Guide to Orchha

Lakshmi Sharath is left spellbound as she hears stories and legends that surround every shrine and monument in the temple town of Orchha in Madhya Pradesh.

Cenotaphs in Orchha. Photo by author There is beauty in ruins, in temples, in palaces, and even in tombs. Set against the Betwa river are the chhatris or the cenotaphs of the Bundelkhand kings, glowing in the rays of the morning sun. I wait for dawn and slowly move towards Jehangir Mahal.

Standing from the terrace, I can see the entire ‘monumentscape’ of Orchha, framed against the dawn with the mist gently hovering over them. Beyond the terrace of the Raj Mahal is the towering Chaturbhuj Temple with the Ram Raj Mandir adjacent to it. And in the distant horizon lies the Laxmi Narayan Temple, hardly visible in the mist. Vultures distract me as my eyes scan the remaining montage of monuments, all wrapped in a hazy sheet of white, orange and yellow.

But as I gaze at them, I realise that Orchha is not just a landscape of buildings. It is a town where the walls speak stories, where paintings reveal a culture, where tales of friendship, romance, betrayal, mysticism and sacrifice echo from every monument. Intriguing, funny, unbelievable and irresistible, these stories breathe life into these ancient mahals and mandirs, some of them still in ruins.

I cannot decide what fascinates me more — the Jehangir Mahal which was built as a symbol of friendship between the Mughal emperor and a Bundelkhand king or the paintings in Laxmi Narayan Temple which takes you down to the era when Jhansi Rani fought the Britishers. I am more fascinated by the lesser-known monuments and the local versions around it and decide to hire a local auto driver to take me around Orchha.

Stories of lore

While most guides will show you the paintings of the Raj Mahal and show you around the chhatris, they will not take you down to the Rai Praveen Mahal close by.

Stories around royalty are always infused with romance and here is your own Anarkali-Prince Salim story, except that this is no tragedy. The romance between courtesan Rai Praveen and the Bundelkhand king Indrajit became lore in the works of poet Keshav Das. One common folk tale speaks of how Akbar wanted her in his harem, against the wishes of the Bundelkhand king. But the witty courtesan spoke her way out of Akbar’s heart who sent her back to Orchha. She apparently thwarted the Mughal emperor saying, “Only a royal servant or a crow or a dog will like to eat something that has already been tasted and polluted by another.”

My local guide shows me two tall pillars that stand amidst a colourful but dirty market. They are called Sawan Bhadon. The locals say that they stand for two brothers who meet everyday at midnight. And I hear this version as well. Bagh Raj, son of Bir Singh Deo, met a seer who was on a mouna vrath during a hunting expedition. The seer was quiet when the prince asked him about a particular kill he was chasing, but the prince misunderstood the silence and went in the wrong direction. After a long frustrating day, he ordered the seer to be killed. The just king in return ordered the death of the prince. If you still believe that these pillars stand for the seer and the prince, then think again. Only my guide book offers a plausible connection that these could be ventilators of an underground chamber for the army. They actually look like tall chimney vents to me.

And then I hear the most interesting tale of all, which would probably match up to a soap opera. It is the story behind the ruins of a melancholic yellow palace which now houses a bazaar — the palace of Dinman Hardol, brother of Raja Jhujjar. A small temple close by has made the prince into a god. “Woh hamara bhagvan hai. Hamara raksha karta hai, kabhi bhi zinda aayega,” said a local woman, claiming that Hardol is alive and is their god. And that is when my netagiri guide tells me this story.

Hardol, the popular prince, was resented by Jhujjar who further suspected his wife of having an illicit relationship with him. Fuelled by rumours by Emperor Shah Jahan, Jhujjar ordered his wife to poison Hardol to prove her innocence and Hardol willingly accepted it. The story doesn’t end here. When Jhujjar’s niece was getting married, his sister asked the king to help, who, in turn, sarcastically asked her to seek the dead Hardol. The dead prince apparently attended the wedding and served the guests as well. The local woman said that even to this day it is believed that Lala Hardol attends weddings he is invited to and most locals leave an invitation card for him and seek his blessings as well. I did see a lot of local patrons around the temple and realised that real India lives somewhere in the legends of Lala Hardol.

My last stop is the Ram Raja Temple, where I stop by to see the aarti. There are many legends around the temple. Stories of Lord Ram visiting the queen in her dreams and asking her to build a temple for him are the most common ones. Later in the evening, when the dramatic sound and light show lit the fortresses of Raj, Sheesh and Jehangir Mahals, I hear another story behind the Ram Raja Temple. The legend goes that while King Madhukar Shah was a devotee of Krishna, his wife was an ardent devotee of Ram.

The clash in devotion and deities apparently created a rift between the couple, when the king demanded that the queen return from her pilgrimage to Ayodhya with her deity in tow , but in the form of a boy. Faced with a choice of never being able to return to Orchha again, the queen fervently prayed to her god. Her ardent prayers apparently pleased Ram and he agreed to come to Orchha with her in the form of a boy, but on one condition — he will not move from one temple to another, but will stay where she initially houses him. The sight of Ram as a child pleased the king and he agreed to build a temple for him, while the deity was worshipped by the queen in her palace. When the temple was eventually ready, the deity refused to move but remained in the queen’s palace which eventually became the Ram Raja Temple. Ram is worshipped not just as a god, but as a king as well and his temple resembles a palace. And the temple built by the king was the adjoining Chaturbhuj Temple, which towers around the monument.

The temple is an interesting fusion of modern architecture in an ancient palace with shrines scattered around. They simply do not blend although religion and heritage meet right in the heart of the town. All the other monuments in Orchha crowd around the Ram Raja Temple. The courtyard is now an open bazaar selling anything from sweets to knick-knacks. The cows stand stubbornly in your path, accustomed to being worshipped and fed. The tiled flooring inside has become shelter for devotees who prepare to sleep.
The gun salutes reverberate through the night as the lights fade away. As I walk back to my room at Jehangir Mahal, I see the distant outlines of the Ram Raja and Chaturbhuj temples bathed in the moonlight. I promise myself that I will not be late for my next meeting with the lord.

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