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Capital idea

A cook’s carelessness helped a Bundela king found his capital in the middle of a river — an ideal location for a king recently ousted from Delhi. Five centuries later, it still remains hidden.

india Updated: Feb 13, 2010 20:28 IST
Rishad Saam Mehta

Towards the end of the 15th century, the Bundelas, a hardy Rajput clan with a fair share of power in the Delhi Sultanate, were ousted by Sikandar Lodhi. Displaced, the clan migrated southwards in search of a new capital. It was now April 1501 and the wandering Bundelas, under their king Rudra Pratap, had set up camp a little south of modern-day Jhansi.

The cook had served up a delicious stew made from the meat of a deer he had shot. But the raging heat of the Indian plains had turned the meat bad giving diners an instant attack of the runs. Raja Rudra Pratap’s housekeeping entourage hurriedly scouted the area to set up the fancy tent with the royal commode, a discreet distance away. In their search for the appropriate place, they stumbled upon a little island in the middle of the Betwa river. Raja Rudra Pratap, his Delhi-belly notwithstanding, at once realised that this was an ideal location for his new capital.

So while the cook must have surely felt the tapering end of the Kotwal’s whip, the Bundelas found their new capital, and called it Orchha or the ‘hidden place’. Most tourists zip past the little right turn to Orchha, 11 km from Jhansi on NH75 to Khajuraho. We would have too, had it not been for a chance meeting with a rehabilitated dacoit at a chai tapri outside Dholpur. He adjusted his belt, which still had cartridge loops minus the cartridges, stroked his magnificent moustache and told us to visit. “You’ll step back into 17th century India” he declared. He also added that his gang often used it as a hideout in the good ol’ days.

So we took the right turn
But before we actually drove through the ancient gates into Orchha, we stopped by the river and looked upstream. That was my first view of the grandeur of Orchha. In the distance, I saw spires and domes of ancient temples and palaces dominating the skyline of the town. The pomp and grandeur may be long gone, but the architecture still stood as a silent testimony to the era that was.

That afternoon we visited Jehangir Mahal which dominates the island. The man who ordered it built was also the reason behind Orchha’s first siege. The following story was told to us by Baba Rampyare Gyani, an ascetic, who sat outside the Chaturbhuj temple contemplating life.

Prince Bir Singh, the son of the then Raja Madhukar Shah was quite a brat, much like his friend Prince Salim, Emperor Akbar’s son. When Salim rebelled against his father, Bir Singh joined ranks with him. He further enraged Akbar by beheading Akbar’s trusted general and vizier Abu’l-Fazl ibn Mubarak when the latter was passing through the kingdom. He then sent the head back, in a gift wrapped basket, to Akbar who, seething with rage, mobilised the mighty Mughal army and captured Orchha in a blitzkrieg in 1604. Bir Singh escaped, but when Jehangir (a.k.a Prince Salim) ascended the throne in 1605, Orchha was given back to Bir Singh.

Fit for a monarch
Bir Singh built Jehangir Mahal for his friend to reside in when he’d come visit. Exploring the palace you can only imagine the lifestyle Jehangir would have had. Besides fantastic views, delicate lattice work in stone, rooms with murals and articulate turrets, there are also indoor swimming pools — one main and four smaller ones — where Jehangir is supposed to have frolicked with local girls who caught his fancy. There’s also a legend about a tunnel that ran from the Jehangir Mahal right to the camping ground where the Mughal army was stationed but it hasn’t been found yet.

To make this edifice and other palaces like the nearby Raj Mahal, Raj Praveen Mahal and Turkish baths come alive, hire a headset from the MP tourism office at Hotel Sheesh Mahal and follow the arrows. The English narration and sound effects breathe life into these empty stone structures.

An old dawn
Past the village centre lies a little stone slab bridge across the river. We reached it before the sunbreak. As the orange glow of the rising sun lit the chhattris (cenotaphs), a sadhu started offering his daily prayers in the river. Soon, locals came along to bathe and pray, and women brought their daily washing to the banks, as their children jumped off the causeway into the river. I made friends with two young boys, who would swim to wherever I pointed my camera. After breakfast at a halwai, the three of us went to Chaturbhuj temple, which looked more like a European cathedral with its massive doors, vaulted roof and large hallways.

Climbing to the top is an adventure of sorts, tackling huge steep staircases in pitch darkness, trying not to disturb the bats that roost there. The last monument we saw in Orchha was the Laxmi Narayan temple that stood on a small hillock. This temple was built around 1622; today it’s a peaceful place with an old flute seller playing melodies in the still air. But the temple has a history of sacrifices, wild rituals and physical pleasure that accompanied tantric worship. The strategic location of the temple lent itself to construction of gun turrets where canons could be mounted — the last-resort final-offensive should Orchha be overrun. That afternoon we started off for Khajuraho where we were initially headed. Our two hour stop had turned into an overnight halt.

Getting there
By road: You can drive from Delhi to Orchha in 7 hours (420 km). The road from Agra onwards is scenic and very relaxing. However avoid the Agra–Jhansi section after dark.

By train: The Delhi–Bhopal Shatabdi stops at Agra Cantt. as well as Jhansi and is the most convenient train to take. There are trains from Mumbai to Jhansi as well. An autorickshaw or a taxi can be hired to go to Orchha, 18 km away. Another option is fly to Khajuraho (there are flights from Delhi and Varanasi, but remember that they are almost always heavily booked days in advance) and take a bus or taxi back to Orchha. From Mumbai, the Gorakhpur Express and the Kolkata Mail go to Satna (115 km from Khajuraho).

Where to stay
The Bundelkhand Riverside has comfortable rooms and service that reminds you of the Raj. Some rooms have noisy air-conditioners though. For more information, visit their website: www.bundelkhandriverside.com

Important information
One important thing to keep in mind is whenever you ask for tea or coffee at any restaurant or shop in Orchha, make sure you request them to make it without sugar. These guys go ballistic with sugar. Local lads double up as guides and are quite glad to show you around for a small baksheesh.

- Rishad is a freelance writer, who’s happiest behind the wheel of a car with a map of a new place in his hand.