Published: August 10th 2007February 7th 2007
We were in Jhansi to attend a friend’s wedding. A group of colleagues from office had assembled at Jhansi, a small city in the state of Madhya Pradesh in central India made famous by Rani LaxmiBai, the legendary queen who fought valiantly against the British during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Excited as I was to visit this historic city, little did I know what a wonder waited for me in the little town of Orchha, hardly an hours drive from Jhansi. It was winter in India. Usually rains are unlikely during this time of the year, but it had been raining all through our stay in Jhansi. When we started for Orchha after seeing off most of our friends returning to Delhi, it was close to dusk, and the rain clouds were gathering. We, a party of five, kept our fingers crossed for a clear sky in Orchha.
The drive, bumpy as it is in many parts of India, did not take long. We had booked two rooms at the Sheesh Mahal Hotel. I have heard about many palaces turned into hotel. But the view of this palace-turned-hotel was breathtaking in the lights of dusk. As our car went
up the cobbled final stretch to the palace, which was probably used by horses once, I could feel the thrill. Even before we could check in, I was busy taking snaps of the palace in the final fading rays the sun.
Orchha lies by the Betwa river and was built as the capital of the Bundela kings during the 16th and 17th centuries. This is the time when the Mughal empire was spread across most of India. One of the Bundela rulers, Raja Bir Singh Ju Deo was a close associate of the Mughal Emperor Jehangir. The Sheesh Mahal, which is famous for its Jehangir Mahal, was specially constructed to receive the emperor as a guest. The story goes that the palace had taken 22 years to build. Emperor Jehangir was a guest there for only a day !! Imperial ways -- hard for us mere mortals to fathom. The real marvel of Orchha though lies in its temples. There are a whole line of temples built along the banks of the Betwa river, along with some cenotaphs of the Bundela kings. The temples are mostly unused now standing testimony to the religiosity of the Hindu line of kings.
Laxminarayan temple is one of the temples that is still active, and devotees throng there every morning and evening.
We got the opportunity to visit this Jehangir Mahal next day morning. It is a tiered palace crowned by chhatris, a typical Hindu design. At the main entrance to the Jehangir mahal, there are two huge stone elephants, the auspicious welcome symbol among Hindus. Inside the palace the main chamber walls were once decorated with small mirrors, hence the name Sheesh Mahal (Sheesha in Hindi is mirror). To my surprise, the rooms that were meant for the emperor didn’t look that spacious, although there were quite a few of them. I couldn’t understand the benefit of having so many not so spacious rooms. Another thing was that each stair of the stairway leading to the main chamber at the topmost floor was unusually high requiring quite a big stride to climb each of them. The ceilings were also low. As we friends were wondering on this quite uncomfortable design, the guide explained that this is to prevent an intruder from making a fast inroad or escape. It sounds like a good explanation, and to think about it, this design is
actually followed in many palaces.
The Jehangir Mahal is the only part in the Sheesh Mahal that has not been turned into a hotel. One has to enter it on payment of a small admission fee. But the rest of the palace is turned into hotel. We got two such rooms for five of us. The rooms were as comfortable as one can expect in a good hotel, but more than that the excitement of spending the night at a palace with its antiquated décor makes it worth the price. The dinner was at the main hall, with its typical pillared architecture. I was just wondering how nice it would be if the electric lights were not there. It probably would have really taken us to the days of the Rajas. But this was as good as one can expect in modern times. To add to the charm of the moment, there was live folk music being played by two local artists at the dining hall. It added the missing element to the ambience. Everything appeared perfect to me at that moment.
There was one thing that wasn’t quite as perfect, the weather; at least that’s what we
thought. It had started drizzling from the time we had checked in with short lulls in between. Rain, or no rain, we had made up our mind to walk down to the banks of the Betwa river, which is a short walk from the hotel, after dinner. It wasn’t raining when we reached near the river. But soon it started thundering lighting up the entire stretch up and down the river. In that light we could see the silhouettes of the temples. It looked so surreal that we stood there admiring the beauty of the stormy night. Our trance was broken only when the drizzle turned heavier. We rushed back to the hotel quite unwillingly. Our hearts longed to watch it forever, and though we were back at the hotel we knew that our nocturnal adventure is just beginning.
There was a narrow staircase through the dining hall, that we had explored before which leads to the terrace of the palace. This part is called the Rani Mahal (the chamber of the queen). From atop the Rani Mahal, the entire city of Orchha was now visible to us every time the sky was lit up. At a distance we
could see the river Betwa, and in between there was large stretch of emptiness engulfed in darkness, which showed up with every strike of lightning as if touched by a magic wand. But the most magnificent of the views was that of the palace itself with its own lighting adding more drama to the scene. It looked right out of the pages of the history books. I wonder how marvelous this entire place would look on a full moon night.
I have no idea how long we spent there. We wandered all around the Rani Mahal. The Rani Mahal itself is the most expensive suite in the hotel. So inside of it was off limits for us. But anyway we were not so keen on staying indoors, and preferred to wander around, enjoying the natures fury, sometimes staring at the darkness from the large windows on the walls, at times enjoying the more lighted part of the city where the active temple is, and some other time just staring into space and waiting for the next lightning to strike. When we came back into our room there was no electricity adding that extra bit to the ambience that I
was looking for. Now it really felt that nature has opened up a treasure trove that very few tourists ever get a chance to glimpse; we were really fortunate.
The next morning turned out to be much better so far as the weather is concerned. We were up early just to make sure that we have enough time to explore as many of those derelict temples and cenotaphs. The view of the temples from the opposite bank of Betwa in the morning rays of the Sun was beautiful. The Sheesh Mahal also presented quite a grand view from a distance which we hadn’t realized the previous day. I have always been amazed by the aura of these medieval palaces and forts. The walk through the temples and cenotaphs took us back in time, but with time running short we couldn’t do much justice to this part of the trip. Especially, I remember one temple I would like to visit in future. It was a really high structure with narrow maze-like stairways leading to the top. The structure of the temple surprisingly resembled some big cathedral, but I would be really surprised if it were designed after a cathedral. But
this is one place that itself will take a few hours to explore in detail. Some of the other temples, as well as the palace walls had beautiful murals of gods and goddesses. The Bundela kings used to be very devout Hindus. So the walls are full of pictures depicting stories from the Hindu epics and scriptures.
Amidst this extraordinary trip to the temple town, the only sad part was one of our friends had fallen terribly sick. She missed out on almost all of the excursions. We tried our best to capture as much of it in pictures. But I am sure we will have to go back there again with more time in hand. We might be able to see Orchha many more times, but I am sure the moments we enjoyed in the stormy night at Orchha would be cherished by all us for a long time.
There are more photos below