I would like to begin this post with an interesting story of the Bundelkhands. The Bundelas were a warrior tribe of the Rajputs. War, blood, and sacrifice were the keywords to describe Bundelas and they became a symbol of valour. There is a legend that there was a young Rajput prince who agreed to offer himself to the Vindhya goddess, Vindhyavasini.
Though there are varying versions whether he actually sacrificed himself or intended to, what’s important is that the goddess was pleased with his devotion, and she named the Prince Bundela, a translation of which is: giver of drops (to mean, one who offers drops of blood). How true or not this story is, one thing is sure that the Bundela life and Rajput history of India testifies to this act and the Orchha Bundelas came to be known as the chiefs of the Bundela clan.
History of Orchha
When the Tughlaqs, who were ruling Delhi in the 15th century, pushed the Bundelkhand kings out of Garkhundar, it is said that the Bundelas retreated to the remote regions of Orchha.
Orchha is believed to be founded in early 16th century by the Bundela Rajput chief, Raja Rudra Pratap Singh, who was the first King of Orchha. Of the succeeding rulers, the most notable was Raja Bir Singh Deo who built the exquisite Jehangir Mahal. Bir Singh Deo was a favored commander of the Mughal Emperor, Jehangir. Those times during his rule between 1605-1627 is believed to be the golden age of Orchha.
As I have already indicated in a previous post, there is one such interesting phase of history when the friendship of Bundelas and Mughals gave the Bundelas a special role in the politics of the region during the reigning period of Mughal Emperor, Jehangir and Bundela King, Raja Bir Singh Deo.
However, following that golden age Raja Jujhar Singh rebelled against Shah Jehan whose armies almost ruined Orchha and occupied it from 1635-1641. Now what has remained of Orchha is beautiful reminders of its majestic past.
Orchha and its twin city, Datia, were the only Bundela regions not subjugated by the Marathas in the 18th century.
There are historical accounts that Jehangir visited Orchha to attend the coronation ceremony of Raja Bir Singh. Raja Bir Singh built the grand Datia Palace (also called Jehangir Palace) and also built the major landmark of Orchha, which is also called the Jehangir Palace, to commemorate the visit of Jehangir to Orchha in the first half of the 17th century.
For a better understanding of this post on Orchha, I would recommend my reader to have a look at my post on Datia entitled Of Bundelas and Mughals. Here's a quick ready reference:
Anguished at Fazl's death and to challenge Bir Singh's audacity, Akbar tried to have Bir Singh captured. Bir Singh teamed up with Jehangir, who by then was rebelling against his own father. Bir Singh and Jehangir apparently shared distressing moments before they both ascended the throne. Interestingly, when Jehangir was imprisoned on his way to Kabul by one of his own generals, Mahabat Khan, it is alleged that Bir Singh's youngest son, Bhagwan Rao, came to his rescue and liberated him. As a token of gratitude, when Jehangir ascended the throne, he made Bir Singh Deo the ruler of Orchha and the Bundelkhand region.
Jehangir Palace, Orchha
If the Jehangir Palace in Datia was considered unique for it was never used as a residence by any king or his descendents, then it is equally interesting to note that Jehangir stayed in the Jehangir Palace of Orchha just for a day!
I was informed that I reached Orchha as the taxi waded through a narrow dusty road and the first scene that caught my eye in the distance was the ancient Chaturbhuj Temple against the backdrop of the beautiful Jehangir Palace. The temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu's four armed reincarnation and hence the name Chaturbhuj Temple, was built during the days of Raja Bir Singh Deo. Orchha town had a rustic look about it.
What followed was a quick drive through the streets of Orchha, and then onwards to a solid island of rock surrounded by the River Betwa. After an approach provided by an arched bridge over the River, I reached Sheesh Mahal, the place where I had made a prior booking to stay overnight.
Orchha has two hotels run by the Madhya Pradesh state tourism: one, the Betwa Retreat amidst beautiful surroundings across the Betwa River, where I passed by later that evening. The other is the Sheesh Mahal in the quadrangular courtyard where the Jehangir Palace and Raj Mahal are situated.
The Sheesh Mahal is palatial and caters well for tourists. At its entrance is a board with the words Athithi Devo Bhava written on it, a Sanskrit phrase to mean a guest is the reincarnation of God. Raj, who manages the hotel and claims to be a descendant of the Kalchuri dynasty, was a gracious host at the Sheesh Mahal.
As soon as I reached Orchha, I went about exploring the place with a kind and helpful guide, Mishraji. I started with the Jehangir Palace, brief details on its history are mentioned above. Jehangir Palace is one of the most attractive monuments built at a height, and the view from there of the soaring temple spires and cenotaphs gives the Orchha town an enchanting look.
The architecture of the Jehangir Palace is of the Bundelkhand style (an interesting fusion of Mughal and Rajput styles) with the free mix of domes, symmetrical plans, surface decoration etc and I found it is similar to the architectural style of Fatehpur Sikri.
One of the doorways, Jehangir Palace
My next visit was to the Raj Mahal. Raja Rudra Pratap started the construction but his son, Bharti Chand continued. The final touches to this Palace were added by Raja Madhukar Shah, the predecessor of Raja Bir Singh Deo. It is alleged that Madhukar Shah, who was defeated in a battle by Akbar, won Akbar's friendship and respect and used to frequent the Mughal court dauntlessly sporting the banned tilak on his forehead. Akbar, being the secular emperor that he was, may have made him feel welcome!
A smaller palace nearby is the Raj Parveen Palace built in honour of the poetess, dancer, musician and the beautiful paramour of Raja Indramani. A thought: Why did Indramani not marry her? There is this legend that Akbar was so enamoured by Parveen's beauty that she was summoned to his court. She, however, so impressed the Mughal emperor with clever words to express her purity of love for Raja Indramani that he sent her back safely to Orchha!
Laxminarayan Temple entrance area
Thereafter I went to explore the famous Laxminarayana Temple. Mishraji was kind enough to take me along to the outskirts to reach there. The temple is impressive and houses an attractive range of Bundela paintings. There are vibrant murals encompassing a variety of religious themes and the ceiling of this huge ancient temple is beautifully decorated.
Laxminarayan Temple Murals
So much so was the association of Bundelas and Mughals of those times that I was surprised to learn that the entrance to the Laxminarayana Temple is diagonally located and aligned with the Jehangir Palace on the opposite side of this little town!
On the way back from Laxminarayan Temple, I stopped by at this cutely painted house and as I proceeded to photograph it, the woman of the house, on her own, stood at the doorway and posed for me.
I greeted her with a namaskar from afar as I did not wish to get too close to intrude on her privacy. It did feel good to see her smile and her hand wave in acknowledgment of my presence.
As the day was to end soon, it was then time to rush to the area where the popular 14 Orchha cenotaphs (Chattris) were located. Except for Raja Bir Singh Deo's cenotaph which is like a palace located in the flow of the River Betwa, all other cenotaphs are in the form of temples and are situated close to the river bank.
Another Orchha monument
I came across quite a few sadhus (ascetic holy men) wearing varying shades of saffron robes carrying some sort of musical instrument or the other.
I wondered if they get to enjoy the music of life differently having to live on another level altogether because of their religious devotion.
A Family in Orchha
Here was a woman who sweetly thought the world of her family and considered domestic matters as her top priority! What could I say in return? How could I discuss my thoughts with her on matters like though a majority of women in India think and live a kind of life like she did, there is, however, a small percentage that are thankfully liberated and have been so successful that they have won several accolades in every imaginable area - to choose a few fields like in politics, sports, justice, music, activism and service, brains, beauty or films or a combination of them, or for that matter sheer selfless social service.
Then it was delightful to try out some aloo-tikki (vegetarian potato escalopes) from one of the road side stalls. That was delicious and served with a yummy sweet and tangy tamarind sauce with bits of coriander leaves sprinkled over it for garnishing.
From then onwards it was a feeling of awe for the rest of the evening exploring one place after the other. I recall passing by the Rama Raja Temple and further on into the areas housing palaces in the background and the "wind-catching" towers of the old times named Sawan-Bhadon by the locals. Looking around and getting absorbed in the history, sights, sounds, smells and stories of the various palaces and temples dotting Orchha was an interesting experience.
Near Saawan-Bhadon, the wind catching towers
I had presumed a day to explore Orchha would be sufficient but I was mistaken. At the end of the day I wished I had more time to spend there. Then I would not have missed out on attending the popular aarti at the famous Rama Raja Temple, where Ram is supposedly worshipped as king and not as a god, or exploring more of the fine paintings at the Raj Mahal or taking a leisurely stroll that I so wished for along the River Betwa and satiate my interest to take more photographs of the reflection of the Orchha Chattris in the River Betwa.
Most people who have been to Orchha describe it as a nondescript town but just as the very word Orchha means hidden, I found that the town did have a lot of hidden wealth about it starting from its interesting history to its rich architectural heritage. Therefore I had named my previous post as Ostensibly Orchha.
At the end of the day, I got a feeling that I was captivated with Orchha's splendour. It appeared that on this medieval town, the hand of time has rested lightly and the palaces, temples and the monuments built by its Bundela rulers have still retained much of their beauty. Few tourists are troubled to visit such small places as Orchha. Those who are endowed with an inner sense to appreciate the tranquility of the place, its rich history, its reminders of the majestic past as seen in its monuments can see its hidden treasure, and come back fulfilled. There is a certain romance about Orchha which makes me wish to revisit this city of museums.
Orchha Fort Complex at dusk
It was delightful to watch the change in hue of the Orchha monuments at sunset. I walked back to the Fort Complex when it got dark to continue enjoying the rest of the evening with the festive atmosphere of the Sheesh Mahal with live music and dance at its dining area. Little did I know then that the night was still young and much more was to follow. A state Minister was due to arrive that evening and there was to be a cultural program at the Betwa Retreat. No way would I miss that.
How to reach Orchha:
On the Jhansi-Khajuraho Road, 15 km from Jhansi and then about 10 km on the left is Orchha. Travel enthusiasts can easily make a trip to Orchha from Jhansi. Gwalior to Orchha is 110 kms. Nearest railway station is Jhansi (16 km), which is on the mainline from Delhi-Bombay and Delhi-Madras. Gwalior airport is about 110 kms while Khajuraho airport is approximately 170 kms from Orchha.