A 30-hour train ride on the Karnataka Sampark Kranti Express (12649) from Bengaluru, cutting across the country in the middle, brought me to the city of Jhansi on a chilly morning, courtesy the monsoon clouds. My destination lies 18 km far to the east on the shores of Betwa river. Shared autos from the main bus station of Jhansi are the most common way of reaching there, so be it.
Orchha means ‘hidden’. This beautiful town situated in the Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh, I felt, is really a hidden gem as far as Indian tourism is concerned. The majestic fort complex, centuries-old towering temple and the small town itself make you feel like you have travelled back to the medieval period. To be honest, it wasn’t a place that I was familiar with from history books or travel magazines. I totally stumbled upon it while making the travel plan and I’m glad that I did.
Founded by the Rajput king Rudra Pratap Singh some 500 years ago, Orchha had been a princely state for centuries which had very close ties with the Mughal Empire. The exquisite fort Jahangir Mahal near the fort Raja Mahal that was built for the reception of the Mughal emperor Jahangir is a prime testimony to that.
Undoubtedly, the Orchha fort complex, which consists of magnificent and elegant forts like Jahangir Mahal, Raja Mahal and Rai Praveen Mahal, is the main attraction of the town. The long and broad battlement wall that covers up the complex along with the stone bridge across the now drained river for the access, and the huge spiked gate following it, must have provided a great level of security to these royal buildings against the battles that shook the Bundelkhand region over the years.
King Rudra Pratap Singh was the brain behind the Raja Mahal also. It was once the house of the royal family itself. But the king wasn’t fortunate enough to see the completion of its construction as he got killed while trying to muscle out a cow from the clutches of a tiger. Holy cow!
A perfect blend of Mughal and Hindu architecture is what Jahangir Mahal is. Though both this citadel and Raja Mahal stand a few metres apart from each other, there is a gulf of difference in style in terms of architecture. The presence of the beautiful domes and porches on Jahangir Mahal shows you what happens when two cultures combine beautifully to produce a marvel.
As the monsoon clouds slowly vanished after losing the battle with the sun, the mercury level started rising gradually. Orchha won’t be a good option during the summer; as a matter of fact, most of the towns in Central India aren’t.
Rai Praveen Mahal is where I headed next. Built by Prince Indramani as a tribute to the famous poetess and court performer Rai Praveen, it is a small palace country yard.
Maybe the inadequate facilities provided for the tourists could be the reason for Orchha’s absence from the travel map. Some good budget restaurants and hotels are what this town needs the most, I think.
Chaturbhuj Temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu, was my favourite place for a nice relaxing spot in the afternoon. But believe me, it’s not an easy task to find out the way up to the roof through the pitch dark stairs inside the temple. Twice failed, I had to give a bribe of `20 to the gateman to finally get on to the top.
Moving from Chaturbhuj Temple, my attention went to the picturesque cenotaphs near the river called the Royal Chhatris. Over the centuries the rulers of this region built many beautifully crafted cenotaphs with gardens surrounding them. Good thing that they still preserve it. There is a two-km-long nature trail inside Orchha wildlife sanctuary across the river Betwa, so if you like a stroll through the forest enjoying the lush greenery, go there well before it closes by 5 pm.
Reserve the late evening for the Light and Sound Show at Raja Mahal. The cinematic narration of 500 years of this region’s history was the perfect ending that I could ask for the lovely time that I spend here. Bundelkhand's pinnacle period...
(The writer is a software engineer based in Bengaluru)