Enchanting Orchha-wonder

By Suman Bajpai

Arriving by train from Delhi to Jhansi and then by cab to Orchha, to attend the grand ‘Namaste Orchha’, a new annual cultural festival organised by Madhya Pradesh Tourism Board in the town during March 6-8, gathered famous musicians, dancers and chefs from India and abroad to signal a new thinking in tourism promotion in the state. As Orchha and Madhya Pradesh move towards welcoming more tourists in the coming years, sustainable development has been mooted as a key component of tourism growth in the state. “Madhya Pradesh is set to be one of the major growth drivers of Indian economy and tourism is a key sector with immense potential,” Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath said in a statement on the opening day of the three-day festival held at different venues across the town. “We wanted to put Orchha on the tourism map and do it in a sustainable way, making people as part of the development,” said Yasmin Kidwai, festival director. Madhya Pradesh’s new tourism policy, which underlines private investment, too backs the Orchha campaign. The government says it wants to allow the private hospitality sector to convert heritage properties in the state to hotels for increasing the number of rooms and facilities for tourists.

Wonders of medieval period

This quaint little town was founded sometime in the early 16th century by Bundela chief Rudra Pratap Singh, on the banks of the Betwa River. Orchha literally means ‘hidden’ and this small village is just that, secluded and away from civilisation. Situated 20 Kilometres across the state border from Jhansi, this charming place lures many foreign tourists. This former Bundela capital is a small village on the banks of the river. “When Generosity and Greed set out to visit (Orchha), they saw a huge array of forts, towns, and villages – how could I possibly recount all their names.” These words were written by scholar and poet Keshavdas in the 16th century, a time of the great Rudra Pratap Singh, King of Orchha. A small town, scattered chhatris, and a towering fortress complex are Orchha’s legacy. It is in that hollow reverence that Orchha is so unique. Here the river Betwa splits into seven channels, also called the Satdhara. Legend goes that this is in honour of the seven erstwhile Chiefs of Orchha. I woke up before sunrise to see the chhatris on the Betwa river, stood in a line, this tall and still group of chhatris are the wonders of medieval period. The size of the Chattri or cenotaphs depicts the length of the reign of those rulers over Orchha. These cenotaphs recite the stories of the kings on its colossal structure. Beauty and vastness in every aspect of these spire shaped cenotaphs takes you in the past.

Forts and palaces- architectural magnificence

Most of Orchha’s architectural magnificence comes after the Mughal invasions. The Orchha fort complex has Raj Mahal, the King’s Palace, Jahangir Mahal, dedicated to Mughal king, Rani mahal and Rai Praveen Mahal as well. Fortress complex is so large and intricate that you very well anticipate how grand it would be in past. It has hanging balconies and gardens. A spectacular view of the river Betwa can be seen from the terrace of the place. The palace is decorated with lots and lots of windows and symmetrical architectures. The Orchha palace has two distinct sections – Raja Mahal and Jahangir Mahal. While Raja Mahal is modelled on Bundela architecture, Jahangir Mahal is a sterling example of Mughal architecture. This part of the palace was built for Salim (Jahangir), who after having fought with Akbar had left home and hearth. Salim came across this hidden territory ruled by the fierce Rajput tribe of Bundelas. At that time, the Bundela Chief, Bir Singh Deo, extended hospitality to him, providing him much needed sanctuary and rendered tremendous help. The Jahangir Mahal which is multi-storeyed and offers a spectacular view from its balconies, is the sign of supremacy of the architecture that prevailed in Orchha. The Raj Mahal is one of the most historic monuments in the fort. Rai Praveen Mahal which once was beautiful now is left with stories of the glorious past in its ruins.

A city of Ram Raja

Orchha is considered as a town of Ram, where Lord Ram is worshipped as King. So the Ram Raja temple is most famous here. The temple too was constructed more like a Raj Bhavan rather than a temple. Architecture of the temple is as fascinating as the temples of South India. History goes like this, some centuries back, one night King of Orchha dreamed of Lord Ram and received inspiration to build a temple/palace dedicated to Ram. King Madhukar Shah’s wife was devotee of Ram. Temple is built of golden brownstones and has lots of rooms. Just adjacent to it is Chaturburj temple, and it has many secret passages like a labyrinth. The 105-meter-high Chaturburj temple was originally built to Rama, but it is currently worshiped for Vishnu and houses an idol of the Lord with four arms. Another remarkable temple is Laxminarayan Temple which was built by Vir Singh Deo around 1622. Fine frescoes and paintings hanging on the temple walls and ceilings can be seen. Based on certain social and secular themes, the vivid colours of the frescoes are still intact. The temple also has geometrical carvings of scenes from the life of Lord Krishna.

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Town has many homestays and this concept is attracting tourists who not only stay here, bit like the art from home owner, like pottery making, etc. And designer Anupamaa Dayal painted the walls of these homestays inspired by the Malwa region’s fabled Gond art. She says, “It is a repetitive motif albeit in completely different art styles in the frescos and the colourful Gond art. I also sense it to be a lovely leitmotif to Orchha. Light, beautiful… symbolising freedom and the link between earth (endless green fields and sense of space), the waters (Betwa river) and heaven (strong mythological element of Orchha).”

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