19 Dec 2023


A Bend In The Betwa

The colourful Orchha Festival put the spotlight on one of India’s most alluring riverside destinations. The first edition of the festival was launched in 2020 with the intent of showcasing the architectural and heritage city as an international tourist destination. What’s interesting and what gave the town a further boost was the maiden Literature Festival launched in 2023, which drew an enthusiastic response from literature buffs, As cited by the organizer, Raja Bundela, it served as a distinctive platform to highlight the significant facets of our literature, art, and culture. Orchha, for the unaware, has deep historical significance, and this literary festival offered a unique opportunity for interaction and knowledge-sharing within its literary and artistic community.

Bundelkhand, ruled by the Bundelas a Rajput clan, holds an important niche in the annals of Madhya Pradesh. The rulers were reputed for their military prowess and came into prominence from the 16th century. This is when they started expanding their territories and came to rule several small provinces in what came to be known as the Bundelkhand region in north-central India.

During Mughal emperor Akbar’s reign, the Bundela realised the virtue of keeping on good terms with them. With Aurangzeb on the throne, the relationship between the Bundelas and the Muslims fell apart. The Bundelas remained a thorn in the flesh of the conquering Mughals in the Deccan region. Eventually, the Bundela’s had to flee Orchha for safer grounds. By the 19th century, Orchha came under the sway of the British and was left to languish as a place of little importance. Though enterprising travellers discovered the many charms of this backwater town by the Betwa, it's only in recent years that concerted efforts have been made to revive its fortunes and showcase its cultural splendour and rich history.

Bundelkhand encompasses present-day Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh and Chanderi, parts of Gwalior, Datia, Shivpuri, Orchha and Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh.

Set on a bend on the Betwa, Orchha was founded in the 16th century by the Bundela chieftain Raja Rudra Pratap, who became the first raja of Orchha. It is one of the prettiest little townships in Madhya Pradesh. Stage-managing the tourist show on the banks of the Betwa River, it draws travellers from around the country and abroad. Raja Bir Singh Deo, one of Orchha’s most illustrious rulers, during his 22-year rule set up forts, and palaces around the region. Jhansi Fort was also established by Bir Singh.

Orchha’s pastoral charm is punctuated by the cavalcade of deserted temples and graceful palaces, mighty fortifications and cenotaphs (chattris), some of which still retain their original splendour. At Orchha, you’ll find the finest examples of the Bundela School of Painting represented by the murals decorating these palaces.

Though the medieval township has a raffish charm about it, vigorous efforts are now on to restore it to its former glory. Meanwhile travellers adore the rich atmospherics of its derelict palaces, and havelis important for their architectural beauty and lovely murals.

Time Travel

Straddling the embankments are three palaces built by successive rulers of Orchha.  The opulent palaces are set upon the open quadrangle of the Orchha Fort. The Jehangir Mahal built by Raja Bir Singh Deo in the 17th century is dedicated to Jehangir to commemorate the Mughal prince’s visit and with whom the raja enjoyed a cordial relationship. Do take note of the ceremonial gateway which still features original turquoise tiles set on its facade.

His predecessor Madhukar Shah, completed the Raj Mahal, which was started by Rudra Pratap.  The Raj Mahal stands in the same complex.  Traces of its original splendour are still preserved in the elaborate staterooms, trellised balconies and pretty fretwork. Unmissable here are the exquisite frescoes. Both the ceilings and walls are beautifully ornamented with quite a few still in mint condition.

The pretty Sheesh Mahal, (the summer retreat) is now run as a hotel. Room No. 1 is a popular option to spend a night or two here. Another iconic structure is the elegant Rai Praveen Mahal amidst the sun-dappled gardens of the Anand Mahal. A poet and musician Praveen had captured the heart of Raja Indramani.

Madhukar Shah who was deeply spiritually inclined also commissioned various temples to come up at Orchha. Amongst the important shrines to explore here is the famous Ram Raja Mandir.  It's interesting to note that the Ram Raja is a palace-turned-temple. And is the only temple in India where Ram is worshipped as a king. Orchha hosts a fantastical celebration of the wedding of Lord Ram and Sita to the great delight of devotees and visitors.  Known as the Vivah Panchami, it is celebrated on the fifth day of the Shukla Paksha during the month of Margashirsha or the month of December.  A ceremonial procession presided over by the priests starts from the Ram Raja Temple to Janaki Nagari. Devotees enthusiastically participate in the wedding rituals and ceremonies.

Laxminaraian Mandir with its beautifully preserved murals, and the Chatturbhuj Mandir. At sunset, the chattris on the riverside at the Kanchana Ghat near the fort complex look fragile at dawn, but are awesome at dusk bathed in the colours of a glorious sunset.

Just 16km away from the historic town of Jhansi, the nearest railhead, Orccha now forms an important link on the Gwalior-Datia-Shivpuri-Jhansi- Khajuraho tourist circuit. Next time you are visiting you might want to do the entire circuit, as it’ll prove to be a richly rewarding experience.

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