After what seemed like a decade (two and a half years, in reality) I was back to Madhya Pradesh, one of my favourite states. My last encounter with Madhya Pradesh was a memorable one. We had explored ancient towns, gigantic rock cut temples that had faded from public memory, a whole gallery of pre-historic rock paintings in the middle of nowhere and a formidable fortress enveloped by the living forest. This time I had no such exploratory pretensions. I was headed to Orchha, a place I had visited before and a place that has for some time now enjoyed mainstream popularity. That however does not take anything away from it. Back in 2009, during my first visit to Orchha, I was on assignment, researching and shooting for an upcoming travel guide on the city. So the charms of the city were somewhat marred by the dark, dank cloud-like deadline hanging over my head.
This time no such thing would happen. I was going to Orchha with the express purpose of feeling the magic of the monsoons. I had heard tales of how the rains works it’s magic on the landscape surrounding Orchha. I have witnessed this magic first hand in other places across Madhya Pradesh; Mandu for example. Monsoons turn this otherwise barren corner of Malwa plateau into the greenest and the most romantic spot on earth. If the rains in Delhi were anything to go by, I was in for a treat.
We landed in Jhansi station when it was still dark out. A steaming cup of sweet tea restored our wits and we all (five of us) crammed into one auto and began the 15 km journey to Orchha. The roads were empty and the tarmac was wet. The monsoon induced greenery on both sides of the road was encouraging. The ride was short and sweet and we were in Orchha before you could say ‘photosynthesis’.
Our resort (Yes, you read that right. I have clearly moved up in life) was located right on the banks of the Betwa which had swelled up to almost three times its winter size. The bridge that connects Orchha town to the island in the Betwa was barely visible over the water. The skies were dark and threatening and very soon it started to rain. When it stopped about a couple of hours later, the bridge had gone under totally. This happens every monsoon, I was told.
Orchha, now tiny, was once the capital of the rather large Bundela Kingdom. Orchha is surrounded by forests, which have played a huge role in the city’s relative isolation and the preservation of its monuments. In 1634, even the almighty Mughals had trouble getting to Orchha on account of the dense forests, the craggy hills and the sentient Betwa. The Betwa, or Vetravati as it was known in ancient times originates in the Raisen district near Bhopal and after draining through a large chunk of Madhya Pradesh, flows into the Yamuna at Hamirpur, Uttar Pradesh. Describing the importance of the river, Orchha’s 16th century court poet writes:Saat dhar sarju bahe Nagar Orchha dham Phool bagh nau chowk mein Viraje Raja Ram
(The seven streams of the Betwa converge at Orchha, just as the nine palaces of the sons of Bir Singh Deo converge around the God Raja Ram who sits in the gardens therein.)
It is on the hallowed banks of the Betwa that the five of us – two editors, a rocker, a sitar player and yours truely started exploring this magical city. Like everyone else, we began with the biggest attraction, the Jahangir Mahal.
‘Whether one admires the exterior for its noble effect of mass or is intrigued by its orderly complexity of its interior, no one can fail to feel that the Jahangir Mahal is a notable architectural achievement’ – Percy Brown, Indian Architecture, Islamic Period (1942)
To get to Jahangir Mahal from the main square of Orchha, you have to cross an eight-arched bridge that spans a deep moat. It is built in the convention of a traditional haveli (please read this post for a better understanding of havelis, not only as a concept in architecture but also its socio-economic significance) but the similarities stop there. Sure, there is the square central courtyard, but the levels upon levels of rooms surrounding it and the sheer scale of the entire structure are simply mind-blowing. Most of the paint and the plasters that would have adorned the walls have long since vanished. But if you know where to look, you can still see some remnants of the lapis lazuli inlay work on the walls.
If you walk up the sometimes steep stairs to the topmost levels, you will be rewarded with stunning views. To the east, past many crumbling ruins flows the Betwa. To the south is a patch of very dense forest and a general undulating landscape through which, once again flows the Betwa. The terraces on west and north of the Jahangir Mahal will give you a bird’s eye view of the town and its surrounding land. In fact, the views of Orchha as seen in the photographs above are all taken from Jahangir Mahal.
It is generally believed that it took the Bundela King Bir Singh Deo close to four years to build this stunning edifice and at the end of it all was only inhabited for a day by his friend, the Mughal emperor Jahangir. Historians, however question the veracity of this claim. Archaeological evidence unearthed in the palace and its surrounding areas points to the fat that the construction of the palace started during the reign of Akbar, long before Bir Singh Deo came to the throne. He might have only continued with its construction.
It is however a fact that Bir Singh Deo completed the palace and named it after his patron, Emperor Jahangir. Jahangir had earlier bestowed on Bir Singh Deo the official title of ‘Maharaja’ after the latter beheaded Abul Fazal with whom Jahangir shared a tenuous relationship. It is also likely that a lot of the funds used to built this grand palace came from the Mughal treasury.
Right in front of Jahangir Mahal is the much older and equally ornate palace known as Raj Mahal. Built roughly a century earlier, it differs from the Jahangir Mahal on account of the almost total absence of domes. Another important feature of the temple is that from the outside it looks single storeyed although on the inside it is built on five levels. The past glory of this palace can be guessed by the remains of murals in certain portions of the building.
It was a gloomy afternoon when we entered to explore the palace. The stillness of the air was broken in regular intervals by loud thunderclaps. Very soon, fat drops began to descend from the skies above and confined five excitable people in a 500 year old building. While the rocker, sitar player and wannabe travel writer went ahead to explore the building, the two editors sat down for a nice tete-a-tete that involved sharing of many a scandalous information about people known (or unknown) to each other.
Lets move away from the centre of the town to the top of a hill barely a kilometre away. Most of my fellow travellers were busy setting up a makeshift bar by the hotel swimming pool where they wanted to spend all day. I understand the sentiment, I really do, but not in Orchha. Not when there are monuments to be seen and bicycles to be rented. I found a kindred spirit in the sitar player and we were off to the bazaar looking for someone who would rent us a bicycle.
Soon enough, bicycles were found and we were off huffing and puffing, pedaling hard on an uphill road. The temple is beautiful but you will be confused once you explore the structure in details. It is definitely a temple but it is built like a fort. It has bastions on four corners and even canon-slots on top of the bastions. There is however, no confusion on one thing: the view from the temple.
In front of you is a panoramic view of this incredible little town. To the left are the two masses that are the Jahangir Mahal and the Raj Mahal. To their right is the lofty Chaturbhuj Temple in front of which, proud and gleaming with a new coat of paint stands the Ram Raja Temple. Pan further right and you will see the impossibly beautiful spires of the chhatris of the Bundela kings poking out through the monsoon greenery. Scattered around these are ruins of many more palaces, sarais and temples. The modern human has spoiled the party with giant pylons and the numerous electricity bearing wires emanating from them. Modern civilisation does come at a price, i guess.
Once you move inside the temple, you will come face to face with another aspect of the temple – the murals. Spanning in theme from the secular to the religious, the murals are, fortunately for us, rather well preserved. The paintings depict scenes from the Ramayana and Tulsidas’s Ram Charit Manas and borrows from other popular Hindu myths. One stunning frieze depicts the brave Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi leading her troops in battle against the British.
From the Lakshminarayan Temple we saw this little pathway disappearing over the undulating landscape into the greenery beyond. We locked our cycles and started walking along the path. Many drops of sweat and feral cows later, the pathway led us to what looked like the ruins of a palace. On closer inspection it turned out to be a dargah. The walls were mostly down to the foundations but the main structure looked well looked after (evidence: a fresh coat of whitewash). It was calm, quiet and breezy and hence was an ideal place to sit and ruminate for a while. So we did.
At this point, we convinced the bums to join us for lunch. After we regrouped, we headed down the road to Jhansi for around 2 kms before we turned off into a gravelly side track. This track ultimately led us to this faux heritage property called Bundelkhand Riverside, built around an ancient hunting lodge used by the erstwhile royal family. To be fair, our less expensive resort was more ‘on the water’ than this one, but with its secluded location and fake but well executed old world charms, this one is definitely worth a shot. The food was good while the dining room struck me as being slightly fanciful.
After the lazy lunch, the bums were in a hurry to get back to our rooms. ‘Afternoon nap’, they said. We were dropped back to the market where we reunited with our (t)rusty old bicycles and set off to explore the rest of Orchha. The previous day while perched atop Jahangir Mahal, we had noticed a whole town of ruins to its left with a track running through it. So the track was found and we embarked upon exploring the ruins that lay along it. This was obviously not a tourist-favoured part of Orchha and was largely overgrown and empty. We rode our cycles through puddles, uneven rocks and lots and lots of mud. On the way we encountered a violent rip in my pants, a general and sometimes overwhelming loss of breath (fat guy + rusty bike + uneven terrain + full stomach), a murderous bull and a palace exclusively for the maids of the royal household.
When you think scale, the most imposing on Orchha’s many structures is easily the Chaturbhuj Temple. Its towering main shikhara dominates the landscape and is visible for miles around. The story of the temple is much much more interesting than its remarkable architecture. It was built between the years 1558 and 1573 by Maharani Ganesh Kunwar, wife of the then ruler of Orchha, Raja Madhukar . It was built to enshrine an image of Lord Rama who is believed to have had four hands (chatur = four and bhuj = arm); hence the name.
Legend has it that Rama visited the queen in her dreams instructing her to retrieve an image of his from Ayodhya and enshrine it in a temple at Orchha. There was, however, one caveat: on the journey from Ayodhya to Orchha, the idol could not be rested on the ground/ floor. After the queen finished the construction of this giant temple, she set out to complete the lord’s wishes. Upon reaching Ayodhya the queen located the image and it is said that she carried it all the way back on her head.
When she arrived in Orchha, she set the idol down in the kitchen of her palace right next to the new temple to take a nap. What she did not realise was that even though they were in Orchha, the idol was indeed put on the floor/ ground before it reached its final residence, i.e the brand new temple next door. The deity had mysteriously stuck himself to that very place.
No matter how much they tried, all the queen’s horses and all the queen’s men could not lift the idol from the kitchen floor again. Upon realising her mistake, the queen begged for forgiveness and turned her palace into a temple. Today the palace is known as the Ram Raja Temple and is held in very high esteem by the local population. However, the cavernous and soaring Chaturbhuj Temple remained vacant, attracting an assortment of birds, bats and other critters. Today, the garbhagriha does house a deity but the pomp and splendour of its rituals fade in comparison to the one right next door.
The entrance to the temple is at the end of a long flight of steps and faces the Jahangir Mahal across the road. At this point (the above pic), you are already taller than the tallest building in the market below. You enter through two sets of arched gateways to arrive in a cavernous space, not unlike the nave of a large cathedral. The ceiling, at least 70-80 feet above you is adorned by a simple floral pattern while on the other end of the hallway is the sanctum which was supposed to enshrine the image of lord Rama.
Here, you can ask for the chowkidar of the temple and for a small fee (Rs 50-100) he will lead you, through a series of very steep and sometimes very dark staircases to the upper levels of the temple (strongly recommended. Carry torch). On every level there are passages that take you all around the structure. The higher you go, more stunning the view gets. After two levels (if i recall correctly) you reach a wide terrace at the base of the temple spires. At this point, you call command a spectacular view over the town and its surroundings.
I guess one can climb up further along the temple spires, as evidenced by a surprisingly large number of men perched all over them, keeping a keen eye on you, not unlike the gaze of some griffon vultures that nest on the inaccessible parts of the spire. The keenness is particularly severe on the females, so if you are a female and find yourself on the roof of the temple, consider yourself warned. We had a train to catch later in the evening and we still had the chhatris to explore. So we beat a hasty retreat, returned our cycles and proceeded on foot towards the chhatris.
Orchha was a rich and powerful state under the Bundelas and nowhere is their dominance over the land more palpable than along the ghats of the Betwa river. It was here, from the 16th to the 18th centuries 14 of Orchha’s rulers constructed their cenotaphs, or chhatris. These towering, temple like structures represent places where the kings were cremated.
Most of the chhatris are grouped together in an enclosure, surrounded by manicured lawns. Right outside this enclosure and on an island on the Betwa itself lies the largest, wildest and the most distinct of Orchha’s chhatris. In all fairness, the island was a temporary one as the monsoon laden Betwa has risen up and inundated the little causeway that connects this chhatri to the others. The monsoons had also swallowed the low bridge that connects this part of the town to the other side of the river, thus not allowing us to view these spectacular buildings from the other side. If you are keen on birds, like I am, you might want to scan the spires for nesting griffon vultures.
After the chhatris, we just had enough time for a quick beer in the pool before we boarded our auto for Jhansi. It was a lazy Sunday evening and the roads were empty; so we found ourselves standing in front of Jhansi station in no time. I know I speak for everybody when I say that all of us were thoroughly refreshed and rejuvenated – some of us on account of the sights we saw, others due to the hours spent in the pool drinking!
Our train to Delhi was on time and I soon cosied up with George RR Martin’s much underrated The Armageddon Rag. Outside, a monsoon dusk was fast descending. One of those overcast dusks that lasts but the blink of an eye but leaves the sky illuminated for a while like the bittersweet aftertaste of a chocolate infused liqueur. After about 20 minutes I look out of my window to see another great vestige of the Bundela Empire float past in the distance – the monumental Bir Singh Palace of Datia. I whip out my camera and take a couple of blurry shots. As I put my camera back in the bag, it starts raining outside and a steady stream of sideways travelling water droplets obscure the building from my sight.