Just a half-hour drive from Jhansi lies Orchha, an ancient town frozen in time. Explore its myths, legends, architecture and history.
On the banks of the river Betwa in central Madhya Pradesh lies Orchha, a small town that amazes you with its medieval ambience. Orchha, which means ‘hidden’ in the local language, is often overshadowed by its more illustrious neighbours, Khajuraho, for its erotic temples and Jhansi for its legendary queen. Only those-in-the-know make a trip to this 16th century town with its forts, palaces, temples and legends.
Founded in 1501 by Bundela Rajput chief, Rudra Pratap Singh, the ancient town seems frozen in time with its many monuments retaining their original grandeur. The Orchha Fort complex that was set up by him as he shifted his capital from Garkhundar to Orchha, is spread over several acres with the fortification walls intact across most of the complex. Legend has it that he came across Orchha while out on a hunt and fell in love with the beauty of the place. Surrounded by dense forests and a river, it seemed an ideal capital city.
The fort complex houses several palaces. The chief among them being the Jehangir Palace built in the 17th century as a gift for Emperor Jehangir when he visited Orchha for just a night. This four-storey architectural marvel is a mix of Muslim and Rajput architecture. It has several rooms with arched entrances and balconies. There is a central courtyard with what must-have-been a water body. You can climb to the floors above through narrow stairways. The views of the town are spectacular.
The Bundela Rajputs never used the palace since that would be equivalent to taking back a gift, explains Sanjay Singh Yadav, our guide for the day. “Plus how could they use something that had been used by the Mughal emperor. The Rajputs were a very proud clan,” he adds approvingly.
The Bundela kings built the Raj Mahal and the Sheesh Mahal for themselves. Sheesh Mahal is now an MP Tourism hotel and offers stunning views from its terrace.
The fort complex also houses the palace of Rai Parveen, a poet and dancer who was the consort of Raja Indramani. Legend has it that news of her beauty reached the court of Emperor Akbar who asked for her to be sent over. When Rai Parveen appeared before him she recited the following couplet: “Binti Rai Praveen ki, Suniye sahay sujan, Jhoothi patar bhagat hain, Baari, vaya, suwan.” [Listen to the humble appeal of Rai Praveen o King, food which has already been tasted is only eaten by dogs, crows and pigs.]. Impressed, Akbar sent her back to Orchha and Indramani built a palace for her. There is a beautiful life-size mural of hers on one of the walls. Considering that none of the queens had an independent palace, Rai Parveen must have been truly special.
Legends of chivalry and romance are par for the course when it comes to ancient dynasties, kings and queens. But Orchha is unique as here myth, legend and historical fact entwine so beautifully that it’s difficult to make out which is which. Orchha is the only city in the country where Lord Rama is prayed to not as a god, but as a king. Maharaja Madhukar Shah’s (1554 to 1592 AD) wife, Maharani Ganesh Kunwari went to Ayodhya and prayed to Lord Rama on the banks of the river Sarayu. The lord appeared in front of her and she requested him to accompany her to Orchha. He put up three conditions: First he would rule as king, second he would stay wherever she puts him down first, and third he would travel only during a particular astrological configuration.
The queen agreed and brought him to Orchha. Since a temple wasn’t yet ready, she placed his idol in her palace and the palace became the temple. The Raja Ram temple is hence unique as the architecture is more like a palace. Since he is prayed to as a king, Lord Rama gets a proper guard of honour and gun salute.
Meanwhile, the imposing Chatarbhuj Temple that was built for Lord Rama has stark interiors as no deity was ever worshipped there, since, as per legend, Lord Rama refused to move.
Walk from the fort complex towards the river and you come across a group of daunting chhatris or cenotaphs of the Bundela rulers. Built keeping in mind the five elements, the chhatris have a central dome that looks more like temple architecture, surrounded by four domes on the four corners. Their intimidating presence is a testimony to the grandeur of the Bundela rulers.
Orchha is a tiny town of only 8,000 people and all everything of tourist interest is within walking distance. In March last year, Madhya Pradesh tourism held a three-day cultural extravaganza called Namaste Orchha with the aim of putting Orchha on the tourist circuit. Thanks to the festival, the town was spruced up with new roads and improved street lighting. There are several places to stay including three hotels by MP Tourism. For an authentic village experience you could also check out the homestays. Designer Anupama Dayal painted one wall in each of the 12 homestays.
Orchha is just a half an hour drive from the Jhansi railway station and is four hours away from Khajuraho.