Orchha is a very small town established along the banks of river Betwa by the Bundela Rajput, Rudra Pratap in the 16th century. Orchha in the local tongue, literally means ‘hidden place’. Indeed it is. Local pilgrims fill the town along with a handful of other tourists and no pushy touts lurking at every street corner.
In contrast to Orchha’s reputation as an abandoned city, the town center feels rather lively because of its position as a spiritual center in this part of India.
The fort complex is approached by a multi-arched bridge and has three main palaces set in a quadrangle: Raja Mahal, Jahangir Mahal, and Sheesh Mahal, which is now a heritage hotel run by MP Tourism.
The mahals house plenty of intricate archways lovingly painted murals, and little lookout spots great for photographic eyes. The island is filled with other smaller temples, havelis, and palaces in varying states of upkeep.
One remarkable thing is that inside the palace complex, you can hardly feel the heat, it is because of the material of the stones used in its construction and the type of construction itself.
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. Some of these are in wonderful condition, with marvelous colors and detailed designs, especially in the Diwan-e-Khas and Diwan-e-Aam. Unfortunately, these bring into focus how badly damaged the rest of them are, blackened with age or faded over time.
Orchha has a handful of families who have lived here for generations. It is reminiscent of a simpler time when neighbors moved freely in and out of each other’s homes, and everyone knew one another by name. Even the historical monuments still bear the names of their long-gone residents: Dauji ki Kothi, Jahangir Mahal, Hardaul ki Haveli, Baba ki Gufa.
Jahangir Mahal was built by Vir Singh Deo, the Bundela chief who ruled Orchha in the early 17th century, in honor of a visit from its namesake Mughal emperor. The fort complex, which houses two impressive palaces, dominates downtown Orchha. Designed with a fascinating blend of Mughal and Bundela architecture, the palace was painstakingly constructed over several years, with delicate double chhatris and latticework set around a large courtyard. Strong lines and delicate details contrast beautifully. Steep staircases lead the way to the pretty rooftop with shaded sit-outs and a bird’s-eye view of the town. When Jahangir finally came to Orchha, he stayed here only one day—but you’ll be tempted to linger.
A Tale of Two Temples
At first glance, the Ram Raja temple across the road from the fort complex appears quite simple, with its plain, yellow and white painted facade. However, there is a charming legend attached to it. While King Madhukar Shah was a worshipper of Krishna, his queen believed in Rama.
Their devotional clash culminated in the king demanding that the queen go to Ayodhya and return with her preferred deity in tow. Moved by her plight, Lord Rama appeared to her and agreed to visit Orchha in the form of a boy, but put forth the condition that he would remain in the spot where he was first set down. The king hastened to build a grand temple to house the deity, and indeed the Chaturbhuj temple, next to the Ram Raja temple, looks like a fortress with soaring spires and palatial architecture. Inside, it resembles a massive cathedral with a high-vaulted ceiling.
Chaturbhuj temple is built upon a towering stone platform and reached by a steep flight of steps. When the queen reached Orchha, she paused for a breather before making her way up the temple. Stopping at the royal kitchens next door, she set down the little boy, and true to his word this is where the avatar of Rama established himself, refusing to be moved.
Thus, the unassuming kitchen turned into the Ram Raja temple, while the Chaturbhuj Temple now houses deities of Radha Shyam. Even today, the Ram Raja temple is the focal point of the town. Here, Rama is worshipped as a king and not as a god. In the evening, Orchha reverberates with the peal of the temple’s bells. Townsfolk gather in the temple premises, under a chhatri or the leafy canopy of a tree, to sing devotional songs. Guests are made to feel instantly welcome in this warm gathering, even enthusiastically invited to play the dholak or offered some cymbals. Ram Navmi celebrations are particularly atmospheric, with musicians and bards from surrounding villages gathering here to chant and sing for hours.
One could sit by the Betwa River on Kanchan Ghat (10-min walk from the main town) while the sun drops behind the 14 chattris of the Bundelas that stand proudly alongside the river. These multi-level chhatris are built on high, square platforms, that you can climb to the top of via a narrow, roughly hewn staircase . These cenotaphs are larger than Rajput chhatris, and lack detailed carvings or decorative flourishes.
Orchha still feels like somewhat of an enigma—a kind of quicksilver land caught between fact and fiction. Here, on the boulder-strewn banks of the Betwa, the wild forests of Madhya Pradesh meet the cow belt of Uttar Pradesh, and the gods come down to meet mortals.
Best season to visit:
Unless you want a good tan, we suggest you visit Orchha between the months of July to February. You could choose to visit Orchha.
For similar posts on Bir Singh Palace, Datia, you can read it here.
Till then- KEEP TRAVELING. KEEP WANDERING.