MP’s Namaste Orchha festival is newest addition to international tourism calendar

Faizal Khan
The famous royal chhatris, or cenotaphs, on the banks of the Betwa river

In the initial years of the 17th century, Vir Singh Deo, the Bundela chief of Orchha, built a majestic mansion for Mughal emperor Jahangir. Deo and Jahangir shared a strong bond of friendship, one that began much before Jahangir ascended the throne. Historians, however, are divided over Jahangir’s visit to Orchha, a sleepy town in today’s Madhya Pradesh. Some say the emperor came and spent a night at Jahangir Mahal, the new palace built in 1605, while others are certain he never arrived. Four centuries later, the fascinating history of Orchha is at the centre of a new tourism policy of Madhya Pradesh.

The Namaste Orchha festival by the Madhya Pradesh Tourism Board is the newest addition to the state’s cultural calendar. The three-day festival, which began on March 6, is counting on the town’s tradition of friendliness to bring dividends. Not surprisingly, the first edition of the festival has put its weight behind collaboration and togetherness. "Collaboration is of paramount importance to the festival," says rock band Indian Ocean’s guitarist Amit Kilam, who has curated the music programme of Namaste Orchha.

One of the highlights of the festival was Indian Ocean performing with Kaluram Bamaniya, a folk singer from the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh famous for his Kabir songs. Incidentally, one of the songs from the upcoming Indian Ocean album is a Kabir poem-Tan dhan ki kaun bidai-which was sung on the occasion to enthusiastic applause from the audience.

"Orchha’s history, heritage and architecture make it an ideal destination for tourists," says Madhya Pradesh tourism secretary Faiz Ahmed Kidwai. "The town’s proximity to the Golden Triangle (tourism circuit comprising Delhi, Agra and Jaipur) is a huge advantage," adds Kidwai, managing director of the state tourism board.

Madhya Pradesh is betting big on Orchha. The town, which won the Best Heritage City honour at the National Tourism Awards two years ago, has been repainted for the festival. The tourism board, in fact, roped in designer Anupamaa Dayal to add a "unique visual identity" to the town. She proceeded to paint the walls lining Orchha’s main thoroughfare and several of the homestays that have come up to promote tourism. "The painting of the town symbolises freedom, happiness and beauty," says Dayal, who spent months researching the town’s monuments, frescoes and the region’s Gondh art whose leitmotif is the bird.

"Orchha is a happy place," agrees festival director Yasmin Kidwai. "The town represents the best of the syncretic culture of India. There is a mandir and masjid in the same building, underlining communal harmony," she adds. The festival, Kidwai says, aims at putting Orchha on the international tourism map in a sustainable way.

A lot of work has gone into sustainable tourism development here. For instance, the local community (especially women) has been encouraged to build homestays. The state tourism board has also partnered with Airbnb for skill development classes for homestay owners. Additionally, the government has given loans to local women to own and operate e-rickshaws for ferrying around tourists. The hope is that all this will give a fillip to tourism-tourism board figures say the state received 80 million domestic tourists last year, with foreign visitors pegged at 3.50 lakh.

For its first edition, Namaste Orchha has enlisted big names like French musician Manu Chao, Dhobi Ghat actor Monica Dogra, dancer Aditi Mangaldas and chef Vikramjit Roy for higher footfall. Visitors are also being given photography walks, cycle tours, rafting lessons on the Betwa and even a 10-minute helicopter joyride over the town. The aim is to help the festival find a place alongside its bigger cousin, the Khajuraho Dance Festival, that takes place in February every year.

Faizal Khan is a freelancer