Tucked away in the recesses of my mind is an enduring image about Orchha, that lovely medieval hamlet by River Betwa in Madhya Pradesh. It’s often recalled, often spoken-off but never forgotten. And no, it’s not about the town’s renowned monuments, though they do play a guest role, it’s about people, a band of pilgrims to be precise.
The weather was cold and this was an elderly gang traversing the terrain on foot and spending nights under the cover of stars. It would take them days to reach their destination but nothing was a deterrent. All they carried as part of their belongings for the month-long tour was, well, the forerunner of today’s backpack, the humble jhola, filled with literally two pieces of clothing, some of which I had seen adding colour to the Betwa’s shores. One of the persons had a traditional drum that was placed on the feet and played and another a manjira (pair of cymbals); these instruments being required for impromptu bhajan sessions of the kind I witnessed when they had spruced themselves and were ready for departure. This leisurely pack, I felt, was the classic Indian traveller, who had been on the go for centuries, his tote full of experiences, save we urban cookies had forgotten he existed long-long before we began hitting the trails. Orchha acquainted me with an engaging sliver of invisible India, the reason it stays a top-of-the-line travel experience.
Now a palm-sized hamlet, Orchha was once a seat of power. Established by Bundela rajput chief Rudra Pratap Singh in 1501 AD, dynastic rule continued in the kingdom until the privy purse was introduced following India’s independence. With its rulers being patrons of art, today’s Orchha is a proud keeper of their legacy and is celebrated for its attractive collection of 16th -17th century edifice, considered glorious illustrations of Bundelkhand architectural heritage. Each is further wrapped in a delightful legend; and with tour guides adding their bit of rehearsed drama to history, walking the dusty lanes of Orchha feels akin to going back in time.
The most imposing of Orchha’s structures is the Jahangir Mahal built by Raja Bir Singh Deo. A seven-level construction, it’s a fetching mix of Indo-Islamic design, with jharokhas (jutting windows), chhatris (domed pavilions), chajjas (eaves) and jalis (lattice) dominating the play in the sandstone. Perceptibly, distinct Chinese elements are part of the relief design, as the chrysanthemum flower or the pagoda style sloping roof of a few chhatris. This, my guide informed, was on account of trade with China and was inspired by elaborate brocade patterns royalty wore. I could not authenticate that part of the information but it surely added a degree of romance while viewing stone and mortar of a bygone era. Constructed to commemorate the visit of Mughal emperor Jahangir (then still known as Prince Salim) to Orchha, it’s still in relatively good shape and a trek to its top-most level provides a beautiful view of the idyllic town.
The mahal is part of the Orchha Fort complex that includes the Raj Mahal, where frescoes—Diwan-i-Khaas has Persian carpet-like motifs—are not to be missed, and the Rai Parveen Mahal a bit downhill, that was built by Raja Indramani (1672-76 AD), for his eponymous consort, who quite typically was a court singer-dancer, poetess and a stunning beauty. Her two-storey palace, amidst the gardens of Anand Bagh, is unfortunately often skipped by visitors owing to its tad-tedious access. But a visit here does bring alive her love legend and I could almost hear the melodic sound of ghunghroos as I viewed Rai Praveen’s dancing portraits painted on the lime plaster walls. Yes, my experience was courtesy the tour guide who indeed had an overflowing bank of fascinating tales. one of these being her subtle rejection of Emperor Akbar via a couplet.
While on myths, there’s an intriguing one about Orchha’s Ram Raja Temple, said to be the only temple in the country where Lord Rama is worshiped as monarch. Legend says, the wife of Maharaja Madhukarshah (1554 –1592 AD), Maharani Ganesh Kunwar, an ardent devotee of Lord Rama, was returning from Ayodhya with his idols which were to be installed in an especially-built shrine (now called Chaturbhuj Temple). Legend says, Lord Rama had agreed to come on a few conditions these being, he would rule Orchha and secondly his idol would remain where it was placed initially. As the maharani had retuned to the kingdom late at night she naively kept the idols in her palace with the idea of moving them to the new temple’s sanctum-sanatorium the next morning. At sunrise when she tried lifting the idols they wouldn’t move... and ever since the palace became Lord Rama’s temple and the shrine built for him, later down the years, turned into a temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu in his Chaturbhuj (or four arm) form.
The Chaturbhuj Temple is rather striking and I felt it was similar to visiting a basilica. Almost every aspect of its design —vaulted roof, massive doors and large corridor— reinforced the notion. Another impressive edifice was a short distance away from town centre, about 1 km that is; remember Orchha is tiny! It was the Lakshmi Narayan Temple which I found was a mix of quirky architecture and remarkable Bundeli style painting on walls and ceilings. There were also some valuable depictions of the 1857 mutiny.
These and a few other small structures — as the Phool Bagh that has the unique Sawan-Bhadon towers, which are wind catchers, a concept that arrived here from Iran — are key tributes in stone that Orchha offers. But what I found most charming were its 14 chhatris or cenotaphs to Orchha rulers, all grouped along the Kanchana Ghat of River Betwa. This is where I would return often to treat myself to myriad bucolic frames, one of these being the merry band of pilgrims, which was to leave me mesmerized.
Orchha’s small market square is a bustling place, very backpacker like and sometimes very noisy, till quite late at night. Its shops largely sell souvenirs and brass collectables, both nouveau and genuine antiques, which had me browsing through quite often for a bargain. Most eateries, serving Indian choices as aloo-puri, are around Ram Mandir. These are interspersed with handful modest cafes serving surprisingly sparkling European fare.
Orchha means ‘hidden place’. Truly, this little gem hides plenty of surprises. One of these being rafting (see below). Go discover some on your own and return enthralled.
MP Tourism (07680-252618) organises two river rafting safaris (up to six persons per raft). Beginning from the scenic Kanchana Ghat, the 90-min package (3.5 km/ Rs 1,200) includes refreshments, while the 3-hr package (6 km/ Rs 2,000) includes breakfast or lunch.