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.