Saturday, August 02, 2008

Orchha: Legends in the wind

Every stone in Orchha whispers tales of times gone by. We got wind of some of them as we explored the ancient city by the banks of the Betwa

ORCHHA reminded us of a princess who had managed to age gracefully. The little riverside town, 125 km south of Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh, was studded with monuments, grand and small, that showed the scars of time. Over the next two days Orchha would take us into her embrace and share with us her past: of a time when she was young and beautiful; when kings and emperors fought over her and adorned her with grand monuments that sparkled like precious gems. And she would whisper to us the secrets she had been privy to.

Indeed, Orchha appears to exist in a fairytale dimension, almost divorced from the rest of the country. There was a time when the 2 sq km town had been virtually swallowed up by the surrounding forest till it was rediscovered as a tourist spot. And she seems to revel in this new role, repeating the story of her life to each visitor who stops by her doorstep.

One of her favourite tales is about Rani Kunwar who had travelled far to seek Lord Ram's darshan. One day the Lord appeared to her in the form of an idol but cautioned that his final resting place would be the place where she first put him down. Immediately she set off to return to Orchha, a journey which in those days took eight months, even as her doting husband, King Madhukar Shah, commenced work on the temple in which Lord Ram was to be enshrined.
However, the construction took longer than anticipated and Rani Kunwar was obliged to keep Lord Ram in her bedroom. When it was time to shift the deity to the newly constructed Chaturbhuj Temple, the idol refused to budge no matter how many hands tried to lift it. And so it remained where it was in a small room of the palace which was then converted into the Ram Raja Temple. (The towering Chaturbhuj Temple in the adjoining compound stands empty and forlorn, seeming to wait for a divine guest who will never arrive)
Even today the palatial Ram Raja Temple is the bustling hub of Orchha and what is really unusual is that it is the only place in the country where Lord Ram is worshipped as a king and not as an avatar of Vishnu. That aside Lord Ram is a nocturnal visitor for here they believe that he resides in Ayodhya by day and sleeps in Orchha at night. Hence the temple remains closed throughout the day and the heavy silver doors of the sanctum are flung open only at 7 p.m. for the evening aarti.
We arrived just as an armed sentry opened the door with a flourish and the priest started the aarti with practised ease. The air was thick with devotion and the small knot of people started to sway and sing, moving to an inner rhythm and an almost divine frequency.
Another favourite tale of Orchha revolves around the Rai Praveen Mahal, a petite twostoried structure which blends seamlessly with the surroundings dedicated to Rai Praveen, the beautiful paramour of Raja Indramani (1672-76). The story oft told is that when Emperor Akbar heard about her legendary beauty, he summoned her to Delhi. And so the lovely damsel went to the Mughal court but once there, she conveyed her dilemma in verse which implied, who but a dog or a crow eats another's leftovers? The emperor got the message and let her return to her king – untouched.
The Jehangir Mahal is another relic of the Mughals in Orchha. The imposing palace, crowned by graceful chhatries, was built by Raja Bir Singh Deo in the 17th century to commemorate the visit of Emperor Jehangir to Orchha. And once the royal guest had departed, the palace remained unoccupied, languishing under the hot Indian sun like a jilted lover. We strolled through the monument that loomed above us, its balconies, grilled windows and stone elephants exuding a sense of sullen grace.
Gwalior, 124 km, is the nearest airport.
Jhansi, 16 km, is the nearest railhead.
Pre-paid autos charge around Rs 150 for the 40 minute ride from Jhansi to Orchha. ST buses are also available.
Madhya Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation runs two hotels in Orchha: Betwa Cottages and Sheesh Mahal Palace Hotel. There is also the red sandstone and marble Orchha Resort CARELESS WHISPERS
RAJ MAHAL which stands across a yawning courtyard is equally imposing but less elaborate in its design. However, the palace that saw a succession of kings and queens preside over Orchha was the heartbeat of the little kingdom: and a hotbed of political intrigue, unbridled ambition, treachery, lust and love. The plain fa├žade of the monument contrasts with the rich murals within… of Krishna and his gopis; kings and commoners. We wandered through zenanas that seemed to vibrate with the memories of gorgeously clad princesses blushing into their silks even as long-widowed aunts firmed up their marriages to distant princelings.
Leaving behind this world of nautch girls, pampered concubines and bejewelled potentates, we set off to explore the 14 cenotaphs of the rulers of Orchha, wrapped in an almost haunting quietude as they contemplated their reflections in the twisting Betwa river.
Sprawled out on the far bank is the Orchha wildlife sanctuary which once bristled with animals, including tigers, for the hunting pleasure of the king and his royal entourage. Today the sanctuary is stripped of its tigers and sadly most other game and all we came upon was a nilgai and her calf when we embarked on a safari that had all the trappings of a jungle book adventure.
That evening we strolled down to the Laxminarayan Temple on the outskirts of the town and admired its colourful murals focusing on both religious and secular subjects. As the sun slid off the sky, we stood on the balcony of the temple that commanded a bird's eye view of ancient monuments scattered across Orchha, and stories we had heard earlier in the day returned to haunt us… Of how a ghoulish hand, presumed to belong to the spirit of a two-timing dancing girl, appeared out of nowhere and wrapped itself around the throat of a chowkidar; of reed-thin rishis living in a nearby forest; and of star-crossed royal. By Jeru Irani

1 comment:

Gustasp and Jeroo Irani - Nomadic Wordsmiths said...

This piece has been plagiarized

It was written by Gustasp & Jeroo Irani and appeared in the 8 Dec 2005 issue of Economic Times.

The least you could have done is to have give credit to the authors.


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