“Saat dhar Sarju bahe
Nagar Orchha dham
Phool bagh nau chowk mein
viraje Raja Ram…”
Nothing describes Orchha better than these lines of its renowned bard, Keshav Das. Orchha, the erstwhile capital of the Bundeli rulers, is a fantastical land weaved by both history and legends. With the Betwa River as a silent spectator, every nook and cranny of Orchha is dipped in Bundeli legends and histories.
Table of Contents
Orchha is located in Niwari district of Madhya Pradesh. It lies 14 km from Jhansi, 120 km from Gwalior, and 172 km from Khajuraho. In the ancient era, Orchha went by the name of Osseen. Orchha was made the capital of the Bundeli kingdom by Raja Rudra Pratap Singh in 1531 CE. It continued to remain the capital of the entire Bundelkhand from 1531 to 1783 CE. Rugged hills, dense forest, and the Betwa or Vetravati river surrounded Orchha thus securing it and hiding it from the onslaught of the Mughal forces. In fact, the word ‘Orchha’ aptly means hidden. The town remained hidden from the Mughals and continues to remain elusive to tourists and explorers even today.
How to reach Orchha:
By train: Though Orchha has a railway station, it is not very well-connected with other parts of India. Hence, you must opt for trains that reach Jhansi, which is just a 30-minute drive from Orchha. Jhansi, on the other hand, has train connectivity with almost every prominent Indian city. You have Chambal Express from Howrah, Gatiman Express, NDLS Shatabdi Express, and a host of other trains from New Delhi, Pushpak Express and Kushinagar Express from Mumbai, Tamilnadu Express, and Grand Trunk Express from Chennai.
By flight: Nearest airport of Orchha is Vijaya Raje Scindia Airport of Khajuraho. From Gwalior, it takes around 2 hours to reach Orchha.
What is the best time to visit Orchha:
Orchha is the most beautiful post-monsoon. The stunning monuments of Orchha stand out against the greenery of surrounding forests. October is therefore perfect for visiting Orchha. Moreover, the winter months of November to February are also ideal as the temperature remains soothing. Avoid the summer months altogether, as it remains sultry and scorching.
Where to stay in Orchha:
We stayed at Hotel Orchha Palace. Though this 5-star luxurious property is an excellent option for staying, it is quite far from the major attractions. While booking, we somehow missed its actual location which caused a bit of snag. As the property lies outside the main town of Orchha, we found it problematic to find an e-rickshaw to visit the places of interest. Hence, we strongly suggest booking a hotel in proper Orchha.
Where to eat in Orchha:
Orchha is a small town and not very touristy. You will not find many swanky restaurants or cafes here. You can try Café NoMads and Open Sky Restaurant, both nice places to hang out. The restaurant of MPT Sheesh Mahal also serves good food.
How to travel around Orchha:
Other than the Lakshmi Narayana Temple, all the other places of interest of Orchha lie within a 2 km radius of Ram Raja Temple. You just need to reach Ram Raja Temple either by e-rickshaw or auto-rickshaw and then explore on foot.
For visiting the Lakshmi Narayana Temple, go for an auto-rickshaw. The uphill trail to this temple is rugged. E-rickshaws are unable to cover this bumpy road and will leave you at the foothill. Then you need to hike the path for reaching the top.
Who were the Bundelas:
The Bundelas are regarded as the fiercest among the Rajput warrior clans. According to legends, when Hemkaran, the Gaharwar chief of Benaras, was dethroned by his brothers, he worshipped Goddess Vindhyavashini and sacrificed five humans to appease her. The Goddess was pleased and conferred the title of Pancham Vindhyela upon Hemkaran. The word Vindhyela was contorted to Bundela.
Another version of the same legend attributes the title Bundela to ‘bund’ or drops of blood that trickled down from the throat of Hemkaran when he attempted to sacrifice himself.
The destiny of Orchha was shaped by the Bundela rulers like Rudra Pratap Singh, Bharti Chand, Madhukar Shah, and Ram Shah. The prosperity of Orchha reached its zenith and a golden age was ushered during the reign of Bir Sigh Deo, who became a favorite of Mughal Emperor Jahangir after assassinating Abul Fazl, Akbar’s close friend and court poet. Many of the majestic edifices of Orchha were commissioned by Bir Singh Deo.
What to see in Orchha:
The vista of Orchha is dotted with incredible forts, palaces, temples, and cenotaphs built by the Bundela rulers. Also, the riverside of Betwa is delightful for enjoying gorgeous sunsets.
Places to visit in Orchha:
The prime attractions of Orchha can be broadly divided into 4 groups – the Orchha Fort complex comprising Raja Mahal, Jahangir Mahal, Sheesh Mahal, and Rai Parveen Mahal; the Ram Raja complex consisting of Ram Raja Temple, Chaturbhuj Temple, and Sawan Bhadon; the Lakshmi Narayan Temple complex; and last but not the least, the Chhatris by the Betwa river.
A. The Orchha Fort Complex:
One of the most conspicuous monuments of Orchha, the Fort complex is an amalgamation of massive and magnificently built palaces. It took us over 4 hours to explore the entire Orchha Fort complex. Also, we opted for the audio tour guide of Madhya Pradesh tourism. It was cheap (INR 25 per pre-recorded audio guide along with headphones), incredibly informative and convenient, and also gave us the freedom to explore the sites as per our choice.
The first building that you will come across right after entering the Fort is the Diwan-e-Aam. Here, the king used to hold an assembly with his council of ministers. The Diwan-e-Aam has elegantly carved archways, while its ceiling is decorated with Bundeli-styled paintings.
One of the most spectacular edifices of Orchha Fort is the Raja Mahal, which was built by Raja Madhukar Shah around the 1570s. Consisting of 5 floors, the architecture of this palace is a fusion of Rajput and Mughal styles.
At the entrance, there are 2 audience halls – ‘darbar-i-khas’, used by the king for a private audience, and ‘darbar-i-aam’, used for dance and musical performances.
Next, one by one, you will run into the ‘Baradari’ or family pavilion where the King and his family members assembled for dining, Female Attendants’ Rooms surrounding the Zenana Courtyard, King’s Living Quarters, and Queen’s Living Quarters upstairs.
While the exteriors of the Raja Mahal are plain and modest, the interiors stand in stark contrast with ornate and vibrant wall paintings. The lavish paintings are predominantly religious in nature. Some of the most striking murals depict Dasavatara of Vishnu, Samudra Manthan, Krishna lifting Mount Govardhana as well as scenes from Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Undoubtedly, the Jahangir Mahal is the most impressive structure of the Orchha Fort complex. According to prevalent belief, it was constructed by Raja Bir Sigh Deo in honor of his dear friend, the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, who spent only one night here.
The colossal Jahangir Mahal is three-storied, crowned with 8 beautiful domes. It has 236 chambers, out of which 136 lie underground. The palace is decorated with intricately carved doors with elaborate arches, elephant and peacock brackets, and lotus pendentives. Its interior is characterized by elaborate ornamentation, trellis work, lapis lazuli inlays, and glazed blue tiles.
The main entrance door or Shahi Darwaza of Jahangir Mahal is called Hindola Dwar. Flanked by two elephants with bells and flowers in their trunks, this stunning gate is decorated with floral patterns and multi-foiled arches. From here, you can see the camel stables and ‘hamam’ or royal bath as also a panoramic view of Orchha.
It was built by Raja Udait Singh in 1763 CE as a pleasure retreat. It was dubbed Sheesh Mahal or Palace of Mirrors due to its glazed green and blue tiles. It has now been converted into a heritage hotel by MP Tourism.
Rai Parveen Mahal
It was built for Rai Parveen, the courtesan of Raja Indrajit. This palace is known for life-size wall paintings of the beautiful Rai Parveen.
B. The Ram Raja Complex:
Ram Raja Temple:
This temple was originally the palace of Rani Ganeshkunwari, Queen of Raja Madhukar Shah. According to legends, the Queen was a devout follower of Ram Chandra. One night, she dreamt of Shree Ram requesting her to build a temple and enshrine it with his image. The next morning, she commissioned the construction of the Chaturbhuj Temple and immediately left for Ayodhya to get an idol of Ram Chandra. However, on her return, the Queen found that the temple was still unfinished and hence placed the statue in her palace. The Queen, however, had forgotten the directive of Ram Chandra, who had warned her that the idol would stay where it would be installed first. As such, the idol of Shree Ram continued to remain inside the palace, which was consequently converted into Ram Raja Temple.
It is the only temple in India where Ram Chandra is worshipped as King. The evening arati at Ram Raja Temple is a spectacle to behold.
The skyscape of Orchha is dominated by the monumental, sky-reaching shikhara of the Chaturbhuj Temple. It was here that the idol of Ram Chandra was originally supposed to be placed. The 105-meter high temple now houses a statue of Shree Krishna and Shree Radhika, worshipped daily at regular intervals.
The exterior of this massive temple is ornately decorated with floral motifs and religious emblems. In stark contrast, the interior is plain and austere.
Near the Ram Raja Temple, there stand these two pillar-like structures, which look rather odd considering the royal set-up of Orchha predominated by palaces, temples, and Chhatris. These pillars were allegedly constructed in memory of Bagh Raj, one of the sons of Raja Bir Singh Deo, and Mahatma Anup Giri, a saint revered by the Bundela rulers of Orchha. In reality, these pillars served as fresh air vents, providing ventilation for the army resting underground. Moreover, the name Sawan Bhadon is a recent concoction, devised by the local residents of Orchha.
C. Lakshmi Narayan Temple:
The gorgeous Lakshmi Narayan Temple was built by Raja Bir Singh Deo Bundela. The temple is a unique structure as it resulted from the mingling of architectural styles of both temple and fort.
The most intriguing feature of this temple is the presence of vivid murals on its interior walls and ceilings. The lively, colorful paintings are the finest specimens of Bundeli style of painting, which resulted from a marriage of Rajput and Mughal styles. The paintings are mostly religious in nature, portraying scenes from the life of Shree Krishna, Ramayana, Mahabharata, and so on. There are also depictions of the royal lifestyle along with various floral and geometric motifs. One of the most famous murals here shows Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi leading her army in a battle against the British forces in 1857.
The name of Orchha inadvertently reminds one of the spectacular Chhatris, standing tall on the bank of the Betwa River. The Chhatris are cenotaphs of Bundela rulers of Orchha, earmarking the ground where the Kings were cremated.
In total, there are 14 Chhatris, built between the 16th and 18th centuries. Apart from Bir Singh Deo’s Chhatri which resembles a palace, the cenotaphs follow the Nagara style of temple architecture. They are modeled on ‘panchayatana’ style with ‘garbhagriha’ inside and ‘shikharas’ at the top.
The Chhatris look especially exceptional when seen from the other side of the Betwa. During sunrise, they are illuminated by the first rays of the sun. While during sunset, their silhouettes appear captivating.
Know before you go:
1. The Orchha Fort remains open from 9 AM to 6 PM every day. The entry fee for Indians is INR 10 and for foreigners INR 250. Charges also apply for photography and videography cameras.
2. Guides are available near the entrance of the Orchha Fort. However, we suggest opting for the audio guide tour, which is cheap and informative. In our experience, we have found guides exaggerating facts and stressing more events that are not always historically accurate.
3. Preserve the ticket of Orchha Fort as it will give you access to the Chhatris and Lakshmi Narayan Temple.
4. Tripods are not allowed inside any of the monuments in Orchha. Not even the small hand-held tripod of GoPro.
5. You can also visit Datia, situated 46 km from Orchha. Datia is famous for the colossal Bir Singh Deo Palace.