An essential stop en route to or from Khajuraho, ORCHHA (“hidden place”) certainly lives up to its name, residing amid a tangle of scrubby dhak forest eighteen kilometres southeast of Jhansi. In spite of its tumbledown state, the fortified and now deserted medieval town remains an architectural gem, its guano-splashed temple shikharas, derelict palaces, havelis and weed-choked sandstone cenotaphs floating serenely above the banks of the River Betwa. Clustered around the foot of the exotic ruins, the sleepy village makes an excellent spot to unwind after the hassle of northern cities. However, it’s now firmly established on the tour-group circuit, so try to spend a night or two here after the coach parties have moved off.
After being chased by several generations of Delhi sultans from various capitals around central India, the Bundela dynasty finally settled at the former Malwan fort of Orchha in the fifteenth century. Work on Orchha’s magnificent fortifications, palaces and temples was started by Raja Rudra Pratap, and continued after he was killed in 1531 trying to wrestle a cow from the clutches of a tiger. Thereafter, the dynasty’s fortunes depended on the goodwill of their mighty neighbours, the Mughals. After being defeated in battle by Akbar, the proud and pious Madhukar Shah nearly signed his clan’s death warrant by showing up at the imperial court with a red tilak smeared on his forehead – a mark at that time banned by the emperor. Madhukar’s bold gesture, however, earned Akbar’s respect, and the two became friends – an alliance fostered in the following years by Orchha’s most illustrious raja.
During his 22-year rule, Bir Singh Deo erected 52 forts and palaces, including the citadel at Jhansi, the rambling Nrsing Dev at Datia and many of Orchha’s finest buildings. In 1627, he was killed by bandits while returning from the Deccan with a camel train full of booty. Afterwards, relations with the Mughals rapidly deteriorated, and the Bundelas eventually fled Orchha for the comparative safety of Tikamgarh. Apart from the Sheesh Mahal, now a hotel, the magnificent monuments have lain virtually deserted ever since.