Innocent unknown faces around me, break into smiles and small chatter as the train moves on at a leisurely pace along the dry arid landscape on the Khajuraho – Jhansi rail line.The relatively empty general compartment is now filled to the tee,I smile knowingly across to Natalie and Drego,a couple from Spain,whom I shared a rick with on way to Khajuraho Station.As I sneak out my camera and snap a picture of a Mother and child sleeping by the single window seat, the village lady next to me beams, displaying an array of bunny teeth.. ‘ bahut acchi ayi hai’.. she comments on the picture on my camera screen.Camera is lovely conversation starter in villages,an instant friendship recipe.I smile at her delight.
As the train rolls past Orccha station,I get set with my sack to jump, in-case of a slow down, but no such luck prevails and there goes my one hour of precious exploring time. Jhansi is about 15mins further to Orccha railway station and compels a good 20km trip back to reach the small obscure village.Most of the inter city trains do not stop at the deserted looking Orchha station.
Impatient to reach Orchha,mind webbed with the beautiful images of the Betwa,my journey seemed longer than it was.Orchha,’the hidden’ as it translates, lies in the Tikamgarh district of Madhya Pradesh and has quite a share of its tourists,from the Khajuraho circuit.The rail route from Khajuraho, requires one to move out into Uttar pradesh and get back into Madhya pradesh for reaching this medieval town.Lying geographically between the Yamuna and the Narmada rivers along the Yamuna tributary Betwa,the place was the Capital of the Bundela dynasty from the 15th century.The Origin of the Bundela dynasty has different references,one lying into the 11th century with the Rajput prince from the Ganga valley offered his sacrifice to Mountain godess, Vrindavasini , who appeared to have stopped him and named him as Bundela (a drop of blood), the name apparently carried on from there.The most plausible of the stories , seems to indicate the Bundela dynasty could have had its origins in a group of dacoits,very akin to the region’s topography,who came together under a strong leader,who later got elevated into royalty,when Salim, Son of Akbar rewarded the leader with Orchha and conferred on him the kingship of the place.
The road from Jhansi to Orchha, passes through a quite sparsely populated mountainous route, seeming to wind off to some distant never-land.After a good half hour rickshaw ride ,I find myself into the narrow lanes of what seems like pretty much the nucleus of this small town.Completely contrary to the scene at chaotic Jhansi, I find myself staring into a laid back space with ample foreigners around me,their ratio seeming quite skewed compared to the locals in the chowk.Orccha marks a well deserved spot for a day or two in the itinerary of any Foreign tourist on his rampage across the Agra, Gwalior, Khajuraho, Sanchi circuit. Landing in middle of the chowk,I absorb the elements of streetscape lying scattered before me. On one side the quaint line of road side food stalls , with their range of specialities spelling paratha to pancakes, seems to be home to the hippy foreign groups casually spread around the place.A somewhat forlone pathway along this side takes one, across the bridgeway to the much boasted wonder of Orchha, the Raja Fort.On the other side the chowk runs as a narrow alley infested with sweet shops, Indian trinket sellers,chat stalls, to the gateway of a much alive and throbbing monument , the Raja Ram temple .The road ahead seems to move sleepily ahead,on to a rickshaw hub, an invisible bus stop,flanked by mushrooming guest houses, all the way till the Cenotaphs resting along side the Betwa river.The Cenopaths are popular torch-bearers of this otherwise unknown place.
I settle at Bhola cafe for some parathas and wait for,Ashok to show up. He manages the local office for the ‘ Friends of Orchha’ an initiative undertaken to provide some livelihood to the poor villagers in Orchha.It can be a good place to experience living with your host family,in a room constructed within their humble compounds away from the commercial lodging scenario.The chowk seems to be in an afternoon troll, with tourists marching around the place mindlessly and the sweet shops in a siesta mode.The scene seems thawed, since the Temple remains closed in the afternoon and reopens at 8.00pm for evening aarti.By the time I devour my paratha, Ashok arrives and I hop on his bike to to be whisked away from the humdrum of this nucleus.I am destined to stay with Hari’s family in Ganj, about 1.5 kms uphill from the the main chowk.By now I have caught the pulse of the place,or so it seemed.The road to Ganj snaked out from the nucleus, rising up between few more commercial establishments, a single spine , branching out to small single storied housing colonies. Further as it rises , the road cuts through the hilly terrain,and you have a taste of the real Bundelkhand landscape. Endless land on either sides, queerly rising Balboa tree on the left and a commanding monument on the right. Laxminayaran temple emerges as a princely sight on my way to Ganj. Intermittently the road is flanked by a group of village houses.I feel myself falling in love with the single storeyed houses, neatly finished in white stucco and vibrantly painted in blue and yellow colors.Joy seeps into my already sedated senses as I get eager to see my stay.
Hari’s home is a small lane, which bears a crude cute map of houses that are associated with Friends of Orccha. City folks with sacks seem to be a common sight here, as little kids beam and say their Hellos to me.Adorable innocence calls out to be on every step.The Cleanliness of the village,the neat houses, freshness in the air and cool breeze, I love Orccha more as I move on.As we halt outside the Hari’s house, he shows me to my small cottage within his compound. My room, with terracotta flooring is quite large and has a rustic feel to it, exposed brick walls, cane chairs, lovely drapes, a file containing details about Orchha and an uber cosy bed.The most lovely part was opening the window to take in a view of the entire Orchha spread out before my sights,the fort, the citadels and the temple spires, beckoning me to come fall and share their romantic existence.After meeting the host family and dumping my stuff, I head out back to the nucleus to start my journey through this mesmerizing little haven.
Walking the route back to the chowk,making a mental note of the most important places I need to rejoice between the 2 days I had at Orccha. The most important of the scattered gems are the Raja Ram Fort, Chaturbhuj Temple, Laxminarayan Temple,Raja Ram Mandir , and the Cenotaphs beside the Betwa river. A few lesser extravagant ones comprise of Hardaul’s memorial & house, Phulon ki Bagh , Sawan bhadon towers ,and the Orcha Sanctuary.
Down the route, walking this time,I can’t seem to get enough of the quaint village houses, neatly finished to visual perfection with white stucco, and painted to accentuate the Main doors, and ocassional edge band , window openings.Minimalism smiles at you as you pass through this lane, the humble houses along with the surroundings , adding an unmistakable cheer to your stride.The finer elements of Orchha’s architecture seem to find its place in the houses of the villagers around, with fine jali works and subtle archways gracing the otherwise modest houses. The overall cleanliness of the village with the whites of the stucco gives a lovely wide feel to the otherwise narrow road.
I pass through the maze of Phulon ki bagh and Raja Ram Mandir to reach the main chowk.Its best to start your journey into the Architectural marvels from the huge gem of Orchha , the Ram Raja Fort.A bridgeway build on stone arches,and high parapets with cutouts, invites one across the dried river bed to an imposing door with shrapnels,poking out and flanked by huge bastions.I get my ticket for the place and start off my endeavour, knowing little that walking across the entrance will lead me to a world of surreal paintings and magical archways.
Diving into the history of the origin of Orccha,it mentions that the Bundela king Rudra Pratap selected the location of this capital, adequately justified by its unique geographical site to erect his capital.capital. Orcha stands with its pride on an island of rock , looped by the Betwa river and the forest around,on the mountainous terrain of Central India.The Bundelas of Orchha are remembered for the magnificent buildings they built, which reflect the finest of the Indo -Islamic architecture.During the 16th and 17th century this style of architecture was so extensively undertaken by the Kings of the Bundelkhand region, that the architecture itself came to be known as Bundela style.The start of this Indo islamic architecture is found to have its roots in Chittorgarh under the Rana Kumbh in 14th century.The style borrowed best of the elements from both Hindu and Islamic architecture to merge into one pleasing structure.Rudra Pratap adopted this style in constructing the capital of Orchha.
A ticket is needed for 5 main monuments in Orchha, 3 of which lie within the premises of the Fort, Raja Mahal , Jehangir Mahal & the Rai Parveen Mahal.The Ticketing window lies within the fort and opens at 8.30am.The same ticket is valid to visit the Cenotaphs by the Betwa river and the Laxminarayan temple, if visited in the same day.
Besides the uniqueness of its Indo-islamic fusion architecture the monuments of Orccha wear their pride in the unique paintings and frescos that adorns the walls of their declining grandeur.The fading walls of the monuments here bear some amazing canvases for the various styles of fresco paintings , fresco Buono, fresco succo,tempra and graffito.These paintings largely revolving around the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana and so also from the scenes in life of the royal kings of Bundelas, lie within the dark confines of the architectural marvels forgotten at Orchha.
Raja Fort is the biggest of the architectural marvel and has a largest repository of the Bundela Paintings within its Raja Mahal . It has 3 main structures and many smaller baadi’s or homes around within its spread of 20 acres. On the rear side the walkway leads on to the banks of the beautiful Betwa river.One would typically take a good 6 hrs , for looking around the entire expanse and dive into the details of finer elements of architecture and frescos that grace the structure. For one wishing just to be click happy half of that time should suffice. As I walk in beyond the archway and get carried away to a dream of grandeur.
We start with one of the oldest buildings in the fort , kings palace or the Raja Mahal built in 1538 AD.This is the largest repository of frescos within Orchha. Started by Rudra Pratap but finished by Madhukar Shah, the mahal has important spaces like the Diwan -i-Aam and Diwan-i-Khas.Along with these two rooms,wall paintings decorate fifteen of the palace rooms.The walls and rooms of the huge halls,are decorated with murals, embellishing the environs with myths an legends from the Hindu mythologies, along with secular scenes ,geometrical patterns,floral designs and motifs.Though the subjects in the paintings are based on Hindu religion, one cant help but acknowledge the influence of Moghul paintings as one looks at the styles of depiction of floral patterns and geometries in these paintings. The mute frescos, along bring alive the importance of literature, fine arts,music and architecture in the Bundela era.The elaborate fresco painting activity seems to have stretched across decades starting from one ruler and finishing descendants later.I followed the guide into the basement, which are hardly visited by normal tourists. The basements apparently housed the armies under the citadel,and could sense them to be an inverted image of the palace rooms above, with archways making empty promises of anticipated stairways to lead up and out into the open.
Next we move to the Jahangir Mahal,the most magnificient of the structures within the fort.Falicy claims that the Mahal was built over 20 yrs by Raja Bir SIngh for emperor Jahangir’s visit for a single day. I smile, shaking my head in the obvious disbelief of this saga.The Place with its highly fortified walls opens into a courtyard with fountains, 3 stories of grandeur stare out to me , balconies floating out and beautiful stone lattice work weaving their patterns in my eyes. The fortified walls secure a spacious courtyard ,which ventilates the lovely delicately adorned balconies that surround the space from all four sides. Small domes kiosks mounted on small square pillars , to form the Chattris, puncture the skyline at the top.I take on a an eager guide, not for any information but for the fear of not getting lost in the many maze like archways and rooms that seem to be the pattern of the place.
The mammoth Mahal has its Main entrance to the east, flanked by two lovingly crafted elephants, which held a bell in their times.This structure is claimed to have more than 100 rooms and its not difficult to believe it, once one starts moving around the 3 storeys of interlinked maze of rooms. As i moved around the rooms, i felt a sense of apprehension creep onto me. There are not many visitors on odd days to these forgotten places, and the archways , intertwining the rooms and passages can really start to play on your minds if alone. Bunch of rooms open into a small courtyard at upper levels which , in turn open out to the balconies overlooking the main courtyard of the building. Beautiful light and fresh air, enjoy their play in the many architectural elements and stone lattice works peeping into the rooms, abound with frescos.I gaze inquisitive at the range of stones that seem to have been used in the construction of the Mahal, ranging from the softer yellow sandstone, to red sandstone to the hard black stone which was a canvas of pure perfection, with beautiful delicate lattice work adorning the walls.
As I move to the last storey I can see the confluence of the Mughal architecture in the 8 graceful domes into which the palace culminates.The most striking of the Jahangir Mahal are the remains of the little blue tiles that brilliantly shine out from the fading palace walls.These tiles and inlays are used as ribbon across the outer wall of the palace top, and render delicate delight to the architecture of this graceful structure. About 17 of the total rooms of the Jahangir mahal still retain the colorful frescos.
From here I move on, skipping the Sheesh Mahal at the Ground floor,to have a quick round of the Rai Praveen Mahal and other smaller buildings that dot the stretch of land confined by the walls of the Raja fort.A small 2 storeyed mahal with an adjoining garden and a dance platform,built by the King for his consort , a dancer poet Rai Praveen,seems to have some more of the beautiful murals, celebrating her beauty and passion for dance.
I seek relief from the guide and stroll around alone , losing myself in the ruins of the countless small structures, that once formed the essential parts of the royal enclosure. Elephant stables, camel stables, Minister homes,etc all lie in shambles ,yet giving a gleaming insight into the aura of then prevailing grandeur.I move out from the backside of the fortified walls and find myself on the boulder strewn banks of the Betwa. As I cast my first glance across the small tributary, I immerse further and feel myself drenched into the magical setting of this magnificent place. The Betwa flows,with its blue silken sheet spreading gorgeously between the Orchha sanctuary and the remains of the Bundela legacy.I feel drawn by the beauty of its colour and the sheer frolic of its flowing waters, glistening in the afternoon sun.A narrow bridgeway,with no railings,links both the edges together, across the bouldering beauty of Betwa.Beyond lie the Jewels, the Cenotaphs of royals along the banks of the river, rising beyond the foliage around.
I walk across the boulders smitten by the freshness of the flowing river, gingerly stepping across the rocky expanse. A few smaller temples dot the space,home to a bunch of yogis, who seemed little wary of my interference.As Sun set down the first day, I walk back to the now bustling chowk to have a glimpse of the diety of Lord Ram, affectionately called as Raja Ram at this place.The deity sits here within a Palace converted to a temple instead of being in the grand Chaturbhuj Temple besides.Going by the Legend the statue was brought from Ahyodhya, Lord Rama’s birthplace to Orchha by Maharani Ganesh Kunwar wife of Raja Madhukar Shah and kept in the house temporarily. On attempt to move it to the temple the idol remained fused to the place and hence the palace was converted to a temple. Faith looms large within the temple complex as people lose themselves in the trance of the evening aartis.I follow suit,letting my spirits free in the pulsating divinity of the place.
Next morning after having the breakfast cooked over an earthen chulah, and bidding my byes to Hari’s family, I wind my way back from Ganj and check in at a small lodge across the Raja Fort.This option works favourable for passing more time on the banks of the Betwa ,which was a 10mins walk along the main spine.On my way back I walk up to the Laxminarayan Temple. The structure is quite unlike any temple I have seen before.This seemed to be the element of the architecture overall in Orchha, throwing in a surprise, that makes a whole dent in your perception of architecture mandated for a certain function. Here you find a Fort ,looking like a grand palace, a temple looking more like a fort, a Cenotaph looking more like a small palace. Orchha’s architecture breaks the myths of ideologies behind the visual statements of historical structures built for specific reasons.So here I was, walking up to the Laxminarayan temple, a huge structure built by Raja Vir Singh Deo in 16th century, the Indo Islamic architecture merges here to erect a monument that looks like a cusp between a fort and a palace and nothing close to a temple for my eyes. The corners of the temple are bastions , which are like fluted lotus petals, which rise up and culminate into unique domes.At the centre rises a Spire, that punctuates the skies from within the fortified walls of the temple.I gingerly walk up the folded slab of the 16th century stairs to have a peep at the Mountainous yet fertile terrain of this beautiful stretch of land that lies blissfully secluded in the Vindhya ranges.The Interiors of the temple were home to Goddess Laxmi, but the Golden idol which was taken away by the Marathas,no longer graces the sanctum.The temple interiors are a treasury of frescos and paintings across its walls and ceilings.These illustrate certain social,secular themes, mythological stories, floral motifs and animals.Incidents from the British period, Anglo Maratha war scenes also find their place on these immortal canvases. Most of the frescos here are governed by single colours, in deep marron or Black colors.
Still mystified by the extravagance of the painted ceilings I move out to the chowk meandering my ways through the Phoolon ki bagh ,and Hardaul’s memorial to find myself staring at two oddly rising square tower like structures, prominent in their forgotten space.These are the Wind towers built on the lines of the wind catchers, the element of Persian architecture for enhancing natural ventilation and propagating cooler winds in the arid desert climate.Apparently these Wind towers,were a source of trapping winds and channelling it to a ,fountain plaza , which cooled the winds and helped lower the temperature in the tehkhana, or basement , which was built as a retreat to the Kings for the hot Summers of Orchha.The nearby Hardaul’s memorial is a humble homage to the valiant brother of Raja Juzhar Singh, who drank poison to prove the purity of his character when questioned about his affair with the Queen.Newly married couples come to seek blessings at the memorial as a custom practised by generations together.
Quite overwhelmed with the architecture,I decide to take a small break in the pattern and have a walk to the river banks to take a quick look at the Cenopaths. The Cenotaphs or Chattris as they are locally called are memorials built to honour the dead of the royal family of Bundelas. There are about 14 chattris standing on the river banks at the Kanchana ghat. Out of the 14 structures each following the same Indo-islamic architecture,with square structures with corner spires rising to the tops, only the cenotaph of Raja Vir Singh Deo carries striking mughal impressions, as a mark of his friendship with Mughal Prince Salim. The cenotaphs do not house the dead, but are erected only in the memory of the royal ancestors. I walk across to the banks of the Betwa and spend my afternoon under the shady expanse of the trees at the banks.
After a brief rest ,I walk back to the chowk to finish the last of my list of Orchha monuments, the Chaturbhuj temple. This is one of the most imposing structures of Orchha, sitting on a high platform further accentuated by the altitude of the setting.If there is one spot you want to be at wherein you can romance whole of Orccha, then it would be atop this temple structure. Rising high with its lime mortar walls, with multiple archlike window openings staring out to the landscapes around, Chaturbhuj temple is unique culmination of the Indo Islamic styles.The temple has 4 bastions with spires rising to the top culminating into ornately decorated conical tops.The Main entrance opens up to a triple heighten space that has the diety of Vishnu with four hands,on one side. I gasp as I take in the soaring high ceilings neatly plastered with decorative elements, a gang of langoors are at play in the airy interiors of the temple walls.The intemidiate levels are linked together around this central sanctum space quite on the lines of a fort with a central courtyard and balconies around.From the arched windows of the temple walls , one can get the most beautiful vistas of the surrounding landscapes. I gaze out to see the mesmerizing view of the Raja Fort, beautifully set amidst the green loop formed by the Betwa River. I get a caretaker to take me up through the insides of one of the many spires, to see if I get lucky spotting a vulture atop. The Indian Vultures are known to merge with the Baroque architecture admist the spires of the Chaturbhuj temple.
As the morning wears down, the unforeseen happens, skies cloud in and rains start to drizzle across the place.The scent of the moist earth fills my senses as I recite the newly learnt word to myself.. ‘petrichor’ and smile.The rains drench the limestone mammoths into a deepen ochre colour. Hopping out of Chaturbhuj this time, casts a different spell, with the moist laden surroundings brightening up the greens in the landscape.I decide to spend the evening breathing in the beautiful climate along the Betwa river.Tiny tea stalls with friendly faces smile out to me as I go along the path to the river. The rising vapours from the tea pot are too tempting to pass off in the drizzling rain.I have some awesome tea and a warm conversation before I go on. The bridge across the river is a sight in itself, wide enough to allow just one vehicle at a time, I watched for a while how traffic moved with mute understanding. Beyond the bridge on the other side lies the Orcha sanctuary,a wonderful teak forest which gives access to the virgin river banks,from where one can have the magical panoramic view of the gorgeous Betwa with the backdrop of the beautiful Cenotaphs.Without any railings to hold on I gingerly made my way across , cringing whenever any vehicle went past me, almost feeling i will fall over in the waters beside. The sanctuary requires a ticket for entry, once done I hungrily walked in to the most inviting spot on a boulder in the shade a huge tree along the river bank.It felt like time has decided to freeze here as I gazed on to the skyline of the medieval beauty rise beyond on the Kanchana ghats.From here one can see the understated massive and yet ornate beauty of Orchha,a canvas of grandeur nestled in the little obscure haven, with the scintillating blues of the Betwa lacing its edge and the lovely teak sanctuary draping its securely. I stay on long, to see the dusk over the waters of the Betwa with the lovely chirping of home bound birds and flowing waters for my company.
Other than the architectural endeavour , there is more to Orchha, and a day or two may not be adequate to truly experience the surroundings of this hidden gem. I missed riding a bicycle through the Orchha sanctuary which has a cycle track and a few paranomic points within it to experience. The 25km long forest stretch boats about 200 species of birds in birding season and can be a delight for birdwatchers.The forests also has Small settlements within its expanse. I got to visit one such place called Lotla within the core of the sanctuary. Lotla, in the rains was like a silent song for my soul.The Quaint tribal village on the edge of the Jamni river,gets cut off from Orchha during rains when the Bridge across the Betwa is submerged underwater. The raw life in Lotla goes on for months without contact with the external world.A walk across the tiny village, has a surreal calming effect on my mind.The innocence of the entire settings melts into me and feeds me with a sense of bliss.Its true that our souls feel at home in such serenity nestled in the lap of nature ,where harmony prevails everywhere.
Orchha is a surreal place,one can touch and go in a day or immerse in its magic over a week, till you feel your heart resonate in a lovely peaceful pace its supposed to do.One can explore a few nearby Bundela gems at Datia, Chanderi and Jhansi to add to their list, albeit with a vehicle at disposal. The public transport in the area can be quite a loss of precious time that can be whiled away soaking at the Betwa 🙂.