Orchha, a living medieval town

This Indian town wrapped in legends of feudal chivalry and romance packs more history into every square metre than even Agra or Udaipur.

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.

Over the 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 home.

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 of wealth.

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.