The medieval mystique of Orchha 

Hugh and Colleen Gantzer visit Orchha in Madhya Pradesh
that was once ruled by the mighty Bundelas

IT is a citadel and a city like no other we’ve seen. The citadel rises on an island. On both sides of it flow two arms of the Betwa River, protecting it like a moat. And out of the rocks and custard-apple thickets of the island, hulking forbiddingly, is the walled fort-palace complex of the Bundelas. It looks like something out of an Indian Lord of the Rings fantasy, or a Harry Potter setting. And yes indeed, it is wreathed in just as many dark and haunted tales.

Across the Betwa river rise the tombs of the Bundela rulers
Across the Betwa river rise the
tombs of the Bundela rulers

A painting showing a woman warrior mounted on a horse.
A painting showing a woman warrior mounted on a horse. This painting is part of scenes of war and hunting and depictions of mythological creatures painted on the inner walls of the Laxminarayan Temple
Photos by the writers

It’s in an off-the-beaten-track hamlet in Madhya Pradesh called Orchha. The citadel and the fort-palace complex were built by a dynasty called the Bundelas in the 16th century. They wanted to tell the Great Mughal in Delhi that they, too, were a power to be reckoned with. Not quite defiant but not to be taken for granted. So when Akbar’s son, Salim, revolted against his father, he fled to Orchha. He also asked one of the Bundela princes to bring him the head of Afzal Khan on a platter his father’s loyal adviser. This was done by the ambitious prince Bir Singh.

Later, when Salim ascended the throne of Delhi and took the royal name of Jehangir, he rewarded prince Bir Singh by making him the ruler of Orchha. The legitimate ruler, Bir Singh’s elder brother, was given another state, Chanderi.

That, in short, was the bloody baptism of Orchha.

Even today, when the days of princes and their vast states have passed, the people of Orchha seem to be a contented lot.

We walked around the citadel, admired the frescoes in its royal chambers; saw the strategically placed mirrors in the pleasure apartment on the terrace, the Sheesh Mahal; visited the high-roofed stables that once, we were assured, held camels and elephants; admired the sybaritic bath house, the Hamam, hot baths, steam rooms, chill pools, massage tables, a medieval, sybaritic, spa for all reasons; and delighted in the garden mansion of the talented courtesan, Rai Praveen. When a royal summons directed her to join the harem of the Mughal Emperor, she took a poem to her powerful admirer. Our translation is:

Dogs and crows and the scavenging crew

Dine on the leavings of others.

Tell me my Emperor, and tell me true,

Which of these three pariahs are you?

She returned in triumph to Orchha and the arms of her princely lover.

Driving down from the citadel, across the stone bridge, we visited the impressive Chatturbhuj Temple. It is dedicated to the four-armed Lord Vishnu but it has many of the aspects of a mosque. Among other significant peculiarities in the temple, the experts of the Delhi School of Architecture and Planning point out that:

The absence of any carving or ornamentation, the loftiness of the ceilings, and the arrangement of its sanctuary are unusual features in a Hindu temple.

We clambered down the steps of the platform of the temple, wound our way along a street teeming with colourful hawkers, past a line of mendicants, and entered the Ram Raja Temple. In the 18th century, the principal queen of the ruler, Madhukar Shah, brought back an image of Lord Ram with the intention of installing it in the Chatturbhuj Temple. But after she set it down in a place of honour in her palace, the idol could not be shifted. And so the Queen’s palace became a temple.

From this palace-temple, we drove up the hill to another unusual structure. The Laxminarayan Temple is a square structure with a central court holding a shrine. Its entrance is in one of its diagonals. The outer walls of the building are bare but the inner walls are profusely painted. There are scenes of war and the depictions of an enormous mythological creature carrying elephants in its claws, a woman warrior mounted on a horse, hunting a tiger, two foreigners, in breeches and hats, drinking at a table with a happy dog at their feet. It strikes us that this place was built as a breeze-trapping gazebo and became a temple as an after-thought.

Back in the town, we joined long lines of devotees to visit the pavilion of the revered Prince Hardaul. He willing drank a cup of poison to prove the fidelity of his sister-in-law. To this day, wedding invitations in this area are given first to this pavilion, now a shrine.

Not far from it is the Phul Bagh. This sequestered garden, designed by Madhukar Shah, once had fountains and pools and a place where water showered down from the roof to simulate rain: it can get fairly hot in Orchha. Then there are those twin towers, called Dastagirs. Rising out of large, underground, halls, these Persian-designed chimneys used the suction provided by the wind blowing across their tops to draw up the atmosphere from the cellars, allowing cool subterranean air to rush in!

Today, the cellars are closed to the public and so the coolest place in Orchha is on a raft, dodging the white water of the rapids, past the cenotaphs-tombs of the former Bundela rulers. When you’re bobbing past the tombs think of the belief that sometimes, at night, people have heard a spectral rider gallop down the roads of Orchha. But don’t believe this till, one still night, you, too, hear the clip clopping of a ghostly horse’s hoofs.