Orchha - sleepy by the Betwa

Orchha, meaning a "hidden place", certainly lives up to its name. Languishing amid a tangle of scrubby dhak forest, 18km southeast of Jhansi, the former capital of the Bundela dynasty gets only a small portion of the Khajuraho bound traffic. Architectural gems, however, abound in this town. Clustered around the foot of the exotic ruins, a sleepy village of neatly painted houses, market stalls, and a couple of attractive government hotels provide most of the basic amenities.

Raja Rudra Pratap started the construction of Orchha but he coud not finish it as he was killed trying to rescue a cow from the clutches of a tiger. However, the construction continued. Thereafter, the Bundela dynasty's fortunes depended on the goodwill of the Mughals. Orchha's most illustrious ruler was Raja Bir Singh Deo. During his 22-year rule, Bir Singh Deo erected a total of 52 forts and palaces across the region, including the citadel at Jhansi, the rambling Narsing Dev at Datia, and many of Orchha's finest buildings. Apart from the Sheesh Mahal, now converted into a a beutiful hotel, most of the magnificent monuments have lain virtually deserted now.

Orchha's monuments unlike quite a few other places in this region are not bare stone. They generally seem to have a plastering on them usually. During our travels through the region, we found that Orchha is quite a photographer's delight. It turns absolutely magnificient during the evenings when you can silhouettes on film.

Most of what has to be seen in Orchha lies within a comfortable walking distance. In fact, the Madhya Pradesh Tourism people who run the hotel at Sheesh Mahal also have a walkman tour of the place. It should not take you more than a day to see all that there is, well, almost. We describe below some of the monuments that we visited during our walkman tour.

The Raj Mahal and the Rai Praveen Mahal - the construction of the first building across the medieval granite bridge, the Raj Mahal (daily 10am-5pm), was started by Rudra Pratap, and completed by one of his successors, Madhukar Shah. This leads on to 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. Some of the friezes are still in remarkable condition. The resident chowkidar is an excellent guide for a small tip.

The Rai Praveen Mahal is a small, double-storeyed brick apartment built by Raja Indramani for his concubine in the mid-1670s. This building lies to the North of the Sheesh Mahal. The building, set amid the lawns of the Anand Mahal gardens, it has a main assembly hall on the ground floor (used to host music and dance performances), a boudoir upstairs, and cool underground apartments.

The Jehangir Mahal - Orchha's single most admired palace, the Jehangir Mahal, was built by Bir Singh Deo as a monumental welcome present for the Mughal emperor Jehangir when he paid a state visit in the 17th century.

Entered through an ornate ceremonial gateway, the east-facing facade is encrusted with turquoise tiles. Two stone elephants flank the stairway, holding bells in their trunks to announce the arrival of the Raja. Three storeys of elegant hanging balconies, terraces, apartments and onion domes are piled around a central courtyard. This palace, however, is sort of more airy and lighted since it has countless windows and pierced stone screens looking out over the skyline to the west, and a sea of treetops and ruined temples in the other direction.

The Sheesh Mahal - Built during the early 18th century, long after Orchha's demise, the Sheesh Mahal ("Palace of Mirrors") was originally intended as an exclusive country retreat for the local Raja, Udait Singh. Following India's independence the property was inherited by the state government. The low, rather squat palace stands between the Raj Mahal and the Jehangir Mahal, at the far end of an open-sided courtyard.

Covered in whitewash and stripped of most of its Persian rugs and antiques, the building retains little of its former splendour, though it does offer stunning views from its upper terraces and turrets. The Lonely Planet says "each room of the hotel provides a magnificient view". We agree!

Around the village below the hill are several other interesting monuments. The Ram Raja Mandir stands at the end of the small bazaar, in a marble-tiled courtyard. This the pink and temple is a popular pilgrimage site. During major Rama festivals, thousands of worshippers gather in front of its ornate silver doors to await darshan of the garlanded deity inside.

With its huge pointed shikharas soaring high above the village Chaturbhuj Mandir, in cruciform shape, representing the four-armed Vishnu, with seven stories and spacious courtyards ringed by arched balconies, it epitomizes the Bundelkhand style

On the other side of Ram Mandir, a path leads through the Muoghal-style Phool Bagh ornamental garden to Hardaul ka Baithak, a grand pavilion where Bir Singh Deo's second son, Hardaul, once held court.

The Chhatris - A solemn row of pale brown weed-choked domes and spires, the riverside Chhatris are Orchha's most melancholy ruins. The fourteen chhatris, memorials to Bundelkhand's former rulers, are best viewed from the narrow road bridge (on the Betwa) or from the boulders on the opposite bank, where one can see the full effect of their reflection in the still waters of the Betwa.

One can arrive tightly packed in tempos and buses from Jhansi or perhaps take a taxi. Jhansi is about 18km away. An auto-rickshaw from Jhansi railway or bus station will cost you around Rs100.

Sheesh Mahal is a great place to stay (it has a restaurant too) and there are the very pretty Betwa cottages by the Betwa river. There also seemed to be another hotel which we could not locate. And if you can make your way through, there are CPWD and Irrigation Dept guest houses.