Orchha and Khajuraho are located on northeast of Madhya Pradesh in central India with Orchha an essential stop en route to or from Khajuraho. I was on a group tour, we left Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh, early in the morning to catch the Samta Express train to Jhansi, the main railway station that connects to Orchha and Khajuraho. The 41/2 to 5 hours’ train journey is relatively faster than the bone-shaking 6 to 8 hours’ drive on bumpy Madhya Pradesh roads. Upon arrival in Jhansi, Orchha is just 15km away.
Orchha – A Hidden Place
From the outset, Orchha is a non-descript laid-back hamlet, its main road lined with shops and stalls selling souvenirs, Indian clothes, food and drinks. I saw a handful of tourists walking around the main road and surprisingly, no touts! Immediately, I took a liking to this “hidden place” (Orchha means hidden place) in the heart of India which has a medieval heritage dating back to the early 16th century.
Located near the banks of Betwa River, Orchha was a former princely state of the Bhundelwal dynasty – one of the largest kingdoms of central India. Founded by Bundela Rajput chieftains in 1501, Orchha built alliances and fought wars with foreign invaders such as the Afghans, Mughals, Marathas and the British. During the Bhundelwal rule over 300 years, the Bundela rulers transformed a medieval city so majestic that its palaces and temples are well-preserved till today.
The grandeur of the majestic kingdom can be seen in the Orchha Fort complex which includes palaces of Raja Mahal, Sheesh Mahal and Jehangir Mahal built during the 16th and 17th centuries. From the many stories shared by our guide, the most intriguing story is about the ornate three-storied Jehangir Mahal that was specially built by Maharaja Vir Singh Deo to commemorate the visit of the Mughal Emperor Jehangir to Orchha. So much work and efforts went into constructing the palace but Jehangir stayed in Orchha for only one night, thus Jehangir Mahal was nicknamed ‘One Night Palace’ 😊
‘One Night Palace’ is one of the many stories of the Bhundelwal kingdom and their palaces in Orchha but there is another story in particular which is unconventional but not out of the ordinary in India. It is the story about Ram Raja Temple which was originally the palace of a queen, wife of Maharaja Madhukar Shah.
The queen is an ardent devotee of the deity Lord Ram but the king is a devotee of Krishna. Due to differences in devotion and deities, the couple drifted apart. When the queen was away in Ayodhya for a pilgrimage, the king demanded that she returned to Orchha with her deity who must be in the form of a boy. The queen prayed earnestly to Lord Ram who answered her prayers but on the condition that he would stay in a place where she initially houses him.
When the queen returned to Orchha with the deity Lord Ram as a child, the king was very pleased, thus proposed to build a temple for Ram while the deity stayed at the queen’s palace. By the time the temple was completed, Lord Ram refused to move but remained in the queen’s palace which became the Ram Raja Temple, and adjoining the temple-palace is Chaturbhuj, the completed temple originally meant for Ram.
Today, Ram Raja Temple is the only temple in India where Lord Ram is worshipped as a king and that too in a palace. There are police personnel assigned as guards at the temple-palace and every evening, a guard of honour greets Lord Ram with salutation much in the manner of a king, only then does the priest begin the prayers.
*Note: Mobile phones, cameras and leather belts/purses are not allowed inside the temple.
- It is recommended to hire a guide for excursions to Orchha Fort and/or half day tour of Orchha to make your visit worthwhile.
- There is a light and sound show at the fort in the evenings. If you have explored the fort complex with a guide, then the show will complete your learning and understanding of Orchha history.
- The forts, palaces, cenotaphs and temples in Orchha are situated within walking distance of the village, and the highlights of these sites can be explored in a day – but rushed. To get the most out of a trip is by staying a night. You can also go for walks or cycling in the surrounding countryside or rafting on Betwa River.
- Accommodation is aplenty in this hamlet ranging from guesthouses and homestays to hotels such as Orchha Resort and Betwa Retreat, and the luxury Sheesh Mahal in the Orchha Fort complex itself.
Khajuraho – Unabashedly Impressive
The Khajuraho temples are a group of Hindu and Jain temples built by the Chandella dynasty between the 10th and 12th centuries. Best known for explicit, unabashed sensuality of sculptures with intricate details and symbolism of ancient Indian art, Khajuraho temples are simply stunning.
I have seen impressive sculptures and bas-reliefs of ancient temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia but the level of artisan skill and detail in temple art is more prominent in Khajuraho.
The construction of Khajuraho temples was probably the greatest achievement of the Chandella kingdom but after a period of wars and conflicts with foreign invaders, the temples were left abandoned when the Chandella dynasty declined in the 13th century. The temples were neglected under the cover of dense date palm trees for over one thousand years which gave Khajuraho its name as khajur in Hindi means date palm. It was only in 1838 when the temples were discovered by a British army engineer and by that time, only 22 out of 85 temples withstood devastation.
Not much is known why the temples were built (no doubt there were several theories) particularly the erotic images which account for only 10% of the numerous sculptures depicting gods, goddesses, war, village life, elephants and other creatures. But eroticism aside, the Khajuraho temples are amazingly exquisite and are among one of the greatest masterpieces of Indian temple art and aesthetics.
- If you are a history buff, it is recommended to hire an experienced and reputable guide who can help you make sense of Khajuraho.
- The most spectacular temples are known as the Western Group of temples – Kandariya Mahadeva, Vishvanatha and Lakshmana. There are also the Eastern and Southern groups of temples situated nearby the main complex.
- There is a light and sound show in the evenings narrated by Bollywood icon, Amitabh Bachchan. The show might be boring if you have not visited the temple complex earlier without a guide.
- It is impossible to do justice to the wondrous and lavish Khajuraho temples by visiting the complex for only an hour or two. It is recommended to stay a night or two in town to explore the temples and the nearby village. Various accommodations are available in this town from homestays to budget and luxury hotels.
- Khajuraho is located 172km from Orchha and 45km from Panna National Park, so you can curate your trip to Khajuraho combining history, art and wildlife (I might do that the next time!)
*My trips to Orchha and Khajuraho were part of the invite to Madhya Pradesh Travel Mart (MPTM) 2017. Opinions expressed in this post are my own.