A view of the Orchha Fort complex. Photo: Namaste Orchha. All other photos: Shireen Quadri
Sprawling near the quietly-flowing, voluminous Betwa river in Madhya Pradesh, the quaint medieval city of Orchha has been frequented by tourists around the world looking for offbeat destinations for quite some time now. It’s a city where time seems to stand still, and where the grandeur of the past manifests at every turn. There are forts and palaces, temples and cenotaphs — magnificent edifices that retain their old-world charm and seem to invite you to their wondrous splendour. For heritage lovers, it’s a veritable treat. Its gradual and consistent popularity with the tourists eventually earned it the Best Heritage City at the National Tourism Awards three years ago. It is also on the shortlist for Unesco World Heritage Sites.
Located in Niwari district and considered to be the “Jewel of Bundelkhand”, Orchha, which means “hidden” in the local language, lies sixteen km away from Jhansi railway station. I left for Orchha on a fine morning in March, with a chill still coursing through the city’s air, by Shatabdi Express and reached Jhansi in nearly five hours. In another 30 minutes, I arrived in the heart of an exuberant Orchha, where a three-day (March 6-8) festival, organised by the Madhya Pradesh Tourism to showcase the cultural landscape of the central state, was under way. I noticed how the sights here were filled with a blithe and buoyant air, owing perhaps to the river that flows across the city. History seemed to be alive in its streets where present and past got intermingled, and, sometimes, taking a stroll seemed surreal. Orchha’s centrum is home to the heritage and cultural sites. The city is pullulating and is distinctively different from the old city area. The roads were clean and the entire city was well maintained. It was a delight to walk around the city, soaking in everything that makes it tick.
For the three-day festival, conceptualised by festival director Yasmin Kidwai, a filmmaker and councillor, a gamut of people from different disciplines were invited. The range of events and themes it centred around was diverse — art, craft, nature, food, business, music, history, people, monuments. The legend around Orchha has it that the Bundela queen was a huge devotee of Lord Ram and insisted on bringing him from Ayodhya to Orchha where Lord Ram is still worshipped at Rama Raja Mandir, which is set to be developed into a major pilgrimage and tourist attraction on the lines of Somnath Temple, Tirumala Tirupati and Golden Temple. A beautiful musical performance that depicted this legend was presented by Delhi-based group Sadhya on Day 1.
The inauguration evening was hosted at Orchha Fort Complex by writer and lyricist Swanand Kirkire and actor and model Gauhar Khan. The evening witnessed thrilling performances by vocalists Clinton Cerejo and his band, Shilpa Rao and Prahlad Tipaniya that kept the audience hooked until the drizzling turned into downpour. The walls of the fort were bathed in a glow when a light-and-sound show, with a voiceover by actor Manoj Bajpai, was projected on them. The show was produced by Springbox Films and was one of the highlights of the evening.
The venue, Sheesh Mahal, was decked up in bright lights and festoons. The corridors of the mahal reverberated with strains of music. The exquisite palace — with huge staircases, long corridors, beautiful arches and pillars, huge wooden and iron gates and opulent gardens and pavilions — was a sight to behold. The dinner was held at the royal Raja Mahal Lawns. The spread, presented by celebrity chef Saransh Goila of Goila Butter Chicken, featured authentic traditional food cooked widely across Madhya Pradesh — bhutte ki khees, mangore, Bundelkhandi bada, ghujia. Etc. Mixologist Nitin Tiwari from Together at 12th curated Root to Fruit, the beverage menu that was an instant hit with the guests. The cocktails were infused in turmeric, guava and rose flavours.
The second and third day of the festival, which aimed at the sustainable development of the region, were packed with activities. Both mornings served up a wide range of activities and people had the option to choose any one they wanted to experience. The activities included river-rafting, cycling by Delhi by Cycle, heritage photography walks by Sumiko Nanda, homestay walks by designer Anupamaa Dayal, vinyasa flow yoga by Vasudha Rai, Movement Mantra Meditation by Mini Shastri and heritage walks by local guides. The activities were fun-filled and the participants got a glimpse of the city while they indulged in the various outdoor activities. The Chaturbhuj Temple, at the bank of Kanchan ghat, overlooks the fort. In the Betwa river, which is endowed with some good rapids, rafting was fun, though perhaps not as thrilling as in Rishikesh (Uttarakhand).
River-rafting in Betwa was an experience to remember. It was not meant to induce an adrenalin rush but curated as a relaxed experience, fit for nature lovers who tend to be less adventurous. The 4.5-km stretch looked beautiful in the morning and a dip in Betwa was very refreshing. During the homestay walk, Dayal painted the homes in the village in distinct Gond motifs and added spunk to the village huts. There are about eight huts in a cluster that offer food and accommodation to tourists and acquaint them with the rural lifestyle. They are gradually becoming very popular among Indian and foreign travellers.
A business summit was held at Orchha Palace during the day. It was enlightening as the future plans were discussed and investors were urged to set up businesses in Madhya Pradesh. There were a couple of interesting sessions around culinary culture, heritage etc. Madhya Pradesh tourism is gearing up to make the state a sought-after destination for destination weddings, film shoots, wellness and adventure tourism.
In the evening, an aarti was performed by Shri Santosh Nayak and his fellow artists amid a gorgeous setting in the backdrop of Betwa river at Kanchana Ghat. Actor Swara Bhasker hosted the event where the first performance was by Hindustani classical singer Shubha Mudgal, who began with the soulful rendition of her guru Pandit Ramashreya Jha’s bandish dedicated to Lord Ram, Jab Hari Dhanush Dhare. Classical Kathak danseuse Aditi Mangaldas lent a rhythmic energy to the evening.
The musical event of the evening was organised under a beautiful baobab tree that dates back to 500 years. The event was introduced by singer Monica Dogra and saw some brilliant performances by Indian Ocean that belted out tracks like Ma Rewa, Bondhu, Bandeh, Kaun, Jheeni, etc. Listening to the band, with percussionist Amit Kilam on his bagal baccha (khamak) for Ma Rewa, Rahul Ram on bass guitar and Tuheen Chakravarty on tabla, was quite a trip. Celebrated French musician Manu Chao mesmerised with his high-octane performance.
A delectable brunch was arranged for all the guests at the Bundelkhand Riverside hotel on the last day. Chef Vikramaditya, Chef Harbhajan, Chef Vandana and Anamika from Nandini tea had an elaborate spread ready. The culinary curation was done by author and food historian Anoothi Vishal.
Before leaving for Orchha, I had brushed up on its history. Orchha was ruled by the Bundelkhand Rajput kings in the mid-14th century and was a very vibrant and culturally rich kingdom then. The entire town stands out for its magnificent architecture — The Raj Mahal, The Sheesh Mahal, also known as Jehangir Mahal, and the Maharaja lawns are part of the magnificent Orchha Fort premises.
There are fourteen chhatris or cenotaphs in Orchha, built by various kings to honour the dead. They are all scattered around Kanchana ghat. One has to cross the narrow bridge over the river that leads to a thin forested area that houses Orchha Sanctuary. The entire expanse of the cenotaph complex is clearly visible from here.
While I was on my way back, my mind raced back to the quiet magic of Orchha, the magnificent vistas of its architecture — with arches, brackets, domes, niches, pillars, roofs, and squinches making up the forts, palaces and temples — and the cultural extravaganza by artists and singers. There is a reason, I told myself, why Orchha continues to allure people from around the world.
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