Orchha — the splendor of Bundela

Ajay Goel
7 min readJul 25, 2023
Cenotaphs on banks of Betwa

Orchha is a stamp-sized hamlet at the center of Bundelkhand that turns bigger historical cities green with envy. It packs more punch per square acre than Gwalior and Agra combined. Spectacular palaces, temples, and cenotaphs abound, wrapped in tales of romance, chivalry, and deceit.

And it remains under the radar of mass tour operators, though a mere 18 km away from Jhansi.

Orchha was founded in the early 16th century, when Bundela Rajputs of Kundar relocated, in search of more secure natural defenses. The proximate cause was the sudden arrival of much more powerful Mughals in the region. Thick forest cover and a raging Betwa river provided them sanctuary. Successive rulers cooperated with the Mughals for a century, buying themselves peace and prosperity. This was the golden period for Orchha and Madhukar Shah (r 1554–92) and Bir Singh (r 1605–1627) were the notable rulers of that time—almost all the present-day structures date from their reigns. Later generations proved inept at handling political churns in the region, and Orchha declined.

Instead arrived undefeatable Chhatrasal Singh of Panna (r 1675–1731) who dominated the region (including Orchha) for a good fifty years. Towards the end of his reign, he invited Maratha Baji Rao to fight against the Mughals and ended up yielding one-third of his dominion as recompense. His daughter Mastani’s love story and marriage with Baji Rao are part of popular folklore (and a Sanjay Leela Bhansali epic).

For the next 100 years, Bundela Rajputs of Orchha and Datia refused to submit to the authority of Marathas in the region — and finally, sided up with the British in 1812, through a peace treaty.

With History 101 out of the way, it’s time we revert to the golden era of Orchha. Here are a few stories and pictures gleaned from the market square…

Chaturbhuj Temple & Ram Raja Temple dominates the market square. And they were both built by an intensely God-fearing Madhukar Shah in the late 16 century.

The Chaturbhuj Temple is stunning — its mammoth conical shikhar and enormous archways can compete with the finest cathedrals in Europe. I haven’t seen such audacity of scale in North Indian temples yet.

Dwarfed by the Chaturbhuj Temple is Ramraj Temple- squat, sprawling, and painted in white, pink, and yellow. They originally built it as a palace for Madhukar Shah’s wife Ganesh Kumari.

Only one adjective describes Chaturbhuj Temple- Colossal — standing over 30 storeys!

And here is the story of this remarkable couple…

Her deity was Ram & his was Krishna. Legend has it that the Rani prayed at Ayodhya by the river Saryu, and was blessed by Ram who promised to return with her to Orchha. T&C applied — 1) The Rani walks the 450 km journey back, with an Idol of Ram. 2) The idol, once settled, was not to be removed. And 3), Ram was to rule Orchha like a Raja.

Rani took some 8 months to return to Orchha, but the designated temple was not complete; hence, the deity had to be placed in the Rani Palace. After the Chaturbhuj Temple was completed, they made attempts to shift the idol of Rama to its new home; however, it refused to budge! Later, a statue of Vishnu was installed in the temple meant for Ram and the Rani’s palace became the Ram Raja temple.

This area of Bundelkhand is Ram’s domain, much as Brij-bhoomi and Rajputana are Krishna’s kingdom. It is the only temple in the country where lord Ram is worshipped not as a deity but as a king.

The popular legend is that Ram administers the town during the day, and retires for the night in Ayodhya, some 450 km away. When I questioned the wisdom of such long-distance daily commutes, pat came the reply — Hanuman Ji hain na!

A little walk across a moat lands us on an island that clusters the palaces…starting with the Raj Mahal.

The founders of Orchha constructed Raj Mahal, the oldest standing structure, in the first half of the 16th century. Its tall, sturdy, and square, a plain Jane, without the flourishes of domes and jharokahs of adjacent Jahangir Mahal, built a mere 50 years later.

The plain exterior walls lend it a squat appearance, but it is 5 storeys high. A steep climb to the upper floors is rewarded with panoramic views, with Chaturbhuj temple and Ram Raj temples on one side, and Jahangir Mahal on the other.

The interiors have enchanting wall paintings depicting the Vishnu Das Avatar, the Apsaras, and other mythological scenes. A very intriguing mural is that of Dvadash Nari Kanjar where 12 young women form an elephant that is ridden by a Mahavat.

A short flight of stairs to the north leads to Jahangir Mahal.

Bir Singh Dev (ruled 1605–27) was a compulsive builder with notable structures to his name in Orchha, Datia, and Jhansi. But Jahangir Mahal remains his best commission.

The back story of this palace is intriguing and soaked in blood. The year was 1602, and Bir Singh, one of the eight sons of Madhukar Shah was not the first among equals — his elder (but incompetent) brother occupied the throne. Mughal emperor Akbar ruled in Agra, and his son Prince Salim was in rebellion, confined to Allahabad. Salim suspected that scholar Abdul Fazal, a trusted courtier (navratna) was turning the emperor against him, and wanted him gone. That’s when Bir Singh took an audacious wager, killed Abdul Fazal while he was passing through Bundelkhand, sent the severed head to Salim, earned the wrath of Akbar, and escaped with his life to the surrounding jungles.

His fortunes changed in 1605 when Akbar died. Salim was elevated as Jahangir, the emperor, and rewarded Bir Singh with the Orchha throne. Bir Singh named this magnificent palace in honor of his patron saint — a brilliant piece of obsequious flattery! It’s said that Jahangir only once visited Orchha and spent a night at this palace.

The palace is a prime specimen of Mughal architecture, square, its facade richly decorated, with imposing arcades and large fluted domes, its sandstone walls adorned with designs and geometric patterns. A total of 236 Chambers are laid around this Central Courtyard, of which 136 lie underground.
The entrance portal is flanked by sculpted elephants and embroidered with cusped arches leading to a spacious interior.

From Jahangir Mahal, we descend to a series of ruins that were once stables, Hamams, and Havelis of important courtiers. The unkempt pathway leads to Rai Parveen Mahal — It is a simple two-story house with a large garden.

This was the abode of Rai Parveen — a beautiful courtesan and paramour of Indrajeet (brother of Bir Singh). The story goes that her fame reached Agra and the emperor Akbar summoned her, intending to admit her in his harem.

However, Rai Parveen refused. Her impromptu poetic response to the mighty emperor is even today widely quoted — “Vinit Rai Praveen ki, suniye sah sujan. Juthi patar bhakat hain, bari, bayas, swan” (Rough translation — ‘Oh you great and wise! Please hear the plea of Rai Praveen. Only someone from a low caste, barber or scavengers would eat from a plate that was partaken by someone else’). Chastened and admiring her courage, Akbar arranged for her to be sent back, loaded with exclusive gifts.

Wall paintings of Rai Parveen with her servant and Inderjeet, her lover.

The tales of Orchha will be incomplete without a mention of Hardaul, the younger brother of Jhunjhar Singh (r 1627–43). Jhunjhar succeeded Bir Singh, but history paints him as a spiteful, insecure brute. He ruled for only 17 years and antagonized Shahjahan, poisoned his brother, and fought with the Gond tribe before dying in a skirmish... His younger brother, however, went on to become a Demi-God and continues to live in the local bard tradition of Hardol Katha.

Legend has it that Jhunjhar suspected his wife to be intimate with Hardaul. It is said that he confronted his wife and demanded that she prove her innocence by poisoning Hardol. (Remember, this is Ram’s territory, and proof of innocence lies with women). Helpless and grieving, she approached Hardaul, who, to protect his sister-in-law’s honor, consumed the poison himself, and died. His sacrifice made him a hero in Orchha. As if this was not enough, a few years later Jhunjhar’s sister sought his help for her daughter’s wedding. The mean king turned her away, sarcastically asking her to go to her beloved (now dead) brother, Hardol. She did, and it is said that on the day of his niece’s wedding, Hardaul kept his promise and served food to the bridegroom.

Today in Orchha, at the fixing of a family wedding, they take the first invitation card to Raja Ram Temple, and the second one goes to Hardaul’s Samadhi.

Concluding muse…

Orchha is a time warp that teleports one to the 18th century. The surrounding forest cover is still intact, and Betwa is fierce and unpolluted. The life of the 12 K-odd population revolves around the Ram Raja Temple in the village square, at a genteel pace. Morning rush means a quick dip in Betwa at sunrise. Occasional temple bells substitute the honk & din of city traffic, and the ugly urban sprawl and asbestos roofs are missing. There are many Havelis in ruins that were once home to courtiers or generals, but they are too many to be repaired and maintained by ASI or MP Tourism.

The morning rush

Shahjahan’s court chronicles record that in 1635 the emperor sent 17-year-old Prince Aurangzeb to subdue Jhunjhar Singh, and destroyed the ‘great temple’. No memory of such destruction remains in oral history or in the popular imagination. Should you choose to speak with the locals, they will tell three different versions of the local legends. Such is the myth, history, faith, and spirituality that weave the warp & woof of this society.

And this gold nugget lies a mere 10 miles from Jhansi Railway station.

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Ajay Goel

This is a place where I post essays and random musings.