Over five centuries of history repose lightly on the time-stained cavalcade of palaces and temples by the Betwa. Timeless, lovely, quiet Orchha. Even today, you can see why Bundela chieftain Raja Rudra Pratap Singh, in the early 16th century, chose to transform this little hamlet into his bastion. It remained hidden deep in the pelt of a jungle, on a strategically positioned river island, ready to repulse the battle cry of any Bundela foes.
But now Orchha (literally, ‘hidden gem’), long-abandoned as a royal bastion, is being gently nudged out of its slumber. And what better way to do it, than with a festival that seamlessly melds the history, heritage and all-prevailing sense of tranquillity in the city. The maiden cultural banquet of Namaste Orchha, which unfurled on the banks of the Betwa in early March, packed in a slew of thrilling opportunities—over three days one could soak up the charming offerings of this ancient citadel.
Launched by the Madhya Pradesh Tourism Board, Namaste Orchha is an alluring addition to the state’s cultural calendar. After all, the city was acclaimed as the ‘Best Heritage City’ at the National Tourism Awards 2017-18, and was shortlisted to be a Unesco World Heritage Site last year. When I first visited Orchha many years ago, I found it to be one of the prettiest little townships in the state. Its raffish charm and spectacular architecture, coupled with murals on derelict palaces and havelis, had made for a lovely experience.
The town’s architectural wonders are reflective of a long and abiding relationship with the Mughals; sometimes contentious, sometimes not. Lined up along the banks of the river, the Orchha Fort complex was quite a sight. The palaces in the complex had been built by three successive rulers of the state—started by Rudra Pratap Singh and completed by the highly spiritual Madhukar Shah. The Raja Mahal, in particular, boasted interiors that were lavishly painted with bold and colourful murals reflecting scenes from the Hindu epics. Of the palaces here, pre-eminent in the public domain has always been the Jahangir Mahal, specially built by Raja Bir Singh Deo, for a visit by Mughal emperor Jahangir in the 17th century. What made it really stand out was the stunning entrance marked by turquoise tiles; its endless windows, terraces and domes; and wide balconies. It was once densely illustrated with murals of the Bundela school of painting as a paean to the imperial guest, who, in fact, is said to have spent only a single night here.
The evening extravaganza on the first night of Namaste Orchha kicked off with an elegant dance ballet by the Delhi-based Sadhya group. It showcased the legendary story of lord Ram’s arrival, and sojourn, in Orchha.
Next, mounted on the vaulting exterior walls of the Jahangir Mahal was a stunning 3D mapping of Orchha’s history with Rudra Pratap, and the tale of how lord Ram is celebrated as the king of Orchha. Such was the beauty of this show, that even the moon seemed to leave its veil of clouds to marvel at it.
It rained sparsely throughout the night, and often we had to run for cover to the adjoining Sheesh Mahal, now a heritage property. But the line-up (the likes of Clinton Cerejo and folk singer Prahlad Singh Tipaniya) made us brave the mizzle. later, we gorged on kebabs and finger foods followed by a traditional Bundela meal, curated by author and food historian, Anoothi Vishal.
The next day, we woke to cheerful bird calls and were offered the day’s fare from a host of activities. Bicycle tours, photo walks, heritage walks, yoga sessions, rafting on the Betwa and even helicoptering—all part of the festivities to keep us in step with Orchha’s new offerings as a tourist hotspot.
I joined others on a homestay trail conducted by Delhi-based, designer- artist Anupamaa Dayal. We walked around the town, flush with festivities and painted afresh in bright colours, to the iconic Raja Ram Temple that is central to Orchha’s spiritual moorings. Anupamaa was invited to add a ‘unique visual identity’ to the town, and we could see her signature style, this time seamlessly inspired by local art and motifs, along the walls lining the city’s main road and the scattering of homestays around town. Her favourite illustration on the pristine white walls was the bird, a leitmotif of Gond art.
An excellent initiative, in line with the tourism activities, has been the encouragement among Orchha’s local community (women in particular) to set up more homestays. The state tourism board has also partnered with Airbnb for skill development classes for homestay owners. Loans are also being given to own and operate e-rickshaws to ferry visitors around town. Orchha is small enough to explore on foot or by rick, so one doesn’t really need those fuel-guzzling Sumos to pollute the pristine air.
The walk gave us up-close views of the royal cenotaphs reflected in the river, and we soon crossed a bridge to the imposing Chaturbhuj Temple, originally built to house the idol of lord Ram. Maharani Ganesh Kunwar (wife of Raja Madhukar Shah), we learnt, was a great devotee of his. Miffed at her husband, she had left for Ayodhya, where she prevailed upon lord Ram to come home to Orchha with her. Many believed that, moved by her devotion, lord Ram returned with her to the palace. But when the time came for him to be installed in the temple, Ram refused to go. The queen’s palace was then converted into a temple that came to be known as the Shri Ram Raja Mandir.
The fortified structure of the Lakshminarayan Temple is justly reputed for its stunning murals. If you have the time, do visit the painterly interiors of Rai Praveen Mahal, built for a dancer whose poses are splashed across the walls. We also explored the open-air crafts market that had sprung up in the shadows of the massive fort. From Chanderis to Maheshwaris, we couldn’t resist these lovely saris. The dhokra metal-casting outlet did brisk business, as did the stalls selling Pithora and Gond paintings. While the display of batik textiles, jute craft, terracotta and jewellery had their own charm, there was a nice line-up at the food stalls. I tried the local beverage called sannata, served in a terracotta tumbler—milky, spicy and intriguing. I couldn’t help but go for seconds.
The dazzling sunset drew us to the Kanchana Ghat of the Betwa and its picturesque chattris. We had gathered to enjoy the evening aarti, preceded by a spell-binding Hindustani performance by Padma Shri Shubha Mudgal. Kathak maestro Aditi Mangaldas had us in her thrall with her deeply emotional performance of ‘Khoj’. It was, we all agreed, the highlight of the evening, alongside the moving and very elegant maha aarti performed by the Sadhya troupe.
More music was in store for us at ‘Kalpavriksh’, near the beautifully lit 500-year-old baobab tree. The night’s fare included fusion rock band Indian Ocean, who performed with Malwa folk singer Kaluram Bamaniya (famed for his renditions of Bhakti poetry); Mrigya, a neo-folk music band; Kabir Cafe (which exclusively performs the mystic’s verses), and French-Spanish musician Manu Chao. Dabbling in reggae, ska and alternative Latin music, he brought the audience to their feet on the dance floor.
But truly, we just could not get enough of the Betwa. Noontide next day found us at the lovely Betwa Retreat for a delicious brunch, curated once again by Anoothi. The balmy breeze, the soft sunlight, and the gently flowing river made for a leisurely afternoon with friends, both old and new, quaffing on some delicious treats. There was no better way to end my trip.
Air India, Indigo and SpiceJet offer flights from major Indian cities to Gwalior, from where Orchha is a two-hour drive. the nearest railhead is Jhansi, a half-hour drive from Orchha. From Delhi, you can also drive down to the city, which takes approx. nine hours. The tourist season is from October to March.
Where to Stay:
>Orchha Resort (from Rs 2,500; +91-9993542070; email@example.com) is located on a peaceful stretch by the river. the luxurious property offers 44 rooms, 11 Swiss tents, and a spa with Kerala Ayurvedic treatments.
>Choose MPT Sheesh Mahal (from Rs 3,600; mpstdc.com), a gorgeous heritage property next to the Jahangir Mahal with rooms adorned with Bundeli art. You can also pick the MPT Betwa Retreat (from Rs 2,426; mpstdc.com).
What to do:
>Attend the evening aarti at the Ram Raja temple.
>Try river rafting on the Betwa; the grade one and two rapids are a great experience.
>Try the various heritage walks and bicycle tours of the city.
>Go for a jungle safari at the Orchha Wildlife sanctuary.
> Shop for dokhra souvenirs.