I’d never heard of Orchha before I arrived in India, but people kept raving about it, and it was described as a “must see”. Since it fitted nicely into the route from Khajuraho to Jhansi and Gwalior, I decided to stop off and see what all the fuss was about.
By the time I’d checked out of the hotel in Khajuraho, and had brunch with Emily and Bouke (which took over an hour from expressing an interest in food, to someone taking our order, not even to mention the time it took to prepare it), getting a bus or train to Orchha was going to be an ordeal, so I went to the extravagant expense of taking a taxi. I justified it on the basis that the cost of the 3 hour / 175km journey here would be no more than the 15 minute taxi ride I’d be taking from the railway station when I got home.
When we arrived in Orchha, the taxi driver told me that Ganpati, the hotel I’d asked to be taken to, was dirty, crowded, noisy and very bad. Did I want him to take me to Hotel Sunrise instead? It was the classic “alternative hotel” commission scam: if I went along with it, Sunrise would charge me an inflated price, and pay the driver a reward for bringing me there. I said no, and got out at Ganpati. After I checked in, the driver tried to claim to the owner, Vinod, that he deserved a commission for bringing me there. Vinod told him to get lost, as I’d already made a reservation by phone two days before. Later he went to find Vinod’s brother to make the same claim; he got the same reply as it was the brother who’d taken my call. Rather than leave it at that, I told Vinod exactly what the driver had said about his hotel, and the fact he’d tried to divert me to Sunrise. They weren’t very happy about it, especially since they knew the driver, often gave him business when guests asked them to arrange taxis, and had let him sleep there for free when he’d been stuck in Orchha overnight. So I guess he won’t be getting those favours any more.
The usual advice for avoiding the alternative hotel commission scam is to make prior reservations, and ignore taxi drivers advising you to go elsewhere. I’d go further: don’t just protect yourself from the scammers, go on the offensive and fight back! Tell the good hotels what the drivers are saying about them: you might just ruin a lucrative business relationship. That’ll learn the bastards.
Vinod and his brother also seemed worried that I might believe some of the things that the driver had said about Ganpati, but I assured them that, as far as I was concerned, any hotel which a dishonest driver tried to divert me away from must be a good one. They liked my “Indian style” thinking, and invited me to go up to the terrace for a chai. This was the view:
Stopping at Orchha was worth it just to screw over the scamming taxi driver. But as far as the town itself goes, it’s overrated. It consists of a number of palaces, mansions, temples and memorials, built in the 16th century on an island between two channels of the river Betwa. The town was abandoned and forgotten about, and the buildings swallowed up by jungle, until its fairly recent rediscovery. Unlike the palaces of Rajasthan, which are well maintained and sumptuously decorated, those of Orchha are bare and crumbling. That’s supposed to be its charm: the poignant dignity of the once-great buildings, surrounded by the quiet forest.
The problem is, they’re not surrounded by quiet forest. They’re surrounded by a bustling tourist town. When you’re standing on the top terrace of the Raj Mahal, looking out over the area, you’re not thinking, “I’m moved to tears by the pathos of this monument to impermanence and decay.” You’re thinking, “I wish all the traffic down there would stop honking.” Dilapidated ruins in the middle of a noisy town aren’t anything noteworthy in India; that describes most of its buildings, even the occupied ones.
If you follow the trail away from the big palaces and explore the rest of the island, you come across little ruined houses and mansions among the trees. You get to experience a bit of forlornness and solitude there, deep enough into the woods to lose the noises of the town, but the ruins you find are pretty meagre. So Orchha offers small ruins in serene forest, and big ruins in a town, but not what would be really special: big ruins in serene forest.
Next I went back across the river to the large Chaturbhuj Temple, which someone had told me was uninteresting as a temple, but had good views from the roof, if you paid the priests Rs50 to take you up there. I did as instructed, and followed the little guy as he scuttled quickly up a narrow, tight spiral staircase of very tall (almost knee high) steps, in almost perfect darkness. There were indeed good views from the top, but no escape from Chat Harassment. The priest was fine: he just led me around and pointed out interesting sights. But a young man came up to me, a big stupid grin on his face, and greeted me enthusiastically.
- Hello, friend! You remember me? I meet you last night!
- Did you really? [I had only talked to Vinod and his brother the previous night, and eaten at Hotel Ganpati]
- You have thali at my uncle’s restaurant, Blue Sky! You remember?
- Me: You are the most transparent and pathetic liar I’ve met so far in India. And I’ve met a lot.
The sudden change of expression on his face, from insincere friendliness, to surprise and shock, was priceless.
At the bottom, the priest introduced me to a deaf and mute boy who, from his miming, I gathered was responsible for locking up the temple and sleeping there overnight. I was encouraged to give him a Rs10 tip. I said to the priest, “What for? You showed me around. If I’m going to tip anyone, it’s you,” but he seemed to prefer I give it to the deaf-mute boy.
If the temple employs him as a nightwatchman (and presumably not a very good one), don’t they pay him themselves? Why not charge 60 instead of 50 for the roof tours and give him a regular wage (or increase it) out of the difference? But I guess they do it this way because it lets the punters feel good about supporting him directly. Religious visitors feel they’ve acquired merit by giving alms to the boy, whereas just expecting him to be paid a wage from the temple’s accounts doesn’t salve their consciences as effectively. Personally, I prefer statutory protection of employees’ rights.