Week 3, Feb 2017, Orchha
It was fairly straightforward to get 2 buses back to Indore and I arrived in plenty of time to get another overnight train. And shock, horror, this one left on time and I got a good night's sleep! In fact the only delay was right at the end of the trip but I arrived safe and sound in Jhansi at 11.30am. Jhansi was a bit strange, mainly because it was election time and so all the shops were closed and apparently people were restricted in entering or leaving the city. The streets were certainly very quiet. However, I managed to get an autorickshaw for the fairly short 15km hop to Orchha.
Orchha was the capital of the Bundela rajas from the 16th century to 1783 at which time the rajas and their entourage decamped elsewhere leaving Orchha a village backwater but with many impressive monuments. Supposedly, it is still a fairly major destination for Indian tourists and Hindu pilgrims and although there were quite a few about, the place retained a laid-back charm. I stayed right in the centre of town at the aptly titled Temple View Guest House. Although to be fair, every place in town could take the same name as the Ram Raja Temple was a huge bright orange and yellow building visible from all over. The hotel itself was pretty good. Large room, hot water, comfy foam mattress (not the hard kapok), a window to attract the breeze, good wifi and cheap (400Rs). It was fairly quiet as well apart from one night when a particularly raucous wedding party went round and round the town with the noisiest sound system in tow. Presumably the more noise you make on your wedding night the better the marriage will be. Anyway, that was to come. First things first. After unpacking I was ready for lunch and of course there were plenty of restaurants handy and able to supply a thali. Very good it was too.
As I said, Orchha is now a very small town/large village. In the centre is the Ram Raja Temple which sees a fair few devotees every day. They say about 1000 but I didn't see anywhere near that number. It's famous as the only temple in India where Rama is worshipped as a king and its full story is told on its Wikipedia page. Although there were nowhere near 1000 people there, it was pretty busy, with pilgrims, tourists (only very few foreigners), beggars and plenty of stalls to service them all. And, as usual at this time of year around India, one or two wedding parties. I also saw a group of people gathered around a motorbike. A holy man seemed to be blessing it and there was a temple elephant there as well giving more blessings.
Much more interesting architecturally speaking is the Chaturbhuj temple which actually dominates the whole scene. This is the temple that was built in the 16th century and was supposed to receive the image of Ram but never did - it ended up in the Ram Raja temple and there it says. Therefore, it only receives tourists like myself rather than devotees. It is very impressive however, as is the view if you can brave some very steep steps to get onto the roof. From the roof you can get a great view of the town and the other important monuments. These I left to discover the next day.
Just opposite Orchha town are the two main monuments. The Raja Mahal and the Jahangir Mahal. In fact they are only two of many monuments scattered on an island in the Betwa river. Both are accessed from Orchha town via a bridge and then an arched gateway. Built in the 16th century, the Raja Mahal was the palace where the kings and queens resided until it was abandoned in 1783. Although the fabric of the building is intact you don't get much idea of what it was like except that many of the ceilings retain paintings of the era with hunting scenes and cavalry and people of the day. Both the Raja Mahal and Jahangir Mahal have many, many rooms, joined by staircases which lead you higher and higher until you get to the roof with great views over the countryside and to the town. On the roofs there are a number of small pavillions and on their roofs I noticed a few vultures which at first look like sculptures as they are the same colour as the stone. Sadly these Indian vultures are increasingly rare, in fact in danger of extinction. Vultures have lived for centuries close to human habitation especially in India because Hindus do not eat cows which therefore form the main diet of the vultures. However, since the 1990s many cows were being given an anti-inflammatory drug to prolong their working lives and this in turn when passed on to the vultures is deadly. We can only hope now that the drug is officially banned, the vultures will recover. More on the story Here.
From the roof of the palace, there are great views over the surrounding countryside and interspersed among the corn fields are many smaller monuments. It was here I headed next. One of them, the Dasiyo Ka Mahal, the Palace of three Courtesans, as its name suggests was apparently used by the female servants of the king. It is now used as a storehouse for cattle dung (used for fuel). How the mighty fall. Another called the Radhika Vihari was built in 1605 and according to the inscription outside was one of the best examples of Bundela architecture. It is now a grain store. Well at least these buildings are still being used. There were a number of other equally attractive buildings dotted around but not apparently used, although one, in a really bad state was being lived in by a farmer's family. Not a bad place to live though.
Having spent the day exploring around the palaces, I was still keen for more so I followed the river south for a km or so to the Chhatris. These are the funeral monuments of the Bundela kings. There are 15 in a large group, all very impressive, attractively situated on the banks of the Betwa river and adorned with more vultures. And then finally, I walked another kilometre or two to the final monument of my trip, the Lakshmi temple, perched on a hill outside town and famous for its painted ceilings. Although the building was constructed in 1622, it was renovated later and many of the paintings date from even later times. One such fresco depicts a battle scene against the British in the War of Independence/Indian Mutiny of 1857. While I was there I had the added bonus of doing a bit of bird watching as I saw a kestrel perched on the roof.
As a little aside and recommendation, I visited most of the monuments in the morning and early evening as the middle of the day is the busiest time for tourists as many come on day trips, either from Delhi, or from my next destination: Khajuraho.
For further information on Orchha:
Orchha: a walk through history