I led a small group of photo enthusiasts to Orchha in September last year. It is a small town in Tikamgarh, Madhya Pradesh. The town had quite a few surprises in store for us. 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. There’s an interesting nugget of a story that narrates how the name ‘Bundela’ came about… Legend has it that the first ruler of Orchha used to offer drops of blood to the Goddess Kali, and thus the name Bundela – he who offers drops.
Orchha is breathtakingly rich in culture and architecture. Some of the most impressive architectural structures and ensembles here are the Orchha palace and the fort, the Chaturbhuj Temple, a cluster of cenotaphs, the Raja Ram temple and the Lakshmi temple. 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. Orchha incidentally means ‘hidden’, and so the story has it, that while passing through Central India, Salim came across this hid-den 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.
Subsequently, Salim mended his bridges with Akbar, made-up for past follies and went back home. This help extended by the Bundela Chieftain to Salim earned Orchha unparalleled royal patronage. And that’s when and how, with their coffers loaded, many charismatic palaces, temples, andbuildings reflecting Bundela architecture came about to be built.
The Betwa, a tributary of the yamuna, is a rocky river not navigable for almost half its length, and liked by enthusiasts for minor rafting. During the monsoons, it swells and cuts off the other side, as the fragile bridge gets submerged. The Cenotaphs or Chattris on the banks of the Betwa, were built to pay homage to dead ancestors of the Bundela kings. There are 15 cenotaphs in all. These were built for every Bundela chief who ruled Orchha, until the lineage faded. These cenotaphs demonstrate superlative workmanship.
The Raja Ram temple is in a palace, and this is the only temple where Ram is worshipped as a king, and not as a God. The Lakshmi temple here, surprisingly, has no idol of Goddess Lakshmi, (it was stolen) but has an altar meant for sacrifices, very similar to temples of the Tantric cult. Interestingly, the temple’s walls resemble those of a fort, replete with slots for canons to fire at the enemy.
For a small town, this place swells with tourists during the october- march tourist season, with most tourists coming from France and Germany. It is surprisingly well-geared for tourists, with many hotels and resorts, including one, Bundelakhand Riverside, built recently by the descendants of the last Bundela chief.
Any travel enthusiast will not regret visiting this place at least once, as this place also boasts a minor wildlife sanctuary, is close to Matatila Dam, which is important for migratory water birds, and has another lesser known place of interest nearby, Kranti Sthal, the memorial of freedom fighter, Chandrashekhar Azad.