong trekking shoes, preferably hard soled. Once again, research on the cenotaphs provides more mythology than details, but the alignments and construction suggest adherence to astronomical and cosmic patterns, which will need much more research than what I am capable of.