We spent the last two nights in Orchha, quite a charming little town in the countryside. We have left Rajasthan behind and are moving more centrally into the Indian interior. The terrain is changing along with us. The countryside here is much more green, with trees and vegetation all around. It is still pretty dry (we are only a few weeks from monsoon season after all), but there is definitely less of a sense of being in a desert here. The henna bushes are in bloom, and the gentle scent is all around. We are seeing more palm and coconut trees, even giant mango trees with actual mangoes on the branches. Interestingly, the most impressive trees around, with huge trunks, are actually ficus trees, which certainly gives me a newfound respect for my humble office plants (!).
Orchha is a very old place, with buildings that predate the Islamic Moghul architecture of Rajasthan. The palace up on the hill (actually 6 different palaces and forts, built at different times) was very beautiful. Orchha has a mix of Hindu and Muslim history and we saw both influences in the buildings. Atop the palaces were a series of onion-domes, with the Mulsim influence, except that they were gently shaped into lotus flowers. There must have been 20 or so of these domes of different sizes along the roof line. Then, there were the Hindu influenced domes, which aren't really domes at all, as they are much more pointy, like intricately carved inverted cones. These cones are called by the Hindi word for umbrellas, which is both charming and apt. The palaces are almost completely abandoned, and we could walk around parts of them freely, going up and down secret staircases, up into the ramparts, around the narrow walkway at the top. The view from the very top had one of the most wonderful vistas some of us had every seen--the shining river, forests and fields, a pair of far off bridges rising in the distance, beautiful birds circling and soaring high up in the clouds, and best of all, in every direction, the pointy domes of ancient abandoned Hindu temples in the woods and fields. The sun was shining, there was a gentle breeze, white puffy clouds rolled through, and it was a truly glorious time.
Also at the top of the Orchha palaces were literally hundreds of buzzards. These giant birds circle high up in the sky, really catching the wind to soar and soar. They also perch up on all the carving of the domes and ramparts, almost blending with the carving. They are huge, and it is easy to mistake them for gargoyles or something similar. We managed to get close, when we were at the very top, to a nest with at least one fuzzy baby. We could actually see the mother bird feeding it. Buzzards are kind of creepy up close, and it was all quite an experience.
We had a day trip to Chanderi, which is off the beaten path to some degree. It's a small town, known for the very special hand woven fine silk saris made by the women. We had the opportunity to watch the weaving of a sari, and the thread is so delicate, the work so tiny, it was clear the amount of time and craft that went into just a single piece of cloth. We had the opportunity to buy saris and scarves from a women's collective, which employs widows who would otherwise be homeless. In Chanderi as well, we saw some abandoned ancient temples and graves. Unlike in the US where everything historic is carefully preserved and presented, much of what we are seeing here--especially in Chanderi--was just completely abandoned and open. We could walk around these ancient Hindu monuments, way out in the fields, and all around us were carved rocks, fallen temples, graves, all in the middle of the fields and trees. The site at Chanderi was more than a 1000 years old, and it was pretty amazing to be there.
We arrived in Khajuraho yesterday, which also happened to be Kate's birthday. Kate wore her beautiful sky-blue sari when we went out to see the famous temples here, and it was quite a day. The temples here are a world heritage site, and they were carefully protected and maintained. These temples are also very old, both Jain and Hindu, carved with the cone domes, and covered in very detailed carvings of all the gods from the Hindu religion. Each of the gods is shown as part of a pair, and some of them were quite intimate. There must have been hundreds of carvings on each temple. One of the temple sites was more wild, and we were the only Westerners there. We could walk around and go inside and explore all across the grounds. Several of the temples, all dark inside except for whatever little light comes in the small windows, had bats in them. It was very Indiana Jones, and very cool.
We had a birthday cake for Kate yesterday, and this morning, for breakfast, we had another cake for Matt, who gets to celebrate his birthday today. I think it must be great luck to get to have a birthday in India...
We get on a plane to Varanasi this afternoon: the world's oldest continually inhabited city, and certainly one of the most holy. The Ganges flows through, and we should arrive in time for the evening flower ceremony.
Martha and Andrea