In these parts of Central India, many people identify themselves by the name of Bundeli. In fact, there is a growing demand amongst the people of this region to form a new state by the name of Bundelkhand. Actually, it is not new. It is sort of a resurrected one from the ancient kingdom of Bundelkhand. This kingdom existed in two phases. First were the Chandelas, the same rulers who built the grand temples of Khajuraho. They ruled from the 10th to the 13th centuries after which their influence on the region diminished with the entry of Islamic rulers.
From the 16th century the Bundelis ruled parts of Bundelkhand that today lies partly in Madhya Pradesh and partly in Uttar Pradesh. The common people of the region know there is India but identify themselves more closely with the erstwhile rulers of Bundelkhand. They still look up to the descendants of that kingdom, who I think still survive somewhere.
Coming from Khajuraho to Orchha has been quite a long and unexpected journey. Buses run by private operators are dangerously fast but the roads are bad. Government bus services are not organized the way they are in South India. When I pass Orchha, it is 8 pm. Not knowing if I’ll find any room at Orchha, I head straight to Jhansi, take a really basic room right at the bus terminal and wait for the morning for a better tomorrow.
Tomorrow comes. I take a bus. Orchha is only 16 kms from Jhansi and before long we leave the highway and turn right on the road to Orchha. For its spectacular history, Orchha is a town trapped in a beautiful isolation. It has little of modern shopping malls, pubs or high-rise buildings. If any development has come its way in recent times, it is only due to the many attractions in town that draw tourists. It is an obligatory visit for many foreigners who wish to get a sense of medieval India. If their idea of India is spectacular forts or romantic palaces taking their place in an old forgotten town, Orchha is where they can relive that idea.
As I get off the bus my attention is drawn to a high conical spire. It is the shikara of a temple but unlike the shikaras of Orissa or Khajuraho, they have a disctinct style. I walk towards it. To my left I see a bridge spanning the River Betwa that flows by town. On the other side, silhouetted against the rising sun is the Raja Mahal. It stands on many levels and the line of chhatris at its top spectacularly stands against the sun. It is a palace I will visit later in the day.
I walk through little lanes to arrive at the temple I had seen from a distance. It stands more like a palace than a typical temple. It stands on a slab of rock and is at least four storeys high. Corner towers rise to spires. A smooth dome supports a chhatri over a central space. This leads up to the sanctum. On the outside, I can see the dome and two shikaras in a line towards the sanctum. I am here an hour too early. The place is opened for visitors only at 9 am. I sit at the entrance and take in the quiet morning. The river is flowing quietly in the distance. The old palaces are waking up to another day just as they have been doing for centuries. Birds of the countryside sing their songs. I make a sketch of corbelled brackets that support projected balconies at the entrance of this temple.
The temple stands almost abandoned. It may seem a strange thing for India until I learn that this was intended to be a temple to house an idol of Lord Rama brought from Ayodhya. The idol was temporarily kept in the palace next door. When the temple was ready, the idol could not be moved. So it remains till this day in the palace. This is the Chaturbhuj Temple and the palace which is now the real temple is the Ram Raja Temple.
I spend many minutes wandering within the temple under its high ceilings. Framed niches in walls make interesting studies because there are many variations in them. Some of the vaulting, purely decorative, almost suggest lierne vaulting of Western Gothic architecture. Light comes in through high open arches. Arch netting in places suggest Islamic influence. There is a priest doing the honours in the sanctum within but there are no devotees here. Everyone is at the real sanctum in the palace next door.
I walk out and wander into the palace. I like what they have done with this place. The entire building is distempered in white with highlights in two shades of orange. This is just about the only building of old Orchha that has been renovated. Devotees come from far away places for darshan of Lord Ram. Apparently this is the only temple in India where Lord Ram is worshipped as a king. I have darshan of the various deities but I am more impressed by the mood of the palace interiors. I quite like the simple colours in which the palace is dressed. The palace is composed of high walls, corner square towers, a bangla roof over an entrance porch and four square towers rising up to domes and smaller corner chhatris.
Nearby is another palace in its original colour. It consists of a pillared hall with wide chhajjas. Above that are open terraces at two levels and finally a dome at the top. What is interesting here are two square towers with holes in their sides at regular intervals. They don’t appear to be built for defence. In fact, these brick structures rather resemble chimneys of brick kilns. I ask someone about them.
‘For wind,’ says the same but gives no details.
Later I learn that these towers caught the wind and channeled it to underground rooms which were cooled with flowing water channels and fountains. In fact, this palace faces an enclosed garden with water channels and octogonal garden beds. There is a pavilion at its center. The water channels are all dried up today but the garden beds are in better repair. This is the Phool Bagh.
A nice path connects the Ram Raja Temple with the Laxminarayana Temple. The temple stands a little outside town center on a hill. I can see it from far. There is nothing to obstruct the view of this temple. Walking to it away from the pilgrim crowds of Orchha is like entering a quieter part of medieval India.
‘Do you want a guide?’ a guy at the entrance asks. I shake my head but he is not easily discouraged. He follows me around the monument for a while but moves on quickly to other tourists who show more promise.
The entrance is from a corner where two outer walls meet. It suggests that the walls almost form a triangle rather than a rectangle. I walk around the outer walls but find that indeed it is a rectangle. Corridors on the inside go around an open courtyard which in its turn is also rectangular. What is really interesting is the central tower and the inner temple within the courtyard. They stand on a triangular base and this makes the remaining spaces in the courtyard unusual if not eccentric. The corridors contain beautiful murals on walls and ceilings. Once spectacular scene depicts Ravana in battle with his army of fantastic creatures of gruesome forms. There is wonderful energy in this scene. Elsewhere, Lord Ganesha sits royally. Lord Krishna dances on the hood of Kaliya. Lord Krishna plays his flute on a tree draped with the duppattas of gopis who stand half-naked below. Lord Vishnu is reclined on the seven-hooded serpent. More recent paintings show the heroics of battles during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. The paintings are nicely bordered in floral or geometric motifs. The colours are minimal and never bright. Emphasis is on lines, forms and patterns.
This is a wonderful old ruin to wander about. I climb the stairs and walk the terraces above. With no buildings nearby I can see far and wide. The palaces and temples of Orchha stand high above the low-lying buildings of town. As I step out into the sun, the same man walks up to me.
‘I will explain about the temple,’ he says. ‘You don’t need to pay.’
‘See from here,’ as we walk outside. We are looking directly at the entrance and the two walls spanning out of it. ‘This is like an owl with its wings spread out wide. That is Garuda on top.’
Indeed, the pointed beak of Garuda is plainly seen at the top of the entrance. This is after all a temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu. I thank my guide, pay him something and walk quickly back to town. I have a quick lunch, cross the river and make my way into the main palaces.
A board at the entrance informs that Sheesh Mahal has been converted into a hotel and restaurant. The most splendid palace here is the Jehangir Mahal, built by Bir Singh Deo to commemorate Emperor Jehangir’s visit to Orchha. From inside and out, it looks like the idea of palaces presented in folk tales and legends. Symmetry is an important aspect of the design. Open balconies run all around the building and these are supported on corbelled brackets. A decorative pool sits in the center of the quadrangle. Domes impose their strong presence and numerous chhatris add variety and interest to the building. Chhajjas are supported on sculptural miniatures of elephants. The entire design is spacious, airy and grand.
I take the stairs and walk up to higher floors. I walk the narrow passages with jali screens on one side and blank walls on the other. These are the same passages originally used by women and servants three centuries ago. The wealth of designs in the jali screens is quite impressive. Passages lead to open terraces, terraces lead to rooms and rooms lead to balconies. I walk up to a high terrace and get a wide view of Orchha and the Betwa valley. I can see the temples across the river and in the far distance the Laxminarayana Temple.
Of all palaces of medieval India, this is the one I like the best. I can very well imagine sitting out on a terrace with a view of the quadrangle and fountains singing in the central pool. I can feel a cool breeze blowing through these corridors. I can imagine the shadows of these walls lengthening in the hours of sunset. I can imagine night fall quietly to the river’s flow and oil lamps flicker to the stars above.
Once upon a time the palace would have been painted in bright colours but I like it the way it is today. There is no tasteless restoration, just preservation of a time and mood now long gone. I walk to the Rai Praveen Mahal, apparently dedicated to a queen of the same name. Outside are octogonal garden beds and water channels which only suggest their purpose. The channels are dried up today and the garden beds are in sorry state. Tall poplars add a touch of greenery in this garden.
I make my way to the Raja Mahal where there are supposedly many beautiful wall murals. I don’t get to see any but I am in love with its architecture just as I had been at the Jehangir Mahal. If Jehangir Mahal is all flamboyance, Raja Mahal is all austerity. Walls punctured with holes replace jali screens. Lines of simple spades replace floral crenellations seen at the Jehangir Mahal. There are no domes for grandeur. All we have here are small chhatris to break the monotony of design. The parapets of balconies are plain. The brackets that support chhajjas are plain and almost hidden in the shade. By scale, the design is grand but by art it is plain and quite fitting for a king who had been deeply religious.
Back at the river, I see spires reaching for the sky on the other bank. I cross the river and walk to the riverside. A few foreign tourists are idling on the opposite bank enjoying the sunset. Setting sun bathes the cenotaphs of past rulers. The place is about to close but the caretaker is busy sweeping the pathways. He allows me to wander among the cenotaphs for a good twenty minutes. These are grand monuments on their own and complete the medieval spectacle that is Orchha.
Generally double-storeyed, these cenotaphs have a terrace and a spire on top. Corner chhatris, chhaparkhats and miniature spires decorate the terrace around the main spire. In bigger cenotaphs, square towers squat at the corners of the terrace and are crowned by low domes with their own corner chhatris. The spires contain projected chhatris. Vultures are plenty in this area. They have made the high reaches of these monuments a world of their own. It seems Death knows very well who to invite.