It was early morning and the sun was about to rise soon. Armed with our camera and mobile phones, we were still struggling to find the best spot to capture the first rays of the sun that make the ambience beautiful.
As the sky was changing colour to orange, the pilgrims on the river bank began swelling. Sporting flowing white beards, sadhus clad in saffron, and families were preparing for a dip in the holy river when we found a boulder to frame the perfect shot.
Soon the sky changed from orange to red and this was the moment we all were waiting for ~ sunrise. The first rays of the sun made the blue water of the river glittering; the pilgrims started taking their dip and a few started washing clothes. Rustic view! It was a sight to behold. Especially for city dwellers, who spent almost the entire year at home due to the pandemic.
These descriptions may resemble somewhat those of Rishikesh or Haridwar but they are from a small town in Madhya Pradesh ~ Orchha, which means a hidden place. Situated on the bank of the Betwa River, the town was founded in the 16th century CE by the Bundela empire. Now, it is a hidden gem full of history, dotted with big to small monuments steeped in Bundhela architecture and a holy river but less crowded so far.
Our final destination was the architecture-rich town of Khajuraho, where a week-long classical dance festival was going on with the famous Khajuraho temples as backdrop. But it was the stopover at this 16th century town of Orcha that left a mark forever.
Rudra Pratap Singh was the first king of Orchha but it was his son, who shifted the Capital from Garh Kunder to Orchha. The reason was that the site was a better place to fortify against growing Mughal pressure.
It was 6.30 in the morning and the city was full of life. The roads were crowded with bikers, buses and tempos filled to capacity, all of which were heading for the nearby cities and small shops around the ghaats as they gradually opened their counters. Our first exploration of the city began with cenotaphs or Chattris that the city is famous for. Clustered around the Kanchana Ghat on the southern bank of river Betwa, these memorials were built in memory of kings or important members of their clans. The chattris are part of the temple architecture and the varying size ~ small or longer ~ symbolizes the time period for which the respective king ruled.
Then we headed for the Lakshmi Narayan temple, which our guide described as the best architecture of the city. Built by Bir Sing Deo and renovated by Prithivi Singh, it is a blend of fort and temple architecture.
However, the temple doesn’t have any idol as the main idol was stolen and, as per the Hindu tradition, no idol can be replaced. But the mural and fresco on the wall, which depict stories from the Ramayana to 1857 freedom struggle, can captivate visitors.
It is said, Mughal prince Salim once rebelled against his father Akbar and to capture him the emperor sent his most trusted right hand man, Abul Fazl. Then Bundela chieftain Bir Singh Deo helped the Mughal prince and assassinated Abul Fazl in a plot contrived by Salim.
Eventually Prince Salim reconciled with his father and went on to become Emperor Jahangir. When he planned to visit Orchha, Bir Singh Deo built Jahangir Palace to commemorate friendship and Jahangir’s one-night visit. The grand palace is a blend of Mughal and Bundheli architecture. The intricately-carved entrance of the palace is flanked by elephants. Its beautiful lattice screens, sculptures carved on brackets and rooms with painted murals will transport a visitor back in history.
Just a stone’s throw away from Jahangir Palace lies another famous palace ~ for a beautiful courtesan, poet and musician Rai Praveen. They say Mughal emperor Akbar, bewitched by her beauty and talent, wanted her in his court.
But she was in love with Prince Indrajeet. Upon reaching Akbar’s court the courtesan recited a couplet, which means “only someone from a low caste, barber or scavenger would eat from a plate that had been partaken by someone else”.
She indicated that she was already in love with someone and Akbar understood everything and sent her to Orchha.
Raja Ram Temple is quite a unique temple, as it was the palace of the king and accidentally became a temple.
As per local lore, the wife of King Madhukar Shah was a devotee of Lord Rama and she got a statue of the god from Ayodhya. She was to place the statue in Chaturbhuj temple, which was constructed for it. But she visited the palace first and from there the statue couldn’t be moved. Therefore, the temple is more like a fort in terms of architecture. Legends have it that Lord Rama was installed in a palace, hence he is worshipped as a king rather than a god. In fact, guard of honor is accorded to statue.
Built in 1538, Raja Mahal was a royal residence till the latter half of the 18th century CE. It has two courtyards with rooms, halls and the verandah of the Mahal beholds the most beautiful murals in earthy tones and black. It also portrays mythological stories, day-to-day life, hunting scene as well as flora and fauna inspired by their natural surroundings. Then there is Chaturbhuj Temple, also built upon a massive stone platform but we couldn’t explore it. This gives us hope and reason to return to the city one more time.