Orchha literally means ‘hidden’ and this small village is just that, secluded and away from civilisation and still retaining its age-old charm and we felt this, the minute we arrived here. Situated 20 Kilometres across the state border from Jhansi, this charming place lures many foreign tourists and comparatively fewer Indian tourists. This former Bundela capital is a small village on the banks of the river Betwa with more hotels and restaurants than people. The founders of Orchha wanted it hidden from enemies and hence the name.
‘Bund’ literally means drop and that is where the Bundelas get their name from, a drop of blood. Legend has it that a Rajput prince, Hemkaran, who was unjustly robbed of his lands by his half-brothers, retreated to the Vindhya mountain range. He hoped to secure a boon from the goddess, Vindhyavasini, who resided in that range. But, despite spending much time in meditation, Hemkaran received no sign of a blessing from the goddess. Disappointed, he tried to end his life by beheading himself with his sword. He raised his sword and brought it down in an instant, but no sooner had the sword touched his skin than the goddess stopped him. However, a drop (Bund) of blood had already fallen on the ground. The goddess, pleased with his devotion, gave him a boon that from that drop of blood on the ground would arise a brave son who would conquer lands far and wide and earn glory for himself and his dynasty. This sacrificial act earned him the name ‘Bundela’ and his lineage is also known hence. This mythical account was probably used by the Bundela kings to lend some divine linkage to the origin of their dynasty (just like the Chandelas did).
In reality though, the Bundelas trace their descent to the Rajputs of Banaras. In the 11th century, the Bundelas, who struggled to face the Muslim invaders, eventually shifted from Banaras to a region now called Bundelkhand. But their capital, Garkhundar was under attack as it was strategically important but vulnerable; this created the need for a less vulnerable capital. The Bundela king, Rudra Pratap made Orchha his capital in the 16th century by building a walled palace atop a secluded mound near the river Betwa and thus began the story of Orchha. But, it was under the rule of his grandson, Vir Singh Deo, that the capital reached its zenith in terms of art, literature and architecture. He is said to have 52 monuments built on his 52nd birthday. Though a vassal, he maintained cordial relations with the Mughal emperor of his time, Jehangir, who let Vir Singh exert his control over Orchha. Vir Singh even built Jehangir Mahal to honour the Mughal emperor during his visit to Orchha. After enjoying a prominent status during the reign of the Bundelas till the shifting of the capital to Tikamgarh in the 18th century, Orchha once again became a hidden, forgotten place. Most events during the British rule focussed more on Jhansi than Orchha. Present day Orchha still has a few buildings remnant of its glorious past.
Best season to visit:
Unless you want a good tan, we suggest you visit Orchha between the months of July to February. You could choose to visit Orchha during the Ram Navami festival, usually held during Mid-April. This festival celebrates the birth of the Hindu god-king Ram and is held with great pomp and show; the small village is thronged by thousands of devotees at this time.
Tip: One remarkable thing is that inside the palace complex, you can hardly feel the heat, it is because of the material of the stones used in its construction and the type of construction itself.
How to reach:
Orchha is very easily accessible from Jhansi, which is a major railway and bus junction. There are various modes of transport from Jhansi to Orchha – Taxi, Bus, Auto and Vikram/Share-auto which basically is the Indian version of going Dutch. The fare collected is on a per person basis. A bus trip would cost you 30 INR per person one way, an auto would 150 one way, a share auto would 20 INR one way. Note that all these fares are from the Bus stand at Jhansi. There is no railway station at Orchha and the nearest railway station is at Jhansi.
Tip: For those of you wanting to experience the clichéd ‘real India’, share-auto (also called Vikram or Tempo) is the way to go. For a better and faster travel experience, you can offer to pay for an extra person for the extra leg room.
Getting out is easy, you have so many buses that ply regularly from Tikamgarh to Jhansi that pass through Orchha, and it is easy to flag down one. Buses are less frequent after 10 PM though and there aren’t any after 11. There are also buses available to and from Khajuraho.
Though a small village, Orchha offers quite a number of rooms, many of them on the higher side. The state-run heritage hotel, Sheesh Mahal, which is right next to the palace complex is an excellent choice for those who can afford it. As many tourists do, we stayed at Jhansi and not at Orchha. It was easier as our train was from Jhansi, though most hotels in Jhansi are not professional enough, but since we were merely halting for the night, we did not bother much about the state of hotels.
Before we delve into the specifics, we would like to just say one thing – Go for Sheesh Mahal and you will never regret it, food is simply awesome here and you will save a lot of time as it is in the palace complex. That being said, Orchha does not offer a wide variety of cuisines, although a few dishes may crop up on the menu. We even saw local spices being sold in most shops, but they were not of any recognisable brand, so it is better that you think twice before buying these.
Since it is a small village, you can cover all places on foot. You do not need a separate medium of transportation inside Orchha. If you must, you could hire Trickshaws, do not go for the one-day sightseeing tours that are on offer, they simply are not worth it.
Sights and places to see:
Though there are many places to see in and around the palace complex, they are quite nearby and in this post we will try to focus more on the unique spots rather than on the ones which have the same style of architecture.
Our tour started with the Raja Mahal, it is in the palace complex and is a good place to start the tour. Its building was started in the time of the king Rudra Pratap Singh, but was completed only during the reign of his son. There is a fusion of Hindu and Muslim (Mughal specifically) architecture in this palace. Make sure to carry lots of water as there is no water (or restroom) facility available in Raja Mahal. The entry ticket to the complex costs 10 INR for Indians.
We hired a guide for 300 INR and he was well worth the money as he showed us the entire complex patiently and clicked our couple pics too. As explained by our guide, there are three portions of the Mahal: Diwaan-e-Aam, Diwaan-e-Khaas and the Family Courtyards.
The Mughal inspired Diwaan-e-Aam or Durbar-e-Aam, in the northern corner, is an assembly for the Aam junta (common man) to gather and be heard by the king. On one end of the hall which looked like it could seat 100 people at once, is an elevated pedestal on which the king probably sat to listen to his subjects on everyday issues.
There is a lot of graffiti on the walls of this heritage place and this really saddened us. We really wished there were stricter rules in place to prevent offenders from defacing such places of historical importance.
The eastern entrance leads to the Diwaan-e-Khaas or Durbar-e-Khaas on the left, this was the hall for the council of ministers; issues of strategic and military nature were discussed here by the king. Our guide showed us this cool escape route from inside that led to the forests nearby. Just opposite the Diwaan-e-Khas is a stage where the dancers including the famous Rai Parveen supposedly performed.
From this fortress of not-so-much solitude, we proceeded on to the Family courtyards where there were private quarters for the king and his wives. We suppose that the room on the right side of the ground floor (from where we entered) belonged to the queen of king Madhukar Shah, son of Vir Singh Deo and the third ruler of Orchha, as it was filled with beautiful murals depicting scenes from the Ramayana and she being a deeply religious person may have been the inhabitant of the room. The colourful murals and the arched doorways leading to them are the highlight of this palace.
On the other side of the courtyard were the bath chambers; this pic here is a view from the outside. Notice the steps on the left side, cold water from the river Betwa was poured through both the openings by servants and a fire was lit in the centre during winters. Our guide also showed us a place inside the bath chambers where sandalwood and other fragrant materials used as perfume were stored.
We spent quite a few hours exploring the Raja Mahal before we headed to another architectural beauty further east of the Raja Mahal – the Jehangir Mahal. This story was narrated to us by our guide, it is quite different from the common literature, but it is fun nonetheless. The Mughal vassal, King Vir Singh Deo, who ruled Orchha towards the end of the reign of the Mughal king Akbar, upon hearing the news from his secret informers that the young Mughal prince Salim was hiding in his kingdom rushed to meet him. Salim was not on terms with his father Akbar and Abul Fazal, Akbar’s vizier. When Abul Fazal tried to march against Salim, Vir Singh Deo responded by attacking and beheading Abul Fazal and even presented the severed head to Salim. This act sealed the bond of friendship between the two rulers. When Salim was crowned emperor Jehangir, he released Bir Singh from his vassalage. When Jehangir was to visit Orchha, Vir Singh had a special palace built for him and his troops – Jehangir Mahal. Our guide also said that Vir Singh spent years building a palace for Jehangir who after its completion stayed there for exactly one night post which the palace was never used. The Bundela royalty claimed that the stay of Jehangir had deteriorated the palace and chose never to stay in it.
There is no entrance ticket for the Jehangir Mahal. The main entrance is from the east side, but there is a shorter way from Raja Mahal which involves climbing not too many stairs and crossing an open ground with Sheesh Mahal on the left. It was quite hot by the time we reached Jehangir Mahal, so when we found a drinking water tap with really cold water we didn’t waste much time in drenching ourselves before our next adventure.
We suppose this palace is really just a huge metaphor, the architecture has elements of Hinduism and Islam and they exist side by side – the Islamic domes and Hinduistic Chattris, the Mughal peacock statues and the Bundela Elephant statues, the green tiles (Islamic) and blue tiles (Hinduistic). It was probably a metaphor to show King Jehangir and also the world that the kingdoms of the Mughals and Bundelas could exist in harmony, and Vir Singh had a lot to gain from peace and stability in that region.
There are three storeys and a number of rooms to explore; originally there were a 100 rooms, many of them underground, but now access is given only to those above the ground. From the third floor, you can get a good view of the Betwa river on one side and the Chaturbhuj Mandir (Hindu temple) on the other.
One reason why the rooms inside are cooler can be explained by the type of windows here. The pattern on the windows shown in this picture ensures that due to the Venturi Effect, the air gushing in is cooler than the air outside.
The slanting low rise balusters that lead to the dome on the top provide plenty of opportunities for photography. The dome, a photographer’s haven by itself, is home to a species of vulture, the Indian vulture. Do not be surprised if you find bird watchers waiting to catch a glimpse of this critically endangered species.
From the very picturesque eastern entrance of Jehangir Mahal, we also caught a glimpse of the Unt Khana (Camel stable), the Betwa river, Rai Parveen Mahal with Anand Bagh, and a few other ruins by the riverside. After our photography session inside the Jehangir Mahal, we exited the palace complex and walked down the road to a set of dilapidated ruins containing the Shyam Daua Kothi, Risaldar Kothi and also the Rai Parveen Mahal nearby.
The Shyam Daua Kothi was the house of the Chief Military Commander, Shyam Daua, the grandson of Raiman Daua, a Divan of Vir Singh Deo. When Raiman Daua’s family committed suicide, for reasons unknown, by setting themselves on fire, a saddened Vir Singh called for Raiman’s daughter-in-law to be brought to Orchha and even built a separate mansion for her – the Shyam Daua Kothi. This two-storeyed mansion sports a huge courtyard and two gardens with impressive irrigation facilities. There is also a well inside, but it has been cordoned off. There are very few visitors to this place barring a few dogs and cows. It is said that the Mughals had Shyam Daua and a few others executed when they refused to convert to Islam.
The Risaldar Kothi (Chief of Cavalry) is just another set of ruins beside the Shyam Daua Kothi, we took a quick look and moved on to the three-storeyed Rai Parveen Mahal, it was under renovation when we visited so we were unable to take many pictures. There is a really huge garden behind the Rai Parveen palace – the Anand Mahal Bagh – and a Tope Khana (Cannon foundry). The Rai Parveen Mahal was built for Rai Parveen, the poetess – courtesan – paramour during the time of king Vir Singh Deo.
Rai Parveen was a paramour of Kunwar Indrajit Singh, the brother of king Vir Singh Deo. She was not only a woman of dazzling beauty but also a gifted poetess and dancer. News of her beauty and prowess in dance reached the ears of the Mughal emperor Akbar, and he summoned her to perform in his court. She was reluctant at first, but was convinced by the Kunwar who feared the might of the Mughal emperor. To add to her worries, a performer of Akbar’s court, Gulab, grew jealous of Rai and plotted against her. According to folklore, Rai Parveen was in the middle of a performance when Gulab threw a dagger at her injuring her in the leg, but to the surprise of the spectators, Rai did not miss a single step, she instead threw her own concealed dagger right back at Gulab killing her. This spectacle impressed Akbar who desired her to be a part of his court. He sent an envoy to Rai Parveen expressing his desire. But Akbar’s dreams were short-lived as Rai Parveen, being the poetess that she was, responded by reciting her self-composed poem wherein she praised Akbar and also subtly requested him to let her go back to Orchha as she was not his, but Indrajit’s. Akbar who was already impressed by her beauty, courage and grace could only be more impressed with her poetry and had her sent back to Orchha with treasures and riches.
Just a few steps from Rai Parveen Mahal is the Shahi Darwaja, it was built to welcome the Mughal emperor, Jehangir when he visited Orchha. The rooms upstairs are not open to the public. On the right side, one can get a clear view of the Camel stable (Untkhana) on the right. We passed through the Shahi Darwaja and turned left towards a group of monuments that were supposedly there. A rough sandy path amidst green fields and playful locals led us to these places : Shiv Mandir, Teen Dasiyon Ka Mahal, Panchmukhi Mahadev Mandir, Radhika Bihari Mandir, Vanvasi Mandir. If you are looking for an off-beat nature trail inside Orchha, look no further. And the best part was when we reached the end of the path and dipped our feet in the river Betwa. Architecturally, these monuments are very similar to other monuments in Orchha, but their location makes them attractive off-beat spots. Though these are protected by the Archaelogical Survey of India, locals have found a way to sneak in and plant crops inside these complexes.
Tip: We were chased by dogs on the path to Teen Dasiyon Ka Mahal and had to return, so carry along a stick, just to be safe.
The first stop on our trail, the small Shiv Mandir is dedicated to the Hindu god, Lord Shiv(a), was built in the 17th century AD. The temple has two small structures in an otherwise large temple complex – an octagonal Shikara (spire) and a Mandap (hall). The temple was originally painted in ochre and contained images of Shiv and a Shivling which have now been shifted to the Ram Raja temple.
After our run from dogs, we reached the Panchmukhi Mahadev Mandir complex built by king Vir Singh Deo in the 17th century, inhabited currently by local farmers and cricket-playing kids who use the high boundary wall as their stumps. There are three temples each facing a different direction in varying states of repair. There were many paintings of the Hindu god, Lord Vishnu depicting scenes from the stories of his 10 Avatars. There is a slight resemblance to the style of temples at Khajuraho.
As we trod down the path, we came upon a temple without a fence or a wall – the Radhika Bihari Mandir, consequentially it is in a dilapidated state. Built by king Vir Singh Deo, it is considered a fine example of Bundela architecture and many temples built later draw their inspiration from this beauty. Inside the temple sanctum, there are carvings of Ganesh and Dwarapalas (Gatekeepers) believed to be a source of good luck and defence to the temple. Vanvasi Mandir, the other temple built by Vir Singh Deo is the temple of Lord Rama. The idols of this temple have been shifted to the Ram Raja Mandir and the temple is mostly empty, barring the really dense grass in and around the temple. It is at the end of the trail and near this temple we could actually hear the gushing sound of the Betwa river. We wasted no time in rushing to the water and dipping our feet. There is a very narrow and slippery trail right along the river which we chose to avoid, but if you crazy enough we would suggest it.
After we sat at the riverside for some time, we rushed back to the entrance of the palace complex. We crossed the bridge and proceeded to the Chattris or cenotaphs, they are also along the river-bank, but in the south. It is quite a walk and we suggest that you get an auto (although it was difficult for us to find one) and ask for Chattris or Kanchan Ghat. Though calling these structures Chattris or cenotaphs would be a misnomer as the burial spots, in a few cases, are right next to the structure. Misnomer or not, these are beautiful structures and are worth at least a short visit. For a good panoramic view, cross the river and view these structures from the other side.
The tradition of building cenotaphs for royalty and nobility, thought to have been introduced by the Turks, is very common with the clans of the Bundelkhand region and is thought to have even influenced the Rajasthani ones at Mandore, Jaisalmer and Bikaner. The size and the extravagance of each Chattri shows the prosperity of Orchha at various times. It was believed that the grander the structure, the better would be the afterlife and in this, these structures are comparable to the pyramids at Egypt. They were also built with cross ventilation with the belief that the spirits of the dead would visit them. The cenotaph of Vir Singh Deo in particular even has a river facing entrance so the spirit could take a bath in the river. Other than this Chattri that is like a palace, the rest resemble the temples of this region, some with space for funeral ceremonies to be held. The other Chattris found here are those of kings Bharti Chandra, Sujan Singh, Indramani, Jaswant Singh, Bhagwant Singh, Prithvi Singh and Sawant Singh.
We spent some time exploring the cenotaph of Umed Singh of Banka Pahar, a princely state of Orchha. Umed Singh, who is also called Banka Umed Singh. He was the landlord of Banka Pahar and Qiledar (Fort-Keeper) of Orchha fort in the 18th century. This two-storeyed structure with a miniature spire and domes on the roof is the only Chattri in this complex that has been built for someone who was not a ruler of Orchha. The doors are locked and we could only take a look from the outside, but we had no qualms as we had a scenic view of the river. The locals told us that the Ghat gets more crowded during festivals.
We were quite worn out by this time and moved on to the Chaturbhuj temple dragging our feet beneath us. But the legend behind the Chaturbhuj and Ram Raja temples kept alluring us and we pushed on. The legend goes like this, the queen of king Madhukar Shah was a devotee of Lord Ram while her husband himself was a staunch devotee of the Hindu god, Lord Krishna. So staunch was he that he neglected his kingdom and was driven out by the Mughals and Vir Singh Deo, but that is another story. It is said that Lord Ram appeared to the queen in her dream in the form of an infant and played with her. The queen took this as a signal from the Lord asking her to bring him to Orchha. She was ridiculed by the king, however, who claimed that his god, Krishna, was supreme. But this did not deter the determined queen who set out to Ayodhya to bring back an idol of Lord Ram. She commissioned the building of a temple for the Lord too (Chaturbhuj temple) when she returned. She managed to get an idol of Lord Ram, but to travel to Orchha the Lord had his conditions stated clearly – First, they would travel only during the Pukh Nakshatra (according to the Hindu calendar), second, he would be the king of Orchha upon arrival and third, he would be seated wherever she seated him first. The queen agreed to these demands and started on her journey which was to take months.
Meanwhile, the king, in his dream, is visited by Lord Krishna who rebukes him for ridiculing Lord Ram who is in fact another Avatar of Vishnu (Ram and Krishna are both Avatars of the Hindu god, Vishnu). Realising his mistake, he makes all the necessary arrangements for her return. Though the construction of the Chaturbhuj temple was hastened, it was not complete by the time the queen returned. The queen, tired from the journey, proceeded to her palace with the idol and forgetting the third condition, placed the idol in her palace, Rani Mahal. This fixed the idol and it became impossible to move the idol from the queen’s palace. Thus Rani Mahal became Ram Raja Mandir and the Chaturbhuj Mandir became bereft of the statue it was meant for. This explains the architecture of the Ram Raja Mandir, it is in the shape of a palace rather than that of a temple. The Chaturbhuj temple, on the other hand, is a representation of the four arms of Vishnu. The view from the arched windows of the three floors of this temple is simply stunning.
The best time to visit the Ram Raja Mandir is in the evening at 8 PM when it opens to the public and any time before 7 PM is good to visit the Chaturbhuj temple. We visited the Chaturbhuj temple and Phulbagh in the evening around 6 PM. We felt there was not much to see at Phulbagh except the two cooling towers nearby. We had spent most of our time at Jehangir Mahal and the sandy trail, so we had to skip Lakshminarayan Mandir and finish our trip.
We sat on a bus headed to Jhansi winding up our trip, satisfied with our slice of history, architecture and adventure, with our slice of Orchha. From an unknown place to the capital of a kingdom to being forgotten to finally being a tourist destination, Orchha had come a long way and its spectacular history is sure to impress many.
For further reading on monuments of Orchha, you may buy this book. A detailed description of the lineage of the rulers of Orchha can be found here. For info about the Ram Raja Mandir, visit this site. Most of the information we have provided here is from our guide.