Only 18 kilometres from Jhansi, a major railway junction of the Central Railways on its trunk route between New Delhi and Mumbai, there is a magical place called Orchha. The place is in the Bundelkhand region of the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh and confines within its folds some remarkable specimens of medieval central Indian architecture.
It is so close yet It was only recently that we decided to do so. Jhansi is only around three hours away by the New Delhi-bound Shatabdi Express from Bhopal Another half-hour’s jpurney in a vehicle on a pretty decent road with patches of good dense forests on its sides brings up Orchha. It was around dusk that we hit the place when the cows were literally coming home into the village raising lots of dust. We had bookings at the MP Tourism outfit that is known as Betwa Retreat and were promptly shown into our cottage where we spent four leisurely and enjoyable days and nights. Betwa is the river that flows by to meet Chambal downstream.
Founded in the 16th Century, Orchha (meaning a “hidden place”) was conceived by Rudra Pratap Singh as his principality’s capital. Choosing a beautiful site along the River Betwa, he commenced construction but could not complete it in his lifetime. His successors carried on and built some marvellous structures that have retained their beauty until today. Among the successors Bir Singh Deo was more prolific who constructed many of Orchha’s beautiful buildings.
As one approaches the place from Jhansi one comes across an old gate, Ganesh Dwaar, (gate of Lord Ganesh) that signals entry into what is now somewhat of an overblown village. It was once the capital of Bundelkhand. As one progresses further up, on the left is the fort-palace complex on what used to be a seasonal island on the bank of River Betwa. The complex has therefore to be approached through the medieval Athpula Bridge. While straight ahead one gets to the photogenic cenotaphs – chhatries – right on the banks of Betwa, with our Betwa Retreat close by. On the right are the legendary Chaturbhuj and Ram Raja temples and about a kilometre away, is, what we felt, the most significant structure of Orchha – the Laxminarayan temple.
The first things we happened to see the next morning were a couple of shikhars (kind of spires) of two cenotaphs through the big, wide glazed windows of the restaurant of Betwa Retreat. Looking like temples and frightfully impressive, they promptly drew us towards them. They are all in a cluster by the bank of Betwa, and are, indeed, built like temples with a square garbhagriha (sanctum) and temple-like shikhars. They look even more beautiful from across the waters of Betwa – several shikhars piercing the skies. Only the one of Bir Singh Deo is unlike all of them, built more like a palace. Building chhatries, one might add, has been a tradition in central India and Rajasthan. In Gwalior the Scindias have been building their own chhatries even till today.
Inevitably, next on the itinerary was the palace-fort or the heritage complex. So we headed towards that and crossed the Athpula Bridge. After passing through the massive gates we climbed scores of feet through a well-maintained winding road on an escarpment to land up in front of the tourists’ entrance of Jehangir Mahal. Right in front was the Sheesh Mahal and on the left, far into the distance, the shikhar of Laxminarayan temple was pointed out to us.
Jehangir Mahal (Jehangir’s Palace) is the most admired structure in the fort-palace complex. Reputed to have been built for the Mughal Emperor Jehangir who, perhaps, never stayed in the palace, Jehangir Mahal is a construction of pretty massive proportions. Each side measuring around 70 metres, the palace is of three storeys with more than half a dozen beautifully proportioned domes. Our age and inability to negotiate the stairs prevented us from looking up all the three levels and hence we were deprived of not only the delectable view of the surrounding countryside littered with remains of the bygone era but also the original inscriptions on stone slabs on the third floor depicting Bir Singh’s name and dates of the building. The architectural highlights of the Palace are the wide eaves, overhanging balconies with beautifully designed and worked-on brackets, numerous windows with kiosks and jaalies (lattice) to let in lots of light and air. From the east-facing massive ceremonial gate, embellished with richly carved elephants on two sides, one can see the stables that used to house elephants and, in the distance, the one-time royal gate.
After some rest we headed for Sheesh Mahal, a palace that was built much later – around early 18th Century. It was built after Orchha had lost its vitality and was used mostly as a country retreat by the local somewhat powerless Raja. Though named Sheesh Mahal (Palace of Mirrors), it never had any mirrors. It was named as such, it seems, because of the green-blue glazed tiles and the early morning light that used to shimmer in through the jaalies. It has been stripped of all its valuables – Persian rugs and antique pieces. The MP State Tourism Development Corporation now runs a heritage hotel using the building, the upper floor rooms of which provide some stunning views of the surrounding countryside, particularly after the rains.
The two temples, Chaturbhuj and Ram Raja, are located right on the main road. Both are steeped in legends. It appears that the present Ram Raja temple was originally the palace of Rani of Madhukar Shah, one of the successors of Rudra Pratap Singh. It became a temple when the Rani brought an image of Lord Ram from Ayodhya and, finding the neighbouring Chaturbhuj temple dedicated to Ram still incomplete, installed the image in her palace. She, however, forgot the condition that the image, once installed, could not be relocated. Hence, her palace became the temple and the structure meant for it has remained unutilised. Ram Raja temple with light-coloured paint on it looks somewhat out of place and, but for its embellishments and domes, it doesn’t appear to be a medieval structure. It houses a living deity and attracts large number of devotees from the surrounding areas during Ram Navami (Birthday of Lord Rama) celebrations. My wife made her humble offerings to the deity.
Laxminarayan temple had some well-kept wall and roof paintings. Built by Bir Singh Deo, the Laxminarayan temple is unique in many ways. From outside it looks like a triangular structure but inside it has a rectangular plan. Unlike other medieval temples it also has slots for cannons in its upper reaches and windows that have jaali – a phenomenon that is rarely seen in temples. Besides it has some fine specimens of Bundeli art on its walls and on the roofs. Themes are as varied as from life and times of Krishna to scenes from Tulsi Das’s Ramcharitmanas. A 19th Century addition also shows Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi leading her forces against the British during the 1857 War of Independence. Colours are bright and styles skilful, blending the Mughal and Rajput styles, producing something uniquely native – of Bundelkhand.
It was incredible to see so many Westerners at Orchha. Obviously, it is a popular tourist destination for foreigners, more so because it falls on the way to Khajuraho. We met two German boys who were seemingly on a flying visit to India of around ten days but stayed on for a couple of days in Orchha. They seemed to be pretty at-home with the food dished out by the wayside eating joints.
Although it is only slightly better than a village, it has acquired all the accoutrements of modernity. There is a veritable Jan Path, an arcade of sorts, with shops selling ethnic garments and other knickknacks. There is hardly anything of interest to tourists that is not available in these shops.
With so many foreigners visiting the city right through the year the local Panchayat perhaps could keep the place little cleaner. Cow dung strewn all along the main thoroughfare may not upset us but it does jar a person who is not used to seeing it. We may venerate it but others, used to a cleaner way of life, find it somewhat revolting. We did not notice any civic effort to keep the village clean. It appears to be the fault of our system. Pickings from tourism are never ploughed back into the place for its upkeep. The Tourism Development Corporation should find ways and means to help keep up the sanitation and hygiene of the place.
A word about the Betwa Retreat, where we spent four wonderful days, is a must. A remarkably well maintained property, it has well-appointed cottages and helpful staff. Its restaurant produced some delectable fare. What is best about the Retreat is its ambience – ethnic and green with remarkable bird life. Sitting inside the restaurant one can watch them flitting undisturbed from one tree to another.