TBI Travel: Orchha – A Little Known Jewel in The Heart Of India

TBI Guest Writer Saurabh Chauhan travels to Orchha, a quaint little place with an odd name and breathtaking architecture, and learns many interesting versions of historical facts, folklore and myths with a uniquely local flavour.

Our visit to a non-descript little temple town, established by a man whose other, rather unsung claim to the pages of history was that he died when attempting to save a cow from a lion, happened through a combination of happy coincidence and the formidable state of Madhya Pradesh’s roads.

My brother was on ‘temporary duty’, or “TD” as they refer to it in Air Force parlance, in Gwalior at the time and it seemed like the perfect time to drive down from Delhi to pay him a visit. We, my girlfriend and I, gave in to all the lovely Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Corporation adverts and decided to roll the veritable die and go observe “Hindustan ka Dil” at close quarters.

One of the larger cenotaphs at Orchha

On a cool September morning, in a most unsuitably coloured –black- (as we only discovered later) Alto, we headed down to Gwalior.

The itinerary had been drawn up by us (well, mostly me) and the usual suspects were all there; Khajuraho, Bedaghat, Bhopal, Bhimbetka and Sanchi. When planning the trip I had wrestled with the idea of driving from Gwalior to Khajuraho in a single day, some 300km plus. But after having heard the not so lovely things about Madhya Pradesh roads, it was decided that a buffer was needed between Gwalior and Khajuraho and a search commenced.

Jhansi was the obvious choice; huge fort, grand history, its rather elaborate set of myths and legends and ofcourse the crowning jewel – Laxmi Bai. However this was rejected outright on the consideration that this was supposed to be a Madhya Pradesh excursion and Jhansi, as all diligent geography students know, is situated in that little deformed arm that U.P. extends into M.P.

Twin cenotaphs against the backdrop of the early morning sky

Shot down, I began the search for a site in the vicinity of Jhansi and that is when I was rescued by a place atleast I had never heard of before – Orchha. Located a mere 20 kilometres from Jhansi and just over the border in the Tikamgarh district of Madhya Pradesh Orchha seemed perfect, atleast to the primary driver on this trip – me.

Anticipating Orchha to be the appetiser to the wholesome meal that was to be Khajuraho, we left Gwalior the next morning promising to return after our circumambulation of the heart of India.

A mere 140 odd kilometres lay before us that day, so a soothing drive was to be the order of the day. Little did we know that U.P. and M.P. had conspired through the night and placed before us the most god awful patch of road that I have ever experienced in all my time driving around India. Eventually, after several hours of spine shaking and slip-disk inducing roads we reached Orchha. Night had enveloped all sights and the only source of illumination that remained were the headlights of my car and the fireflies that dotted the black canvas of night with their cheery luminescence.

At our hotel we were given the option of choosing between a room and a tent. Having already seen the stuffy room with its signature ‘furry’ furniture we ventured to give Spartan living a shot and decided to settle down in a tent. The walk down to the tent was pleasant, the hotel had a little illuminated path laid down across a large lawn and a canopy of twisting, fragrant creepers at the end of which lay the most stunning campsite I have ever seen in my entire life. The tents were laid out in neat little rows along the perimeter of what seemed like a mini-football pitch. Behind the tents was the compound wall of the hotel, right behind which stood the magnificent cenotaphs of Bundela kings and noblemen, set in a site almost overlooking the mighty Betwa River.

The cenotaph of Vir Singh Deo (left) and other cenotaphs as visible from the camp site

The illusion of these tombs with their lovely chattris (canopies) dissolving into the water in a warm mix of yellow light from the campsite lamps forms part of perhaps the most incredible backdrop that any hotel room (or tent) has anywhere in world. I remember thinking ‘Wow! This is like having the Colosseum in your backyard’.

The evening was spent listening to local artists from Bundelkhand regale us with their haunting music as we swam in the unreal setting of a pool on the banks of the Betwa and at spitting distance from those most hauntingly beautiful tombs.

As morning came, we decided it was best to start the exploring early before the sun was higher up in the sky. And off we went.

Built in the 17th and 18th Century, the fifteen tombs or rather cenotaphs that stood here were built more as memorials than as places of actual burial. They served the same purpose the pyramids did in Egypt, to glorify the dead; except here there was no treasure, no elaborate boobie traps, no Brendan Fraser and no corpses that could come back to life.

Information plaque

The Bundela kings of Orchha honoured members of their clan by erecting these ornate structures along the banks of the Betwa. As I looked at these serene structures I could only marvel at their simple beauty, they weren’t the Taj Mahal but they had their own unique brand of rugged beauty. The Bundela kings may be accused of many things but a lack of aesthetic sense can never be one of them.

Kissed softly by the waters of the Betwa, the square-ish cenotaph of Vir Singh Deo was by far my favourite. Here one could spend hours just watching the waters flow lazily by, even as one came to appreciate the undiscriminating unkindness of time.

The monument itself, like so many others around India, lies in a state of aggravated disrepair. And it seems here too, that the people and their government have seemingly turned their backs on their own history. It does however, provide a refuge from the heat of the day to wandering cattle, who, perhaps as a tribute to the founder of Orchha, remain loyal companions of his descendent Vir Singh, or atleast companions of his memory.

The cenotaph of Vir Singh Deo on the banks of the Betwa

As in life so in death the grandeur of each cenotaph is representative of the status of the person in whose memory it has been erected. From the grandest erected in memory of erstwhile kings to the more humble memorials of a retired Kiledaar (person who guards the fort).

Despite the boards declaring them protected monuments under Madhya Pradesh state law, it seems that the only steps taken by the government are to lock the monuments’ gates. Of course these gates have not prevented Mother Nature from reclaiming this lost land as her own and these magnificent monuments exist surrounded by thick foliage. Clearly, no one has read out provisions of the local protection of monuments act to the grass and the trees.

Inside the cenotaph of Vir Singh Deo

After having spent some time staring into nothingness that extends beyond Vir Singh Deo’s tomb, we proceeded towards the main city of Orchha and its twin palaces.

Orchha has two palaces – The Raja Mahal and the Jehangir Mahal. Adjacent to each other, these palaces are built in a blended architectural style combining Mughal and Bundela architecture.

Our guide – a local boy called Babloo – started our tour with a story about the unusual name of the place itself – Orchha. According to him the founder of Orchha, Raja Rudra Pratap was out on shikaar (hunting) one day when he came upon a small Ram temple in the middle of the forest. Being an austere man he immediately sat down to worship the lord, hands folded and eyes closed. As luck would have it, a wolf picked up the good king’s scent and was nearly upon him while he sat in his meditative state, oblivious, when suddenly a booming voice out of nowhere shouted “Orchha!!” – the chasing command given to dogs in the local Bundela language. And sure enough the hunting dogs that accompanied the kings party were awakened and chased and killed the wolf thus saving the king’s life. Convinced that the command was given by the deity to save his life, Rudra Pratap decided to set up his capital at that very place, around what today is the Raja Ram Temple, and gave it that most peculiar of names – the word uttered from divine lips that saved his life – “Orchha”.

The non-esoteric version of the naming of the town has something to with its location which was believed to be secure and “hidden” and that’s what the name means; but let’s not be boring now.

The view from Vir Singh Deo's tomb. The Betwa river in the background.

The Raja Mahal comes with the usual trappings of any small palace, fountains, dance platforms, bed chambers and wall paintings depicting everything from the ten avatars of Vishnu to the kings’ wives expressed as various body parts of an elephant – you know, standard stuff.

Information plaque about Raja Mahal

The Jehangir Mahal promised to be far more interesting, atleast so far as the story leading up to its construction was concerned. Babloo had this gem to offer by way of explanation – The Jehangir Mahal was built after the then Bundela king invited Mughal emperor Jehangir to Orchha for a nightcap. Of course this invite was extended several years in advance as suitable quarters to house the emperor were required to be constructed if he accepted. The Jehangir palace was a labour of love of the then Bundela king who was a trusted advisor of the Mughal and nearly his BFF (Best Friend Forever).

I imagined a dressed up Dilip Kumar (how do you imagine Jehangir?) and a hyper-masculine and moustachioed Vir Singh Deo skipping down the corridors holding hands as he told us this.

Eventually the palace was constructed with the usual accoutrements, jewels in walls, naturally air conditioned rooms and drive in elephant facilities. And when Jehangir visited, which he did, it was only for one night, and so impressed was he with the facilities that he promised sovereignty to the Bundela king, his BFF, so long as Jehangir reigned over Delhi. Babloo’s version, while historically inaccurate, does give us an insight into how events in history are turned into myths and perhaps even folklore. Passed down generations they become something that resembles history through rose tinted glasses.

The Royal Bath at the Jehangir Mahal

Recorded history tells us that Vir Singh Deo, whose cenotaph we saw earlier, was a perpetual thorn in the side of the Mughals. Akbar, tired of his shenanigans sent the young prince Salim to quell this errant Bundela chieftain who dared to stand up against the might of the Mughals.

Jaali (fine mesh) work over the windows - typical Mughal architecture at the Jehangir Mahal

Salim arrived in Orchha and after several battles eventually crushed the Bundela king. In the process Salim also set up an insurance policy for himself; the garrison and palace that came to be known as the Jehangir Mehal. To have his life spared Vir Singh Deo paid the Mughals a tribute in the form of a large portion of his infantry and cavalry. Nonetheless, in 1602, around the time Jehangir ascended to the throne of Delhi, Vir Singh Deo killed the Mughal emissary to his court and was on the run for the remainder of his days. BFF’s indeed!

Yes, I too liked Babloo’s version better.

The King's wives expressed in elephant body parts - maybe a not so subtle hint to lose weight!

From here Babloo proceeded to narrate the tale of the Raja Ram Temple, the temple constructed by the first Bundela king after his forest epiphany. After the temple was constructed a search for a suitable statue began, artisans were called and asked to produce samples. None was found satisfactory. Then one day Hanuman appeared in the dream of the queen of Orchha and asked her to travel to Ayodhya where she would find the right statue of the God-King. She travelled to Ayodhya and there received a statue from the hands of a holy man who laid only one condition on the transaction; a temple would have to be established wherever she put the statue down first. And as luck would have it, when she got back to Orchha she happened to put the statue down on the plot of land adjacent to the temple already built. And that is why Orchha has two adjacent Ram temples.

A lovely bit of folklore I thought, that derives its entire premise from a tale in the Puranas – the story of Ravan and his attempt to carry Shiva in the form of a shivling (phallus form of Shiva) from Kailash to Lanka, which ultimately met with failure with him putting down the shivling in Rameshwaram, Mahabaleshwar, Baijyanath and countless other places, depending on who’s telling the story, and in each of these places a Shiva temple was erected as a consequence. It seemed to me quite poignant how an ancient tale had found a fresh relevance and retelling in this sleepy little place.

The Ram Temples of Orchha

As a bit of parting trivia Babloo ran up to me and near whispered “Sir, this is the only place in the world besides Ayodhya where Lord Ram is considered the eternal king. The human king is only his regent. That’s why the temple is referred to as the Raja Ram Temple. You take his blessings and he will bless you with a clutch of sons.” Not wanting to risk it with a clutch of sons just yet, we waved goodbye to Babloo and hit the asphalt towards grander temples, greater palaces and more imposing majesty. Madhya Pradesh certainly has some true archaeological gems in its kitty but to me this non-descript town with the curious name will always hold a special place in my heart.

All Photos: Saurabh Chauhan

Added Trivia: The new “Aam Sutra “ads that have surfaced recently are shot with the Orchha monuments in the backdrop.

Saurabh Chauhan (chau_s on twitter) is a travel aficionado who enjoys traversing the vast distances around India behind the wheel of a car. He uses the phrase “I’ll call you back” with annoying frequency. His short term goal is to teach his dog Hobbes to “bow” like a samurai warrior. In his spare time he practices law.

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