Orccha & A Commentary On Historical Preservation

Khajuraho to Orccha went as planned, we ignored our lying hotel owner, who tried to convince us that there were no morning buses (which is absurd and insulting to our intelligence), and caught an 8 am bus to the Orccha road; from there it was a short trip in a packed tempo (over sized autorickshaw) to the village itself. Probably technically a town, but by Indian standards Orccha is very small, although it is a busy Hindu pilgrimage site. After scoping a few hotel options, with Liz leaving Anderson the pack mule behind with the baggage for some price-comparisons, we settled on the dingy-but-acceptable 150 Rs hotel, rather than the nicer-and-cleaner 200 Rs hotel – gotta save those rupees when you can!

Orccha has a few things worth sight-seeing, from ye olde Western perspective, but like Khajuraho, we decided a division between two days was necessary for maximum enjoyment and minimum boredom. So we spent the post-heat afternoon, preceded by a cheap thali, wandering about the town’s massive Moghul palace complex. Many of the buildings are quite dilapidated, but the main palace itself is in reasonable condition, and provides amazing views of the town and countryside from its high-up windows. Nice to relax 100 meters up, being blown by a cool breeze, and staring out on the ruins of a mighty former civilization. One of the mahals had some nice painted ceilings, in the former maharajah’s and his queen’s bedroom chambers – full scenes of Hindu gods, exquisitely painted in bright colors, though now cracked and faded due to poor maintenance.

We then wandered through some of the smaller buildings, including one mahal that had partially collapsed. Strange to wander through a deteriorated building, where you can see where paintings once were, and even stare into the depths of an ancient well, now just a bottomless abyss waiting for a hapless tourist…? More than one building was under construction, or maybe renovation, though with modern Indian building techniques it’s a bit of a stretch to call it the latter. Mud-brick and “local cement” simply isn’t going to withstand the ravages of time that the initial buildings and fortress walls, expecting imminent marauding enemies, would have been designed to. That said, something is better than nothing, right? While in our third, or was it fourth, mahal of the day, a solitary drummer led a small procession through the streets of the palatial surrounds, an interesting contrast of the modern Hindu and the ancient, abandoned, Muslim.

A bit more detail on our painted ceiling experience (these are Anderson’s personal opinions):

Many sites in India have paintings, or other such niceties, that are kept locked up for protection, though they are supposed to be opened for free, as they are (obviously) included in the admission charge (which in Orccha was an amazingly cheap deal, only 30 Rs for we foreigners!). But of course the individual keyholder-cum-guide, does everything in their power to extract baksheesh, sometimes for their information, and other times for maintaining the building, etc. Baksheesh being Baksheesh, clearly it’s not going to historical preservation, it’s going to the local paan seller (alright, an unfair assumption, though probably accurate :-). The frustrating part is that as a white Westerner, you are asked/pressured for baksheesh frequently through the “tour,” even though all you want to see is the amazing ancient artwork, which is in such constantly-increasing disrepair that it probably won’t even be viewable within another generation or so. So it’s sorta now or never for a lot of these locked-up treasures, as it seems the ancient arts have been effectively lost, or at least deprioritized to such an extent that the mahals in Orccha are never going to be repainted; they are no Taj Mahal, at least as far as tourism is concerned. What makes this all so ironic, in the most ridiculous way, is the rational for the lock-and-key situation, as explained by our guide-who-was-not-a-guide: the reality is that unwatched Indians scratch away paint (we saw a boy doing this high up in the mahal, simply for curiosity sake…), write their name and the date, carve their initials and their girlfriend’s too, etc., etc. Everywhere we went within the palace complex, mahals or camel stables it made no difference, literally had countless names inscribed on the walls. This means that we, as respectful, thoughtful, experienced international tourists/travelers, have to deal with unwanted additional headache and hassle, simply because Indians are not thoughtful enough, or are they too busy drowning in a pool of their own ignorance – really, what the f*ck people? – to appreciate their own cultural heritage? This conflict is made worse by the fact that at most sites, whether major or minor, foreign tourists have to pay a higher admission, often 10 – 20x the “Indian” price. Yet Indians are the ones who are blatantly destroying these treasures of antiquity, while we whities foot the bill? Obviously I’m generalizing here, but India is all about such things – after all America is a mystical fantasy land of jobs and automatic wealth to the average Indian on the street – and after 6 months in India, these things warrant comment…

I understand the Archaeological Survey of India lacks reasonable funding from the Indian government, and that collecting additional money from foreign tourists is really the only way they can maintain any semblance of a balanced budget, but it is such so frustrating to have to drop 100, 200, 250, or more (Taj is 750) rupees to see a monument, while Indian nationals pay only 5, 10, 15, or 20, and then they feel entitled to contribute to the downfall of the very historic treasure they are paying to see. If anyone needs a guide while walking around, clearly it is the omnipresent large Indian families – complete with herds of disrespectful children, and the equally omnipresent hordes of young, single (which in this case is being redundant) men, who apparently think its cool to defile historic sites. Now, I’m not ignorant enough to suppose that this only occurs in India, but the magnitude of so-called modern graffiti is at times staggering (virtually beyond belief) and then it’s literally right next to prized paintings – as in the ones showcased in the aimed-at-Westerners items for sale (in Orccha’s case a collection of posters). Now I’m sure some Westerners contribute to the graffiti problem, whether encouraged by their Indian predecessors is up to debate, but when “Ravi + Lakshmi” is carved out in enormous letters, I think we can safely say its a non-Western couple…

The reality is that India simply has too many historical and archaeological sites to give them all the protection/respect they are due, but what is the best solution for this dilemma?

Mandatory guides at all sites? Group-size limitations? Higher, or dare I say equal, pricing for Indians and foreigners – the extra cost would deter Indians not truly interested in the historical site, those who are merely spending 10 rupees for a “fun” afternoon at history’s expense – that would also definitely raise a lot of rupees for preserving India’s monuments, and silence Western complainers like myself regarding pricing injustices…

Well, I’m off the podium now, but I’m glad Liz and I yelled at that painting-scratching kid, who of course only spoke Hindi (“no” is pretty universal at this point though), and then had the audacity to follow us around, clearly not content with destroying 400-year-old paintings, but also wanting to destroy our sanity 🙂

After our brush with deteriorating history, we decided to modernize, somewhat, our Orccha tour, by meandering through the active and crowded Hindu temple and the surrounding bustling market. Most things on sale were either devotional in nature, or trinkets, but people-watching is always enjoyable, and the Hindu faithful are certainly that, walking around the large palace-turned-temple 3 times, with some super-zealots even laying down every step of the way!

The next morning we then headed down to the river, and its busy ghats, with plenty of bathers, washers, and photo-requesters to keep us occupied! Down by the river are also a large group of cenotaphs (Moghul memorials), all-but-abandoned by now, which were great to wander through. All around the Orccha countryside are other ruins, some literally fallen over, or with only one wall remaining, so things were quite picturesque, as cows and goats were grazing next to the 16-century remains of a former empire. We walked around for 2 hours or so, until hunger forced us to return to modernity. A slow but tasty breakfast at a corner restaurant near the temple was our reward, so we had prime seats for puja processions and the like, while eating fruit salads and such…

Well, that’s enough for this post, have to continue from Orccha tomorrow, but to ruin the non-surprise, we are now in Rishikesh, the home of infinite yoga instructors and practitioners!



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