Delhi to Orchha: A study in Sepia

Palaces and temples in a medieval city


A view of the cenotaphs from across the Betwa river. Photographs by Charukesi Ramadurai
A view of the cenotaphs from across the Betwa river. Photographs by Charukesi Ramadurai

The road keeps winding between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, now welcoming us into one state and, just moments later, bidding thanks for visiting it. In the heart of India, Hindustan ka dil according to the popular TV ditty that aired a few years ago, boundaries are just a notional concept, states fitting into each other like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

I am on the road to Orchha, the historic capital of the Bundela dynasty, now an obscure town tucked away in a corner of the sprawling state of Madhya Pradesh. Orchha was founded in the 16th century by the Bundela king Rudra Pratap, and was the capital till the mid-18th century. Even today, it is home to some of the most magnificent ruins. Ruins that are worth a good look, though they may be overshadowed by the shinier stars of the tourist circuit like Jhansi and Khajuraho on either side. 

Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint
Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint

My own visit from Delhi is part of a longer trip, but Orchha is ideal for a weekend getaway from the Capital as well. I have done my research; read about the palaces and temples of Orchha and seen a few dozen photos on the Internet. What I am most looking forward to is the sight of the royal cenotaphs silhouetted on the banks of the Betwa. But first things first.

Murals inside the Raj Mahal.
Murals inside the Raj Mahal.

And that is a visit to Orchha Fort, in the heart of this town, and divided into three main parts. Of these, the Sheesh Mahal has been, in the manner of many palaces in India, converted into a heritage hotel for tourists. The Raj Mahal, as the name suggests, was once the abode of kings and queens. Today, it seems bare but for the exquisite wall murals of Krishna and Ganesha, among other deities. 

Right opposite the courtyard is the magnificent Jahangir Mahal, with its multiple arches and domes. This palace, built by king Bir Singh Deo to commemorate Mughal emperor Jahangir’s visit sometime in the early 17th century, is a warren of dark passages, steep steps and open squares. Huffing and puffing up the narrow stone steps on my way to the terrace, I stop at a jaali (lattice) window that neatly frames the temples and cenotaphs bathed in golden sunlight at a distance.

Murals inside the Raj Mahal.
Murals inside the Raj Mahal.

From the fort complex, I go temple-hopping, beginning with the Ram Raja Mandir, one of the few places in the country where Lord Ram is worshipped as a king. Then there is the Laxminarayan temple, with its rich collection of murals unfaded over the centuries. The murals are a mix of religious and secular motifs; from gods and goddesses to British soldiers and royal pastimes.

In comparison, the Chaturbhuj temple close by seems stark, but the soaring walls and high ceilings make me feel like I am inside a venerable European cathedral. The sanctum is empty, since this was originally built to house the idol of Ram, which, according to legend, refused to move from the site where it was placed (now the Ram Raja temple).

By this time, I am tired and get back to my room at the Sheesh Mahal hotel for a snooze and an early dinner. This is a typical small town where shutters roll down after sunset, leaving me with no choice but to eat where I am staying. The only other choice, which I prudently avoid, is the small restaurant on the main road. It seems to be suffering from delusions of grandeur, going by its name elBulli—the original being a Michelin three-star restaurant in Spain. 

Early the next morning, we head to the Chhatris, the 14 cenotaphs built in honour of the Orchha kings, on the riverbanks. The cenotaphs themselves are unassuming from inside, but once I walk across the shallow water to a tiny island where locals are bathing and washing clothes, they present a picture-postcard view.

This is the classic Orchha view I had been looking for, and having seen it, I am ready to head on further, to wherever Madhya Pradesh beckons enticingly.

Weekend Vacations offers suggestions on getaways that allow for short breaks from metros. The author tweets from @charukesi.

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