Deep inside the temple town of Orchha…
A polite ticket-checker thanks each passenger, bright-red uniformed staff deliver breakfast goodies and pleasant station announcements guide you along the route. Office-going commuters jostle barefoot villagers at smaller stations. You’re rewinding to memories of childhood train travel. Racing the electric poles, beating the running tracks. Vibrant green fields climax into a glorious last stretch of lush hills-and-valleys between Delhi and Jhansi. You’re in a trance…hypnotised by the languorously curving slow train, blackened old monuments of Datia town and the muddy Betwa river cross-over. From Jhansi, its a 45-minute taxi ride down a narrow road through thick of a forested landscape. Prelude to a drama waiting to unfold in the unusual temple town on the banks of the Betwa. Aptly named Orchha (the “hidden”). Ready or not, here it comes…
The drive through the first, second and third old town gates is riddled with distractions…a jumble of shops on either sides and pedestrians flocking the narrow road. But don’t miss the impressive first view of palace fortifications on your left. Sharp breath, soft ‘wow’. The driver calls your attention to an orange-white painted temple complex on the right. The main temple…the hub of town, where all the action is, around which life of the locals revolves. That one? Looks new. But visualize it minus the paint job. The haphazard main thoroughfare continues…street vendors, souvenir shops, small guest houses and little eateries (some signboards in foreign language tempt customers with “Wood in big pizza”). Just 8500 residents, huddled houses, cattle tied to posts, old men squatting on porches, forgotten ancient structures hidden under overgrown vegetation. Uncomplicated. Small enough to be covered on foot within an hour. In the very heart of India.
Head down a broader, neater road to Hotel Amar Mahal. Through ornate gates, by a manicured front garden into a pastel painted 19th-century Rajputana style palace…its heritage atmosphere from the word ‘go’. Along formally laid-out Mughal gardens sprinkled with vividly colored rose bushes, wide-tiled corridors with rows of pillars and scalloped arches topped with shapely domes. Till you find a slice of heaven in your spacious luxurious room, decorated lovingly with intricate hand-painted floral motifs. Unless you’re craving an authentic Bundelkhandi lunch spread under a rich Usta-art inspired ceiling in the dining room, floating in the musical mist of a lilting flute. Trust the recommendations of the cheerful and friendly staff and indulge your palate with the distinct flavours of the region. Bundelkhandi chicken, kadhi, missi roti and jeera aloo. The imperatives.
Island fortresses and kingsize gifts
First things first. Start with the nerve-centre of the 16th-century capital of the Bundelkhand region. Take a moment to absorb the image of the fort complex from afar. Outlined by a bead-like carved strip of tiny chhatris on the terrace. A one-of-a-kind Bundeli architecture…living proof of three decades of conflicts and alliances with Afghans, Mughals, Marathas and British. Striding over the multi-arched bridge, you wouldn’t realise that the citadel is built strategically on an island. Fascinating double duty of the river…inaccessibility AND divinity. Now chew on this ingenuity of structural engineering. The palaces are positioned to receive sunlit at sunset and shade at sunrise, while the temples get sunlit at the sunrise and shade at sunset! No exaggeration.
Get the big picture. Skip the main palaces and off-track to your left from the ticket counter. Poke around the remains of the royal horse stables, ancient step-wells, broken-down mansions, temples, hammams and weapon houses. Stroll along the silent bastions and colossal gates, trace the flow of the fort-walls into the distance. Feel the grace and serenity of the surroundings. Sense the timelessness of the structure, despite the age of the damaged, ravaged sandstone. Not a soul in sight. Not a flutter of wings in the air. Alone-time. Inhale the royalty!
Entering the palace from the Jehangir Mahal side, absorb the details of the grand entrance, ornate window sills, carved elephant brackets and elaborate door. Ponder over the era of ‘kingsize gifts’. Jehangir granted Vir Singh Deo the kingdom of Orchha for his help in defeating Akbar’s armies. Deo reciprocated by building the 120-room Jehangir Mahal in his honour, and Jehangir accepted by staying for one night. Prowl around steep staircases, stroll along lattice-work corridors, peep through windows with vistas and rest in sit-outs under delicate chhatris on the pretty rooftops. Close your eyes and let the breeze ruffle your hair. Hear those ceremonial trumpets? See those bejewelled elephants?
Wander into the maze of Raja Mahal, the royal abode of the Bundela Rajputs. Gape at mural-filled rooms, mentally complete the jigsaw of blue tile-work, find patterns in the broken wall ornamentation. Pause under pretty pavilions, stare at projecting balconies and twirl in open courtyards. Be mesmerised by all shades of golden-brown in the town sprawled below…where palaces have morphed into temples, and temple grandeur beats that of royal palaces. Scattered down there are 36 protected monuments and 165 more identified for protection over those six kilometers in Orchha Heritage Zone. And that enigmatic wall disappearing into the tranquil woods! Try taking your eyes off the magnificent Chaturbhuj temple framed immaculately in the elegant balconies and artistic windows. Destination next.
Spiritual vibes and living legends
Shun all logic as you dive deep into the legend that every Orchha resident swears by. King Mudhukar Shah’s queen Ganeshkunwari, a worshipper of Lord Rama went to Ayodhya and performed severe penance till the Lord appeared as a little boy and accompanied her back. The Lord became an idol and refused to move from her palace. So the palace was converted into Ram Raja Mandir, where Lord Rama is worshipped as King of Orchha till today. Guard of honour, gun salute and all! Potter around the temple complex, sensing the colors, aromas, and sounds of fervour. Stalls are selling milk cake and pedas, souvenirs, pooja items, icons of gods and goddesses, bangles, incense and flowers. Pilgrims are queuing up. Temple bells are pealing, devotees are singing devotional hymns, cymbals are clanging, bards are chanting, sadhus are posing. Spirituality is everywhere. Sway along to the chaos.
The adjacent Chaturbhuj Temple, originally intended as the abode of Lord Rama, is the real jewel of the town, even though its not a live temple. Up, close and personal, its even more intriguing. Observe its height, marginally taller than the Raja Mahal Palace. Pine-cone spires, ornamental lotus symbols, painted floral and geometric designs, lovely cornices, balcony projections and 67 steep steps up a large platform. Arcaded openings, a large entrance and a mandapa shaped like a cross! Unique is the word. Linger a while.
Skim on the Betwa
And finally, seek out the iconic sight that will leave an imprint on you for a long, long time…the Orchha cenotaphs on Kanchan Ghat. 14 multi-level chhatris (memorial monuments) of Bundela Kings, Queens and the royal family built on high, square platforms…over the original sites of cremation. Dated 17th- and 18th-century, these temple-like structures stand solemnly within a gardened complex…and the resemblance to Mughal tomb gardens may not be pure coincidence. The influence is apparent. The pine-cones element again. Pointy spires and flattish ribbed domes. The endangered Indian vultures perched at inconvenient angles, almost chameleon-like, blending in with the colour of the stone. And nearer the Ghats, the lone chhatri of Birsing Deo’s making a statement. Especially with the grass sprouting on its crown!
Its a wonder what a change in perspective can do. Soak in the beauty of the cenotaphs from the boulder-strewn edge of the placid Betwa. Crossing the narrow bridge, dodging vehicles, discover several photo-spots. In the darkening colours of the sky, the mysterious silhouettes of the cenotaphs darkens and their shadows play on the glassy surface of the water. Splashes of green from trees and specks of orange from bathing sadhus deepen the allure of the modest brown assembly. Orchha has worked its magic and you’re under its spell.
The gracious hospitality of Amar Mahal enhanced our experience in Orchha. All opinions in this post are my own.
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