The Orchha Essentials: A Guide to the Hidden City

The hidden city of Orchha was a secret that was just waiting to happen! 500 years ago, the 16th century Bundela chieftain Rudra Pratap Singh discovered the area during a hunt and decided to build a fort on the banks of Betwa river, thus establishing Orchha as the capital city for 30 years. Legend states that the splitting of the Betwa river into its seven channels (= ‘Satdhara’) happens in honour of the seven erstwhile Chiefs of Orchha. 500 years later, two girls stepped on to the riverside town where each dusty lane reminds you of a simpler time when cows take up majority of road space, neighbours know each other, newly weds paint the exterior walls of their new home with their names to declare marital ownership, and historical monuments still bear the names of their long-gone residents. There is a sense of secrets in the air – obscure architecture that interchanges between fort elements and temple moulds, palaces are converted into temples, and daily rituals that are the focal point for the natives.

Keys to the kingdom of Orchha:

Sitting on the rooftop of Cafe Nomads overlooking the sleepy town slowly lighting up its history and ringing its pealing bells of temple, one can easily imagine themselves slipping through time to get caught between fact and fiction.

The Royal Triplets – Orchha fort complex

The road to Orchha fort complex is lined by a multitude of eateries, passing through a multi-arched bridge. There are three main palaces set in a quadrangle – Raja Mahal, Jahangir Mahal, and Sheesh Mahal. The Sheesh Mahal is currently run as a heritage hotel and can be accessed only as a resident of the hotel or if you decide to go for lunch. The Raja Mahal is the oldest of the three; its construction was started by Raja Rudra Pratap in the 1530s. The plain exterior, crowned with chhatris, gives way to interiors with delicate murals that have still retained their colours and designs. Despite the captivating sight, unfortunately, these also bring into focus the sorry state of neglect and heritage abuse, blackened with age or covered with crude lime plasters.

Jahangir Mahal was built in the 17th century as a blend of Mughal and Bundela style of architecture by Raja Bir Singh Deo, in honour of a visit from its namesake, Mughal emperor Jahangir. The Indo-Islamic entrance features large stone elephants that were symbolic for welcoming Indian Royalty. The three storey palace with over 100 rooms, bears delicately carved windows and pillars on red and yellow sandstone that gives it an interesting shade of brown color. The hanging balconies and domes overlook a square-shaped courtyard within the inner compound of the palace, which was known to host court performers showing off their talented self. Steep staircases leads the way to pretty rooftops tiles with persian blue decors, shaded sit-outs and a bird’s-eye view of the town. While Jahangir might have stayed here only for a day, as a visitor, you will be tempted to linger longer.

Trailing the Memory Lanes

Beyond the fort complex, there is a whole world outside that can be explored through the meandering roads of Orchha that take you through acres of fields to the banks of Betwa river – royal stables, ancient stepwells, assorted havelis and temples, and ancient construction instrument. The most famous structure would be the palace of the courtesan Rai Praveen with its romantic backstory. Since she was renowned for her beauty as well as her talent as a dancer, the beautiful paramour of Raja Indramani was ordered to appear in Akbar’s court. In the Mughal court, she spurned the emperor’s advances diplomatically by saying that even dogs don’t partake of leftovers. Humbled by her wit and devotion to her king, Akbar had her escorted back to Orchha where a palace was built in her honour.

A Tale of Two Temples

Compared to the obvious splendour of the Orchha fort, at first glance, the Ram Raja temple appears quite disappointing with its plain yellow and white painted facade. However, the charming story attached to the building makes up for the disappointment. While King Madhukar Shah was a worshipper of Krishna, his queen was a firm devotee of Ram, despite the fact that both are incarnations of the same God. To prove his devotional superiority, the king demanded that since the queen believes in her God more than her husband, she should go to Ayodhya and return with her preferred deity. Moved by her devotion and her plight, Lord Ram agreed to accompany her to Orchha in the form of a boy with the set condition that he would remain in the spot wherever he is first set down.

In preparation of the Lord’s visit to Orchha, a grand temple with fortress-like facade, palatial architecture and decorative was constructed to house the deity, and was named as Chaturbhuj temple. This was planned to be the main house of worship for Ram once the queen establishes the statue. Clearly, it’s not easy to carry your God around just because you deemed it to be necessary! Since a steep flight of steps was required to reach the temple, the queen decided to take a breather and stopped at the royal kitchen where she set down the little boy. True to his word, this is where the Ram avatar decided to establish himself permanently. Thus, the unassuming kitchen turned into the main shrine of Ram Raja temple, and the Chhaturbhuj temple now houses the deities of Radha-Shyam.

Beyond the folk lore, the most interesting fact about this temple is that this is the only temple throughout India, where Lord Ram is worshipped as a King and not as a God. Similar to a king, protection is provided in the form of police personnel who are referred to as ‘temple guards’. Similar to the Changing guard ceremony that you often associate with the Buckingham Palace and Rashtapati bhavan, a similar honour protocol is followed at the Ram Raja temple. In fact, we were told that, if a visiting dignitary like Prime Minister or President of India is visiting Orchha and stops by the temple, the guard ceremony will still only happen for the deity inside and not for anybody else. Afterall, God is a bigger deal than a tiny human sinner!

The Temple of Art galleries

Located on a hilltop, outside of the town premises, Laxmi Narayan temple is perhaps the most deserted and yet one of the most beautiful temple I have seen. It is said that viewed from any angle from outside, the temple looks like an owl in flight (vehicle of Goddess Laxmi). The temple walls and ceilings are an ode to the rich history and heritage of the Bundelkhand region. The mortar and lime building with its central octagonal tower has two interesting features associated with it – it looks less like a temple and more like a fort, and the external windows of the building have strategic keyholes that were used by watch sentries.

You can read more about the temple in my post on temple with art galleries.

A Wish away

It is said that the Baobab Tree is one of the world’s most ancient trees that came into existence even before the continental drift. There are many contesting folklores associated with the legend of Baobab tree – while some believe that the Arabs planted the Baobab tree in Orchha 500 years ago, others talk about how Lord Krishna went to Africa and brought back Baobab seeds with himself, while some other locals refer to the tree as Kalpavriksha, the wish-fulfilling tree that was one of the 9 priceless jewels that emerged during the churning of the oceans by the gods and the demons. One of the identifying feature of distinguishing a true Kalpavriksha, as told by our guide, is that if you move a single branch of the three, the entire tree will start swaying and you can listen to that hum of movement by pressing your ears against the trunk of the tree.

Idle by the River

The unhurried pace of Orchha can be best experienced by the Betwa River – either by the Kanchan Ghat, or on the opposite side of the river by the bridge as you watch the sun sinking behind the 14 chhatris of the Bundela kings, or while meandering through the bygone lanes to reach another view point of the river.

Unlike the Rajput chhatris, the multi-level Bundela chhatris are built on high, square platforms and lack detailed carvings or decorative flourishes. The famed chhatris of Orchha are cenotaphs that were constructed with the flourish of temple like spires, between 17th and 18th centuries, in honour of its erstwhile rulers.

However, amidst the group, its only Bir Singh’s cenotaph that stands alone with its explicit Islamic features on it. There is a reason behind it – at one point, Salim (aka Jahangir) rebelled against his father, the emperor and decided to set up court in what is present-day Allahabad. To persuade him to return, Akbar sent his prime minister (wazir) Abul Fazl to persuade him to return to Delhi. Typical to court politics, Abul Fazal was known to be opposed to Salim’s ascension to the throne, so it is believed that he hoped to use this opportunity to assassinate the young prince. For his part, Salim heard of Abul Fazal’s march to Allahabad and braced for the worst. From here on, there are two versions of the story; one states that Bir Singh Deo approached Prince Salim with the proposition of killing off the Empire’s wazir. The other version suggests that it was Salim who reached out to him for help knowing the fierce repute of the Rajput chieftains of Bundelas who ruled out of their hidden city of Orchha.

Talk about being stuck between rock and a hard place – Bir Singh Deo had a difficult choice to make: support the empire and lose favour of the future emperor or support a rebellious prince and make an enemy of the most powerful man of the land. Irrespective of the choice, Bir Singh had Abul Fazl killed in an ambush and sent the severed head to Salim. While the prince was indebted to him, Bir Singh Deo officially came into the crosshairs of Emperor Akbar and became a wanted man. Akbar launched multiple expeditions to avenge the death of his favourite courtier. Salim, who remained untouched by virtue of being the crown prince, continued to provide information that helped Bir Singh Deo survive the relentless attacks. Prince Salim eventually reconciled with his father and returned to Agra. Bir Singh Deo’s favour was not forgotten and he was showered with Mughal patronage.

You can further read about this unique “friendship” here.

Orchha is literally a hidden gem, waiting to be unveiled. Each dusty lane leads to a corner where history and fiction blurs into the landscape of memories. Of all the places that I have traveled within India, this is a definite standout and an absolute favourite!

Orientation to Orchha:

While it is the closest border town to Uttar Pradesh, the nearest airport city will be Gwalior (2.5 hrs distance) and the nearest railway station would be Jhansi (30 minutes). The road connectivity to Orchha is excellent. As a small and sleepy town, Orchha can be easily explored on foot or by rented cycle.

You can also venture to Datia for a day trip to explore further on the connection between the Bundela kings and Mughal royalty.

Related (and not-so related) Posts:

Madhya Pradesh


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