What Happens When a Good City Goes Bad
Orchha at sunset

What Happens When a Good City Goes Bad

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The other day (ok, it was a week ago at least but I’ve been a bit limited by Internet access in these parts) I was in Orchha and with the benefit of a few days to reflect on my time there I realized something: whether it knows it or not, this little town in the state of Madya Pradesh in central India appears to be holding the line against the allied Forces of Darkness.   It is a town that could very well be on its way to becoming the dark fortress of a nefarious ne’er-do-well or necromancer of the likes of Sauron, or, for that matter, Skeletor.   We’ve all seen movies and read books where the bad guy has a menacing evil castle complex but have you ever wondered how such towns develop or, as the case may be, devolve?  Well, Orchha is, I think, pitted in a struggle for its immortal soul, unknowingly trying to spare itself the fate of becoming the lair of evil.

As I see it, there is a balance of good versus evil, light versus dark, creamy versus chunky if you will.

(Pardon the excessive use of “evil” in this missive – I blame it on an indoctrination in current American political rhetoric that hasn’t yet worn off in my time abroad.)

On the side of goodness and light, the town has much going for it.

First, it is surrounded by a veritable sea of happy yellow mustard flowers which would certainly not be a welcome mat to someone evil.   Certainly not dark fortress dwellers like Gargamel or Cobra Commander who would never be caught dead hiding out amid such a cheery landscape.

Second it has some of the brightest, feel-good doorways this side of the Ganges.  (Ok, to be honest, I have no idea if doors look any different on the other side of the river.)   A good many of the little homes are newly painted and the doors are done in brilliant shades of aquamarine, red and yellow.  Like the Dodge Neon, the homes just seem to be smiling at you.   That’s nice.  Of course it certainly detracts from the manliness factor of the Neon; yes, even the turbocharged SRT-4 version.

Third, rumor has it that the local river (i.e. not the Ganges) is actually clean.  This might actually be a cause for concern in India as it is totally out of character; you could imagine Fred from Scooby-Doo looking at the river pensively and saying, “It sure is clean gang [thoughtful pause while he strokes his masculine chin] but maybe it’s too clean!”   Still, we’re going to count the clean river as a plus for the town – and for all that is right and good in the world.

Fourth, the town has an abundance of sweets vendors.  There is certainly a downside to this which we’ll get to shortly but it’s hard for a town to be uber evil if the streets (all two of them) are lined by people selling pistachio paste confections.   I mean a town with lots of sugary stuff, how bad can it be?  (Hmm, ignore Jonestown and its Kool-Aid.)

Finally, like the rest of India (at least this time of year), the sky is bright blue without a cloud to be found; it’s even minimal in the smog department.

However on the other side, there are clearly signs that Orchha could fall into dark times and become the sort of capstone residence in a mythically unfriendly place of the likes of Mordor.

First and most obvious is the hard-to-overlook fact that the town is abandoned or was before becoming a minor tourist outpost.   What was a former empire capital of 15,000 now counts about 6,000 residents and not a one of them is living what Ricky Martin might call “La Vida Maharaja.”  The shine is off this town.   (Considering the number of once great civilizations and city-states that have dotted India, there may be a lesson to other great powers.)

The modern town is built around the ruins of the former Bundelas capital city.  Actually, “ruins” isn’t quite right because while Hampi truly looks ruined, Orchha’s 400-year-old fortress-like palaces and temples are in a pretty good state of affairs.   I mean they look good for their age and centuries of neglect.  But you can certainly see that they’re going south.   Walls are turning a foreboding gray (or darker) from mildew and lichens.  It’s not a good sign because as anyone will tell you, once an abandoned fortress goes black, it never goes back.

The buildings themselves are picture perfect for an evil city complex.  First they are big, dominating the skyline with a series of towers and domes that reach maybe 50m in height and dwarf the modern one- or two-story buildings that house travel agents, auto parts stores and tailors (sometimes combinations thereof as well which makes for interesting shopping).   The architecture itself, though built in light-colored stone, looks ripe for an evil stronghold.  The Hindu-Mughal hybrid means layered spires and cathedral-like vaults with internal mazes of balconies and stairwells.   And the foreboding silhouette of the buildings is only magnified by the birds.

Yes there are lots and lots of green squawking parrots and they would certainly be counted on the side of goodness.   But it’s hard to ignore the uncomfortable amount of what I’ll call “bad birds,” namely crows and vultures, which perch on the old buildings and fly lazy circles in the sky like airborne sharks.   (Is it a bad analogy to compare circling sharks to circling vultures?  I think it may be somehow redundant, no?)  Their lack of haste almost seems to indicate that they’re just biding their time, waiting for something – perhaps for the town to die en masse.

And not to belabor (or belabour if we’re using local spellings) the point but there are a lot of them.  Habitated cities can have great numbers of pigeons or maybe a few birds of prey.   Even New York’s hawks don’t seem to portend evil (there are other elements in the Big Apple to do that).  But when you have one vulture or crow to every resident in town it should make you wonder if there is something about your town that has a smell of carrion.

It could actually be that the town smells, well, like crap.  Maybe not much more so than the average Indian town which struggles a bit with waste disposal but I will say that there are more flies in Orchha than I’ve seen elsewhere in one place in India.   So while the copious sweets vendors are good, the clouds of flies that cover the mounds of pistachio cookies do dock points.

In the same family of things that should make Orchha wonder about its future is its bee population and said population’s questionable intent and behavior.   In many of India’s old monuments one can find huge hives; this is true even at the Taj Mahal which is very well maintained.  They are big, perhaps five or six feet long and two or three feet high; each must be home to thousands of bees.   (If you’re a bear you might also be thinking that they’d be home to lots of yummy honey.)  Now I was only in town for a few days and I only saw this happen once but given the odds, I’d imagine it happens quite a bit: at one point in the afternoon as I was on the top floor of the Jehangir Palace, a swarm of Biblical proportions rose up outside the walls and moved inside the structure, filling the internal courtyard that is probably 15m high.   I was standing with an Italian guy and we were both open-jawed; the tour group on the ground seemed mildly terrified.  No doubt a cloud of stinging insects is not a harbinger of good things.

Finally, while it may not have the import of the previous points, I feel compelled to point out that this part of Madya Pradesh appears to be a major producer of dried cow patties.   They’re used for fuel as well as a foundation for festive holiday decorations (which you’d know if you’d seen Martha Stewart’s special: “Christmas Decorating with Turds”).   It seems a harmless enough endeavor but when even a small part of your economy is devoted to systematically cultivating manure and manipulating it into perfect round forms, you may not be heading in the right direction.   As they say, poo farming rarely leads to anything good.

And then there are a few things that I’m not quite sure about.  It is a tourist town but there are hardly any postcards to be found.   Those that exist in one or two shops look like they’ve been around for decades and have the faded, weary appearance of Miss Havisham’s dress (my apologies if the allusion upsets anyone who still gets hives thinking about reading Dickens in high school).   Tourists keep away bad guys (as do “meddling kids”) and the fact that such a mainstay of tourism is on the decline would seem to not bode well.

Another thing that puzzles me is the number of Koreans.  For whatever reason the place is really popular with them.   Now I have nothing against Koreans.  In fact, I’m quite fond of the mobile phones and TVs they turn out (never mind that most have been reverse engineered from Japanese products) and you can even feel safe sitting in a Hyundai how.   But what do we really know about the Koreans?  I’d say that at the very least, someone should keep an eye on them.   Think about it: they travel in packs and they come from a land-starved country.  Wouldn’t India be an attractive takeover target, particularly given its abundance of rice, an Asian staple?   All I’m saying is, stay alert India.

Finally there are the monkeys (why is the plural not “monkies”?).  The too could go either way.   On one hand, everyone likes their cute little old men’s faces and spunky antics.  And then there’s the comical way they eat fruit.  On the other hand I’m reminded of a sinister side of simians (yes, I was reaching for the alliteration there); I know a certain Kansas farm girl and “her little dog too” who’d tell you that monkeys – particularly the flying variety – are no good.

It’s tricky to see how it will end for li’l ol’ Orchha.  But, for the sake of all humankind, let’s hope goodness prevails.   If you want to help, visit Orchha.  Just remember to bring happy flowers and buy the postcards.  The fate of the world may depend on it.