Orchha is located on a rocky island on the Betwa River, the deserted royal citadel of Raja Rudra Pratap is one of India’s most fabulous Mughal heritage sites, yet Orchha (literally “hidden place”) is mercifully free of development, making this a wonderfully relaxing stop. Founded in 1531, it was the capital of the Bundela kings until 1738. Today the weathered temples, palaces, and cenotaphs are the royal quarters of emerald parakeets and black-faced langurs, while traditional whitewashed, flat-roofed structures house the laidback villagers. Besides the palace complex, three beautiful temples are worth seeking out, as well as 14 graceful chhatris (cenotaphs) commemorating the Orchha rulers, built upstream along the riverbank. Most of these sights can be covered in a day excursion on the way to Khajuraho, but to get the most out of this surreally tranquil haven, spend at least 1 night here.
The best way to get to Orchha is to catch a train to Jhansi, where trains from Delhi, Mumbai, or Chennai pull in, carrying visitors on their way to Khajuraho (see “Khajuraho: Getting There & Away,” earlier in this chapter). You can catch an auto-rickshaw from Jhansi to Orchha (20km/12 miles) for about Rs 150 ($3.40). Alternatively, with time on your hands, you can hire a car and driver and travel by road from Agra, overnighting at Gwalior
EXPLORING ORCHHA’S FORGOTTEN MONUMENTS
The monuments of Orchha are fairly spread out, but close enough to be explored entirely on foot. You can spend a quick-paced morning poking through the ruins in which you’re most interested, or take your time and spread your explorations over an entire day. A few of the sights require a ticket, which you can purchase from a booth at the front of the Raj Mahal (daily 9am–5pm); the Rs 30 (70¢) ticket provides access to all the main monuments.
Visible as you enter the village, Orchha’s fortified palace complex is approached by a multi-arched medieval bridge. Once over the bridge, you’ll first encounter the earliest of the palaces, Raj Mahal , built during the 16th century by the deeply religious Raja Madhukar Shah, who befriended the Mughal Emperor Akbar, an alliance that was to serve the rulers of Orchha well. Look for the bold, colorful murals on walls and ceilings, and climb to the uppermost levels of the palace for a more complete view of the entire complex. A pathway leads to the two-story Rai Praveen Mahal; according to legend, it was built in the mid–17th century for a concubine who the then-ruling Raja loved to watch dance. Surrounded by lovely lawns, the palace includes a groundlevel hall where performances were once held, and naturally cooled subterranean apartments. Deemed Orchha’s finest palace, with delicate chhatris (dome-shaped cenotaphs) and ornate stone jalis (screens) along its outer walls, Jahangir Mahal is distinguished by its domed pavilions, fortified bastions, and ornamental gateway flanked by stone elephants holding bells in their trunk, perhaps to announce the entry of the man in whose honor the palace was built: Emperor Jahangir, Akbar’s son (see “The Life & Times of the Mughal Emperors,” earlier in the chapter). He is said to have promised to visit, but accounts vary as to whether he actually arrived. The sandstone exterior bears the remains of beautiful turquoise- and lapis lazuli–tiled embellishments, while interior walls are decorated with lovely carvings. Sheesh Mahal, now a hotel, is a section of the palace complex built by a local king as a country getaway some time after Orchha’s decline. If you wander along the paths heading away from the palace complex (to your left after you cross the bridge), you’ll encounter the ruins of a number of small, atmospheric temples amid fields belonging to local farmers. With both Persian and Rajput architectural influences, seven-story Chaturbhuj Mandir looms hauntingly over Orchha village. Reached by a steep flight of steps, the 16th-century temple consists of an expansive vaulted assembly hall with impressive spires; make your way up the narrow spiral staircases for lovely views from the temple roof. Never used, the temple was supposed to have housed an image of Lord Rama brought from Ayodhya by the wife of Orchha’s king. Upon arriving, she found the temple incomplete, so she temporarily installed the deity in her palace. When Chaturbhuj was finally completed, the god refused to be moved, so the queen’s palace became Ram Raja Mandir (daily 8am–noon and 8–10pm), today one of Orchha’s main attractions for Hindus, despite its secular architecture.
Behind Ram Raja Mandir is a paved path that leads to Lakshminarayan Mandir , atop a low hill less than 1km (a half-mile) from the village. The walk takes you past lovely flat-roofed houses that line part of the pathway. The 17th-century temple features interesting murals depicting military battles and religious myths. Although it’s usually open to ticket-holders between 9am and 5pm, the temple is sometimes locked up, with no trace of the attendant.
After you explore the village and its trinket-filled stores, don’t miss the 14 sandstone chhatris, or cenotaphs, alongside the Betwa River. Built as memorials to expired rulers of the Bundelkhand, they celebrate old alliances, combining elements of Mughal architecture, such as the arches, and Hindu temple design, such as the shikharas (spires).