If Madhya Pradesh (MP) isn’t included in your “places to visit” list, it’s a crying shame. This central Indian state is littered with landmarks from the bygone era apart from places of pilgrimage, wildlife sanctuaries and scenic lakes. The Hindu and Jain temples at Khajuraho with their erotic carvings, the Kandariya Mahadeva temple with its 800+ sculptures, and the exotic Bengal tiger sanctuaries at Bandhavgarh and Kanha national parks are just some of the places worthy of a visit.
Today, we take a look at the incredible grandeur of Orchha, a quaint medieval town, founded in the 16th century by the Bundela Rajputs, a fierce Rajput warrior clan. Orchha was the capital city of the Bundelas. Orchha’s jewel is the 500+ year old fortress which stands tall among the flat countryside of Bundelkhand. The fortress lies on an artificial island over the river Betwa and is indeed a majestic site to behold. Inside the fort and around it are palaces, temples, and cenotaphs and although many of these structures lie in different states of disrepair, there’s plenty of nostalgia when you are in its midst.
Things To See and Do in Orchha
When in Orchha there are many interesting sites to check out:
Orchha Fort Complex
Unlike most forts in India, the Orchha fort isn’t perched on top of a mountain or hill, but is actually situated smack in the middle of the town, next to a small but busy market. Despite the fact, the fort stands tall and mighty and can be seen from quite a distance away. It is surrounded on all sides by water, which served to protect it well from enemy attacks in the past. Within the open square of the fort lies the elegant Jehangir Mahal, the Raj Mahal and Rai Parveen Mahal.
The 17th century Jehangir Mahal, which was a gift for the Mughal Emperor Jehangir (apparently the king only spent ONE night here) is an architectural delight. The Indo-Mughal architecture is seen in all its glory in this palace, which took about 22 years to complete. Geometric patterns (the highlight of Mughal architecture) can be seen surrounding the palace, while carvings of the lotus flower, elephants and others reflect Indian architecture. The sandstone used in the construction of the palace throws out shades of blue and green against the sunlight and the views from the top of the palace are quite spectacular; you can see the cenotaphs, the long winding Betwa river, the forests and the village below.
A small walk away is the Raj Mahal, which is where one of the king’s resided with his 6 wives. The hall at the entrance to the Raj Mahal was designed to house meetings between the king and his ministers. A stage built opposite the hall held recitals and dance performances after the key meetings were concluded. The architecture was classical Rajputana, with a separate enclosure designed for men (mardaana) and women (zenana) and if local folklore are to be believed, any man caught in the zenana was punished by death. The dining area of the king features a 16th century painting while the walls of the royal family rooms are filled with figures from ancient mythology with the highlight being the 10 avatars of Vishnu.
A short distance away is the Rai Praveen Mahal, a palace constructed in honor of a beautiful and famous poetess and dancer. It is said that this dancer caught the eye of the then Prince Indrajit Singh who was forced to send her away to the court of Akbar the Great, who when he got to hear of her talent and beauty requested her presence in his court. It is said that the dancer composed a witty poem that so impressed Akbar, that he was compelled to send her back to Inrajit. Upon her return, Indrajit constructed this beautiful Mahal in her honor.
A tour is usually arranged by the MP Tourism department around the fortress, which takes about an hour. Once that is complete, you are free to roam about and experience the charm and nostalgia of the surroundings at your own leisure.
Ram Raja Temple
Down the road from the fort complex is the Ram Raja temple, which is unlike any temple you’ve likely seen in India. That’s because it was originally a palace of the queen Rani Ganeshkuwari. There is a local legend about how this temple came to be. The queen was an ardent devotee of Lord Rama. It is said that the Lord came to her in a dream and asked her to build a temple for him. She immediately sanctioned the construction of the Chaturbhuj Temple and went off to Ayodhya to get an image of the Lord.
On returning, she kept the idol in her palace until the temple construction was completed. When the time came to transfer the idol, it was revealed to her that the idol should only be directly installed at the site of worship and should on no account be moved. Unable to move the idol anymore, she converted the palace itself into a temple. This temple is also notable for being the only temple in India where Lord Rama is worshipped as a king. Every year, the Rama Vivah (wedding) festival is held within the temple premises.
To the south of the Ram Raja Temple is the Chaturbhuj Temple, which was originally commissioned as the Ram temple but never got around to installing the idol. Instead in its place is the image of Radha and Krishna. The temple itself sits on a 4.5 meter high platform with its towering shikharas dominating the skyline. The temple is quite unique in that its central dome looks like a mosque while the towers resemble the chattris of the cenotaphs.
A short drive from the fort complex, atop a small hill lies the Laxminarayan Temple dedicated to the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, and her consort, Narayan. Built in the year 1622, it is a rectangular enclosure that looks part temple, part fort. There are towers in the 4 corners with a tall spire in the center. The upper level of the temple offers stunning views of the fort and the Chaturbhuj Temple.
The inner walls of the temple are rich galleries of art, with vivid paintings adorning them. These paintings are actually semi-engraved; seashells ground to a paste and applied to the surface before etching the designs. The paintings reveal scenes from the Ramayana, but also include contemporary subjects such as scenes of British soldiers in their regiments. Tickets are needed to visit this temple and can be obtained at the fort.
The southern embankments of the River Betwa houses the cenotaphs or chattris, which are memorials of the kings and their families. There are about 15 cenotaphs in all and are built on a square platform. The chattris hold the ashes of cremated prince and princesses with the 2 notable ones being the marble statue dedicated to Madhukar Shah and his wife and the one dedicated to Bir Singh Deo. You get the best view of these cenotaphs from the river banks in the early morning hours. A visit inside requires a ticket which can be got at the fort. One of the best ways to view the cenotaphs is to go rafting down the river Betwa so be sure to experience the chattris this unique way.
Sound and Light Show
A special sound and light show is organized every evening at the Raj Mahal, where history is brought to life. The walls of the Mahal resonate with the sounds of battle cries and galloping horses as the history of Bundelkhand is played out in both Hindi and English. The hour long show starts at about 7.30 in the evenings during the summer months of March to October (English) and 6.30 P.M during the winter months of November to February.
Where to Stay in Orchha
The former hunting lodge of the Bundela kings has been converted into a hotel by the MP Tourism department. This is an enviable spot to stay as it lies within the fort complex and comes with its own on-site restaurant. For bookings visit the official website.
Bundelkhand Riverside Retreat
This resort offers great views of the river Betwa from its balconies and it has a quant rustic charm about it. For more information visit www.bundelkhandriverside.com
The Orchha Resort
Built near the chattris on the banks of the river Betwa, the resort offers rooms and Swiss tents overlooking the cenotaphs. For more information visit www.orchharesort.com
Located down the road from the Chaturbhuj Temple, this place offers rooms and tents for stay near the river. For more information visit the official website.
Friends of Orchha
This is a rural homestay operated by an NGO and is a place you might consider staying in if you want to experience Orchha the local way and help support the local families and community. For more information visit http://www.orchha.org/
How to Get There
By air: The nearest airport is at Gwalior, 120km away from Orchha.
By rail: The best option is to take the Bhopal Shatabdi Express train from Delhi to Jhansi (just 18km away) and then take a autorickshaw or taxi to Orchha.
By road: A number of state transport buses are available from Gwalior, while private buses are available from Jhansi as well as Gwalior.0