The word Orchha literally means ‘hidden’. This area was named so because it was completely covered in forests before being developed. Perched scenically on the banks of the Betwa river, Orchha was the 16th century capital of the Bundelkhand region, which extends from Jhansi in the north to Chambal in the west, Khajuraho in the east and Panna in the south. It is known for the lovely architecture that flourished during the reign of the Bundela kings, who were renowned for their Rajputhi bravery and their refined taste in arts. They withstood the might of the Mughals and won almost every battle against them. The golden period of Orchha is said to have been until the mid-17th century when all the palaces and temples were built.
Orchha has 3 important attractions – the fortified area that includes 3 palaces, royal cenotaphs and the temples. We decided to start with the palaces today morning. Thankfully, the fog had subsided a bit, although it was still quite cold. A bridge connects Orchha’s market area to the palaces. We walked across the bridge, bought tickets near the entrance, hired a local guide and entered the magnificent palace complex via a lovely arched gate.
Inside, on the right, is the Bundela kings’ residential palace called, appropriately, the Raja Mahal. It’s a large, simple mahal with a Diwan-i-Aam on the outside and two lovely, square courtyards inside. Bundela king Veer Singh Deo had 8 wives and each had their own living quarters as well as common areas for makeup and devotion. The king himself had a room in the center, that was larger than the queens’ quarters and were connected to them through a narrow passageway, which is currently closed. All these rooms have beautiful paintings on the ceilings and walls. They depict birds and animals of Bundela as well as mythological themes like the Dashavataram. Unlike other palaces, this one has a Hamam (bathing room) and toilets that we were able to view.
Veer Singh Deo built an alliance with Jehangir, Emperor Akbar’s son, and then built the fantastic Jehangir Mahal in his honor. This palace is an architectural wonder and we were absolutely enthralled by it. A section, which is a separate wing, of the palace is now converted into a heritage hotel, Sheesh Mahal, managed by MP Tourism. We were able to tour the rest of the palace and it was probably one of the best palaces we’ve toured till date.
Exiting Raja Mahal, we entered Jehangir Mahal through an entrance at the back and stepped into a beautiful inner courtyard. At the center of the courtyard was a shallow tank where water was heated and sprinkled with flowers, spreading a lovely aroma in the air. The courtyard is surrounded by living quarters that were built for Jehangir and his entourage. These are topped by fantastic domed cupolas that are fashioned after those at Fatehpur Sikri. We climbed to the top and loved the views from there. We could walk along the walls of the palace and enjoy views of Orchha from every angle. We realized that the village was strewn with many ruins, many within the fortified area itself. One could easily spend days exploring each one of them – it was quite a sight! Orchha may have the same charm and small-town feel as Bundi, but it definitely has much more to see and do; Madhu and I were completely enchanted!
Here our guide bid us adieu, which surprised us as we had expected him to show us around the third palace, Rai Praveen Mahal, as well. But he informed us that the palace is closed for visitors as there are not enough caretakers. Currently there is one caretaker each for Raja Mahal, Jehangir Mahal, Chhaturbhuj Temple, Laxmi Temple and the Chattris; that’s it. They desperately need more people to manage the rest of the ruins and also help with cleaning and maintenance of them. It’s a sad situation.
We headed out of the fortified area around 1pm, had lunch in the market and then walked half a kilometer south towards the Betwa river. It was a peaceful walk as there was hardly any traffic and not many shops or stalls either. To our surprise, in spite of the lack of rains last year, Betwa river turned out to be a large, swift-flowing mass of water with many small rocky boulders strewn in between, making it look like an ideal river-rafting venue. With all the greenery around, it was a very scenic landscape and we could immediately understand why the Bundela kings fell in love with this place and decided to make it their capital.
On the banks of this river are the fabulous, royal cenotaphs, called Chhatris. There are about 15 of them; we visited 5, which were grouped together within a walled enclosure. And what a sight they were! 4 of them were identical in architecture except for (maybe) slight differences in size. They were all 2 storied with 4 pillared domes, one atop each corner, and a huge shikhara in the center. The 5th one of them was smaller and was quite different from the rest. The rest of the cenotaphs outside the enclosure were of different architectural styles but just as beautiful. I, especially, liked one which was between the river and the enclosure; its multiple, arched windows and round structure reminded me of Rome’s coliseum.
The caretaker, Shyamlal Shrivas, told us that we could climb the cenotaphs if we wished and showed us the hidden, narrow staircases that led to the top. We climbed to the top of one of the cenotaphs, from where views out to the river and the rest of Orchha were phenomenal. We noticed that huge vultures had made nests inside some of the pillared domes of the cenotaphs. There were also many parrots and doves around. Shyamlal later informed us that he feed the birds twice a day with grains that he spreads in the center of the enclosure. Apparently, some wealthy man used to send him money regularly to buy grains for the birds. But for the past few months that man has been unable to send any. So Shyamlal has been feeding the birds with his own money. He sounded very sincere about his job and seemed to care a lot for the birds. We immediately took a liking to him. Seeing our interest in the birds he said that we should come back at 9am in the morning when he feeds them; apparently hundreds of parrots show up! We vowed that we would definitely be back then.
As we walked back to our hotel room, we realized that we had spent almost 3 hours gazing at the cenotaphs and the birds that inhabit them – it had been one of our best experiences in Orchha!
Our next stop was the 17th century Chhaturbhuj (literally translated to mean Four-limbed for the Lord Vishnu) Mandir. It has a very imposing facade and is elevated atop a huge square platform, making the temple one of the most visible monuments from anywhere in Orchha. The inside of the temple, though, is quite bare (we are used to seeing carved pillars and/or murals) and not as impressive. There is a small shrine towards the back wall of the temple with small idols of Lord Vishnu and Lord Krishna. A local youth guided us through some narrow, extremely steep, almost claustrophobic steps to the very top of the temple, which is 3-storeys high. From here the view of Raja Mahal was fantastic.
Later, at 6:30pm, we attended the English version of the Sound & Light show offered by MP Tourism within the palace grounds. It was quite interesting as it narrated Orchha’s history and stories. The light effects on the surrounding palaces’ facade were breathtaking and I enjoyed it thoroughly.
As expected, we’ve decided to stay one more night in Orchha !