What’s astonishing at Orchha is that such a small town, nestling peacefully beside the river Betwa, should have so many sumptuous buildings. But once upon a time Orchha was the capital of a flourishing kingdom ruled by the Bundela kings.
The town was built in 1501 by a Bundela chief called Rudra Pratap Singh, who became the first king of Orchha (1501-1531). The Bundelas were descendants of the Gaharwar Rajputs of Varanasi. Orchha was the Bundela dynasty’s capital from 1531 to 1783.
In 1602, Bir Singh Deo became the ruler of Orchha. This was the town’s golden age, when several palaces were built, including Jahangir palace in the fort. Bir Singh Deo drew the ire of the Mughal emperor Akbar by making an alliance with Akbar’s rebel son Jahangir. The Bundela kingdom was saved by Akbar’s death and Jahangir’s accession to the throne.
The Bundelas tried to rebel against subsequent Mughal emperors but failed each time. In 1783 they moved their capital to Tikamgarh.
It boasts two palaces (Jahangir Mahal and Raja Mahal) and other buildings including a Turkish bath, camel stables, etc. The fort’s perimeter wall provided a protective rampart against floods as well as enemies.
It was built to house a statue of Rama, but the statue remained in the Ram Raja palace temple and the temple was dedicated to Chaturbhuj, a form of Vishnu with four arms. The temple’s architecture is quite astonishing.
It is the only temple in India where Rama is worshipped like a king in a palace. The palace was built by Madhukar Shah for his queen, in the 16th century.
Legend has it that one day Lord Rama appeared to Madhukar Shah in a dream and told him to build a temple to him. The king followed Rama’s instructions and brought an idol from Ayodhya, Lord Rama’s birthplace. But building work on the temple was not yet completed when the statue arrived, so it was put in the palace.
Later, the king remembered that in his dream, Lord Rama has specifically mentioned that his idol was not to be moved from the place where it was first put. So the king stopped building the temple and transformed the palace where the statue stood into a temple.
It is no longer in use, but it contains some exquisite wall paintings on a variety of subjects, spiritual and profane. A paved path runs between the Laxminarayana and Ram Raja temples.
It appears to be closed, but in fact you can get in by slipping through a fence. Lulled by the sound of mantras, it has a lovely atmosphere.