Armoured kinsmen of the Bhundela army with spears and swords would have reached this place in cahoots, in the early 16th century. Escaping the onslaught of invaders and to build a strong fort of defense, the army under the aegis of their chief Rudra Pratap had sought refuge here. Of valour, honour, pride and the prized devoutness of an Orchha queen who enshrined her beliefs in that legendary temple…Orchha, alongside river Betwa stands still in those cenotaphs, as the sentinel of its past glory with many a folklore and stories that lie engraved in those walls.
You would feel the pulse of the past in that stillness. Where on one end, you will hear echoes of the thunderous cries of battles fought and won. The other side would draw you to the whispering of love, the austerities of devotion, the clank of honour, conspiracy, treachery all that turned out be monumental in its own respect. These elements make Orccha a historic ‘chamber of secrets’ that must be discovered in its temples, palaces, gardens tracing to the glory of the Bhundela dynasty.
The Bhundelas trace their ancestry to the Gaharwar Rajputs of Benares. They migrated to the princely state in central India, establishing their reign in the Bundelkhand region. This was after they were ousted from the Ganges valley by the Muslims in 1048 AD. Founded in the 16th century – 1501 AD by the Bhundela Rajput chief Rudra Pratap, Orchha is situated in the Timkalgarh district. As the first king to proclaim his presence in the region, he built the Orchha fort during his reign.
From strategic alliances to a fierce animosity with the Mughals, Orchha witnessed a dynasty evolve that etched its name in history. Through the sands of time, you will see that which took shape within the muscular fort of Orchha. The grand palaces, the grandiose temples, the luxurious palace gardens that bespoke the town’s political stature, have withstood the ravages of time to cast that magical spell through its stories and legends that will take you to that era.
The grandeur that took 2 decades to build, for Mughal emperor Jahangir – of friends, foes & alliances – JAHANGIR PALACE
What blossomed as a friendship between Vir Singh Deo and Akbar’s son Jahangir (Salim) even before they became emperors, also witnessed a surge of a strong political alliance for the future.
And, it all goes back to the rising turbulence between Akbar and Salim (Jahangir), which sees Abu Faz’l one of the 9 gems (Navaratnas) seek leverage in the rift. Persuading Akbar to relinquish Salim as an heir to the throne, he launches an attack against Salim, who was camping in Agra. While marching towards Agra, crossing the region of Badoni en-route, Abu Faz’l faces the onslaught of Vir Singh’s army. It is in Badoni that Vir Singh quells the rebellion of Abu Faz’l and decapitates him.
The head of the dead Abu Faz’l is presented to Salim. Three years thence, when Salim ascends to the throne after Akbar’s death he returns the favour to his friend Vir Singh by granting the annexed kingdom of Orchha to Vir Singh. The Jahangir palace is presented to the emperor during the coronation ceremony. Of architectural grandeur and the grandiose, the palace was a befitting tribute to cement the friendship between the two monarchs.
Built of red and yellow sandstone, the palace took 20 years to complete and portrays a beautiful blend of the Hindu and Islamic architecture. The domes, colonnades, balustrades, entrance gates have deep undertones of Islamic influence, whereas the murals of elephants and other images give it a Hindu slant.
Surrounded by green forests and the serene Betwa river, the Mughal emperor would have enjoyed the gracious hospitality of the Bhundela king, even if he stayed there only for a night (Jahangir during his visits to Orchha never stayed for more than a night). The spacious grandeur of the palace along with its magnificent domes would remind you of the awe-inspiring royalty that hosted a famed Mughal emperor on Hindu grounds. And, vultures that perch on the domes stand testimony to that preserved dignity.
When temple spires served as bastions, the sanctum that was also a secret chamber? – LAKSHMI NARAYAN TEMPLE
Would that towering structure be that of a temple or a fort? You will find the façade of the architecture very similar to that of a fort, with muscular bastions at its four corners. But as you step inside, you will feel enshrined in the ancientness and mythological depictions around.
You will be enamored by the beautiful paintings and murals on the walls and vaulted ceilings, drawn from the Ram Charitha manas. Juxtaposed with these would also be sketches of mutiny during India’s war against independence. Prayers on one hand to pave the way, and raging conflicts and battles to establish virtue… the temple beholds a rare spiritual significance.
Dedicated to Goddess Lakshmi, the temple was built in 1622 AD by Vir Singh Deo. The temple’s main idol was stolen and is believed to be kept in the Bhopal museum. A flagstone pathway from here connects to the Raja ram temple. It’s not just the elaborate paintings that the temple prides in but the panoramic views from the rooftop, which offer the best visual treats of the town of Orchha.
When faith and devotion transcended boundaries, the divine manifested before queen Ganesh Kanwar – RAJA RAM TEMPLE
Initially, the palace of the king of Orchha- Madhukar Shah judhev, the temple comes into being when the queen – Ganesh Kanwar demonstrates her unflinching devotion to Lord Ram by traveling to Ayodhya. This she undertakes despite the quarrel with her king husband, who challenges her faith by demanding her to bring back Ram in his child form to Orchha. Before setting off, she instructs her servants to start the construction of the Chatur Bhuj temple to ‘enshrine’ her lord.
Once she reaches Ayodhya, the queen performs severe austerities near the Sarayu river and the Lord manifests on her lap in a child form. One of the conditions of going with the queen is also that he, Ram would get seated at the first place, the queen places him. On returning to her palace, she rests the child in her bedroom only to discover the following morning that the child had transformed into an idol, of Raja Ram or the one king of Orchha, as per the other conditions laid before the queen.
A unique aspect about this temple is that this is the only shrine in the world where Lord Ram is worshiped as a king. You will observe that the idol of Ram is crowned with a turban and so are the idols of his wife Sita and brother Lakshman.
Matching up to the grandeur of the palatial architecture the ceremonies associated with the temple are undertaken on a grand scale. Be it the grand Arti ceremony or the guard of honour salute, for the lord like the way kings used to be welcomed during those days, the temple is a crowd puller and always witnesses a throng of devotees during auspicious occasions.
From Ram Raja – the embodiment of none other than the Chaturbhuj or Lord Vishnu of the Hindu trinity – of soaring spires & Lotus emblems – THE CHATURBHUJ TEMPLE
With its spires soaring to the spirit of devotion for Ram Raja, the Chaturbhuj temple is as magnificent as the legend it is steeped in. When the idol of Lord got transfixed in the queen Ganesh Kunwar’s palace, it was decided to seat a statue of Lord Vishnu – the four-armed one or Chaturbhuj in the main sanctum of this temple.
Standing tall on a high rectangular platform, the temple sports two large and four small spires and the one that houses the Garbha gruha (sanctum sanctorum) has the tallest Shikhara. A striking aspect about the temple is the lofty ceilings, which is not a mainstay in Hindu style architectures. Ornate carvings of lotus emblems adorn the exteriors, while the vaulted ceilings intone a deep spiritual significance-embodying the divine in the universe; manifesting on earth in different forms!
The king who loved, the Mughal emperor who coveted, the paramour who dared with her wit and beauty – RAI PRAVEEN PALACE
As you walk through the lush green sculpted gardens with flower beds and shrubs, the fragrance and beauty will hold you in rapture. The melodious strains of music and the jingle of anklets would be thick in the air. For, you would be in the precincts of the Rai Praveen palace whose love for her king and kingdom saved Orccha from the onslaught of Mughals.
Rai Praveen was renowned for her unparalleled beauty and talent in poetry and music and her fame spread far and wide to reach the ears of the Mughal emperor Akbar who coveted her and therefore summoned her to his court. But Rai Praveen with her wit and beauty not only restored the honour of Orchha but also her own, when she returns to Orchha with untainted reputation.
The palace with its beautiful murals of dance postures or Nrutya Mudras resonates with Rai Praveen’s prowess and the lush surroundings still behold the romance that would have unfurled here!
Matter of pride, matter of honour – the ultimate prize to prove one’s nobility with one’s life – a memorial in tribute – THE PHOOL BAGH
The Bhundelas’ die-hard nobility, the unpardonable chinks in the royal armour meant pledging one’s life to uphold honour. And thus, the Phool Bagh, a garden laid in the Mughal style, was built in the memory of prince Dinman Hardual, who died trying to prove his innocence to his elder brother.
In honour of the prince’s nobility, the Bagh is symbolic of ‘the living’ with beautiful flowers that come into bloom during a season. It also renders a cooling effect by providing a water ventilation system to the underground palace through the Chandan Katora fountain, while capturing the winds through the Sawan Bhado towers.
The Bhundelas did not believe in summers being harsh and arid…they sought royal retreats, built them too, their cool haven in the SAWAN BHADO
When it was time to escape the arid and harsh weather conditions, the Orchha kings found their summer retreat in Sawan Bhado. An eight-pillared pavilion with fountains, the subterranean structure(Tehkhana) has two pillars with perforations in the top.
Designed along the Persian style, these cooling units had aqueducts to connect to the fountain spouts that would spray on the roof of the Tehkhana. The ingenious resourcefulness and technology of the Bhundelas are showcased here, along with the percolating Mughal influence and involvement in the region, which probably explains the Persian design in the cooling units.
What withstands the ravages of time has a story to tell, a memorial to remind time and again of the gallant Orchha kings…THE CENOTAPHS or CHHATRIES
The kings of Orchha had nobility writ on them till their last breath. And as a fitting tribute for that nobility are the cenotaphs or chhatris on the banks of Betwa near Kanchan Ghat, as memorials of the fifteen kings who reigned here. Raised on a square platform, most of the cenotaphs are built in Panchayatan style.
Among the Chhatries of Madhukar shah, Vir Singh Deo, Jaswant Singh, Udait Singh, Pahar Singh & others, the one of the Bhundela king, Vir Singh Deo is noteworthy as his kingship marked the golden era for Orchha. The Jahangir mahal, Lakshminarayan temple, Phool Bagh, Hamam were constructed under the aegis of Vir Singh Deo. His three-storeyed cenotaph, features balconies and the square platform on which the memorial rests, has Betwa flowing past it, conveying a feel of the ‘strong currents of the Bhundela dynasty”
From the currents of the past, through the winds of change, you will be swept to the present day Orchha when you find the bustling markets sporting the traditional Dhokra handcrafted products featuring gods, folk motifs, intricate carvings made of wrought iron that make good artifacts for décor.
While you pick your souvenirs, you can seek the thrill of adventure in the rocky landscape of Orccha that makes the otherwise placid Betwa, tumble and rumble in rapids. You would be tossed and turned in the gushing river streams to eventually recede back to the river’s placid self and while you do, you would pause to take one last look at the cenotaphs in the quietude and serenity of the Betwa river.
The currents of time will come to a standstill. As you trace a beautiful sunset along the Betwa – you would see a fire ablaze in those reflections, the fiery spirit of the Bhundela Rajputs, the beauty and wit of a royal paramour and the unwavering faith of a devout queen all crystallizing to make Orchha a hidden gem (“Orchha” in Bundelkhandi meaning ‘hidden’) to discover. See, feel, hear as you journey through the chronicles of history to experience a living inspiration from the past that stands out as a resplendent gem to shine on.