I enjoyed sightseeing in medieval Orchha, but it didn’t grab me, at first, like other places have in India. While the sights didn’t get me in, other stuff about Orchha did.
Most of India’s historic cities were, at one time, capitals of kingdoms of old. Located on the banks of the river Betwa in Madhya Pradesh, Orchha was the power base of the Bundela kings in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The royal chhatris, or memorials, that contain the ashes of Bundela rulers passed, line the left bank of the river. Their reflection in the water is spectacular, day or night.
The fort complex dominates Orchha. The fort is built around a courtyard and comprises three palaces: the Raj Mahal, the Jahangir Mahal and the Sheesh Mahal.
The last palace mentioned is now a heritage hotel. During our walk around the fort, we stopped there for a cold drink and to get some relief from the 45oC heat. Like most government-run places in India, the Sheesh Mahal is poorly maintained by surly and uncooperative staff. Kuldip’s description of the toilets left little to the imagination; I decided to hold on.
The colourful murals that remain on the walls and ceilings of the Raj Mahal are superb and worth seeing. The Raj Mahal is also the venue for the nightly sound and light show.
Kuldip was sick that day and went back to the hotel shortly after we’d toured the fort. Maybe the condition of the lavatory at the Sheesh Mahal tipped him over the edge.
I continued in the heat visiting Orchha’s other sights including the Ram Raja and Chaturbhuj temples that have a legendary bond dating back to Madhukar Shah’s rule in the 16th century. The story goes that his queen, Ganesh Kunwari, a devotee of Lord Ram, walked to her idol’s birthplace to get a statue to install in a yet-to-be-built temple outside the fort. It was an eighteen-month round trip. When she arrived at Ahodhya, Ram appeared before her as a child and said he was happy to go to Orchha on condition that he stayed put when he got there. Apparently the queen walked back to Orchha carrying the child in her arms. As soon as she popped him down at home, baby Ram turned into a statue of Lord Ram. When they tried to move him to the Chaturbhuj temple that the queen built in his honour and as a place of worship, Ram wouldn’t budge. The queen should have taken him at his word.
The celebrated statue hasn’t moved since. Hence, the queen’s palace, located within the fort, became the Ram Raja temple where people still come to pay homage. The queen must have moved out, but for the life of me, I can’t find out where she went. Nowadays, the Chaturbhuj temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu.
While the friezes in the Lakshmi, or Lakshminarayana, temple aren’t as colourful as those in the Raj Mahal in the fort, they are plentiful and comprise the unexpected. For example, it’s the first time I have seen a mural portraying the conquest of India by the British. I refer to the one that illustrates the siege of the Jhansi fort by the forces of the British East India Company in March 1858.
There’s another scene where two British soldiers are sitting in medieval Mughal chairs. One holds a sword and bayonet; the other, a bottle of wine and an empty glass. Another wine bottle and a full glass appear in the background. A triumphant toast.
In Hinduism, a vahana is “a vehicle or the carrier of something immaterial or formless.” In other words, it is symbolic of what the God does. Most of the prominent Hindu gods and goddesses have one, and are rarely seen without it.
Shiva is one of the big six Hindu gods and the most complex. He’s both destroyer and restorer. He’s sensual, benevolent and avenging. His vahana, a white bull called Nandi, is symbolic of sexual vigour and fertility. Parvati, the “divine mother” is Shiva’s wife and a reincarnation of his first missus. Yes, it’s complicated. It gets even more so because Parvati, like most women, reinvents herself all the time. On the one hand, she can be soft and gentle, on the other, fierce and violent. The lion is her vehicle and quite right too.
This little story would be incomplete without mentioning their son, Ganesh, the chubby elephant-headed god. Without going into the gory details, Shiva came home one night and lopped a boy’s head off. At the time he did not know it was his son. When Shiva’s wife, Parvati, who was also the boy’s mother found out, she was furious and understandably so. Shiva had lost a lot of “Brownie” points so he sent someone to bring back the head of the first creature he found which he plonked onto Ganesh’s body and brought him back to life. Since then, Ganesh has been the god of “intellect and the remover of obstacles.” In addition to being a fixer, Ganesh is also considered gentle and wise. The mouse, or rat, which can chew its way through anything, is Ganesh’s constant companion symbolic of his ability to tear down all that stands in one’s way.
The Hindu history lesson leads me to my third favourite image on the walls of the Lakshmi temple; that of Shiva with the Ganges flowing from his topnot while Parvati and their two vehicles, Nadi and the lion, wait patiently for orders regarding their next port of call.
The Hindus have a great sense of humour when it comes to their gods. For example, a friend of ours once said: “We have over three million Gods, so we Hindus can always find one that will let you do what you want.” During a trip to Chennai in Tamil Nadu in the south of India, I came across a comic effigy of Ganesh I couldn’t resist. It’s story time and he’s blissed out. It brings a smile to my face every time I look at it.
Some might say that a visit to Dinman Hardaul’s Palace in Orchha is a waste of time. I, on the other hand, think it’s time well spent. Admittedly only parts of the external walls remain, and they look a little shabby. Once inside, it’s another story. It’s the story of a Bundela prince who became a god.
Dinman Hardaul was the brother of the 6th king of Orchha, Jhujhar Singh, and the queen treated him like a son. The 5th Mughal Emperor of India, Shah Jahan, wanted Dinman out of the way and convinced the Bundela ruler that his wife and brother were having an affair. Fuelled by jealousy, the king asked his wife to kill his brother to prove her innocence. When the queen told Hardaul what she had to do, he swallowed the poison, died and became a martyr and eventually a god. A while later, the king’s niece was getting married, and when his sister asked for his help, he told her to talk to Hardaul. Legend has it that Hardaul attended the wedding and served the guests. He remains in the hearts and minds of many of the local people who leave wedding invitations for him at his small temple in the gardens beside the old palace walls believing he will attend and give his blessing. It’s a romantic tale so it’s not surprising that many people get married near the Prince’s shrine. I was lucky to see a happy Hindu couple tie the knot while I was there. Hardaul devotees continue to believe he is still alive. If he was at the wedding in the garden that day, I didn’t see him. It was boiling at the time, so maybe he was out the back getting some ice.
There’s a colourful market where the rooms of Hardaul’s home once stood and the gardens outside one of the remaining main entrances to the extinct palace, are a joy to behold. Apart from being one the many gate-crashers at the wedding, I relished wandering around the gardens where the locals come to chill out during Orchha’s hot summer months.
My romance with medieval Orchha continues with why the 10th king of Orchha, Indramani Sing, built the Rai Praveen Mahal in the late 16th century. Some of the greatest love stories have involved royalty; this one does too. Rai Praveen was a beautiful and talented artist. She specialised in singing, dancing and poetry and performed in the king’s court. Working for the King eventually became a labour of love for Rai Praveen, but because the king was already married, she became his courtesan and the love of his life.
When word of the beautiful entertainer from Orchha reached the ruling Mughal emperor of the day, Akbar the Great, he wanted Rai Praveen for himself and summoned her to the imperial court. It wasn’t long before he sent her packing. One can’t be sure if Akbar was touched by her loyalty to her king or if she talked her way out of the harem. Nevertheless, Akbar did not have his way with her and sent Rai Praveen back to Orchha.
I’m happy to admit that I’m hooked on the idea of everlasting love. But that’s not why Rai Praveen’s house is my pick of the mahals in Orchha. It’s because it comprises all the features of Rajput-Mughal architecture in miniature. The summer house at the bottom of Rai Praveen’s formal garden and the bathroom in her basement are as enchanting as the murals of her and her king on the second level of the house. The view of the lush, well-maintained garden through the arched alcove from there is as captivating.
When translated, Orchha means hidden. I thought it a silly name before I went there. When I arrived in ‘hidden’, it wasn’t love at first sight. It lacked an X, or wow, factor. I soon discovered that Orchha’s beauty is in its legendary past. All one needs to do is scratch the surface to discover the city’s hidden charms.
The best time to visit Orchha is the same as everywhere else in India: October to March.
If one is planning to tour the neighbouring states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, I recommend one go anti-clockwise starting in Orchha and ending in Lucknow.