An Oasis of Stone: Exploring Orchha

Orchha was founded in the 16th century on the banks of river Betwa.

5 min read

Orchha was once surrounded by dense forests, which gave the city its name. The word ‘Orchha’ means ‘hidden’. Today however, it is known for its beautiful stone monuments, and is a destination you must discover in your travels to Madhya Pradesh.

Orchha was founded in the 16th century on the banks of the river Betwa by the Bundela Rajput chief Rudra Pratap who proclaimed the city to be his capital and built a magnificent fort to stamp his claim. The subsequent generations of rulers added to the city and the magnificence of the city.

What to see

Perhaps the most famous monuments in Orchha are the Chattris or 14 cenotaph memorials to the rulers of Orchha along the Kanchana Ghat of the river Betwa. Orchha has become visually synonymous with these monuments, and it’s not hard to see why. The cenotaphs rise like stone giants from the ground and look imperious against the blue sky.

The Orchha fort complex is also a sight to behold. Accessed by a multi-arch bridge, the complex has several palaces, the most famous of which are the Raja Mahal and Jahangir Mahal.

The Raja Mahal was built by the Bundela king Madhukar Shah, and was the erstwhile residence of the Bundela kings. The palace is known for its beautiful interiors that are adorned with colourful murals on many religious themes. The sound and light show held at the Raja Mahal is a great way to learn more about Orchha and its rulers.

The Jehangir Mahal was originally built by Raja Bir Singh Deo in the 17th century to commemorate the visit of the emperor Jahangir. The architecture is rich in detail with intricate trellis work.

Orchha is also home to an ingenious pair of structures called Sawan Bhado. Named after the two spring months in the Indian calendar, Sawan Bhado is a pair of adjoining Dastagirs or Persian wind-catching towers that cooled the summer retreat of the Orchha rulers. Each tower has holes at the top to let it capture wind. At the bottom of the towers is a reservoir that was once filled with water. When the dastagirs were active, this water, that had been cooled with the wind, would be pushed up, so that it rained on the roof of the summer retreat and cooled it. In a sense, it was the medieval equivalent of air conditioning and is the only remaining example of the Persian system of cooling in India.

Apart from its palaces, Orchha is known for its magnificent temples. The Lakshminarayana Temple is a beautiful structure which synthesises the architecture of a fort and a temple. The interiors of the temple are particularly striking as they are filled with exquisite murals depicting spiritual themes. Along with this, the temple also contains murals that tell the life story of Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi.

The Rama Raja is another interesting temple that you must visit on your trip to Orchha. This is actually a temple that was once a palace. A lovely legend is attached to it. The queen of Orchha, Ganesh Kunwari was a devotee of Lord Rama. She once went on a pilgrimage to Ayodhya and performed many penances and, it is said, the Lord Rama appeared on her lap in his child form. Pleased with her prayers, the Lord agreed to come with her to Orchha but set three conditions - that He would travel only during the period of Pukh Nakshatra. When that would end, He would stop travelling and only resume when it started again. The second condition was once He reached Orchha, He would arrive as its King in place of her husband. And the third, and ultimately significant condition was that the first place He was seated would be His final place of stay.

The Queen agreed, and journeyed to Orchha with the child Rama. It took them more than 8 months to reach Ayodhya since they only travelled during Pukh Nakshatra. On arriving, the Queen returned to the palace with the child Rama. The King had already commenced building a magnificent temple for him near the palace. In the evening, she retired to her room in the Rani Mahal or Queen’s Palace. However, she placed the child Rama in the palace and He transformed into an idol in the palace. Till this day, the Rama Raja temple is in the palace, and not in the temple that was built for it. That temple is now the Chaturbhuj temple which houses an idol of Lord Vishnu. In accordance with the second condition, the Rama Raja Temple is also the only temple in the country where Lord Ram is worshipped not just as a God, but also as a king. And He even gets a gun salute.

Not everything beautiful in Orchha is made of stone, the Orchha Bird Sanctuary is a great place to visit for nature lovers. The sanctuary is a large forest that is the home to over 200 species of birds.

What to do

The Betwa is a great river for rafting and you must make the most of it on your visit to Orchha. The boating and rafting tours start from the local boat club, and tickets are easily available at a rate that won’t burn your pockets.

What to buy

Orchha is famous for its metal craft, and you must buy Dokra handicrafts while you are here. The elegantly wrought iron mementoes and showpieces are the perfect item to gift friends and relatives back home.

What’s around

Nearly 170 km from Orchha is Khajuraho known for its famous temples that were built between 950-1050 AD by the Chandela Dynasty. The temples are visually stunning and depict many facets of life from spiritual teachings to royalty, to wrestling, and of course, erotic art. The exceptional architecture has made the Khajuraho temples one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in India and one of the most popular tourist spots in Madhya Pradesh.

Around 60 km from Orchha is Datia that showcases an incredible blend of Mughal and Rajput architecture in the famed 7-storey Bir Singh Deo Palace that is made of bricks and stones with no wood or iron, and is an astonishing example of indigenous architecture. The city is also known for the Peetambara Peeth, a famous Shakti peeth and an important Hindu pilgrimage site, that is located at the entrance of Datia. Many temples can be found in Datia, owing to which it is some times called ‘Laghu Vrindavan’.

How to get there

The nearest airport to Orchha is Gwalior, 119km away, and the closest railway junction is at Jhansi 16km away. All major mail and express trains stop at Jhansi. Orchha is also well connected by road and regular bus services connect it to Jhansi.

If you love architecture and history, then Orchha is a wonderful place to visit with many unusual monuments. And even if you’re just looking for a place to take great photos, the stone monuments of Orchha, that are still remarkably well-preserved, will surely keep your camera active.

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