Orchha is a small hidden gem in MP, which in all probability you would not have heard of. As I was planning a trip to Khajuraho, a friend mentioned that while I go via Jhansi I should also visit the place. I am glad I listened to him. It is the second capital city of Bundelas and flourished in the early 17th century. Like most kingdoms, Orchha is the cornerstone of the legacy left by the Bundela dynasty.
Places to visit in Orchha, Madhya Pradesh
It is a small town that you can cover mostly on foot. But what is amazing is the fact that the town exists among the palaces and temples. So from wherever you are, you get to see the beautiful chhatris, which are typical of the local architecture. Creating a beautiful skyline, making it picture-perfect. There are Palaces, Fort, Temples, and Samadhis in the form of chhatris. Beautiful Betwa River, a nature reserve, and interesting stories. All the buildings give a kind of burnt look as if the heat of the central plains of India has left its marks on the buildings.
The most visited places in the heritage area are Raja Mahal and Jahangir Mahal. Raja Mahal built by the Bundela king Madhukar Shah is relatively simple externally. But has some exquisite paintings in the bedrooms of the King and the main queen Kunwar Ganeshi. The legend has that the King was the worshipper of Lord Krishna. While the queen was a devotee of Lord Rama. She dreamt of making a temple of Rama in Orchha and she went all the way to Ayodhya to get Lord Rama.
She sat on the banks of river Saryu in Ayodhya and finally, lord Ram came to her in the form of a small kid. As she tried to get him to Orchha, Rama had a few conditions like she will have to take him to the place on foot. And wherever she keeps him there first he will stay there and not move from there.
Legend of Rama Idol
It took the queen some 12 years to get the idol from Ayodhya to Orchha, while the king engaged in building a huge temple that would be visible from the queen’s bedroom. When the queen reached the place, the temple was still not complete. So she kept the idol in the Palace kitchen. And thought she would shift it to the new temple when it is completed. But she forgot the condition that Rama had put. When the temple was completed and the queen tried to shift the idol, the idol refused to move. So the kitchen was converted into a temple.
Ram at Orchha
And the new temple was dedicated to Lord Vishnu and is now known as Chaturbhuj temple. Looks like in all eras it was the lady of the house who decided the faith to follow. People in the town worship Ram in the form of a King and believe him to be the King of Orchha. They believe that Ram comes to Orchha every morning and goes back to Ayodhya every evening. Both the temple and the Raja Mahal are preserved as they are not very old. But they could definitely be far cleaner than they are.
Saaket Museum – Different Forms of Paintings
A new museum, Saaket, showcasing the different forms of paintings from across India is being built by Adivasi Lok Kala Academy. This is located in what was once the Baarood Khana of the fort. As of now, it has Madhubani of Bihar, Chitrakathi of Maharashtra, Kalamkari and Cheriyal Pattam of Andhra, Patua of West Bengal, and Patta of Orissa. All of these depict the scenes from Ramayan. Glorifying the reigning deity of the town, Lord Rama.
Jahangir Mahal Palace, Orchha
Jahangir Mahal is a palace that was built for Mughal king Jahangir, who visited the town for a day. And stayed in this 236-roomed palace along with his troops. It took 22 years to build this Palace where the guests stayed only for a day. There was a Sheesh Mahal also that was a part of this palace, which has been converted into a hotel now. Jahangir Mahal has been built in a fusion mode. And depicts motifs that can be attributed to Hinduism as well as Islam. Walls have been painted using blue and green colors representing the two religions. And depicting the co-existence of these faiths in the times of Bundelas.
Carvings on Sandstone
The carvings on the sandstone doors and around the structure are all a mix of two types of architecture. While the domes are round in shape like Islamic buildings. But on top of that, you would find Lotus and peacocks representing Hinduism. The co-existence of both signs can be seen all around the structure. From the top floor of this 3 storied building, you can get a view of the town. And also see the extent of the fort all around, along with some ruined buildings. And Rai Praveen Mahal, which was a Palace dedicated to the legendary dancer of the kingdom. From the top, you can see the dancing platform where she used to regularly perform.
Lakshmi Temple, Orchha
There is a Lakshmi temple, which is built very interestingly in the shape of an Owl. A rectangular temple that looks triangular from most angles. As the main entrance is placed on one of the corners of the rectangle. There are some of the most amazing paintings on the walls and roofs of the galleries of this temple. There are paintings made with vegetable colors and there are scratch paintings. Which are made by scratching a pre-painted wall, usually done in red and white color.
The paintings depict scenes from Ramayana, Mahabharata. Lives of local kings and scenes from India’s first freedom struggle in 1857. Indicating that the temple paintings were updated regularly by the local kings. Climb on top of this temple and you would get a view of the heritage through its delicate arches. Again making it a picture-perfect view. Do not miss the beak of an owl on top of the entrance gate, built to make the temple look like an owl. A vehicle of Goddess Lakshmi.
Chhatris on the banks of Betwa
The chhatris on the banks of River Betwa are the samadhis of Bundela kings and their families. This is the only place where I have seen samadhis of Hindu kings. And typically built in a variation of tombs. Most of the chhatris are 3 storied and built in the Panchayatan style with peaks built in the Nagar style of temple architecture. There are palaces, temples, and Baithaks dedicated to the Bundela kinsman Hardaul. Who committed suicide to prove his innocence in an alleged affair with his elder brother’s wife.
I met a woman who comes there and worships outside his temple every day. From morning to evening and believes that anyone who prays to Hardaul gets anything that he or she wishes.
Nature Trails by Betwa
Something that guidebooks never mention about the place is the nature trails that exist on the other side of Betwa. You can cross Betwa through a low bridge built on it, which you can walk on almost as you walk out of the town. There are various small trails that you can take. And walk through the jungle, through the nature reserve. There is river rafting also conducted by the MP Tourism on Betwa. Though I could not see much white water around the town, probably they take you somewhere where there is some.
The hospitality of MP Tourism
The things that really impressed me, other than the destination itself were the hospitality of MP tourism and the first lady guide that I came across in India. We stayed in the place at a retreat, an excellent property run by MP tourism, located on the bank of River Betwa, which has beautiful cottages and tents, reasonably priced and well maintained. The staff of the resort was very courteous, responsive, and well-informed. The manager himself was attending to most guests and the restaurant staff communicated with care. I have rarely seen state-run properties being handled so well.
The second was Premlata, the lady guide, who took us around the town and was very honest in sharing details, unlike some of her colleagues who wanted to rush through the locations or hide the fact that they did not know the complete stories, or tried to tell wrong timings for the monuments. She is still in the learning stage but is probably a representative of upcoming India, wherein small towns also women take on some offbeat and strenuous professions.
Though the guidebooks and even the local guides would tell you that you can do in the heritage place in 2 hours. But to see the place properly you need at least 2 complete days. There is a lot of filth around most monuments, which if taken care of, can make it a major tourist destination. There were not many Indian tourists there, most of the tourists that we met were foreigners. The place probably needs some more publicity so that more tourists, especially Indians can visit the place.
Like its name which means hidden, the place is actually hidden from most eyes. If you are there do not miss looking at buildings from the arches of another building. You can almost see every other building through every other one and take some excellent pictures.
My recommendation is that if you like history, picturesque locations, riverside locations, and a bit of nature and hospitality, you must visit this heritage place. MP tourism should probably look at introducing some walking tours of the place.
Recommend you to read the following travel blogs on Madhya Pradesh Tourist places.