Orchha, a tiny town in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, takes
you completely by surprise with its medieval ambience. Instead of the drab
concrete houses, dusty lanes and untidy shops usually found in rural India,
forts, palaces and temples jostle with each other in the bustling town square.
This is a place wrapped
in legends of feudal chivalry and romance, one that packs more history into every square metre than many better-known
places, including Agra and Udaipur.
The nearby destination
of Khajuraho, famous for its erotic sculptures, usually overshadows Orchha.
Only those in-the-know make the trip to this town caught in a time warp where
some of the country’s best-preserved Bundelkhandi (a medieval dynasty of
central India) architecture and murals can be found.
As you travel west from Khajuraho and cross the Betwa River, the high walls of
the Orchha Fort
rise up abruptly. The busy road is lined with shops selling garish synthetic
saris and mobile phone sim cards, and signs advertise instant noodles, cough
syrup and skin lightening creams. With motorbikes, auto-rickshaws and battered
jeeps zooming in and out, it is hard to imagine that you are arriving at a medieval
heritage site dating back to the early 16th Century. Car horns
mingle with temple bells and villagers dressed in their finest clothes queue up
outside the famous Ram Raja Temple
to offer flowers to the reigning deity. The buzzing local life is as
intoxicating as its co-existing history.
The bustling Orchha
Fort complex, home to several palaces and monuments, was established by King
Rudrapratap Singh in 1501. Orchha was an ideal place to build a capital as the
town is sheltered by thick forest, which is probably the reason that these
age-old monuments still exist in excellent condition, despite there being no
major preservation efforts.
years, several generations of kings and their queens lived in this complex,
with a vast retinue of officials, servants, horses and elephants. The entrance
gate takes you to a large courtyard from which you enter the Raja Mahal (King’s
Palace). Inside the royal chambers, you can see intricate murals of gods,
mythological creatures, humans and animals, depicting religious and social
themes. The upstairs rooms still have remnants of mirrors in the ceilings and
walls; take a minute to imagine the effect when dancing girls swirled around.
Just a short
walk away is Jehangir Mahal, a palace built
for the Mughal emperor Jehangir’s one-night visit to Orchha in the 17th
Century – such was the obsequious flattery shown towards the emperor of India
by the local rulers. This four-storey architectural masterpiece is a mix of
Muslim and Rajput architecture and has countless rooms with arched entrances,
balconies and latticed windows that frame miniature painting-like views of the
monument-studded riverbank outside. A steep climb to the top floor via narrow
stairways is worth it for the rewarding views over the town. Exit from what is
now the back (but was originally the main entrance with an impressive carved
gate), past the royal baths to the small abode of the courtesan Rai Parveen,
set in a garden designed in the classic Mughal style. Here you can see a
life-size portrait of the lady, her sharp features etched out in profile, a transparent
gown showing the curves of her body. So famous was this courtesan that Jehangir’s
father Emperor Akbar (1556 to 1605) forced her to move to his court in Agra.
Parveen, however, composed a couplet for the emperor asking him why he should
want to enjoy a meal that was already tasted, and earned her release to return
Just outside the fort entrance, looming over the
skyline on a high stone platform, is the Chaturbhuj Temple, an imposing structure with stark
interiors as no deity was ever worshipped inside. The god Rama, for whom the
temple was built, chose instead to reside in a part of the Raja Mahal, appearing to
the queen in a dream where he refused to move to his grand, newly built accommodation.
Thus a section of the palace was converted into the Ram Raja Temple, which continues
to be a lively and bustling venue packed with worshippers who come to pay
respects to “King Ram” who rules the town. A 10-minute auto-rickshaw ride from Chaturbhuj is the
smaller Laxmi Narayan Temple,
which is a unique mix of temple and fort architecture – one curious feature
being the canon slots on its roof. There is no statue of the deity here since
the last one was stolen some decades ago, but you can see barn owls flying
around, which are coincidentally the mount of Laxmi, the goddess
As you walk
down to the river banks from the temple you may catch a glimpse of local life
at its colourful best. On auspicious days, villagers throng here to pray, while
vendors sell vermillion powder, sweets, beads and bangles and folk musicians
strike up their instruments to accompany bhajans
(hymns) sung soulfully by wandering mendicants. Just steps away, huddled
together on the banks of the river are the grim but imposing chhatris (cenotaphs) of the medieval
rulers who left their mark on this place. There are 14 dark and mossy stone chhatris,
each with a square platform and stairs leading to the domed ceilings. Vultures
roost above, adding to the funereal atmosphere. Come at early morning or sunset
to see the chhatris bathed in a beautiful golden glow.