There is a quiet village by the banks of the swift flowing Betwa river that seems to have frozen in time. Its bustling heart is a colorful, yet small local bazaar surrounding an old temple dedicated to Lord Rama. Its favorite past time is a walk on either bank of the river Betwa. Its people adore its healthy population of endangered vultures and other gorgeous birdlife. And when visitors from neighboring towns visit them, their temples, fort and the riverside are popular attractions. I am talking about a tiny beautiful village called Orchha that is located in the heart of India.
Once, the capital of one of the largest and most powerful kingdoms of Central India, the concept behind the foundation of Orchha was to keep it hidden from the Mughals. Founded in the 16th century by the Bundela Rajput chieftain, Rudra Pratap, Orchha, which literally means ‘hidden’ did not only manage to stay hidden from the eyes of the Mughals and the British, but its presence has remained kind of a secret even to the people of independent India.
Located real close to extremely popular tourist destinations such as Agra (the home of the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort), Khajuraho (known for its famous erotica temples and Kamasutra) and Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve (known for some of the best tiger sightings in India), the medieval city of Orchha that is located in Madhya Pradesh quietly goes under the tourist radar. May be, that is the reason, it has managed to keep its original charm and aura. You will precisely understand what I am saying once you experience the breath taking beauty, colossal structures and vibrant local flavor of this quiet Indian village that used to be a medieval behemoth.
The experience is so rich and fulfilling that I would feature it in the top offbeat destinations or top hidden destinations of India without battling an eyelid.
Orchha’s Medieval Gems
Orchha Fort and its Palaces
Built by Rudra Pratap Singh, the first king of the Bundlekhand kingdom of Orchha, the Orchha fort is the oldest and definitely the top highlight of the medieval structures that stand tall here. Flanked by the river Betwa on one side, the Orchha fort is a massive enclosure comprising of stunning palaces, gorgeous Indo-Islamic architecture, beautiful murals and spectacular views. The fort complex is made up of 3 parts: Raj Mahal, Jehangir Mahal and Rai Praveen Mahal. Each one of these palaces are an absolute treat to the eye and one can spend hours getting lost in its different rooms and courtyards.
The Jehangir Mahal, built by Raja Bir Singh Ju Deo in the 17th century to commemorate the visit of Emperor Jehangir to Orchha is possibly the most ornate. Its richness is exemplified by its delicate chhatri and trelli work. The Raj Mahal on the other hand looks simple from the outside, but is decked with religious themed extraordinary murals in its interiors. The Rai Praveen Mahal is the smallest and the least ornate, but I like it as it offers the chance to see a gorgeous perspective of the Jehangir Mahal and the Chaturbhuj temple.
Do make sure that you avail the services of a good guide while exploring this fort and its beautiful palaces. And do keep a camera, a bottle of water and lots of excitement handy while experiencing this medieval fort complex.
A quieter temple, when compared to the Raja Ram Mandir located next door, the Chaturbhuj temple commands awe simply due to its size. A steep flight of steps take you to the massive stone platform of the temples from the maze of shops located in front of the Raja Ram Mandir. Today, it has a small working temple area where you can seek the blessings of the lord, but the main attraction of the temple is its hidden hallways, pathways, stairways and the rooftop. Again, Indo-Islamic in architecture like the fort, this temple was orginally built to enshrine the image of Lord Rama that exists today in Raja Ram temple.
Do keep an eye out for the security guard who will take you around the hidden trails of this temple in exchange for a small tip. And while you are at it, do not miss the opportunity to get closer to the langurs and vultures that call the Chaturbhuj temple rooftop as its home.
Raja Ram Mandir
The Raja Ram Mandir is definitely the top daily attraction of Orchha. A full working temple dedicated to Lord Rama, this temple is frequented by both the locals and visitors and generates epic interest during festivals and auspicious days. Cameras and bags are not allowed inside the temple, but everyone visiting the temple can definitely feel the religious fervor and celebration of the lord here. Comprising of a courtyard and a sanctum, the Raja Ram Mandir was built around the idols that were supposed to be enshrined in the Chaturbhuj temple. The story goes that these idols, which were placed here during design refused to budge from the ground and hence the temple had to be built around it. Early mornings and evenings are the best times to visit this temple.
Chhatris or Cenotaphs
The pictures that lend iconic status to Orchha are its stunning riverside Chhatris. 14 chhatris or memorials or cenotaphs are grouped along the Kanchan ghat of the Betwa river to commemorate the death of the rulers of Orchha. These memorials are amazing works of art in itself and offer great views of the river too. They are also a home to the endangered vultures of Orchha.
The best views of the cenotaphs are got from the opposite bank of the Betwa river and if you are a photographer, do make sure that you get there before sunrise for that special photograph.
A little bit away from the central area, the Laxminarayan temple houses the most exquisite of Orchha’s wall paintings. A visit to this temple is much recommended as unlike the murals inside the fort palaces, the murals here are much well preserved and have retained all their vivid colors.
Orchha’s Natural Beauty
The swift flowing Betwa river is definitely one of the main reasons behind choosing Orchha as the capital of the Bundlekhand kingdom. Today, it offers visitors different forms of enjoyment. From swimming and water games to riverside picnics and from offering iconic views of the chhatris and the fort, Orchha and the betwa river go hand-in-hand in terms of offering its visitors a surreal experience. In the monsoon season, this river also becomes the hotspot for river rafting and kayaking in this region.
As an ardent bird lover, I can’t say how much I appreciate seeing endangered vultures living in good numbers at Orchha. These vultures and the medieval structures of Orchha seem to have a deep rooted connection. The locals seem to adore these scavengers and these large birds call the roofs of the Chattris, temples and fort as their homes. In addition to the vultures, one can also spot many species of parakeets, mynas, kingfishers, eagles, kites and sparrows here. The bird diversity is so rich here that I would totally recommend carrying your binoculars and zoom lenses if birdwatching happens to be your area of interest.
Orchha is surrounded by lush green forests and they can be easily accessed by crossing the bridge and walking a few hundred metres beyond the other bank of the betwa river. Known as the Betwa wildlife sanctuary, one can spot langurs, macaques, many species of birds and even the elusive leopard and tiger here. The forest department offer guided walks here for those interested.
How to Reach Orchha
By Rail: Orchha is located about 20 kilometres from Jhansi, which has excellent train connectivity from all across India. If you prefer train travel, I would recommend catching a train to Jhansi and then covering the last 20 kilometres by taxi or autorickshaw.
By Road: Orchha is also very well connected by road, though foggy can be an issue in the winter months. It takes about 4 hours to Khajuraho, 3 hours to Agra and little bit over an hour to Gwalior.
By Air: The nearest airports would be Agra and Khajuraho, though for best connectivity, I would recommend the airport at New Delhi.
Places to stay
As Orchha is quite a small place, there are not a lot of places to stay, but within its limited capacity, it offers its visitors everything from budget guest houses, homestays, river side cottages to luxury properties. When I visited Orchha, I stayed at Amar Mahal, a luxurious property located smack in the middle of the chhatris and the temples.
How to Get Around Orchha
Orchha is a fairly small place and as distances are small, walking is the best possible option. It also allows you to appreciate the local flavor even more. In case, you cannot walk, you can hire either a local autorickshaw or taxi to take you around. But, do remember that most of the temples and the entire fort require you to climb stairs. Comfortable walking shoes would be recommended.