The word Orchha means hidden, and this small town lives up to its name. More often than not, foreign and domestic tourists miss the right turn to the home of magnificent ruins while driving down from Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh, to Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh. Take the detour, and you could feast your eyes on forts, palaces and temples left behind by former Bundelkhand rulers, all located on the banks of the lazily flowing Betwa river.
Once considered to be one of the largest and most powerful kingdoms of central India, Orchha was founded in the 16th century by Bundela king, Rudra Pratap. Though no longer wielding similar power in modern-day India, the town retains its medieval splendour. Agriculture and tourism is its mainstay. And the population hasn't grown that much - with most youngsters preferring to move to Jhansi or another city for a better living. According to the last census, it was 8,500 - and as our guide was quick to point out, "Everyone knowing everyone isn't always a good thing."
Like most small towns, a main road cuts through Orchha. You could walk from one end to the other in an hour. Most tourists prefer to discover the place by foot or cycle down from one of the few resorts that have sprung up on the banks of the Betwa. And if you do decide to visit, here are spots that you could check out.
Orchha Fort: The complex is divided into three parts: Raj Mahal, Jahangir Mahal and Sheesh Mahal. The Raj Mahal was once the abode of kings and their many queens. Secret passages, steep stairs and exquisite murals on the avatars of Lord Vishnu, whom the deeply religious Bundela king Madhukar Shah worshipped, tell a powerful story of an era gone by. On the other hand, once the residence of kings, the Sheesh Mahal, today, is a heritage hotel inside the fort complex run by the Madhya Pradesh Tourism. It is quite popular with foreign tourists looking for a royal experience.
Jahangir Mahal: This palace was built inside the fort in the 17th century to mark Jahangir's visit to the town. What makes it even more distinct is that it merges both Mughal and Bundela architecture. Stone elephants, lattice-work on the windows and delicate double chhatris (memorials) add to the elegance of the palace.
Ram Raja Mandir. (Sneha Mahale/HT photo)
Ram Raja Mandir: This palace-temple, which lies opposite the Orchha Fort, holds a special significance. Legend has it that Bundela king Madhukar Shah was a huge devotee of Lord Vishnu, while his wife worshipped Lord Ram. The clash in devotion resulted in the king demanding that the queen go to Ayodhya, and return with her deity in tow. Lord Ram agreed to visit Orchha in the form of a boy, but put forth a condition - he won't move from the spot that initially houses him.
The king, overjoyed on hearing the news, started building a grand temple. However, it remained incomplete when the entourage arrived, and Lord Ram was housed inside the queen's palace. Later, when the temple was ready, the idol refused to move. Incidentally, this is probably the only place where Lord Ram is worshipped not just as a God, but as a king as well. Police personnel guard the temple, and the king gets a gun salute from them daily. The temple is shut in the afternoons, so do visit in the morning or catch the evening prayer at 8pm.
Chaturbhuj Temple: Next to the Raja Ram Mandir lies the grand temple that was meant to house Lord Ram, when he arrived from Ayodhya. Take a steep flight of steps to reach the temple, and you can see the grandeur planned by the king to house the deity.
Rai Parveen Mahal: Just outside the Orchha Fort complex is the palace of poetess and musician, Rai Parveen. The story goes that she was summoned to Delhi on the orders of Akbar, who had heard of her beauty and intelligence. Once there, she recited a couplet, declaring her love for Raja Indramani of Bundelkhand in front of the entire Mughal court. Impressed by her courage, the emperor sent her back to Orchha honourably.
Laxminarayan Temple: This temple is a short walk from the Raja Ram Mandir. Designed to signify the shape of owl, Goddess Lakshmi's vahana (vehicle), this temple is an architectural marvel. The interiors contain exquisite murals, some retaining their vibrant compositions and colours.
Cenotaphs: Along the river Betwa lie 14 Chhatris built for the rulers of Orchha. Climb to the roof for a panoramic view of the town, or try swimming, river rafting, or boating at the Kanchan Ghat.
Rai Parveen Mahal. (Sneha Mahale/HT photo)
Food and accommodation
*There are about five decent resorts in the town area, so it would be wise to make a reservation before visiting. Most resorts cater to tourists and offer Indian vegetarian, non-vegetarian, Chinese and continental options at their restaurants. Step into the town, and there are a few places close to the Orchha Fort that offer the same fare at a cheaper rate.
*Non-vegetarians must try the local fish - Sol - that can be fried or cooked in the local fiery masala. Also, opt for spicy Bundelkhandi Chicken. These dishes aren't usually on the menu, so remember to ask your server about them.
In the vicinity
Jhansi: It is about 20-30 minutes from Orchha. The popular Jhansi Fort can be explored in a day.
Khajuraho: The UNESCO World Heritage Site is about four hours away, and is world-famous for its beautiful carvings.
*Not many know this, but a single ticket gives you access to several monuments, so long as you cover them in a single day. So, hold on to that entry pass.
*Locals will tell you that the sound-and-light show showcasing the history the Orchha Fort is shut in the summer and monsoon. But turn up with four or more people, and chances are that you will see it.
*Since it is a temple town, alcohol shops are scarce and resorts will sell it to you at premium prices. Stock up before you go.