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On the Agra-Khajuraho highway, just 18 km out of Jhansi, is the forgotten town of Orchha. Stuffed with interesting monuments, the place is well off the beaten track and a wonderful stopover for a day or two.
We inaugurated this series with an overview of Tranquebar, then offered the Orissa beach resort, Gopalpur-on-Sea, and the hill towns of Mirik and Kurseong, south of Darjeeling. Last fortnight Rediff Travel presented the historical Rajasthani town of Chittaurgarh and beautiful Sarahan in eastern Himachal.
Many of the seasonal rivers of Madhya Pradesh are bone dry in the summer and do not have enough water to float even a paper boat. But during the monsoon the wee Betwa river -- like all other MP waterways -- is in full spate. Orchha, located on an island on a severe bend in the Betwa river, in northern Madhya Pradesh, emerging out of swirling waters, has a charm all its own.
Once the capital of Bundela Rajput chief Raja Rudra Pratap, Orchha has a unique place in history. The word Orchha translates to mean 'hidden'. When the Tughlaqs, who wielded power in Delhi in the 1400s, forced the Bundelkhand rajas out of Garkhundar, they retreated to remote Orchha.
Though the Bundela rajas (legend has it that these kings were called Bundelas after a sacrifice of five bunds, or droplets of blood, one of them made to mountain goddess, Vindhyabatha) were not particularly powerful, their later friendship with the Mughals gave them a special role in the politics of this region.
Madhukar Shah, who was defeated in a battle by Akbar, won the emperor's friendship and respect by fearlessly appearing at the Mughal court, sporting the banned tilak on his forehead. Jehangir's visit to Orchha, in the 1600s -- to present the then raja, Bir Singh Deo, with a sword, for having vanquished an old Mughal enemy ( Deo sent the head of Jehangir's foe to Delhi on a platter) -- must have been the most important moment of this now deserted medieval city. His son, Hardaul, remained a firm ally of Jehangir till his death; he was poisoned by his brother for philandering with his sisters-in-law.
A dynasty of kings invested much effort in transforming Orchha into a pretty capital. Founder king Pratap -- who was killed by a tiger -- saw the beautiful Raj Mahal come up. King Indramani supervised the construction of the tiny Rai Praveen Mahal, named after his mistress. Eventually, the seductive Rai Praveen moved to Akbar's court in Delhi as a 'gift' to the emperor. The ornate Jehangir Mahal, built by Bir Singh Deo (who constructed 52 palaces and forts in the neighbourhood) , was a tohfa (or gift) for Jehangir on his visit. Sheesh Mahal -- the palace of mirrors -- was built as a country palace for Udait Singh in the 18th century.
The impressive Chatturbuj Mandir, with its tall shikharas (or spires), came up in the reign of Madhukar Shah. It was built to house the murti (or idol) of Ram, that Shah's queen was transporting herself, all the way from Ayodhya. It came to pass that the idol never reached the temple. The queen had warned that the idol once put down could not be shifted again as per a divine command (it would remain glued to the floor). On her return to Orchha she was appalled to discover that the temple was not ready. And so a small, modest temple, the Ram Raja Mandir, that exists even today, came up on the spot where she put the idol down, within her own palace. This is the only shrine in the country where Ram is venerated as a king and is the venue for festivities during Ram Vivah every November.
Interesting too are one-of-their-kind dastgirs (or 'wind capturers') that rise out of a garden near the Ram Raja Mandir. Their design was such that they were able to provide 'air- conditioning' to the mahals close by. The Lakshminarayan temple, away from the town, possesses a gallery of magnificent paintings chronicling religious and historical events and even a small frieze of intoxicated British soldiers!
Orchha is famous too for its chhattris -- temples constructed as memorials to illustrious relatives or ancestors. The banks of the Betwa river are dotted with 14 of these cenotaphs in memory of various Bundela kings.
Life seeped out of Orchha in the 1700s. A fall out with the Mughals led the Bundelkhandis to abandon Orchha for Tikamgarh. Today, some 200 years later, Orchha is moss-eaten and choked with weeds. Its gracious buildings belong to a court of langurs and other animals... Empty, melancholy rooms full of history.
The best time to visit Orchha is during the rains from July to September, or in winter from November to early March.
Sheesh Mahal, inside the fort. Booking tel # 0517-442622. Wonderfully romantic location. Very atmospheric. Rs 2,390 for an AC suite, plus 10 per cent taxes. Rs 1,890 for a non-Ac deluxe suite, plus 10 per cent taxes. Rs 490 for a non-AC room, plus 10 per cent taxes. Friendly hotel run by the Madhya Pradesh tourism department. In-house restaurant serves decent fare.
Betwa Cottages, near the village. Booking tel # 0517-442622. Pleasant Madhya Pradesh tourism-run hotel on the banks of the Betwa. Rs 590 for non-AC cottage, plus 10 per cent taxes. Rs790 for an AC cottage , plus 10 per cent taxes. Good accommodation. In-house restaurant serves Chinese, Indian and continental food.
It is possible to reach Jhansi from Agra, New Delhi and Bhopal by rail. The Chhathisgarh Express and the Gondwana Express from New Delhi pull into Jhansi daily.
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