You must visit Orchha. It is close by, and full of surprises,” said an elderly gentleman on the train during one of my numerous trips from New Delhi to Jhansi.
Jhansi is home nowadays because my parents have moved there — to the land that is crying hard for attention from both Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Orchha is only a few kilometres from Jhansi, and falls in Madhya Pradesh.
My co-passenger on the train took it upon himself to acquaint me with Bundelkhand. He and I did not exchange names, but his line — that it was full of surprises — stayed with me, and the name Orchha stuck.
I managed to coax a friend to accompany me , and turns out, when it came to history, she was better educated than me. “I have heard the paintings there are gorgeous; Bundela Kalam they call it,” she said, and spoke on about folklore. Clearly, there was much to explore in the little town.
We reached Orchha one winter afternoon, with our cab driver insisting on driving us through the ‘rich’ Bundelkhand experience, with no talk of drought or politics. So there we were, parked in the middle of a road — palace gates on one side, a large body of people on the other. The cab driver said we must first visit the temple — and so, despite being the atheist I am, we walked on, and into the famous Ram Raja’s mandir.
The temple compound gave me a fair idea of what Orchha was about. A mix of history — the kings and queens, remaining glimpses of the freedom struggle, religion, tourism, and other mundane aspects of everyday life.
If you go digging historical facts, you will find folklore in abundance. Walking around the temple compound, I realised that there was a booming industry of audio and video production that revolves around these folklores. The sheer number of shops selling CDs and VCDs was mind-boggling.
I tried figuring out how the Ram Raja Mandir came into being and why a certain character called Hardaul is so revered in these parts. The stories were as believable as fairytales.To me Ram Raja’s arrival in Orchha and the Hardaul saga would be mere stories. For the people of Bundelkhand, however, they were cornerstones of beliefs.
The folklore got to me after a point. I needed to escape from the past. In the present, I walked past some shops selling lovely trinkets. They were not the only bag-full of surprises that Orchha offers. At the palace — that dates back to the 16th century — I gaped at the paintings on the walls and on the ceilings. The Jahangir Mahal, on one side, was especially built for the emperor when he came on a short visit to Orchha. The architecture, I was told, is a mix of Rajasthani and Mughal style.
The ceilings and the walls, in many of the rooms of the palace, are a living witness of the Bundeli kalam or the Bundela School of Painting. Though much of it has faded, there are sections and patches are still a vibrant array of colours. The themes are as varied — from Ramayana and Ras Leela to the feudal life in the 17th century. A painting on one of the walls in the Lakshmi temple, a little distance away from the palace, depicts a war scene from the First War of Independence in 1857. It shows Rani Lakshmibai trying to hold on to the Jhansi fort.
Sense of peace
At Rai Parveen Mahal, tucked away in one corner of the palace precincts, paintings of the danseuse on the walls again took me by surprise. Somehow, the sense of space surrounding me suddenly reminded me of my cramped first apartment in Delhi. My friend added to it: “You think, our photographs would ever make this impact?”
I didn’t have a witty retort, having been, to say the least, swept off my feet. It was sundown and we walked back to the road. The temple was still bustling with energy.
On the way back, I tried to sift actual events in the history of Orchha from folklore. I gave up. It was all too muddled in my head and I liked it that way. And then the thought struck me, in Orchha there is little that is past. Or rather, there is no running away from the past. They coexist. Now, I can well imagine that old gentleman on the train visiting the temple early in the morning with prayers for the future. The past would always loom large, comfortably, on him.