|The palace-fort complex as seem from the main road of Orchha|
Only 18 kilometres from Jhansi, a major railway junction of the Central Railways on its trunk route between New Delhi and Mumbai, there is a magical place called Orchha. The place is in the Bundelkhand region of the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh and confines within its folds some remarkable specimens of medieval central Indian architecture.
It is so close yet It was only recently that we decided to do so. Jhansi is
around three hours away by the New Delhi-bound Shatabdi Express from Bhopal Another
half-hour’s jpurney in a vehicle on a pretty decent road with patches of good
dense forests on its sides brings up Orchha. It was around dusk that we hit the
place when the cows were literally coming home into the village raising lots of
dust. We had bookings at the MP Tourism outfit that is known as Betwa Retreat
and were promptly shown into our cottage where we spent four leisurely and
enjoyable days and nights. Betwa is the river that flows by to meet Chambal
|The cenotaphs as seen from a distance|
|Chaturbhuj temple in silhuette|
As one approaches the place from Jhansi one comes across an old
gate, Ganesh Dwaar, (gate of Lord Ganesh) that
signals entry into what is now somewhat of an overblown village. It was once
the capital of Bundelkhand. As one
progresses further up, on the left is the fort-palace complex on what used to
be a seasonal island on the bank of River Betwa. The complex has therefore to
be approached through the medieval Athpula
Bridge. While straight ahead one gets to the photogenic cenotaphs – chhatries – right on the banks of Betwa,
with our Betwa Retreat close by. On the right are the legendary Chaturbhuj and Ram Raja temples and about a kilometre
away, is, what we felt, the
most significant structure of Orchha – the Laxminarayan
|Chhatries in silhuette|
|Jehagir Mahal within the palace-fort complex|
The first things we happened to see the next morning were a couple of shikhars (kind of spires) of two cenotaphs through the big, wide glazed windows of the restaurant of Betwa Retreat. Looking like temples and frightfully impressive, they promptly drew us towards them. They are all in a cluster by the bank of Betwa, and are, indeed, built like temples with a square garbhagriha (sanctum) and temple-like shikhars. They look even more beautiful from across the waters of Betwa – several shikhars piercing the
skies. Only the one of Bir Singh Deo is unlike all of them, built more like a
palace. Building chhatries, one might
add, has been a tradition in central India and Rajasthan. In Gwalior the
Scindias have been building their own chhatries
even till today.
|Interesting brackets inside Jehangir Mahal|
Inevitably, next on the itinerary was the palace-fort or the heritage complex. So we headed towards that and crossed the Athpula Bridge. After passing through the massive gates we climbed scores of feet through a well-maintained winding road on an escarpment to land up in front of the tourists’ entrance of Jehangir Mahal. Right in front was the Sheesh Mahal and on the left, far into the
distance, the shikhar of Laxminarayan temple was pointed out to us.
|Dome of Jehangir Mahal|
Jehangir Mahal (Jehangir’s Palace) is the most admired structure in the fort-palace complex. Reputed to have been built for the Mughal Emperor Jehangir who, perhaps, never stayed in the palace, Jehangir Mahal is a construction of pretty massive proportions. Each side measuring around 70 metres, the palace is of three storeys with more than half a dozen beautifully proportioned domes. Our age and inability to negotiate the stairs prevented us from looking up all the three levels and hence we were deprived of not only the delectable view of the surrounding countryside littered with remains of the bygone era but also the original inscriptions on stone slabs on the third floor depicting Bir Singh’s name and dates of the building. The architectural
highlights of the Palace are
the wide eaves, overhanging balconies with beautifully designed and worked-on
brackets, numerous windows with kiosks and jaalies
(lattice) to let in lots of light and air. From the east-facing massive
ceremonial gate, embellished with richly carved elephants on two sides, one can
see the stables that used to house elephants and, in the distance, the one-time
After some rest we headed for Sheesh Mahal, a palace that was built
much later –
around early 18th Century. It was built after Orchha had lost its
vitality and was used mostly as a country retreat by the local somewhat
powerless Raja. Though named Sheesh Mahal (Palace of Mirrors), it never had any
mirrors. It was named as such, it seems, because of the green-blue glazed tiles
and the early morning light that used to shimmer in through the jaalies.
It has been stripped of all its valuables – Persian rugs and antique
pieces. The MP State Tourism Development Corporation now runs a heritage hotel
using the building, the upper floor rooms of which provide some stunning views
of the surrounding countryside, particularly
after the rains.
|Wall painting inside Laxminarayan temple|
|Shikhara of Laxminarayan remple|
The two temples, Chaturbhuj and Ram Raja, are located right on the main road. Both are steeped in legends. It appears that the present Ram Raja temple was originally the palace of Rani of Madhukar Shah, one of the successors of Rudra Pratap Singh. It became a temple when the Rani brought an image of Lord Ram from Ayodhya and, finding the neighbouring Chaturbhuj temple dedicated to Ram still incomplete, installed the image in her palace. She, however, forgot the condition that the image, once installed, could not be relocated. Hence, her palace became the temple and the structure meant for it has remained unutilised. Ram Raja temple with light-coloured paint on it looks somewhat out of place and, but for its embellishments and domes, it doesn’t appear to be a medieval
structure. It houses a living deity and attracts large number of
devotees from the surrounding areas during Ram
Navami (Birthday of Lord Rama) celebrations. My wife made her humble
offerings to the deity.
|Another wall painting in the temple|
Laxminarayan temple had some well-kept wall and roof paintings. Built by Bir Singh Deo, the Laxminarayan temple is unique in many ways. From outside it looks like a triangular structure but inside it has a rectangular plan. Unlike other medieval temples it also has slots for cannons in its upper reaches and windows that have jaali – a phenomenon that is rarely seen in temples. Besides it has some fine
specimens of Bundeli art on its walls and on the roofs. Themes are as varied as
from life and times of Krishna to scenes from Tulsi Das’s Ramcharitmanas. A 19th Century addition also shows Rani
Laxmibai of Jhansi leading her forces against the British during the 1857 War
of Independence. Colours are bright and styles skilful, blending the Mughal and
Rajput styles, producing something uniquely native – of Bundelkhand.
|One more wall painting|
Although it is only slightly better than a village, it has acquired all the accoutrements of modernity. There is a veritable Jan Path, an arcade of sorts, with shops selling ethnic garments and other knickknacks. There is hardly anything of interest to tourists that is not available in these shops.
|Mural on Betwa Retreat cottage wall|
A word about the Betwa Retreat, where we spent four wonderful days, is a must. A remarkably well maintained property, it has well-appointed cottages and helpful staff. Its restaurant produced some delectable fare. What is best about the Retreat is its ambience – ethnic and green with remarkable bird life. Sitting inside the restaurant one can watch them flitting undisturbed from one tree to another.