Aging gracefully

Timeless

Aging gracefully

Age-old: Across the Betwa rise the cenotaphs of the old rulers of Orchha.   Photo by  authorsLike a beautiful, timeless woman, Orchha’s been glowing gracefully for almost 480 years. 16 kilometres from Jhansi, our road wound through the eroded, rugged, scrub-lands of Madhya Pradesh. Here, legends of valour and villainy are still the stuff of bardic ballads sung in the saffron-dusted dusk. The Betwa, that legendary river, chuckled to herself, then snarled as black rocks dared to impede her progress. She threaded itself, shimmering in the moonlight, foaming in the noon, around knolls, and hillocks and eminences.

Dreamy township

On these high places, gazing down at the moating river, were watch towers crenellated forts, regal palaces and temples and cenotaphs with pinnacles like knobbly pinecones. And there was a high wall encircling these battlements and much of the old town. But there’s no need, now, to protect the town from bandits and marauders and galloping mercenaries who once stormed across the plains looking for plunder and princes and princesses the could hold for ransom. And so in the flatlands between the fortress, palaces and temples, today, a hamlet grew and spread and continues to live. Here there are narrow streets where the tiled roofs and the turquoise coloured facades of the cottages hide cool, secluded, courtyards. Life in the hamlet has changed little since the days when the Bundela kings built their palaces and raised great gates that still stand guard over the dreaming township that was once a city.

We drove through one of these gates, across an arched stone bridge spanning a curve of the Betwa created to serve as a moat for the royal estate, and climbed a rising fortress road. At first, we wound between thickets of custard apple, and then we were on a flat, wide, court gentled by a cool breeze rising from the hamlet and its green fields below. To our left was the mass of the fortress-palace — the old Raj Mahal. To our right was the Jehangir Mahal, screened from the public eye by the palace. In front of us, like a bridge between the two, was the sybaritic addition of the luxury suite, and the terraces and domes of the Sheesh Mahal. Here, high above the hamlet, fort and palace was a secluded haven for royal pleasure. Before its renovation, its ceiling had inset mirrors and a further set of cheval mirrors gave uninterrupted views of the bathroom from the king-sized bed.

Clearly, the Bundelas had very regal tastes, greatly influenced by their Mughal overlords. Both the Raj and Jehangir Mahals were built in their assertive style featuring labyrinths of corridors, halls, living quarters, terraces and high copulas. It’ll be a long trudge if you’re determined to see everything. Far more advisable, however, is to hire a guide and ask him to show you the more interesting murals and point out the ingenious system of light-trapping shafts, fretted stone grilles and the friezes of coloured ceramic tiles particularly those decorating the main gate of the Jehangir Mahal. Legend has it that the Jehangir Mahal was built to shelter Salim, the rebel son of Emperor Akbar — he later became Emperor Jehangir. 

We make it a point to stroll on the slopes behind the palace complex. Here are the ruins of the old elephant stables, the hamam, a very interesting complex, and the sadly neglected mansion of Rai Parveen. She was a superbly talented poetess, singer, dancer and mistress of one of the kings. She fended off the attentions of Emperor Aurangzeb by a clever verse that compared the Mughal Emperor with carrion eaters for wishing to taste the ‘left-overs’ of a Bundela king!

We make a journey across the Betwa and watch dusk flare gold and scarlet on the serene cenotaphs of the old Bundela rajas. The large birds that take wing from those attractive spires are vultures, among the world’s most efficient natural recyclers and hygienists. In fact the ancient Egyptians, very wisely, worshipped the vulture and even today it is the emblem of Egypt Air. You’re not, however, likely to encounter these magnificent flying environmentalists in Orchha town.

Of particular interest in the town are three temples built in distinctive styles. The architecture of the massive Chhatrabhuj Temple always gives us the impression that it was originally built as a mosque for Jehangir and his followers, and only later converted into a temple. The Ram Temple looks like a mansion because that, according to a local tale, was what it was when an idol of Lord Rama was placed there temporarily. Since it refused to budge from its resting place, the mansion was converted into a temple. The Laxminarayan Temple, with its murals of hunting, war and drinking foreigners, was probably a cool, elevated, evening retreat for the princely family before it was dedicated as a temple, and an idol of Lord Ganesh installed in a breezy central pavilion.  

Remembering history

In this rather hot, dry, region, cooling systems were in great demand. Ask your guide to take you to the subterranean halls beneath the tall wind-towers or dastagirs. These Persian devices draw off hot air by natural suction and keep the halls below cool and dry through the hottest summer days. Alternatively, the bachelor prince, Hardaul, used streams of water drawn up by animal-power to spout in fountains and spray down in a rain-pavilion to simulate a monsoon shower. We always visit Hardaul’s palace and we always see local folk reverentially placing their wedding invitations on his cenotaph.  The only major change in this somnolent, historic, town is that, now, visitors can do a short spraying encounter with the Betwa when she foams with anger at the rocks that stand in her path. The river-rafting here is in the skilled hands of the MP Tourism Development Corporation’s boatmen. One of us does not swim and yet we would like to do this bucketing ride over and over again. 

Orchha may be a timelessly beautiful woman, but when she flounces her frothy white petticoats on the Betwa she couldn’t be younger.… or more exciting!

Travel tips

Travel to Gwalior by air and then 119 kms by road by taxi to get to Orchha.
Also, one can travel by rail to Jhansi and then 16 kms by road, either by a taxi, autorickshaw or bus to get to Orchha.

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