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. Under their king Rudra Pratap, the Bundelas stumbled upon a little island in the middle of the Betwa river in Madhya Pradesh. They liked it so much that they decided it would be their capital city. They named it Orchha, or the 'hidden place'.
Most tourists zip past the little right turn to Orchha, located 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.
"You'll step back into 17th century India," he declared. 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.
Fit for a monarch
We visited Jehangir Mahal, that dominates the island. It was built by preceding ruler Bir Singh Deo as a monumental welcome present for the Mughal emperor Jehangir, when he paid a state visit in the 17th century. It has fantastic views, delicate lattice work in stone, rooms with murals, and also indoor swimming pools -- one main and four smaller ones -- where Jehangir is supposed to have frolicked with local girls who caught his fancy.
Time to explore
To make the Jehangir Mahal and other palaces like the nearby Raj Mahal, Rai 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. Chaturbhuj and Laxmi Narayan temple are also must-visits in Orchha.
Later we started off for Khajuraho, where we were initially headed. Our two hour stop had turned into an overnight halt.