EASTERN MADHYA PRADESH: TIGER RESERVES, JABALPUR AND THE INTERESTING TOWNS OF ORCHHA AND CHITRAKOOT

MADHYA PRADESH

Madhya Pradesh is the second largest state in India (after Rajasthan) and one of the poorest. The poverty of the state is quite noticeable if you enter from the relatively wealthy state of Gujarat as modern highways give way to dirt tracks. Madya Pradesh has a large tribal population. Many houses are made earth and stone, with tileroofs and whitewashed walls. Website: www.mptourism.com

Madhya Pradesh state covers 308,252 square kilometers (119,017 square miles), is home to about 73 million people and has a population density of 240 people per square kilometer. About 70 percent of the population live in rural areas. Bhopal is the capital with about 1.8 million people. Indore is the largest city, with about 2 million people.

Situated in middle of India, Madhya Pradesh is very diverse. It has been home to cultural and spiritual heritage of almost all the religions. There temples, stupas, forts and palaces all over the State. The natural beauty of the state is equally varied. Consisting largely of a plateau, the State has everything, from mighty mountain ranges to meandering rivers to miles of verdant forests. In fact a large part of Madhya Pradesh is under the forest cover, offering a unique and exciting panorama of wildlife. In the National Parks of Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Pench you can spot the tiger, bison and a wide variety of deer and antelope.

Water sports, caravan journeys, river cruise, sound and light shows and views of tribal life can all be enjoyed in Madhya Pradesh. Among the main attractions are the Marble Rocks of Jabalpur; Mandu, and the moonlight legend of the poet prince Baz Bahadur and his beautiful consort Roopmati; and the trails of Prince Rama in Chitrakoot. There are magnificent chhatris, palaces and forts in Orchha and Gwalior. The temples of Khajuraho are famous for their sexually explicit sculptures.. The state is home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Sanchi, Bhimbetka and Khajuraho. Sought-after shopping items include beautiful Maheshwari and Chanderi textiles and bell metal crafts from Bastar One of the nicest things about Madhya Pradesh is its “Heart of India” location ans its accessibility to major cities and tourist destinations all over India.

See Separate Article on KHAJURAHO

Jabalpur

Jabalpur (200 kilometers east of Bhopal, off the Mumbai-Howrah train line) is near the spectacular Marble Rocks, a series of cliff actually comprised from limestone that rise from the Narmada River. The rocks rise as high as a 100 meters and lie in an eight-kilometer-long gorge. They should be visited at night when the river is lit up with floodlights. There are also some interesting forts and temples in the area. Mahatma Gandhi's ashes were immersed in the Narmada river from the Tilwara Ghat.

Jabalpur also acts as the gateway to the famous tiger reserves of Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Pench. In addition to these, there are many smaller reserves nearby. Among these are Virangana, Panpatha and Nauradehi wildlife sanctuaries. Wildlife, includes spotted deer, birds, wild boar, barking deer, wild dog and chital. Ghughua National Park is home to fossils of plants, seeds, flowers as well as fruits.

Historically, the area was known as the Mahakaushal region and it is believed to be the land blessed by the great Jabali rishi. The Gond kings were supposedly so enthralled by the beauty of the region that they decided to make it a favored place to relax. This is not hard to believe as one strolls through the magnificent Vindhya range and lush forests that make up the ecological backdrop of the region. There are a number of waterfalls in the area.

Getting There: By Air: The Jabalpur Dumna airport, about 20 kilometers away is the nearest airport. It is well-connected with major Indian cities by air. By Road: Major cities nearby like Bhopal, Indore and Raipur are connected with Jabalpur through reasonably good roads. By Train: Jabalpur is home to the Jabalpur junction. Other nearby stations include the Madan mahal, Deori, Adhartakl and Jamtara Paraswara. Regular trains connect Jabalpur with all the major cities.

Sights in and around Jabalpur

Tilwara Ghat (on the banks of the holy Narmada river) is a very holy place. The Tilwadeshwar Mandir dedicated to Lord Shiva, is located on the ghat. The ghat is one of the locations where Mahatma Gandhi's ashes were immersed.

Roopnath (50 kilometers north of Jabalpur) is home to an unusual Shiva temple, whose lingam is placed in the cleft of a rock. The temple is a three-storeyed structure, whose ground floor is dedicated to Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati and the first floor to Lord Rama and Goddess Janki (Sita). The second floor is devoted to Lord Krishna and Goddess Radha. Roopnath is also famous for three beautiful falls, the pools of which are named after Lord Rama, Lord Lakshmana and Goddess Sita. These always have clean water flowing through them. The source of the water of these kunds is a huge reservoir located above the hill. Though the outfalls of the kund has been converted into a pool, bathing and swimming in it is prohibited.

Dumna Nature Park (10 kilometers from of Jabalpur) is home to a wide variety of wild animals, including jackal, spotted deer, leopard, wild boar and porcupine. The park also hosts a number of migratory birds during winters. There is a children's park, a restaurant and a fishing platform. Tracks for cycling and walking have been set up here. There is also a toy train service. The nature park includes the Khandari reservoir.

Dhuandhar Waterfalls in River Narmada tumbles from a height of 30 meters (98 feet). The word ‘dhuan’ translates into smoke and the river falls on rocks with such force and from such a height that the mist created is almost like a smokescreen. There are marble rocks nearby and boating facilities are also available for those who wish to take a shower in the mist of the waterfall. The falls can be enjoyed from Bedhaghat side from where one can avail the beautiful view of the river flowing through the marble rocks. A trip to the falls can be combined with a visit to the Narmada Mahotsav.

Madan Mahal Fort was built by the Gond tribe. The region of Jabalpur has historically been ruled by the Gond tribe and the Kalchuri rulers, and thus the construction of most monuments can be accredited to the Gond dynasty. The Madan Mahal Fort has been built under their patronage as well and is located on a hill, from where one can get sweeping and picturesque views of the surrounding scenery. The fort was built in the 11th century by the 37th Gond ruler, Madan Singh, and though it is not very large, it is an effective fortified garrison and a military outpost.

Though the primary fort and the home of the royal family was the Garha Fort, located in the plains, this fort is also well-equipped with rooms, stables and even secret passages for the royal family to enter into or escape from the fort. Since this was a military post, one also finds ample infrastructural facilities for maintaining horses and the army.

Chausath Yogini Temple

Chausath Yogini Temple (400 meters from the Marble Rocks in Jabalpur) is dedicated to Goddess Durga and the 64 Yoginis who are considered to be her different forms. The temple is built with local granite. The idols of the Yoginis have been arranged in a circular fashion and have been carved intricately. The images in the temple belong to three different historical periods. Some belong to the Kushana period, some to the post-Gupta period and others to the Kalachuri time (10th-13th century). The temple, with its 108 steps, attracts travelers from far and wide. It is designed in a circular shape with a diameter of 125 feet. Another spectacle that should not be missed is the panoramic view of the Narmada river that can be seen from the courtyard of the temple. All in all, a visit to the temple offers a range of unforgettable experiences.

'Yogini' is a term that is used in Buddhism as well as in Hinduism and refers to a female practitioner of Yoga who is also an enlightened guide or guru. The term is also associated with the sacred feminine force, who is considered to be an incarnation of Goddess Parvati. These incarnations are believed to have taken the form of eight matrikas or of 64 Yoginis. There are a number of temples across the country, which are dedicated to this feminine principle, Chausath Yogini being one of them.

Yoginis are considered to be a part of a secret cult. They are thought to be so powerful that they can cause acute destruction through their powers if offended. This Yogini temple is believed to have been built during the 10th century during the Kalachuri rei

Bandhavgarh National Park

Bandhavgarh National Park (150 kilometers northeast of Jabalpur) is located in the Vindya Hills. Famous for its tigers, this park covers 448 square kilometers (172 square miles) and encompasses 32 hill covered with mixed forest of sal, dhobin, and saga trees along with large stretches of grassland and bamboo groves. The park contains a large fort said to have been built by Lord Rama, the hero of the Indian epic Ramayana.

Bandhavgarh has a very high density of tigers: 22 in the 105 square kilometers open to tourists, a density of one tiger for every 4.77 square kilometers. Other animals seen here include nilgai, chausingha, wild boar, jackal, fox, gaur, muntjac, sambar, chital, rhesus macaque, black-faced langur (monkeys), gray langurs, jungle cat, hyena, porcupine, ratel, peacocks, jungle cocks, steppe eagle, blue-bearded bee eater, white-bellied drongo, Tickelles blue flycatcher, white browned fantail, paradise flycatcher, minivets and Malabar hornbill.

Bandhavgarh National Park was the home of tiger named Sita featured in a National Geographic spread. The park has a large breeding population of leopards, and various species of deer. Maharaja Martand Singh of Rewa captured the first white tiger in this region in 1951. This white tiger, Mohan, is now stuffed and on display in the palace of the Maharajas of Rewa. Historically villagers and their cattle have been at a threat from the tiger. Rising mining activities around the park are putting the tigers at risk. There were reports of poaching in 2004

Kanha Tiger Reserve

Kanha Tiger Reserve (100 kilometers southeast of Jabalpur, 5½ hour drive from Nainpur) is the home of many tigers and where Rudyard Kipling wrote “The Jungle Book.” Covering 750 square kilometers (363 square miles) and sometimes called "Tiger Land," it has the highest concentrations of animals of any park in India and probably contains more animals and more species than any other park its size in Asia. Founded in the days of the British Raj, Kanha is also considered one of India's best managed parks. It used to be known as Kanha National Park.

Kanha embraces meadows, lakes, streams, large termite mounds, and forest with slender sal trees, bamboo and hardwoods. Around a 120 or so tigers live in the reserve. One of the main reason there are so many is that they have a lot to eat. There herds of deer with hundreds of members, including numerous big-antlered barasingha (swamp deer), axi, blackbuck and sambar as well as buffalo-like gaur, tiny four-horned antelope, and large numbers of wild boar.

For a long time Kanha remained relatively undisturbed because it of its remoteness from cities, towns and villages, but lately its has started get crowded out from within. During the peak season carloads of visitors come to view the wildlife. "At dawn everyday," wrote Geoff Ward in National Geographic, "tame elephants and their mahouts scour the jungle for a tiger on its kill. When they find one, they stage a 'tiger show,' ferrying tourists to and from the site to take pictures. So many visitors line up to climb aboard the elephants that ladders for mounting are placed in strategic points along the forest roads. Numbered brass checks are handed out to keep the queues orderly."

Wildlife a little harder to spot than say Africa because the land is not so open but still everyone sees wildlife and usually see a tiger. A good time to visit the park is in late February when chital fawns are born, wild boar are in full rut and peacocks are dressed in their full plumage. Kanha is located in a horseshoe-shaped valley, bound by two distinct spurs and adjoined by plateaus. Over the years animals at Kanha have become bolder and more confident, making the park excellent for wildlife viewing and photography.

Kanha has been a national park since 1955 and a tiger preserve since 1973. It boast 22 mammal species, including leopard, chasingha, nilgai, jackals, sloth bear, dhole, barking deer, langur monkey, and bushcat,. Among the birds found in the park are red jungle fowl, painted spur fowl, green parakeets, red wattle lapwings, Indian roller, green bee-eater, grey hornbill, tree pie, munia, paradise flycatcher, peacocks, golden oriole, blackheaded oriole, Malabar hornbill, Indian stone curlew, crested serpent eagle, shaheen falcon, kestrel, lagger, barn owl, barn fish owl, and longbilled vultures.

Chitrakoot

Chitrakoot (400 kilometers northeast of Bhopal, 130 kilometers south of Lucknow) is a pilgrim town on Mandakini river spread over the states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Home to about 22,000 people, the town is strongly associated with devotion to Lord Rama, who is believed to have spent 11½ years of the 14 years of his exile here. According to the epic Ramayana, Chitrakoot is the place where Bharat, brother of Lord Rama came to visit him and asked him to return to Ayodhya to rule the kingdom.

Sitting in the shadow of the scenic Vindhya range of mountains, Chitrakoot is speckled with ancient temples, ghats (stepped banks of a river), kunds (sacred ponds) and ashrams, almost all of which echo the tales of the Hindu epic Ramayana and recount legends of the mighty Lord Rama, who lived here with his wife Sita and his brother Lakshmana. Given a large number of temples here, Chitrakoot is flooded with devotees during festival season, who flock to the town to seek blessings of their God. Due to its location next to the Mandakini river, also known as River Payasvini, several ghats have been built on the water's periphery, allowing pilgrims to bathe in the holy river, and participate in the arti (ritual) that takes place at the ghats in the evenings. The arti infuses the environment with devotional energy, allowing visitors to immerse themselves wholly in the spirit of Chitrakoot.

Chitrakoot’s spiritual legacy dates back to several ages. It is said that Goswami Tulsidas, writer of Ramcharitmanas, also spent a long time here. Sage Atri and Sati Anasuya are believed to have meditated in Chitrakoot as well. Many also believe that the supreme Gods of Hinduism (Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva) took incarnations here.

Getting There: By Air: Bamrauli airport in Allahabad is the nearest airport, which is about 106 kilometers away from Chitrakoot. Taxi facility is available from there. By Road: The town is connected with all major cities of the country by roads. Regular bus services are available to and from the city of Chitrakoot. By Train: The nearest railhead is Chitrakoot Dham which is situated 5 miles from the town. It connects the town to the rest of India by rail.

Places in Chitrakoot

Sphatik Shila (on the banks of River Mandakini) is a small boulder purportedly situated on the spot from where Lord Rama and Goddess Sita expressed their appreciation of Chitrakoot’s beauty. The place is hidden amidst thick forests. It is believed that Mother Sita did her shringaar (make-up) here and this boulder still bears the imprint of Lord Rama's feet. Also, according to mythology, this is the same place where Goddess Sita was bitten by Jayant, the son of Lord Indra, disguised as a crow. Next to the boulder is a lake that is home to several schools of fish.

Ram Ghat (on the banks of River Mandakini) is often full of devotees. In the morning, devotees come to perform the surya namaskar (praying to the Sun god), and take a dip in the river. However, the major attraction is an evening aarti that takes place every day priests dressed in traditional saffron cloth pray to the lord and chant shlokas. Ram Ghat is believed to be the place where Lord Rama, Goddess Sita and Lord Lakshmana interacted with saint Goswami Tulsidas. The Tulsi Chabutra is a platform near the ghat that is said to be where Tulsidas wrote the Ramcharitmanas, an epic poem written in the awadhi language, and today considered as one of the greatest works of Hindi literature. Another legend associated with Raj Ghat says that the sacred river of Sarayu has its underground source at this point. It emerges from here and again disappears.

Hanuman Dhara is a Hanuman temple located on a steep hillside, on top of a huge rock, with a natural spring cascading over an idol of Lord Hanuman.According to legend, Lord Rama stayed with Lord Hanuman in this temple, after Lord Hanuman set Lanka on fire and returned. Lord Rama helped him pacify his anger. Nearby, a few more shrines are dedicated to Lord Rama, Goddess Sita and Lord Lakshmana. The temple is home to several monkeys, as is typical of any Hanuman mandir. It is approachable by a flight of 360 steps, from where splendid views of Chitrakoot can be witnessed. Generally, jasmine oil and sindoor (vermillion) are given as offerings to the lord. Small idols of Lord Hanuman are placed along the way to offer prayers.

Kalinjar Fort was built atop an isolated rocky hill that stands 367 meters (1,203 feet) above the sea level, overlooking the Bundelkhand plains. This fort is amongst the oldest forts in the country, and one of the eight forts built by the Chandela kings (10th to 13th centuries). There are stone carvings of Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu, Goddess Shakti, Lord Bhairava, and Lord Ganesha on the walls of the fort, along with those of animals and birds. There is an ancient Shiva temple, known as the Neelkanth Temple (built by Parmardideva) that has a lingam (phallic symbol honoring Shiva), over which lies a natural water source that constantly drips water. The way to the shrine has inscriptions that also display carvings of Lord Shiva, Lord Ganesha, Lord Hanuman and Kala Bhairon. Another point of interest is the Sita Sej, a small cave with a bed and pillow made of rock, believed to have been used by hermits back in the day. The fort is located in the Banda district of Uttar Pradesh, in the Vindhya mountain range, near the World Heritage Site of Khajuraho. According to legend, this is where Lord Shiva destroyed the time barrier, and it is believed that he is always present here.

Ganesh Bagh is said to have been built as a recreational retreat. It has a pretty temple dedicated to Lord Shiva with carvings of gods and goddesses, and three chambers, all of which are now empty. The most interesting aspect of the temple is the floor in front of the chambers, which shows carvings of indoor games like ludo and chaupar. You can also explore a seven-storeyed stepwell of which only the first two or three levels can be approached as the rest are submerged in water, a small palace, and some wide open spaces that are now being converted into green lawns so visitors can relax and explore the bagh at length. Located on the Karvi. Devangana road, Ganesh Bagh was built in the 19th century by Vinayak Raj Peshwa.

Gupt Godavari (outskirts of Chitrakoot, to the south of Ram Ghat) is a cavern temple comprised of two mountain caves with knee-high level of water. It is said that the water is connected to River Godavari underground. Walking barefoot through the caves with the cold water lapping at your knees is a delightful experience. The larger cave has two stone-carved thrones believed to be of Lord Rama and Lord Lakshmana. According to legend Lord Rama and Lord Lakshman stayed here for some time during their exile. At that time, many gods came to Chitrakoot to meet Lord Rama. Godavari, the river goddess, is also believed to have visited him by secretly appearing in the caves. Another attraction is the Panchmukhi Shiva located outside the cave. It features an intricately carved sculpture of the holy trinity (Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva).

Orchha

Orchha (250 kilometers northeast of Bhopal) is small town of 8,500 people filled with medieval palaces, temples and cenotaphs. Popularly known as Raja Ram's kingdom and situated on the Betwa river, it is place where Lord Rama is revered as a king and not just a god. Boasting an amazing blend of Mughal and Rajput architecture dating back to the 16th century, Orchha was at the heart of many prominent royal dynasties for nearly 300 years. Orchha means “Hidden Place”.

Orchha was established as the capital of the powerful Bundelkhand empire by king Rudra Pratap Singh in 1501 AD and then ruled by several kings. Interestingly, here the Betwa splits into seven channels, also known as Satdhara. Legend says that this is in honour of the seven erstwhile rulers of Orchha. Also honouring its royals are the intricately carved chhatris or cenotaphs, which are iconic of the city itself. At the heart of Orchha's heritage is the Orchha Fort complex. Situated on an island in the Betwa, this complex is a maze of palaces, forts and temples. Divided into three parts: Raj Mahal, Jahangir Mahal and Sheesh Mahal, the fort hides within it secret passages, exquisite murals and resplendent residential quarters of kings and queens.

Orchha was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The town encompasses a very dense collection of the historical buildings, gardens and traditional housings. It was the seat of an eponymous former princely state of central India, in the Bundelkhand region. The historical settlement derived its name from the phrase ‘Ondo chhe’ meaning ‘low’ or ‘hidden’. The site was indeed bowl-like, buffered by bluffs and forests, lying on the Betwa River. [Source: Archaeological Survey of India]

“As the capital of the Bundela dynasty from 1531-1783, Orchha's monuments, gardens, temples, and murals as an ensemble, represent remarkable evolution in town planning, fortification of settlement, in buildings, garden design and art. The cultural landscape fostered various traditions of myths, ballads, literary and folk arts.

“Orchha thrived to be an example and epitome of the Bundela dynasty to showcase their unique architectural style. The local geography aided to the incorporation of the various pragmatic planning principles in the historical town while the individual elements of architecture and gardens in various buildings and houses, borrowed from the several Rajput and Mughal traditions, gave a harmonious visual language to the settlement. In Orchha, the blending of the existing Raj put culture with the invading Mughal culture carne to an exquisite apogee.

“The fortification, town planning, the garden design in Orchha evolved into a unique new form with amalgamation of Mughal style of gardens (cf. char bagh), Rajput Fort gardens, Hindu sacred groves and evolved hydrology systems. These gardens were strategically located around area of dense activities to provide relief to the urban fabric and to enhance the views from the high stories of palaces and temples. Thus, Orchha houses a unique ensemble of monuments and sites to understand the organization of the 16th-18th century society in India.

“Palatine and temple designs of the Bundelas were stylistic innovations in medieval Rajput architecture. Based upon archetypal mandala forms with elements from Sultanate and Mughal architecture, they are unique aesthetic statements. The three palaces, Rani Mahal (now Ram Raja Temple), Raja Mahal, and Jahangir Mahal have a mandala plan, i.e. square subdivided into smaller squares and rectangles with open space in the center leading to highly evolved composition and massing and play of solids and voids. These open courtyards alternating with pavilions at higher stories such that interior open spaces form an inverted pyramid structure, mark the achievement of the Bundeli architectural style, which influenced the later architecture of the whole of Bundelkhand.

“In this style the proportions are not only very different from the architecture elsewhere in the region but also imbibes various elements of both Mughal and Rajput architecture. This amalgamation of various styles can be seen in both tangible and intangible practices resulting in the structures like those of cenotaphs of Bundeli rulers, town morphology and rituals which together outline the Outstanding Universal Value of the historic ensemble of Orchha.”

Getting There: By Air: The closest airport to Orchha is located in Gwalior, about 123 kilometers away. Gwalior is connected to New Delhi by direct flight service. By Road: Since Orchha falls on the Jhansi-Khajuraho route, the main bus stop is at Jhansi. Several state-run buses ply on this route. By Train: Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh is the nearest railway station. It is connected to cities like New Delhi and Bhopal by regular train service. The distance between Jhansi and Orchha is about 17 kilometers.

History of Orchha

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Orchha was founded in the 16th century by the Bundela chief Rudra Pratap Singh, who became the first King of Orchha. The son of Rudra Pratap Singh, Bharti Chand (r.1531-1554), shifted the capital from Garh Kundar to Orchha, because the site was a better place to fortify against the growing Mughal pressure. After almost a decade of mayhem, Bir Singh Deo (r.1605-1627) became the king of Orchha who was perhaps the greatest of the Bundela Kings of Orchha. [Source: Archaeological Survey of India]

Bir Singh Deo became closely affiliated with the Mughal heir prince Salim. On suggestion of the latter, he ambushed and murdered Akbar's closest counsellor Abu' Fazal in 1602. Although Akbar's army invaded Orchha the same year, and Bir Singh Deo had to flee, his vicious act was rewarded three years later, with the ascension of Prince Salim to the Mughal throne as Jehangir. Jehangir installed Bir Singh Deo as king of Orchha. Bir Singh Deo was a great builder, not only in Orchha, but he also constructed the Forts of Datia and Jhansi, and temples in Mathura and Varanasi which spread the Bundeli architectural styles to the various parts of North India.

Later Hamir Singh, who ruled from 1848 to 1874, was elevated to the rank of Maharaja in 1865. Maharaja Pratap Singh (born 1854, died 1930), who succeeded to the throne in 1874, devoted himself entirely to the development of his state, himself designing most of the engineering and irrigation works that were executed during his reign in Orchha. Even though the seat of power changed frequently in Orchha, the city flourished and grew under the leadership of Bundeli kings and became the inception point for a new style of architecture known as the Bundeli architectural style.

Sights in Orchha

Chhatris or cenotaphs are among the most popular heritage sites in Orchha. They are the cenotaphs of the erstwhile rulers of Orchha, belonging to the Bundela clan. There are 14 of these cenotaphs or memorials, which date from the 16th to the 18th century. They make for a mesmerising sight standing on the banks of the Betwa river as cubical structures with temple-like spires. They are built like temples and have one chamber in the center, and four others on the four corners of a courtyard. The cenotaphs have shikhars (spiral) on the top that closely resemble those of the temples built in the Nagar style. The most notable of these is Bir Singh Deo's chhatri, which is more like a palace, and draws admirers from across the country. As the sun sets, watch in silence while the silhouettes of the chhatris (cenotaphs) dramatically darken against an orange sky.

Datia was mentioned in the epic Mahabharata as Daityavakra. It is an ancient town that is now the district headquarters of north-central Madhya Pradesh. The main attraction in this quaint town is the 17th-century, seven-storey palace of Bir Singh Deo that is built on a hill overlooking a lake. Datia is also popular among devotees for its many temples, including the Sidhapeeth of Peetambara Devi, Bagulamukhi Devi Temple and Gopeshwar Temple. Often referred to as Small Vrindavan or Laghu Vrindavan, Datia is also known for its cotton handloom industry.

Sawan Bhado Pillars are locally known as natural air-conditioners. These two pillars highlight an ingenious cooling system. They are perforated on the top to catch the wind, while their lower parts were once connected to a water reservoir. It is said their design has been inspired by Persian architecture style.

Temples in Orchha

Chaturbhuj Temple is beautiful temple dominates the town of Orchha with its shikharas (spires) soaring into the sky. Built on a 4.5-meter-high platform, a flight of stairs leads to the main temple. It is said that this is where an idol of Lord Rama was originally supposed to be enshrined. Failing to do so, king Madhukar, who was the then ruler of Orchha, decided to place an idol of Lord Vishnu here. The word 'chaturbhuj' literally means one who has four arms, and refers to Lord Rama, who is believed to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu.

King Madhukar is said to have built this temple for his wife, Ganesh Kumari, who was a devotee of Lord Rama. According to legend the lord appeared to the queen in a dream and asked her to build him a temple. The queen went to Ayodhya, said to be the birthplace of Rama, to procure his idol. On returning, she kept the idol in her palace as the temple was still under construction. After the temple was built, she decided to shift it but the idol would not move. Thus, an idol of Lord Vishnu was placed in the sanctum sanctorum. The architecture of the temple is truly marvellous as it looks like a multi-storyed palace with arcaded openings, a large entrance, a central tower and fortifications. The external ornamentation of the temple is done with lotus emblems and other symbols of religious significance. Today, the temple is under the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

Ram Raja Temple (near Raj Mahal) resembles a palace and is the only temple in India where Lord Rama is worshipped as a king. The grand peach-tinted building with domes, was once the palace of queen Ganesh Kumari, the wife of king Madhukar Shah, the ruler of Orchha. It was known as Rani Mahal then. The queen was a devotee of Lord Rama and wanted his idol to be installed in her palace. With a desire to bring the deity back in the form of a boy, the queen went on a pilgrimage to Ayodhya, said to be the birthplace of the lord. It is believed that Lord Rama was pleased with her prayers, and agreed to come to Orchha with her on one condition. According to beliefs, he said that he would not move from one temple to another and would always remain in the place where she would initially house the idol. Thus, the palace was later turned into a temple of the lord.

Laxmi Narayan Temple was built during the rule of Raja Bir Singh Deo and is dedicated to the goddess Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth and prosperity). Uniquely blending temple and fort architecture, it was built with lime mortar and bricks, the temple has cannon slots on its roof. Its well-preserved frescos portray an amalgamation of Mughal and Bundelkhandi art and the carvings on the inside depict the life of Lord Krishna. The temple also has the famous post-mutiny paintings. Another interesting feature is that it has a flagstone path that connects it to the Ram Raja Temple. Other notable aspects of the temple are the carvings on the central dome and ornately carved pillars on the corners. Visitors should also see the famous painting of the legendary 'Shungi Chirya', which is a monstrous bird that could capture elephants in its talons. There is no idol of the goddess inside the temple.

Palaces in Orchha

Jehangir Mahal is a palace-cum-fort built by king Bir Singh Deo in honour of Mughal emperor Jahangir in the 17th century. The massive structure is a three-storeyed building built with red and yellow sandstone. It has 236 chambers laid around a central courtyard, out of which, 136 lie underground. The floors ascend or descend in a random manner, creating a visual spectacle. Huge bastions standing in four corners and a gigantic wooden gate complete its fort-like aura.

Raj Mahal is a majestic palace famous for mixing of Rajput and Mughal architecture and is noted for its striking work of stone jaali. It houses two audience halls, the Durbar-e-Khas and the Durbar-e-Aam, which echo with vestiges of their past grandeur. Every year, thousands of visitors from various parts of the world pay a visit to Raj Mahal. On the top floor, one can marvel at the remains of exquisite mirror work on the walls. When sunlight falls on these mirrors, they create a surreal effect, lighting up the entire chamber. It is truly a sight to behold. Earlier, the palace acted as a lavish abode of royalty and is marked by its elevated balconies. The architectural genius is particularly noteworthy in the various floors that are interconnected by risen paths which are proportional tiers on all the four sides. The entire structure of the palace has towers and domed pavilion King Rudra Pratap Singh began the construction of Raj (Raja) Mahal in the 16th century. But it was only completed sometime in the 17th century during the reign of Madhukar Shah, father of Bir Singh Deo of the Bundelkhand dynasty. Another attraction one can visit nearby is the Sheesh Mahal

Rai Parveen Mahal is dedicated to the beautiful poetess-musician Rai Parveen, who is said to have been the paramour of king Indrajit. The besotted king built this three-storeyed palace for her in 1618. Also called the Nightingale of Orchha by many, it is said that the reputation of her beauty and talent reached the Mughal court as well. According to legend once emperor Akbar sent orders for Rai Parveen to be sent to Delhi. Since the Orchha kingdom was under the supremacy of the Mughals, the command could not be disobeyed and Rai Parveen departed for Akbar's court in 1602. The poetess, however, did not shy away from expressing her feelings and wrote a couplet that read "Viniti Rai Praveen ki, suniye Shah Sujan, juthi patar bhakat hain, bari, bayas, swan." This was indicative of the message that Rai Parveen was the beloved of another person and it would be against the dignity of the emperor to use her. Akbar was impressed with her intelligence and allowed her to return to Orchha laden with gifts and prizes. Today, a sound and light show is organised in the fort that relates the story of Rai Parveen.

Diwan Hardaul's Palace (north of the Ram Raja Temple) features domes, delicate pillars and spires. Its walls are painted yellow and a stone vessel stands right in front of the palace. According to locals, the vessel used to be filled with chanderi (sandalwood paste) every morning. The palace is a symbol of martyrdom and worship. According to legend Dinman Hardaul was the second son of the ruler of Orchha. He gave up his life to prove his innocence to his elder brother Jhujhar, who believed he was having relations with his companion. After his death, the prince was worshipped as god.

Barua Sagar Fort (20 kilometers from Orchha and Jhansi, lies on the route to Khajuraho) standing tall on a high ground overlooking an ancient lake. The fort marks the battleground of the war that was fought in 1744 between the Marathas and the Bundelas. It overlooks the beautiful Baruasagar Tal (lake) that was formed about 260 years ago, when an embankment was erected by king Udit Singh of Orchha. The embankment structure is a unique example of architecture and engineering. On the northeast side of the lake are the ruins of two old Chandela temples built with granite. The fort sitting by the lake makes for a picturesque setting. One should not forget to tote their cameras while visiting this scenic spot.

Jarai Ka Math (20 kilometers from Orchha) features stunning Pratihara style architecture and has been earmarked as a heritage site by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Constructed by Mihir Bhoja, a Pratihara king in 860, this red sandstone temple, with four sub-shrines, is dedicated to Goddess Amba, whose multiple forms are intricately carved on the temple walls. The idol or the image of the main deity is missing from the sanctum sanctorum. Only, a pedestal and a statue of the jewelled right foot of a female on a lotus stalk can be seen. However, there is a miniature, sixteen-armed idol of a goddess kept on the central lintel of the entrance. This further supports the belief that the temple was initially built for a goddess.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: India tourism website ( incredibleindia.org), India’s Ministry of Tourism and other government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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