Orchha Guide: Explore the Riverside Town Where Gods Turn Into Kings

Sixteenth-century chhatris and storied temples in Madhya Pradesh.  
Orchha Madhya Pradesh
The 17th- and 18th-century Bundela cenotaphs on Orchha’s Kanchan Ghat are built on elevated square platforms. The balconies on each floor afford stunning views of the surrounding landscape. Photo: Leoks/Shutterstock

Built 500 years ago, by the 16th-century Bundela chieftain Rudra Pratap, Orchha seems to have resisted the sweeping march of time. The highway from Jhansi—the nearest big city—runs through the main square, and divides the little town neatly into half. Standing here, it is easy to visualise Orchha’s broad layout, as it must have existed several centuries ago. To the west is the fort, built on a seasonal island on the serene Betwa River, and separated by a bridge from the main cluster of temples and havelis to the east. A solitary row of cenotaphs stands on the banks of the river at the southern edge of town.

Orchha has a handful of families who have lived here for generations. It is reminiscent of a simpler time, when neighbours moved freely in and out of each other’s homes, and everyone knew one another by name. Even the historical monuments still bear the names of their long-gone residents: Dauji ki Kothi, Jahangir Mahal, Hardaul ki Haveli, Baba ki Gufa.

Orchha has an unmistakable air of mystery. Its esoteric architecture curiously interchanges fort elements and temple moulds. This is the only place in India where Rama is worshipped as a king, and a Bundela royal is revered as a demigod. Here palaces are converted into temples, while shrines resemble towering citadels, where daily rituals run like clockwork, not unlike a Changing of the Guard.

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The King’s Quarters

Murals Orchha

Raja Mahal, though plain in design, is decorated with colourful, detailed murals. Photo: IP.Black/Indiapicture

Jahangir Mahal Orchha

Jahangir Mahal is eerily quiet and hauntingly beautiful. Photo: Seng Kit/Shutterstock

 

The fort complex is approached by a multi-arched bridge and has three main palaces set in a quadrangle: Raja Mahal, Jahangir Mahal, and Sheesh Mahal, which is now a heritage hotel run by MP Tourism.

Raja Mahal is the oldest of the three; its construction was started by Raja Rudra Pratap in the 1530s. The plain exterior, crowned with chhatris, gives way to interiors with delicate murals. Some of these are in wonderful condition, with marvellous colours and detailed designs, especially in the Diwan-i-Khas and Diwan-i Aam. Unfortunately, these bring into focus how badly damaged the rest of them are, blackened with age or faded over time.

Jahangir Mahal was built by Vir Singh Deo, the Bundela chief who ruled Orchha in the early 17th century, in honour of a visit from its namesake Mughal emperor. Designed with a fascinating blend of Mughal and Bundela architecture, the palace was painstakingly constructed over several years, with delicate double chhatris and latticework set around a large courtyard. Strong lines and delicate details contrast beautifully. Steep staircases lead the way to the pretty rooftop with shaded sit-outs and a bird’s-eye view of the town. When Jahangir finally came to Orchha, he stayed here only one day—but you’ll be tempted to linger. (Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; entry ₹10; camera ₹25; ticket valid for all monuments in Orchha for one day.)

Memory Lanes

Though many monuments in the fort complex lie in ruins, it has a lot more to see than the palaces. Collect the Heritage Walk Brochure (₹10) from the ticket counter, and follow the marked trails. Beyond the main palaces, there are royal horse stables, the ojha or medicine man’s house, ancient stepwells, and a wind tower. There are assorted havelis, temples, and colossal ceremonial gates as well.

The palace of the courtesan Rai Praveen has a romantic backstory. This beautiful paramour of Raja Indramani was ordered to appear in Akbar’s court because the emperor was captivated by her. In the Mughal court, she spurned his advances delicately by saying that even dogs don’t partake of leftovers. Humbled by her devotion and love for Indramani, Akbar had her escorted back to Orchha where a palace was built in her honour.

After a long day, rest your tired feet in the fort courtyard as you watch the sound-and-light show. There’s a nip in the air in the evenings all year round, so carry a shawl as you settle down for an enthralling tale of love, betrayal, chivalry, and cunning. The one-hour show brings to life the 500-year-old history of Orchha, from Rudra Pratap Singh’s discovery of the spot when he was out on a hunt, to its rise to a mighty kingdom. There are noble deeds and courtly romances until finally, its fall. (In English: 7.30 p.m. Mar-Sep, 8.30 p.m. Oct-Feb; in Hindi: 8.45 p.m. Mar-Sep, 7.45 p.m. Oct-Feb; adults ₹75, children ₹40.)

A Tale of Two Temples

Market Orchha

Local handicrafts like wooden toys and metal artefacts can be found at the lively, colourful market in front of the Ram Raja temple. Photo: Jose Fuste Raga/Premium/Dinodia Photo Library

At first glance, the Ram Raja temple across the road from the fort complex appears quite disappointing, with its plain, yellow and white painted facade. However, there is a charming legend attached to it. While King Madhukar Shah was a worshipper of Krishna, his queen believed in Rama. Their devotional clash culminated in the king demanding that the queen go to Ayodhya and return with her preferred deity in tow. Moved by her plight, Lord Rama appeared to her and agreed to visit Orchha in the form of a boy, but put forth the condition that he would remain in the spot where he was first set down. The king hastened to build a grand temple to house the deity, and indeed the Chaturbhuj temple, next to the Ram Raja temple, looks like a fortress with soaring spires and palatial architecture. Inside, it resembles a massive cathedral with a high-vaulted ceiling.

Chaturbhuj temple is built upon a towering stone platform and reached by a steep flight of steps. When the queen reached Orchha, she paused for a breather before making her way up the temple. Stopping at the royal kitchens next door, she set down the little boy, and true to his word this is where the avatar of Rama established himself, refusing to be moved.

Thus, the unassuming kitchen turned into the Ram Raja temple, while the Chaturbhuj Temple now houses deities of Radha Shyam. Even today, the Ram Raja temple is the focal point of the town. Here, Rama is worshipped as a king and not as a god. In the evening, Orchha reverberates with the peal of the temple’s bells. Townsfolk gather in the temple premises, under a chhatri or the leafy canopy of a tree, to sing devotional songs. Guests are made to feel instantly welcome in this warm gathering, even enthusiastically invited to play the dholak or offered some cymbals. Ram Navmi celebrations are particularly atmospheric, with musicians and bards from surrounding villages gathering here to chant and sing for hours. (Summer: morning aarti at 8 a.m., temple shut 12-12.30 p.m. and 10-10.30 p.m.; winter: morning aarti at 9 a.m., temples remain shut from 12.30-1 p.m. and 9-9.30 p.m.).

About a kilometre away, on a windy hilltop, is the Laxmi Narayan temple, built in 1622 and dedicated to Laxmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, and her consort Narayan. Linked to town by a flagstone path, this temple is mostly deserted, perhaps due to its difficult approach and distance from the town (a 20-minute walk, or a short autorickshaw ride for₹100, round trip). The temple has a unique geometric layout. Viewed from any angle from the outside, it looks like an owl—Laxmi’s vahana or vehicle—in flight. The temple walls and ceilings are richly decorated with murals that depict the life of Rama and Krishna as well as the battle between Rani Laxmi Bai and the British Army.

Demigods and Devotees

Five minutes north of the main square is Hardaul Baithak, the shrine of Lala Hardaul, a Bundela royal venerated for his loyalty. The son of Vir Singh Deo, he died trying to prove his innocence to his elder brother Jujhar, who accused him of having an affair with his wife. The saintly martyr prince was worshipped as a god, and villages across Bundelkhand still contain platform-like shrines where Hardaul is venerated. Here, devotees have recreated his living quarters, with his sword, slippers, and a single bed with velvet bedcovers.

In front of Hardaul Baithak is the double storey Palki Mahal, where Hardaul lived. The palace got its name on account of its large palanquin-like roof.

Temples Betwa Orchha

One of the best ways to soak in the beauty of the riverside town of Orchha is by rafting or sailing on the Betwa River. Photo: Saiko3p/Shutterstock

By The River

Orchha is a small town that is best explored at an unhurried pace. Hire a bicycle and take a ride along its quiet roads (Modi Auto; 98935 88508, ₹50 a day), or idle by the Betwa River on Kanchan Ghat (10-min walk from the main town) while the sun drops behind the 14 chattris of the Bundelas that stand proudly alongside the river. These multi-level chhatris are built on high, square platforms, that you can climb to the top of via a narrow, roughly hewn staircase (open 10 a.m.-5 p.m.). These cenotaphs are larger than Rajput chhatris, and lack detailed carvings or decorative flourishes.

You can also unwind over a cup of masala chai at one of the rooftop cafés near the town square. Avoid the food though; you’ll be better off eating at your hotel. It’s sitting at one of these, looking down at the town that I realize that even after spending days here, Orchha still feels like somewhat of an enigma—a kind of quicksilver land caught between fact and fiction. Here, on the boulder-strewn banks of the Betwa, the wild forests of Madhya Pradesh meet the cow belt of Uttar Pradesh, and the gods come down to meet mortals.


 

The Guide

Map: Gaurav Ogale

Map: Gaurav Ogale

Orientation

Orchha is in Madhya Pradesh, close to the Uttar Pradesh border. The nearest town is Jhansi, 16 km/30 min to the northwest. Orchha is 463 km/8 hr southeast of Delhi and 355 km/6 hr north of Bhopal.

Getting There

The nearest airport is in Gwalior (119 km/2.5 hr north), while the nearest railhead is Jhansi. Regular bus services connect Orchha with Jhansi.

Getting Around

Orchha is a very small town and can comfortably be explored on foot or by cycle.

Seasons

Summers (Mar-Jun) are hot, and the mercury can go up to 50°C. July marks the beginning of the monsoon, which lasts till September. Rains wash the dusty landscape and make for rather dramatic photography, but make it difficult to walk around. In winter (Oct-Feb) temperatures drop to 13°C and there are spells of weak sunlight.

Stay

Betwa Retreat This MP Tourism property overlooks the river. Its safari-style Swiss tents set amongst gardens are an affordable and comfortable option (30B Major District Road; 83491 02398; betwa@mptourism.com; doubles from ₹2,590).
Sheesh Mahal Another MP Tourism property, this centuries-old palace within the fort complex is definitely the best you can do in terms of atmospheric setting, even if there is a faintly musty air about the place (Orchha Fort; 91794 87076; smorchha@mptourism.com; doubles from ₹2,590).
Amar Mahal By far this is the most luxurious hotel in Orchha, with four-poster beds, a swimming pool and an ayurvedic spa. Its regal architecture exudes old-world charm. (By Pass Road; 76802 52102, www.amarmahal.com; doubles from ₹5,600).

Appeared in the November 2016 issue as “Where Gods Turn Kings”.

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    Ambika Gupta is a former corporate lawyer who left her cubicle to go see places. So far, it has been quite a journey, often bumpy but always entertaining.

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