A Courtesan’s Tale - The New Indian Express

A Courtesan’s Tale

Published: 09th March 2014 06:00 AM

Last Updated: 08th March 2014 03:50 PM

Old times always speak about ghosts in the ruins. A mofussil town of magnificent ruins of cenotaphs, forts, palaces and temples left behind by its former Bundelkhand rulers is what describes Orchha best. Enveloped by hillocks and Dhak forest in the Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh and skirted by the Betwa river, Orchha—‘hidden’ in Bundelkhandi—had deftly concealed its medieval splendour till a decade ago.

A favourite legend of Orchha tells a story of the nightingale of Orchha, her passion and loyalty. The royal courtesan Rai Parveen’s palace sits separate from the main palaces beyond the fort’s Uth-Khaana that once housed the royal camels. Mughal Emperor Akbar was smitten just hearing about Rai Parveen’s beauty along with her legendary talent in music and poetry. He summoned her to his court in Agra. But Rai Parveen being absolutely devoted to her lover Maharaja Indrajit Singh of Budelkhand  wriggled out of the situation through a verse written for the Emperor which cleverly implied that none other than a dog or a crow would eat someone else’s leftover. The Emperor understood her rebuttal veiled in subtle poetic charms and let her go “untouched” as is always harped by the locals.

From being a quick lunch basket stopover on the way to Khajuraho on the Golden Triangle circuit, this historic town is graduating into a weekend destination. A four-hour train journey from Delhi to Jhansi followed by a 16 km road run, pretty bumpy if on a tuk-tuk, takes you to this mystic city’s main gate, Ganesh Darwaza.

Amid the hum drum of a small village-town with its roadside kiosks, tempos, colourful traditional houses in haphazard bylanes, herds of cows, temple bells and intermittent chants of ash-smeared saffron-robed saints, Orchha’s skyline tells the story of its feudal past. It became the capital of the Bundelas, a Rajput clan, when they were pushed out of their capital in Garkhundar by the invasion of Tughlaqs. Bundela Chief Rudra Pratap discovered it as an apt location for a new city in 1501, declared himself king and built its first fort. What remains now, however, is a town of ruins where vultures perched high on cenotaphs still seem to guard the town’s ancient heritage.

The three-storey cenotaphs built to honour Orchha’s Bundela rulers stand tall alongside the southern banks of the Betwa River, also known as Kanchan Ghat. All 14 of them look alike even though they were built centuries apart; mostly constructed on elevated platforms with a sanctum sanctorum. The roofs are patterned in the Nagar style of temple architecture. At dawn and dusk a tranquil Betwa shimmers with their majestic reflection; quiet moments to revel in the grandeur of the past.

With enough luxury and economy properties to host, Orchha is a town to explore by walking at a leisurely pace if the weather permits; barring summers and the heat of non-rainy days during monsoons. Else tuk-tuk rides with a guide in tow, often women, will yield enough tales on its numerous legendary structures.

The Orchha fort surrounded by a battlement overlooks the current town, separated by the Betwa river. Comprising the Jehangir Mahal, Sheesh Mahal, Raj Mahal and Sawan Bhado Palace, these are approachable only by a causeway standing over an old-styled bridge supported by stone arches. The palaces speak of Bundela architecture dominated by chhatris with strong influences of the Mughal style of architecture. The Jehangir Mahal was built to welcome the Mughal Emperor Jehangir and took 22 years to complete. Ironically, the Emperor was able to stay in the palace for only a day before leaving for Lahore in 1626, never to return to Orchha.

Crumbling yet beautiful frescoes depicting court scenes along with scenes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagvata Gita adorn the interiors of Raj Mahal—the king’s personal quarters. Even on the hottest summer days, hidden air ducts with rectangular vents in the king’s palace keep the rooms surprisingly cool and breezy; medieval air conditioners at work.

The Bundela kings loved to decorate the interiors with wall-to-ceiling series of paintings done in vegetable dye colours, all visible in Sawan Bhado Mahal, Rai Parveen Mahal and even the lonesome and disintegrating Lakshmi Narayan temple festering with bats and invaded by the overgrowth. In the gentle ruination of the centuries, the paintings still charm visitors even after enduring 400 years of Bundelkhand’s harsh and extreme summers and hostile winters.

Orchha is also famous for being the only other city apart from Ayodhya where Lord Ram is worshipped as a king, not as God. He is believed to sleep in Orchha at night and return to Ayodhya during the day. The centuries-old grand Raja Ram temple religiously welcomes its legendary king in the evenings with reverberating gun salutes with locals and tourists thronging the place  to join in the aarti, held only at dusk.

As the evening light fades away, the silhouettes of Orchha slip into darkness. The town, too, slips into sleep and the tourists call it a day, but in the detritus of a lost era, the ghosts mourn the passing of an age.

Orchha fact file

Altitude: 231 meters, Temp: Summer 42-26°C

and winter 30 to -4°C

Best time to Go: Oct-March, Monsoon: July–August,

Nearest Airport: Gwalior,  119 km; Railway Station: Jhansi, 16 km; Bus Station: Orchha (Regular Bus service from Jhansi),

TO SEE: Jehangir Mahal, Raj Mahal, Rai Parveen Mahal,  Chaturbhuj Temple, Laxminarayan Temple, Phool Bagh,  Sunder Mahal, Chhatris

Where to Stay: Amar Mahal

(Phone:+91 76 80 252102)

Orchha Resort

(+91 76 80 252222)

Bundelkhand Riverside

(+91 76 80 252332)

MPTDC Betwa Retreat

(011-23366528)

Sun Rise Guest House

+91 9893204083

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