Many buildings of Orchha, a quaint little town in Madhya Pradesh, could very well claim the title of the “Most beautiful cluster of structures of medieval India”. Orchha, during its pinnacle of prosperity, saw many architectural wonders being developed, including Chaturbhuj Temple, Rama Raja Temple, Lakshmi Temple, several other temples & palaces and the famous Orchha Fort (Orchha ka kila). Like most medieval forts, Orchha Fort Complex has its own share of legends and mysteries. According to one of the elderly persons I met near the Ram Raja temple, legend has it that Lord Rama spends the day in Orchha, MP and the night in Ayodhya, UP!
The mother art is architecture. Without an architecture of our own we have no soul of our own civilization.Frank LLoyd Wright!
Bundelas in Orchha
Orchha was founded by Raja Rudra Pratap Singh of the Bundela Dynasty during the end of his reign (1501 to 1531CE). Bundelas abandoned the earlier capital Garhkundar for political reasons and made Orchha the new capital of Bundelkhand, the kingdom ruled by the powerful Bundelas, who rose to power during the decline of Chandelas. In fact their kingdom, Bundelkhand was the new name for Chandelas’ Jejakabhukti.
Raja Rudra Pratap Singh commenced the construction of Orchha Fort, on a river island, in the year 1531 and the same year he died. Within a few years, the fort was continued by his son Bharatichand. Considering it was 500 years ago, it is no mean achievement. I am sure builders can’t do it now.
Later parts were added by successive kings and let us see some of them.
It was awe inspiring to be standing near the entrance from where Raja Mahal was on one side and Jahangir Mahal straight ahead.
Raja Mahal (King’s Palace)
Raja Mahal, also called Raja Mandir, was not only the residential quarters for the kings, queens and their servants but also the place where he used to meet the public (Darbar-e-Aam) and conducted his official business (Darbar-e-Khas). It was one of the first structures to be built in the Fort of Orchha and was continuously used for 150 years or so by successive kings and queens, after which Orchha was abandoned and Tikamgarh became the capital in 1780CE.
Diwan-e-Aam was accessible from outside itself. This was a huge pavilion where the King and courtiers could assemble and the subjects would sit in the grass outside. This was also the place where the king pronounced judgments for cases involving his subjects.
Entrance to the main Mahal (palace) was to one side. Access to the block we entered was restricted to his close friends, aides and ministers. In our new-age parlance, a VIP. 🙂
There was a well decorated meeting hall meant for King and his ministers only. This was the Darbar-e-Khas (khas meaning special or important) where important strategies were discussed and decisions taken. In the middle of the block was a big platform meant for entertainment musicians and dancers, with the place for the king at a higher level. In the evenings, entertainment would be on the stage, below.
The king’s room is made such that when he opened his windows he could view the Chaturbhuj temple, which would have been the most important temple at that time. Apparently, the queen had obtained an idol of Rama from Ayodhya and temporarily consecrated in her palace. When Chaturbhuj was completed, it could never be consecrated as the god Lord Rama ‘refused’ to move from the Queen’s Palace next door. The palace was then converted to Ram Raja temple. Here, Rama is worshipped as a King.
Jahangir Mahal Orchha (Palace of Jahangir)
When I saw the name of the palace, I wondered what did a Mughal Emperor have to do with such a small Kingdom. As it turned out, a lot.
Here is a little story. Late 16th Century Emperor Akbar had overrun Orchha state. He had sent his son Salim (yes the famous lover of Anarkali and future Emperor Jahangir), along with a force of 12,000 soldiers to Orchha. This was a grand victory for Salim and helped him gain respect from Akbar, who otherwise thought Salim was a good for nothing philanderer. A swift political maneuver by the then Orchha king Madhukar Shah Ju Dev, ensured there would not be any more losses when Orchha king agreed to be a vassal of the mughals. In the meanwhile, Salim was impressed with the Prince Vir Singh Ju Dev ( Madhukar Shah’s Son) and saw his bravery and personality. Thus a friendship was born. This friendship would mean good things for Orchha in the immediate future. Who said friends in high places don’t work? 🙂
In friendship there has to be give and take. It was no secret that one of the important Ministers of Akbar, Abul Fazl, was against Salim becoming the emperor after Akbar. Abul Fazl was a very powerful courtier, one of the 9 gems (navratna) of Akbar’s court. He was also a close friend of Akbar. Akbar would think 10 times before refusing anything to him. Jahangir knew of this and hatched a plan with prince Vir Singh Deo, to get Abul Fazl out of the way! On 12th August, 1602, when Abul Fazl was returning to Agra after negotiations with Nizam of Deccan, via Orchha, he was assassinated.
Akbar was growing old and weak and within 3 years, died handing over the empire to Salim who assumed the title of Jahangir, which loosely translates to conqueror of the world. What a coincidence! Raja Ram Shah was deposed by the Mughals and Vir Singh Deo was made the Maharaja of Orchha at about the same time. Next 22 years were probably the best period for Orchha with a friend at Agra and no money issues. Jahangir was slated to visit Orchha during this period. So Vir Singh, in a mark of warm friendship, built this huge palace and called it Jahangir Mahal. Jahangir did come to Orchha and stayed at the palace for just 1 day.
Jahangir Mahal Palace, was a multi storey structure with a courtyard in the centre and a fusion of Bundela and Mughal Architecture. Some of the domes bear a striking resemblance to Mughal structures. Canopies are more of a local touch. Even after all these years we can make out the colors which again talks of fusion green for Mughals and blue for Bundelas.
The towers on the four corners of the square plinth made it appear like a small fort.
There are a maze of steps and corridors that lead from one level to another. From the outside it is not easy to discern where these stairs are. It is also said there are more than 200 rooms. Other elements of Islamic architecture visible here are the ornate arches and intricate jalis (Latticework). From the roof one can get a sweeping view of Orchha town.
In the centre of the courtyard is a square structure which may have been a fountain or a pond for cleaning up before offering prayers or was it the Royal bath?
Sheesh Mahal, Palace of mirrors, is located on one side before one gets to Jahangir Mahal. It is now converted into a hotel and run by MP tourism. So it is literally off limits if you are not staying there or eating at their restaurant. We were too early for them.
This palace was the latest addition in the fort complex. Raja Udwat Singh, one of the later Bundela rulers, wanted a palace with a bit more pomp and so built this in the early 18th century. By this time Shah Jahan was the Mughal emperor and his son, Aurangazeb, had conquered Orchha as a 16 year old boy, soon after Vir Singh Dev’s demise and raised Mughal flag atop Jahangir Mahal and Orchha had lost its sheen following this and other incidents.
The upper floors have the Maharaja and Maharani suites which are supposed to be luxurious.
Rai Praveen (Pravin) Mahal
With such a long history there has got to be a love angle too. No? Part of this story was narrated by the current royal siblings, Rajeshwari Shah and Rudra Pratap Shah. When Raja Madhukar Shah died, his son Ram Shah ascended the throne. However his work ensured that he spent most of the time in Agra with the Emperor Akbar. So Ram Shah made his brother Indrajit Singh as an ‘acting’ ruler of Orchha.
Rai Praveen was a court dancer who performed in his court and also his paramour. She was a very beautiful and a brilliant dancer, an accomplished singer, well educated and a poet too. She excelled at them all. Akbar came to know of her great beauty and talents, and summoned her to Agra for his Harem. However Rai Praveen, being well versed in delivering witty couplets, asked Akbar, permission to recite a sher (couplet) which she did in her native language.
“Vinit Rai Praveen ki, suniye sah sujan. Juthi patar bhakat hain, bari, bayas, swan”
Meaning “I, Rai Praveen, beseech you to listen to me, o’ wise man; only scavengers eat food leftover by someone else”.
Akbar understood that she was in love with someone else and let her go after rewarding her for her wit and ordered her to be escorted with full dignity to Orchha.
Indrajit Singh built an exclusive palace with its own garden, for her within the fort. There are supposed to be a lot of murals depicting various moods of Rai Praveen. We could not go for want of time but it comes highly recommended if you are interested in old murals.
Other sights within Orchha Fort complex
Time permitting, a walk around the premises is recommended. There are Hammams, Phool Bagh & other Gardens, Dauji ki Haveli, Tope Khana (Cannon foundry), Oonth Khana (Camel Stables), temples and other ruins which looked interesting from afar.
Lutyens drew upon Orchha Architecture when he was designing New Delhi. He called them pepperpots and domes. 🙂
You may see these variants of the name Vir Singh Deo, Bir Singh Deo, Bir Singh Dev and Vir Singh Dev.
Useful Information and FAQ
How to reach Orchha?
By Air: Nearest airport is Gwalior which is about 120 KM from Orchha.
Another useful airport to consider is Khajuraho, if you are planning to combine visiting both Orchha and Khajuraho. Orchha to Khajuraho is 190 KM
By Train: Nearest Train Station is Jhansi , just 15 Km away, Jhansi is well connected to all parts of India. From Jhansi any autorickshaw will be glad to take you to Orchha and drop you in front of Ram Raja temple.
By Road: It is about 350KM from Bhopal It is an interesting route if you are on a road trip.
Best time to visit Orchha Fort
Orchha is a 365 days destination. However Summers will feel hotter when you walk among rocks and stones. If you consider the weather then Winter and Spring is undeniably the best time to visit Orchha.
Orchha Fort Complex Entrance fees
INR 10 for Indians and INR 250 for foreigners. There is an additional camera fee of INR 25.
Orchha Fort Complex opening time
9:00AM to 6:00PM on all days
Resorts and Hotels in Orchha
The Royal Sheesh Mahal, which is part of the Orchha Fort Complex, manage by Madhya Pradesh Tourism
Orchha Tourist Places other than Orchha Fort Complex
If you have 2 days then consider these other places to visit in Orchha as follows and create a 2-day itinerary around these.
- Orchha fort Light and Sound show in the evening
- Chaturbhuj Temple
- Ram Raja Temple
- Royal Cenotaphs (Chhatri) at the banks of River Betwa
- Lakshmi Narayan Temple
- Sawan Bhadon Palace
- Sundar Mahal
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