Orchha: History, Architecture, Arts and Literature

Introduction: Orchha is one of the most important historical places in Madhya Pradesh. Its grandeur has been captured in stone. This medieval city, the capital of the Bundela kings, was built in the 16th and 17th centuries. The real marvel of Orchha lies in its monuments, gardens, temples, and murals. They represent great achievements of Bundela rulers. It lies by the Betwa River. The Betwa has been described as an emblem of great purity and power in ancient Hindu texts. It is described as the Ganga of Kaliyug and it is regarded as symbol of Shakti.  There are a whole line of temples built along the bank of this river, along with some cenotaphs of the Bundela kings. In Rasikapriya by Keshavdas, Orchha finds a beautiful description: ‘Upon the river Betwa’s banks/ where places of pilgrimage are/ which the Tungaranya forests span/ there lies the city of Orchha/ which in the world does thriving stay/ and men of all four castes are there/ and of the ashramas four-engaged/ in pious acts, worship, and prayer/ and study of the sacred Vedas/ where merit always does increase/ and wealth made more in many ways/ and compassion and charity/ do every moment greater grow.’

Short History: Orchha has a chequered history. It is linked with the local Bundela rulers. Not much is known about the early history of Orchha except that a succession of dynasties ruled over the area for a short while. The earliest of Orchha’s rulers were the Koshalas of Sravasti. Over the following centuries, the territory was successively ruled by the Mauryas, the Haihayas, the Kalchuris, the Gaharwars, the Parihars, the Chandelas, the Sani Rajputs, Mewatis, Gonds, Bhars, Yogis, Bawars and Khangars.

After Babur’s death, the Bundela Rajput chieftain Rudra Pratap who ruled over a small area called Garh Khundar, found the opportunity to expand his territories. In 1531 he founded the city of Orchha which was only about 56km far from Garh Khundar. He chose this stretch of land along Betwa as an ideal site for his capital and became the first Raja of Orchha.  He started the construction of Orchha but he could not finish it. He did not live to see his city flourish as he breathed his last in the very same year while trying to save a cow from the clutches of a tiger. However, the construction continued.

Orchha's most illustrious ruler was Raja Vir Singh Dev. A man of dashing personality, Vir Singh was a great warrior. He was well versed in the art of statecraft. He was a bold and imaginative administrator and had a sense of fair play as the blood-curdling story of the prince Bagh Raj illustrates.  He assassinated Abul Fazl to earn a huge reward from Akbar's rebellious son Salim. He intercepted Abul Fazl, chopped off his head and sent it to the crown prince on a platter at Allahabad. Salim ascended the Mughal throne as Emperor Jehangir on his father’s death. This brought about a sea change in Vir Singh’s political fortunes. Jehangir gave him Orchha and control over the entire Bundelkhand region. Also, on the occasion of Vir Singh’s investiture ceremony in 1606, the emperor was personally present, emphasising the close ties between the two. The Sheesh Mahal which is famous for its Jehangir Mahal, was specially constructed to receive the emperor as a guest. The story is that the palace had taken 22 years to build. Emperor Jehangir was a guest there for only a day. Jahangir wrote of Vir Singh: ‘He was brave, kind-hearted and pure as any man of his age.’  During his 22-years rule, he erected a total of 52 forts and palaces across the region, including the citadel at Jhansi, the rambling Narsingh Dev at Datia, and many of Orchha's finest buildings. He was responsible for establishing the Bundela style of art and architecture.

In Virsinghdevcharit Keshavdas says: ‘Vir Singh Dev bathed in the Ganges water, and honoured all the gods. He heard the Puranas recited, and gave the gift of a cow before taking his sumptuous meal. After eating he went into the women’s quarters to take pleasure. He then climbed to the jewel-studded terrace, looking out in joy at the forest expanse. Vir saw the mangoes in bloom, swaying in the gentle Malaya breeze. The trees were slender, like the arms of Kamadeva, or delicately woven banners. The charming clove vines were like swings, propelled by bees stirred in their passions. The beautiful cuckoos cooed gently as though delivering a message from spring. Then the king saw the festival pavilion and along with beautiful women he listened to the special programme. The drums of the god of love resounded in victory; all were steeped in love’s magic…’

Apart from Rudra Pratap and Vir Singh Dev, the important the important rulers at Orchha were Madhukar Sah, Jujhar Singh,  Pahar Sing and  Indramani Singh. 

Royal Palaces: The cultural landscape of Orchha evolved over time as the barren wilderness was slowly transformed into the picturesque capital of Bundelkhand. The settlement derived its name from the phrase ‘Ondo chhe’ meaning low or hidden. The site was indeed bowl like, buffered by bluffs and forests. The Orchha fort is unique in Bundelkhand. This site selection was suitable for security. The fort was made inaccessible by waters all around it.

The monuments of Orchha represent the epitome of Bundela style of architecture. The palaces, Rani Mahal, Raja Mahal and Jahangir Mahal, show a gradual refinement in palatine architecture. They belong to the family of paramsayika vastuprurusha mandala forms, i.e. square subdivided into smaller squares and rectangles with open space in the center. Many innovative gestures in Orchha palaces marked the achievement of Bundela style.

Rani Mahal, today’s the Ram Raja Temple, may be of religious significance but in Madhukar’s time it had been designed as a Palace for the Queen. It has a large square courtyard which is surrounded by verandas. The corners and centers are capped with exposed rib domes. The walls of Rani Mahal bear 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.  A charming legend is attached to it. It is said that once King Madhukar Shah brought an idol of Lord Rama from Ayodhya to his capital. The idol was to be later installed in a temple. When the idol proved impossible to move, the king recalled, too late, the deity's edict that the image would remain in the place where it was first installed. Today with its soaring spires and palatial structure, the temple is surely one of the most unusual in India. It is also the only temple in India where Ram is worshipped as a king.

 The Raj Mahal was started by Rudra Pratap and completed by one of his successors, Madhukar Shah. This leads onto the Sheesh Mahal. Of the two rectangular courtyards inside, the second, formerly used by the Bundela queens, is the most dramatic. Opulent royal quarters, raised balconies and interlocking walkways rise in symmetrical tiers on all four sides, crowned by domed pavilions and turrets. One can find the fragments of mirror-inlay and vibrant painting plastered over their walls and ceilings.

The most notable ruler of Orchha, Raja Vir Singh Dev, built the exquisite Jehangir Mahal to commemorate the visit of Emperor Jehangir. Its strong lines are counterbalanced by delicate Chhatries and trellis work, conveying an effect of extraordinary richness. It is a typical Hindu design. At the main entrance to the Jehangir Mahal, there are two huge stone elephants, the auspicious welcome symbol among the Hindus. According to accounts; it was used only for one night. However, the structure is nevertheless an exquisite fusion of Bundela and Persian features. Jehangir Mahal, built on the highest point within the island citadel, is the most spectacular and shows cosmopolitan influence at work. While its direct precedent is Tomar architecture in Gwalior, it assimilated Sultanate influence into Rajput architectural vocabulary and was the model for the early Mughal palaces such as Jehangir Palace in Agra Fort.

Poetess and musician, Rai Praveen was the beautiful paramour of Raja Indramani and was sent to Delhi on the orders of Emperor Akbar. He was captivated by her. She so impressed the Emperor with her love for Indramani that he sent her back to Orchha. The Rai Praveen Mahal built for her is a low two-storied brick structure, designed to match the height of the trees in the surroundings. Skillfully carved niches allow light into the Mahal which has a main assembly hall on the ground floor (used to host music and dance performances) and smaller chambers.

            Temples: Chaturbhuj Temple and Lakshminarayan Temple were built by Vir singh Dev. They are the fantastic innovations in temple architecture. The Chaturbhuj temple was specially constructed to enshrine the image of Ram which, however, remained in the Ram Raja Temple.  It is built upon a massive stone platform and reached by a steep flight of steps. Lotus emblems and symbols of religious importance provide ornamentation to the delicate exterior. Chaturbhuj has the Bundela octagonal shikhara like a pine cone, dome over the mandapa, large open interior to accommodate large numbers of worshippers and a cross-axial plan.

Laxminarayan temple is one of the temples that is still active, and devotees throng there every morning and evening. In the Laxminarayan Temple, vibrant murals encompassing a variety of religious and secular themes bring the walls and ceilings to rich life. A flagstone path links this temple with the Ram Raja Temple. The interiors contain the most exquisite of Orchha's wall paintings. Lakshminarayan Temple is an unusual rhomboid shape and is perceived as a triangular, fort-like structure. It appears to be a cross between a temple and a fort because of its crenellations and high tower. Located on a hillock, it offers panoramic views of Orchha and its surroundings.

 Cenotaphs: The cenotaphs are a unique group of monuments built over a long period as memorials for the Bundela rulers and are called Chattris. They are not mausoleums but sites of cremation.  A solemn row of pale brown weed-choked domes and spires, the riverside Chhatris are Orchha's most melancholy ruins.

Gardens: At the foot of the Jehangir Mahal in the fort complex there is a garden which is popular as the Anand Mahal Bagh. It is contained within a slightly irregular rectangular enclosure that is high enough to provide visual privacy. The garden is divided into two unequal portions by a high wall. There are doorways cut into the wall at each end, allowing passage from one side of the garden to the other.  The garden is typologically distinct from the Mughal Charbagh type, characterized by four quadrants divided cross-axially by paths or water channels as seen at the Tomb of Humayun and other imperial tomb complexes. It also does not follow the landscape logic of the Mughal Gardens of Kashmir, where the central axis is a water channel that runs through terraced gardens that adapt to the sloping mountainous topography. However, with respect to planting logic, the garden makes perfect sense. Most of the surface area is covered with a packed mortar pavement into which pits have been hollowed for planting. When Orchha was the Bundela capital, the trees in the Anand Mahal Bagh provided pleasure for the ladies who lived there and evoked the sacred grove and water tanks where the deities were known to reside, perhaps even enticing them to dwell there.

Located in the center of the town, Phool Bagh consists of a high walled rectangular enclosure containing two gardens. It is laid out as a formal garden. This complex testifies to the refined aesthetic qualities of the Bundelas. Structurally, this was inspired by the Mughal Style. Like the Anand Mahal Bagh, the Phool Bagh garden is constructed by placing shrubs in basins sunk into the pavement. However, unlike the Anand Mahal Bagh’s large scale and informality, the Phool Bagh has the appearance of a well defined courtyard garden, with red sandstone pavements whose vertical edges are articulated with ornamental scalloped edging. The garden is divided by broad walkways into square quadrants. Each quadrant contains a regular grid of eight sunken basins, most of them planted with a solitary tree, the branches festooned with offerings from the women whose prayers for motherhood were granted. A significant feature which embellished the special experience was a network of underground pipes which were used to keep alive cascading sheets of water which cooled the garden and palace.

Arts: Bundelas of Orchha were great patrons of arts and literature. The wall murals in Raja Mahal, Jehangir Mahal, Lakshminarayan and Panchmukhi Mahadev Temples represent the cultural world of the Bundelas. Medieval Bundela culture was sustained in fort palaces whose landscape evolved over time reflecting the vision of an ideal world. Jehangir Mahal murals document the Mughal Emperor Jehangir’s presence in the palace. Nayak-Nayaki and Rag-Ragini figures portraying emotions, wrestling matches, polo game, floral carpets, flower vases, boat rides on the river Betwa, and griffin holding elephant in its claws  are portrayed. Hunting scenes in Raja Mahal, hunters killing deer and boars, tiger pouncing on a deer, falcons attacking peacocks, and fighting elephants allude to the jungles around Orchha. Murals of Bundela palace interiors show gods and goddesses, episodes from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavat purana. The ten incarnations of Vishnu, Raas-Lila of Krishna with the Gopis, Ram with his brothers, Sita and Hanuman, show the Vaishnavaite orientation of Bundela rulers. The Ramayana episodes such as Ram vanquishing Ravana, his return from exile, and his coronation, depict his valor, fortitude, courage in adversity and triumph over evil. They were visual reminders of the divine kingship model that the Bundela rulers were expected to follow.

Literature: The flowering of arts was supported by a rich literary culture at the Bundela court in Orchha. Among the luminaries the most famous was Keshavdas Mishra. His writings in Brajbhasha echoed the themes of epic literature reaffirming the Vaishnava theology and the visual culture in palace murals, temple sculptures, and manuscript paintings. Words and images were congruent to a remarkable degree reflecting the Bundela worldview dominated by the religious ethos of Ram Rajya. Among the many works of Keshavdas,  Chandmala and  Ramchandrachandrika were retellings of the Ramayana while his  Ratnabhavani  and  Virsinghdevcharit were quasi-historical literary works on the life and deeds of Ratnasena and Virsingh Dev, as understood through the prism of Kshatriya dharma.  His other books Rasikpriya and Kavipriya deal with love and beauty.  Hariram Vyas wrote on Radha-Krishna and Gopis in Rasapanchadhyayi.


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Keshavdas of Orchha, pp. 23-64. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
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Presidencies of Bombay and Bengal. London: Bickers & Son, 1882.
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Sharma, Rita and Vijai Sharma. The Forts of Bundelkhand. New Delhi: Rupa & Co., 2006.
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