Palaces, Temples and a River

Orchha, beside the Betwa River, hardly seems a modern town. Dominated by its fort and palaces, its temples and the sixteen medieval cenotaphs that line the riverbank, this is a charming town of cobbled streets, approached through an old gateway that took us from the 21st century into the 16th.

Orchha and Datia: Day 5 and 6

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by phileasfogg on September 10, 2010

This is part 3 of a trip through the region of central India that’s known as Bundelkhand. On a week-long drive starting from Delhi, we first went to Gwalior (best known for its fabulous fort) and then to Khajuraho, with its famous temples, a World Heritage site. Click here and here for the journals of those trips. What follows is an account of the third destination we covered in our journey: Orchha.

Day 5: Khajuraho to Orchha

180 km, 5 hours. We retrace our drive from two days back, driving back almost all the way from Khajuraho to Jhansi. Shortly before Jhansi, there’s a fork in the road: one leads to Jhansi, the other to Orchha, 9 km away on the banks of the Betwa River. This is where we turn, and the road continues, as pleasant and pretty a countryside—if not more—than it’s been all this while. I do think, the more I look at it, that Bundelkhand in the monsoon is eye candy all the way. The fields are a lush, rich green, flecked with the white of blossoming crops. There are wildflowers: deep purple morning glory, orange and red lantana, and some gorgeous red and yellow tiger-lily like flowers.And the birds. We spot plenty of Indian rollers, a dull buff in colour until they spread their wings, and bright blue feathers fan out. Lovely! All the rollers sit on wires well away from the road; one that we find posing perfectly on a roadside sign—positioned so that its blue wings and tail are visible clearly even from where we sit in our car—watches us until we get our camera out, then flies off cheekily.

We don’t get to photograph any birds, but we see plenty of them: little green bee-eaters, slender birds with spectacle-like markings; a brown-and-black coucal or crow pheasant that flaps heavily into a small tree; a pair of elegant grey, white, black and caramel tree pies, their long tails flowing behind them; grassy green rose-ringed parakeets; doves, large-billed crows, sparrows, whitebreasted kingfishers, and the intelligent-looking common mynahs, that spend most of their time pecking on the fringes of the road and then sauntering across the highway at a daringly leisurely pace. Why not fly?

The local people are a picturesque lot too. The women are, most of them, in bright orange or red saris, all nylon with shiny tinsel embroidery. They balance gleaming stainless-steel waterpots on their heads as they walk to or from the village pond. We see old men, dressed in white dhotis, sitting on their haunches in the shade of a big black umbrella by the side of the road, watching over a herd of grazing goats. Or there are young boys, watching over water buffalos that wallow in the thick, muddy waters of roadside ponds. The buffalos emerge looking like they’ve been through a mud bath (which they have, of course): muddy in every pore, which thus gets protected from pesky and/or disease-bearing insects. Occasionally, we see holy men, sadhus with long dreadlocks gathered up into a knot atop their heads, spare bodies dressed in orange or yellow robes.

We arrive in Orchha at 3 PM, and are immediately entranced by the very visible historicity of the town: spires and domes, ruins and imposing towers soar up above the horizon all around.

After a quick lunch at our hotel, Amar Mahal, we decide we’d better see some of the sights today, since we’ve realised that tomorrow is Janmashtami, the birth anniversary of the Hindu God Krishna: it’s an important religious festival, and some sights may well be shut for the day.

At the Orchha Fort, we are told that that isn’t so: despite Janmashtami, the sights will be open tomorrow. But we may as well see all we can today. So we hire a guide—not very good, as it turns out, and inclined to sit down wherever he can after giving us a very brief explanation and telling us that we should ‘look around on your own’. But we do see the Jahangir Mahal, Raja Mahal and Rai Praveen Mahal at the Orchha Fort, followed by a trip to the Lakshminarayan Temple (already closed for the day, but commanding a fine view of Orchha) and a drive down to the Betwa River for a panoramic sunset view of the chhatris, the 16 cenotaphs of the Bundela kings. The view is so-so (some people are doing their laundry here), and the stink is awful. We’ve had enough of Orchha for the day.

Day 6: Orchha; Day trip to Datia

51 km, 1½ hours each way. When we’d hired a guide the day before, he’d made huge promises to show us all of Orchha—the palaces in the fort, the chhatris or cenotaphs by the river, the temples in town. After showing us around two of the palaces in the fort, he’d started hinting that the rest of the sights in town were either not worth seeing—too dirty and poorly maintained—or didn’t need us to take a guide along. Tarun, who can detect shirking and stall it, decided to pay the man only half his fee until he agreed to come along with us today too, to show us the rest, no matter if it’s dirty. So, after a late breakfast, we set off with the guide, first to the cenotaphs along the river. We see at close quarters only the most important cenotaph, that of the king Veer Singh Deo. It is dirty—bats roost here and cows wander in, depositing dung wherever they feel like it. But still.

Veer Singh’s cenotaph done, our guide insists on taking us into town, to the renovated and brightly painted cream-and-yellow Ram Raja Temple. This is a big draw for Hindu pilgrims who come to Orchha. For me, it lacks religious attraction, and the unfeeling way in which they’ve obliterated all signs of the temple’s historic character earns my silent wrath. The Ram Raja Temple is a unique one, because it’s the only temple—in all of India, supposedly—where the deity Ram, who was also the king of Ayodhya, is worshipped in his regal form. All other temples and idols of Ram only focus on his divinity. We have a quick look at the idol, and are then shooed off by a priest who’s keeping the queues moving—not that there are vast crowds around. A disappointing place, and not one that I’d recommend visiting unless it’s for the sake of religion.

After the Ram Raja Temple, the guide takes us to the Lakshminarayan Temple, which we hadn’t been able to see yesterday, since it was shut. Today, it’s open, and we spend a rewarding few minutes admiring the beauty of the paintings decorating the interiors of the temple—before we head back to our hotel, dropping off the guide on the way. After something sweet, cold and fizzy to shore ourselves up, we do the 1½ hour drive to the town of Datia, which we’ve been told has a palace worth seeing. Datia is dusty, very crowded and chaotic. Guns seem to be an important commodity here: we pass many ‘gun houses’, shops that sell arms and ammunition.

45 minutes of looping back and forth, getting lost in one neighbourhood and then another, and we finally arrive at the palace. It seems deserted, but as we enter, we discover four men sitting in the dim recesses of the first chamber. Yes, it’s open for visitors, says one of them; there are no entry fees. Tarun asks if someone can show us around, and one of them—a young man—is elected. The first few rooms are unpromising, dark and smelling faintly of bats. But higher up (the Datia Palace has seven storeys), we arrive in what is among the best-preserved medieval painted plaster I’ve ever seen. It’s beautiful, and worth all the trouble it’s taken us. By 2 PM, we’ve finished, and begin the drive back to Orchha and a very late lunch.

Atmospheric, Historic, Gone to Seed

Member Rating 2 out of 5 by phileasfogg on September 10, 2010

Orchha’s skyline is dominated by the bulk of its medieval fortress, which sits on a hillock and dates back to the 16th century. Although part of the fort—the palace known as the Sheesh Mahal—is now a somewhat rundown hotel operated by Madhya Pradesh Tourism, the rest is open to the public for Rs 10 per person for Indians, Rs 250 per person for foreigners.

In actual fact, the fort itself is very large: its walls stretch way out, the gates standing abruptly in the middle of town, even in places where the surrounding walls have collapsed. Of the citadel and the buildings in its immediate neighbourhood, however, very little that is identifiable remains. Of these the most prominent and the best known is the Jahangiri Mahal. A guide whom we hire at the entrance of the fort (Hindi-speaking; the charges are Rs 190 for the fort, the temples and the chhatris or cenotaphs in town) tells us a brief history of the Jahangiri Mahal. Medieval Orchha was ruled by the Bundela kings, of whom the most powerful was Veer Singh Deo (r. 1605-27). Veer Singh Deo’s reign is considered the golden age of Bundelkhand (the area ruled by the Bundela kings; it included Orchha and surrounding areas such as Datia and Panna), and resulted in increasingly closer ties with the Mughal sultans ruling from Agra. Veer Singh Deo grew to be such good friends with the Mughal heir, Salim (later the emperor Jahangir) that at Salim’s instigation, Veer Singh Deo—who was an expert at guerrilla warfare—killed Abul Fazal, one of the most trusted advisers of the Mughal emperor Akbar, Salim’s father. That soured Akbar’s relations with Veer Singh Deo, but endeared the Bundela king even further to Salim, who when he ascended the throne, honoured Veer Singh Deo by coming to visit Orchha—for one day and one night. In honour of Salim/Jahangir’s coronation and visit, Veer Singh Deo built the Jahangiri Mahal.

The Jahangiri Mahal is in the form of a hollow square, rising in multiple stories of verandahs, balconies and small rooms around and above a large central courtyard with a water tank in the middle. Original doors of carved teak hang shut along the periphery of the courtyard; our guide leads us up a steep and narrow staircase, up to the room that was Jahangir’s bedroom for the one night he stayed here. As in the other rooms (which we peek into as we pass by), here too nearly all the ornamentation has vanished over time: there are the pretty niches in which lamps were kept by night and vases of flowers by day, but the elaborate painted plaster is long gone. We spend the next 20 minutes or so wandering around, admiring sections of incised plaster, and traces of lovely bright blue and green tilework—on the drums of domes, in the shape of little floral patterns on niches—and the odd bit of painting that’s survived. We see, for instance, a cute line of ducks, painted along with flowers, below the rim of a roof. We see real bird life too: a vulture sitting atop a dome. Important sighting, this: vultures are becoming dangerously rare in India.

From the Jahangiri Mahal, our guide takes us down to the ground and then across to the Raja Mahal. The construction of this palace was begun in 1531 by the Bundela king Raja Rudra Pratap; eight years later, Bharti Chandra completed it. Later still, Bharti Chandra’s successor Madhukar Shah added to the building and altered it in places. The Raja Mahal rises to five storeys on three sides; the fourth side is one storey shorter. This building was primarily the apartments of the royal family, and it’s here—in the queen’s chamber and the king’s chamber—that the Raja Mahal is at its best: both rooms are vividly decorated, their ceilings painted intricately and profusely, mainly with religious themes, though there are also warriors on horseback, or floral patterns. Some of those remind me of the pattern on the ceiling of the Amar Mahal Hotel’s restaurant! I can see where they got inspired.

After a look at the Diwan-e-Khaas (the hall of private audience) in the Raja Mahal—on the ground floor, a pillared hall with somewhat faded painting all across the ceiling—we go on to the last major palace in the fort: the Rai Praveen Mahal.

This one has an interesting story to it. Rai Praveen was a courtesan and the lover of the Bundela king Indramani. When the Mughal emperor Akbar saw Rai Praveen, he was captivated by her beauty, and gave orders for Rai Praveen to be taken away to Agra, to the Mughal emperor’s court. Rai Praveen complied, but when Akbar tried to compel her to become his concubine, she retorted that "only a crow and a dog will eat food that has been already sampled by another". Akbar, it is said, was so struck by Rai Praveen’s sharpness that he allowed her to return to Orchha and Indramani. Indramani married her in 1672 and she remained queen until 1676, when Indramani died.

There is a glaring discrepancy in this tale: Akbar died in 1605. But no matter; it’s an enchanting anecdote, and we’re keen on seeing the palace that belonged to Rai Praveen. This is separated from the Jahangiri Mahal by a dirt track and patches of lush greenery where cows and goats graze. We realise, as we step into the two-storied palace, that the animals don’t restrict themselves to the path outside: there are patches of cowdung and goat turd in the enclosure around the palace too. Yuck!

Inside, though, Rai Praveen’s palace is worth a look: it’s decorated with unusual paintings, depicting the lady’s prowess in various fields: as a dancer, a horsewoman, a poetess. One small room has a wall pitted with niches of different shapes and sizes, which our guide tells us were used to store Rai Praveen’s many cosmetics.

After the Rai Praveen Mahal, there’s not much left to see. Near it is the main medieval gate to the fort—no longer used—and a distinctive single-storied building with an arched facade and a whaleback roof. This is known as the Unth Khana or camel house. Though our guide tells us it was the camel stable, the plaque beside it refutes him: the ‘camel’ element of the name, it says, is a reference to the humped roof; the Unth Khana was actually a pleasure house. Slightly uphill from the Unth Khana is a circular, bastion-like structure that was originally a water tank and was used later as a bastion too.

The Orchha Fort has its plus points: it makes for some great photos, it offers a splendid view of the town, and it’s very historic. On the flip side, it’s badly maintained, downright dirty in places, and with graffiti all over the place. There is very little in the way of signs or labelling; and bats, birds and animals go wherever they can (and foul up the place terribly).

Worth a visit, but we emerge feeling depressed and angry at the condition of the place.

The Orchha Fort

Orchha, India

Paintings of Battles in a Defunct Temple

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by phileasfogg on September 10, 2010

The Bundela king Veer Singh Deo—the man who built the palaces at Orchha and Datia in honour of his friend the Mughal emperor Jahangir—was a prolific builder. Among the other constructions to his name is this one, a temple atop a hillock overlooking Orchha. The Lakshminarayan Temple, dedicated to the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, and her consort, Narayan, was built by Veer Singh Deo in 1622. A later ruler, Prithvi Singh, renovated the temple in 1793, and in 1984 (or ’86, our guide admits he doesn’t remember which) some thieves broke in and stole the temple idol, thus depriving the building of its status as a temple. It has since reverted to being just another historic monument. Though it’s protected by the Archaeological Survey of India, not too many people visit, so the local caretaker looks a bit surprised when we turn up with our guide.

Inside, the Lakshminarayan Temple looks like a scaled-down version of the Orchha Fort, but with a greater emphasis on indigenous elements of architecture—the whaleback roofs, the overhangs or dripstones, and the oriel windows that are common in places like Rajasthan are in evidence here, much more than the domes that predominate in more Mughal buildings. The main gate is decorated with a scalloped arch and carving, including two small figures of stylised lions that jut out over the doorway.

We go through small courtyards, past arches decorated with plaster figures of deities, and into the first of several rooms decorated with murals. This room is open on one side, held up by slender columns; the wall is covered over with a deep brick red colour, into which delicate line drawings have been traced in white. These are mainly depictions of the Hindu god Krishna, playing the flute and cavorting with his many ladies in pleasure gardens.

Similar styles of painting follow in the other rooms we visit. The themes, however, really run amok! I expect illustrations of Krishna in a Hindu temple; I do not expect large paintings of 19th century British officers having a tête-à-tête! But they are there, two men dolled up in boots, breeches, tricorn hats and coats heavy with braid, drinking wine as they chat. Although no mention has been made of alterations or additions to the Lakshminarayan Temple after the 18th century, there are obvious signs of work having carried on well past the 1850’s: one of the rooms has the upper half of its walls covered with small, intricate images of the mutiny of 1857. Here, bayonet-holding British soldiers form ranks while their officers confer in a tent; there, the Indians move forward on war elephants and horses. While the paintings near the entrance of the temple are large, white-on-brick red, these ones are small, painted in shades of black, red, brown and ochre, on a white ground. And the scenes are not restricted to India’s freedom movement: there are also scenes from the battles of the Hindu epics, the Mahabharat and the Ramayana.

Most interesting of all are the two depictions of a local heroine whom just about every Indian knows about: Queen Lakshmibai of Jhansi (Jhansi is 16 km from Orchha). Lakshmibai was an intrepid warrior who led her armies into battle against the British in 1857. Though she was eventually killed, she did manage to make a name for herself by her bravery and her defiance of the British. The artists who painted the interiors of this temple probably realised that here was their chance to immortalise Lakshmibai: you can see her, dressed in flowing robes and sitting in a garden, conversing with a woman, in one mural; right above is Lakshmibai in her warrior avatar, on horseback. Another battle scene shows her, amidst other archers on horseback, loosing off arrows from her bow while her adopted son Damodar clings to her back.

Though the paintings on the lower walls have been ruthlessly mutilated and covered with graffiti, the ones on the ceilings and upper walls are in much better condition. They’re excellent murals, of what is known as the Bundelkhand School of Painting. And the subjects—religion on the one hand, nationalism on the other—are eclectic enough to be intriguing. Don’t miss this.

Lakshminarayan (Laxminarayana) Temple
Orchha, India

Disappointing at First—But Worth Persevering

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by phileasfogg on September 10, 2010

A friend who’d been on a recent trip from Gwalior to Orchha had mentioned that Datia, midway between Gwalior and Orchha, had a beautiful palace. My parents, who lived enough years in the state of Madhya Pradesh to have seen most of it, agreed. Yes, Datia has a magnificent palace, they said. Tarun and I, since we’re spending a couple of days at Orchha, decide we’ll go see it.

The 51 km trip from Orchha takes about an hour and a half, and we enter Datia City shortly after noon. We learn later that this isn’t the best way to get to the palace; there’s a shorter, cleaner, straighter route that connects the palace to the highway. The route we’re on, we spend 45 minutes inching our way through a warren of narrow, cramped lanes and bylanes, crowded with hawkers, cows, goats, horses and horsecarts, and much more, all spreading across the hill on which the palace stands. The palace, when we reach it, is imposing in a half-forgotten, neglected way, its plaster peeling, its walls dark with patches of mould. The gateway has some lovely old paintings—flowers, birds, geometrical patterns, which we admire before stepping in.

The Veer Singh Palace is named for the man who built it. Veer Singh Deo was the most illustrious king of the Bundela dynasty (his cenotaph is in Orchha, along with another palace—the Jahangiri Mahal—that Veer Singh built). In 1620, to honour the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, Veer Singh Deo built the Veer Singh Palace. The palace has a total of 440 rooms and 20 courtyards, spread across seven storeys. The entire structure, when seen from the top, is in the form of a swastika.

All of this we are told by a young man, one of the caretakers at the palace. The Veer Singh Palace is open to the public, but no entry fee is charged. When we ask if it’s possible for someone to take us around the huge building, this young man is deputed, and he turns out to be friendly and fairly knowledgeable about the palace. The route he takes us on is initially all up, up, up. The stairs go through dim, even dark rooms (there are very few windows, most of them small) that smell faintly of bats. We emerge high up, at the fourth storey. Our guide takes us around, showing us room after room, all plastered but fairly plain, with decorative niches built into the walls to hold lamps. The pillars have finely carved brackets; there are carved stone screens at the windows, and the domes have traces of lovely tilework in blue and green.

Our guide shows us a room with an intriguing ceiling—plaster moulded and painted in the form of human figures, standing in a circle. We think this is rather pleasing, until he leads up upstairs, to the fifth floor. Here are two rooms, both kept locked. The first is shut off by a steel door of the sort that can be pulled back: at any rate, there is enough space between the steel rods for us to look in and admire the finely painted ceiling of the room. There are beautiful, perfectly preserved paintings here of birds and geometrical patterns. We drool over them for a while, before our guide leads us to the second room.

The door here is wooden. Our guide pulls the leaves apart—they’re still anchored together by a heavy iron chain—and invites us to peek in. Yes, there are some paintings on the wall. We can’t see much, but we politely murmur our admiration. This is when our guide grins shyly and says he can let us in here. One of the door’s leaves comes off its hinges—and we’re in, into what is definitely the best-preserved painted room I have seen in India. The walls are covered with niches, each with a vase of flowers or other decoration painted in it. There are paintings of men on elephant back; geometrical designs, arabesques, and other patterns that are commonly seen in 16th and 17th century Mughal art. I’ve seen similar designs in monuments like the tombs of Abdul Rahim Khan-e-Khanan and Humayun in Delhi, but never have I seen these in colour: almost everywhere else, the plaster remains though the colour has vanished. Here, the colour is still there, vivid and beautiful.

And worth travelling all that way for. If you’re passing through near Datia, do stop by. The rest of the palace—even the modest Diwan-e-Khaas (Hall of Private Audience), with its geometrical inlay ceiling and painted walls; and the basic plan of the palace, on the floor of one of the outer courts—are interesting, even striking; but the painted room is in a class by itself.

Veer Singh Palace
Datia Fort
Datia, India

Not quite Luxury

Member Rating 1 out of 5 by phileasfogg on September 10, 2010

Amar Mahal bills itself as a ‘luxury hotel’. As we drive up to it, I do wonder.

The facade of the hotel gives us an inkling of what these people mean by luxury: a tawdry, gilded version of the architecture that probably prevailed in Orchha’s fort 400 years ago. The exterior, all arches and whaleback roofs and columns, is painted in pale yellow and cream. The lobby, which smells overpoweringly of incense, is gloomy and has furniture of the carved-wood-and-fake-velvet type. The upholstery patterns are abstract, black and brown streaks and swirls on a beige ground. Not the sort of thing you team with a ceiling decorated with ornate arabesques, murals of warriors and elephants, and much gilt.

This seems to be the theme all through. Our room has a four-poster bed, carved furniture—with the same abstract upholstery—and curtains plus bed cover in an attractive stylised floral print, of the sort that instantly strikes me as ‘Mughal’: it’s the design you see all over buildings like the Taj Mahal. Our room has a TV, wardrobe, and tea and coffee fixings (no mineral water, though, so we end up buying mineral water and using that). The bathroom has a shower/bathtub, though the floor of the bathtub has ominous blackish stains and the shower plays up every now and then. The hot water takes a while to start flowing, but once it starts, there’s no stopping it—and it’s scalding. Since the cold water seems to give up as soon as the hot water starts, all our baths are mostly cold water ones.

The bathroom has a small tray with iffy-looking moisturiser, shampoo, soap and hair conditioner. The towels look clean, but mine smells faintly of something that isn’t detergent or softener. Even the bed linen has a strongish smell of something that’s burnt: wood? And, before I forget: the electric switch near the door—into which we’ve been advised to insert the door key—doesn’t really work. We have to go around switching on (or off) each point manually. The toilet can’t be flushed in the usual way: depress the lever, and it releases a torrent of water that refuses to stop until we screech for help and a room attendant comes by to show us how this particular lever should be worked.

The Amar Mahal is in the shape of a hollow square: in the centre is a garden, very green at present. Next to the lobby is the restaurant and bar, also overdone in a garish way, with painted and gilded ceiling, carved wooden pillars, and fancy chandeliers and ceiling fans. The tables, covered with maroon tablecovers on white tablecloths, are seemingly laid just once at every meal. Whenever we enter the restaurant, we find used tables lying as is: soiled napkins, baskets of cold poppadums, butter dishes, used glasses... the waiters don’t appear to believe in clearing tables too frequently. The menu consists of Continental (of the ‘roasted mutton with brown sauce’ school), Indian and Chinese food. We’re pretty sure that the Chinese and Continental food won’t be anything like the original, so we stick with Indian, which is the usual tandoori, kababs, lentils, naan and roti, different types of curries, pulaos, biryanis and so on. A few dishes are listed as Bundelkhand specialties: chicken curry, mutton curry, and so on. On the whole, fairly tasty, though not exceptional.

A buffet breakfast is included in our room charges. The buffet consists of cornflakes, porridge, milk, juice, fruit, toast, omelettes (congealed and tasteless), hash brown potatoes (burnt and tasteless), pancakes (chewy and tasteless). There are also Indian dishes—stuffed parathas one day, pooris with potato curry the next day—which are vastly better than the rest of the food. The chef seems to think Westerners don’t want any seasoning in their food.

Smelly linen. Malfunctioning toilet. Malfunctioning showerhead. Malfunctioning switch. Tasteless Continental food. Would I stay at the Amar Mahal again, even if the garden is pretty and the Indian food is tasty? Probably not.

Amar Mahal Hotel
Orcha, District Tikamgarh
Orchha, Madhya Pradesh

Beware: Smelly Cenotaphs

Member Rating 1 out of 5 by phileasfogg on September 10, 2010

From the 16th to the 19th centuries, the Bundela dynasty ruled over the area known as Bundelkhand, in central India. The Bundelas, while nowhere as mighty as their contemporaries, the Mughals (with whom the Bundelas had relationships that ranged from enmity through tolerance to—as in the case of Veer Singh Deo and Jahangir—close friendship), were powerful and wealthy men. During the period the Bundelas held sway in Bundelkhand, they annexed large parts of central India, including present-day towns such as Orchha (which was founded in the early 16th century by the Bundela Rudra Pratap), Datia, Damoh, Panna, Ajaigarh, Chanderi and Mahoba. They built imposing palaces and ornate temples, patronised the arts—especially painting, which developed a unique style known as the Bundelkhand School of Painting—and made enough of a mark for themselves to be even known outside India. (I have a particular interest here: Jules Verne’s hero from Around the World in Eighty Days, Phileas Fogg, rescues an about-to-be-burnt widow, Aouda, while travelling through Bundelkhand).

Among the most visible structures left behind by the Bundelas—and most personal, too, literally more so than the palaces and the temples—are their chhatris or cenotaphs beside the Betwa River. There are sixteen of these cenotaphs, spire-topped buildings made of stone and plastered brick, standing sentinel above the few mortal remains of the Bundela kings.

We have seen the chhatris from a bridge across the Betwa, at sunset the previous day. A very smelly but picturesque proposition: the setting sun makes the river and the spires look beautiful, but the stench of sewage, cow dung and more unmentionable stuff is nauseating.

Today, we’re venturing even closer, because we want to see what a chhatri looks like at close quarters. Our guide, as he leads us along a riverbank path through the ankle-length grass, tells us about chhatris. Since the Bundelas were Hindus, their bodies were cremated; whatever was left after the cremation—ashes, bits of bone and so on—was interred beside the river, and a chhatri built over that to act as a memorial of sorts. "I’ll show you the main chhatri," he says.

The chhatri he takes us to is a squat four-sided one, a chhatri without a spire atop it. This, explains our guide, is the chhatri of the king Veer Singh Deo, most famous of the Bundelas, and the man who built the Jahangiri Mahal at Orchha and the Veer Singh Palace at Datia. His chhatri, built shortly after his death in 1627, was constructed by his son and successor Jujhar Singh. It remained incomplete, though—as we can see.

Despite our guide’s insistence that the interior is dirty, we enter (after all, we’ve come all this way). The inside of the chhatri is plain and dark and very dirty. There are droppings—of cattle, goats and bats—all over the place, and heaps of clipped hair: a barber seems to have been using the doorway as a saloon. The place stinks to high heavens. The only interesting part of the interior is the actual cenotaph of the king: a four-sided platform on which is a round, thick piece of stone which looks almost exactly like a millstone but without the central hole. Our guide tells us that this round appendage signifies that the cenotaph is a male’s; a woman’s would have only the four-sided platform.

And that is it. We can’t hold our breaths any more, and anyway, since there isn’t anything else worth seeing inside Veer Singh Deo’s chhatri, we emerge and quickly make our way away from the river.

The chhatris are a striking part of Orchha’s skyline. Lovely to look at from a distance, but approach at your own risk. There are no restrictions on entry (that’s why they’ve become something of a thoroughfare), and no entry fees.

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