It was on the second day of our stay in Orchha, while standing atop a palatial complex with the whole town spread out in front of us, when it occurred to me that this is a town which is frozen in time. If we could somehow remove the modern settlements, the shops and vehicles, clean the old buildings and redecorate and refurnish the interiors then the current Orchha wouldn’t look very different from the town that had once served as the capital of the Bundela Kingdom. Even the narrow bridge over River Betwa, connecting the town to the nature reserve on the opposite bank, gave more of a 16th century vibe than a 21st century one.
It was at this small medieval town lying on the border of two central India States – Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh – that we chose to celebrate our second wedding anniversary. It could not have been more dissimilar to the destination of our first anniversary – Agra. While Agra was teeming with tourists, Orchha offered a little solitude (as much as can be expected in a central Indian town). While Agra can suffocate you with guides and photographers vying for your attention all the time, Orchha was more welcoming and allowed one to explore the place at their own pace.
The town of Orchha was suggested to us by a cousin. A brief research later we knew that we had found ourselves a perfect destination – a tranquil historical town on the banks of a river. Orchha was just 230 km from our hometown Kanpur which meant a drive of almost four hours. We started for Orchha by 7:30 in the morning. The road was in a pretty good condition for most part. During our journey we passed an old mausoleum and a fortress but didn’t stop to explore either. At about 11 am we crossed the border from UP to MP and a few minutes later took the turn for Orchha. We soon crossed the Orchha railway station and then passed under an old gate which probably once marked the boundary of medieval Orchha. Two arched gates followed this old gate and welcomed us into the main town. Driving along the main road, we soon reached the heart of the town where most of the major sights were located. We continued onwards and soon reached our hotel – Amar Mahal.
Generally on vacations we do not tend to stay in expensive hotels as we focus more on sightseeing but this time we decided to treat ourselves since it was our anniversary. In hindsight, we could not have made a better decision as the hotel itself was no less than a monument. Based around two central courtyards and offering stunning views of the river and cenotaphs from its beautiful gardens, the hotel was actually a renovated palace built in the classical style of the region. The interior decoration was done in a way which provided an old world charm to the place. Our room was large, spacious and comfortable with a private patio. On each of the two evenings that we spent at the hotel, there was a song and dance performance in one of the central courtyards. We dined at the hotel itself on both the evenings. The food wasn’t up to the mark but overall our stay at Amar Mahal was quite memorable.
One of the major tourist attractions of Orchha is a group of 15 cenotaphs clustered along the Kanchana Ghat on the southern bank of River Betwa. These structures, built in the memory of kings and other important members of their clan, are locally known as Chattris. The chattris were located just a few metres away from our hotel and we visited them after having a delicious lunch at the MP government’s Betwa Retreat hotel situated just across our hotel.
We visited the cenotaphs during the noon time thus there were very few tourists around and we had almost the entire place to ourselves. As we walked from one memorial to another we observed that although they differed in size, most of the memorials were three-storey structures built in the style of a temple with a shikara on the top. Although one could easily walk up to most of the cenotaphs and see them from up close, few of the cenotaphs had restricted access. These cenotaphs were located inside a walled complex and were surrounded with beautiful gardens. A ticket costing Rs. 10 was needed to enter the complex (one single ticket allows access to all monuments of Orchha) but it could be bought only at the Orchha fort. Since we hadn’t visited the fort yet, we did not have the ticket and had to give up on the complex. We spent some time talking to the ticket checker and came to know about some interesting things regarding the cenotaphs. One of them was that it was forbidden to enter and climb the cenotaphs because they were nesting places of vultures! Well, I am not sure I would even want to get close to those cenotaphs after that piece of information.
The last cenotaph was built on a large square pedestal right next to the river. This cenotaph was built in the Islamic architectural style as opposed to the temple style architecture of other major cenotaphs. As we stood on the pedestal of this cenotaph and looked around, we were met with a mesmerising view. The glorious blue waters of Betwa river glittered in the afternoon sun with people bathing and washing clothes in it resulting in a typically rustic setting. On the opposite bank greenery of the nature reserve dominated the landscape. We spent some time there and then walked back to our hotel to rest for some time. In the evening, we planned to see the much hyped sunset of Orchha.
The Chattris of Orchha are not only a tourist attraction but they also provide a spectacular backdrop for the setting sun which can be enjoyed from the other side of the bridge. Unfortunately, we ended up resting a little bit too long and missed the sunset by a few minutes. By the time we crossed the bridge it was dusk and even though it was beautiful at that time of the day too, our wish to see the sunset was unfulfilled. So we returned again the next day and for once the scene in front of us justified the hype. The orange sun slowly disappearing behind the domes and shikaras of the Chattris while being reflected in River Betwa; it was simply magnificent.
Any plans to spend time sitting on the rocks by the river were quickly scuppered by the presence of dozens of mosquitoes on both the evenings so we went back to our hotel where we enjoyed the solitude of the gardens of Amar Mahal and explored the hotel before finally retiring for the day.