Category Archives: Preservin Heritage

Orchha- A Multilayered Heritage Legacy along a Sacred River – Academic Tours with Navina Jafa – Follow @navinajafa

Keshav Das - Rai Praveen

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This article about a splendid heritage town Orchha brings out the multilayered culture associated with its entity as a historical living vibrant town. The essay  describes architectural uniqueness, some distinct ideas in the wall paintings such as the idea of ‘hasti kunj’, uncovers links with the heritage of poetry, the important element of a sacred heritage landscape where among other features is the coexistence of folk and high deities defined in an animated ecosystem of pilgrimage cultures, and intangible heritage. The article concludes by pointing out the necessity of adopting a balanced, sensitive heritage zoning policy in order to prevent degradation of a small gem of incredible India in Madhya Pradesh.  The Academic tours with Navina Jafa pursue to bring to the audience the complexity of the Indian civilization in the most entertaining and simple matter with a  narrative that aims to highlight in a parallel manner realistic issues of cultural skill mapping, sustainable development, and conservation of local intangible heritage.


 Bundelas of Bundelkhand

The Bundela (Boondela) Rajputs (16-17thc) of Orchha in Bundelkhand fought valiantly, they played political games with Mughals, and later with the British. They built, painted, loved and explored spirituality. Their mytho- historicity says that a clan of Rajputs who were banished from Varanasi sought refuge in the Vidhyachal Hills.[1] There their leader offered prayers to the Vidhyachal Devi or the Hill goddess, and when his prayers remained unheard, the Rajput went on to cut his head.  As soon as one drop (Boond) of blood fell on the sacrificial stone, the Goddess appeared and granted the exiled Rajput supreme power to rule over a territory. He and his clan came to be called Boondela (Bundela) and reigned over Boondelkhand (Bundelkhad) which is today not only a geographical setting but is defined by Bundeli a linguistic culture.

vindhyachal devi
Vindhanchal Devi
vindhyachal hills
Vindhachal Hills

The Bundelkhand region is made of an old landmass comprising of rugged rocks that date back to the pre-Cambrian period, it is defined by an undulating terrain, rocky outcrops, narrow valleys and plains watered by several tributaries of the Yamuna. This geographical environment where security and water were ensured thus emerged as the chosen territory to establish a safe haven of power.

Rocks on Betwa 2



One of the Bundela clans ruled over a high raised land (Udcha) a word which is believed to have been distorted to Orchha.  Getting off at the chaotic Jhansi station in Uttar Pradesh (this is the nearest railway station to Orchha on the broad gauge), one travels along a meandering border section into the state of  Madhya Pradesh where the entry into the quiet Orchha town is marked by forest area, small streams that can be seen in the Monsoons, a grand Gate that welcomes the visitor to a kingdom of brave Spirited Kings,  and into a town marked by an imposing iron bridge, huge palaces, temples and other structures picturesquely located against the central Natural heritage of the largest tributary of the Yamuna – the Betwa River.



rocks on betwa


Despite, the blessings of the Goddess Vidhyachal, the Orchha rulers drew their legitimacy of kingship from the male Vaishnav incarnation of Ram and Krishna.[2]  which is evident both in paintings and architecture in Orchha. For example, one experiences the idea of Vishnu boldly captured in the aerial view of the architectural planning of the Caturbhuj Temple (Four-armed Vishnu Temple).  The temple appears as if it itself is the form of the powerful robust Vishnu in metaphoric stone designed as if he Vishnu is striding the sky.


Chaturbhuj Temple



Whatever is seen as built heritage, hides within the walls fascinating political intrigues of power games.  Orchha kings at one point of time sided with the rebellious Mughal crown prince Salim (Jahangir) against his father (Akbar) such that Abul Fazl, the writer of the famous Akbarnama, chronicler of Akbar’s reign and Akbar’s close friend was murdered by the Bir Singh Deo of Orchha and for this Deo was awarded by Emperor Jahangir the crown of Orchha.


Akbar and the Jahangir Mahal

Phool Bagh





The association of the King of Orchha and Emperor Jahangir assumed a tangible form in Orchha. A palace called Jahanagir Mahal, along with an elaborate garden (phool bagh) to welcome him were constructed. This garden with amazing hydraulics also has a large sculpted receptacle which is believed to have served the dual purpose of a wine cup for Jahangir and on other occasions was used during the festivities of Holi to fill colored water.

Themes political




Temples, palaces, gardens and other structures incorporate Non-Islamic architectural features of Chajjas (eaves), canopied balconies (jharokhas) and Torans (decorative elaborate doorways) along with motifs of peacocks and elephants.

view   Gate


These blend with the Islamic features reflected in the octagonal ribbed domes decorated with blue tiles, aligned corridors, perforated screens, balconies that provide unique views or darshan to Gods, Kings, and Nature in conjunction with hydraulic features and unique Persian cool wind circulation contraptions called dastgir.

alignment 1


alignment   dancing the monument



Dastgir – Persian – For Cool water circulation



The bold setting of architecture does not fail to communicate the militarized character of the buildings which is balanced by the grace and beauty presented in a quaint style of bright colored and single colored wall paintings in the palaces and temples. The paintings capture the folk styles and the themes are from Vaishnav mythologies, regular activities of entertainment such as dance, wrestling, processions and local mythical folk figures.


Some themes and iconographical placement are interesting, for example in the private chambers of King and Queen in Raja Mahal palace there are paintings that assert the Kings association with Vishnu in which is presented their concept of the king as a  protector. This also reiterates the belief of the King as the supreme male principal who is empowered by Shakti the feminine principal. To elaborate this, for examples there is the painting of Gajendra Moksh a myth that recounts Vishnu as a protector is seen saving a repenting prince reborn as an elephant from the jaws of a crocodile. This is juxtaposed with another panel in a niche in the same space where the metaphor of the elephant is presented as a power symbol. The elephant painting technically called Hasti kunj is one where the body of the animal is made of multiple women in action (dancing, playing instruments decorating themselves), conveying that the power of the elephant is resourced from Shakti represented in the women; and yet, ironically the idea of power itself is in the hand of the male, and this is shown with a man riding the elephant.





One of the lasting contributions of the court of Orchha was the poetry of the court poet Keshavdas. While Keshav Das has in his poetry amply celebrated the Betwa river, and Orchha, it his famed poetics Rasikpriya inspired by the court dancer Rai Praveen (perceived as Keshavdas’ Radha) and her lover Prince Indrajit (as Krishna) that has emerged as a classical work. The presentation of Orchha is enhanced by referring to the poetry on Rai Praveen that describes her beauty, wit and love for the Prince. The theme of poetry and art is most appropriate in the Anand Mahal commonly known as the palace of Rai Praveen. It is a restored structure with underground marble rooms, fountains and charming gardens that evokes romance in the audience.

Leaflet from a painted version of Rasikpriya; Rai Praveen 


The palace and garden of Rai Praveen


Ram Raja Temple


The focus of Orchha for the people at the grassroots is its identity as a pilgrimage town.  In the pilgrimage tourism map the Ram Raja Temple takes a central place. The temple houses an image of Lord Ram brought by a queen from his birth place – Ayodhya. The sacred calendar follows all festivities associated with the epic story of Ram that manifest as rituals and multiple rural pilgrim melas fairs.  The sacred space of Orchha also includes the Chaturbhuj Temple, the temple of the folk deity  of Hardol in the Ram Bagh and the sacred Betwa River.

mela ram raja temple bridge



The story of Hardol the spiritual prince of Orchha’s royal family is about political intrigue and political murder. However, Hardol is transformed as a folk deity representing an auspicious force related to marriage ceremonies and fertility rituals. His baithak  or temple is a small grilled enclosure that is placed amidst a beautifully laid out Mughal Garden where thousands of pilgrims tie marriage invitation cards, newly married couples seek blessings as they start their life together, and couples send their prayers to godling Hardol to grant children. Colorful scenes of women adorned to present their marital status, dynamic bazaars selling religious and fertility objects, CDs of songs in a genre called Bundeli Geet Natika in honor of  Hardol, along with pilgrims lazing around make this part a palpable hotspot of frenzy energy.  



The Sacred River Betwa is marked by ghats (Flight of steps to the rivers) that functions for cremation/funerary rites, and sacred ritual baths. One special ghat is the Kanchan Ghat (the ghat of Gold) of which the oral history goes that the religious King of Orchha Madhukar Shah performed raas (Circular metaphysical dance of Krishna with Radha) in the full moon night with yellow flowers strewed around making them look like gold under the moonbeams. More than 600000 pilgrims in a year from nearby places visit Orchha and are part of the spiritual fervor and festivities that defines the vibrancy of the religious economy of the town.

Kanchan ghat




The connectivity of trains and improved roads has made Orchha accessible to two popular tourist circuit – Gwalior-Agra and Khajuraho. Hence, besides the ongoing energetic pilgrimage tourism based on the rural social event calendar, there is now a surge in popular tourism. It is not surprising that quite a few eclectic hotels have come up along with associated service providers. However, what needs to be kept in mind and to be done is the participation of local and state governing bodies to address and regulate matters related to sensitive heritage zoning, building regulations, and strict heritage policing associated with water, natural environment, and plastics management so that a responsible sustainable tourism is established. One has to take care that  the essence of the exalted outlines of the chattris (Cenotaphs) against the sublime Betwa River representing  the metaphor of the Samadhi  or dissolution, where the  super consciousness are experienced in the rising towering of the almost Gothic like Lakshmi  temple and the bold Chaturbhuj  temple does not recede in oblivion due to callous  Heritage Management to sustain and conserve a slice of Incredible India.



[1] The Vindhya Range is geologically a broken, discontinuous chain of mountain ridges along a hilly track that runs through small hills, highlands and plateau in West-Central India.  This geological space is interpreted as a  sacred geography associated with the Vindhyachal Devi whose central Shrines is situated not in this area but in Mirzapir near Varanasi. The Shrine of the Mountain Goddess forms a part of the 108 Shaktipeets or the 108 locations where body parts of the Great Mother Goddess in the form of Sati fell. It is believed that the back of the Goddess fell at this location. The transformation of the Goddess into the Sacred Mapping of Tantra finds that the goddess is located in the Yantra/Mandala or Sacred geometrical map in honor of the Goddess of Wealth Lakshmi, where she is in the form of a Mountain considered to be the source of eternal power.


[2] The Hindu trilogy of the principals of creation, protection and destruction (to engender re-creation) is encapsulated in the anthromorphic ideas of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Vishnu the protection principal is depicted two streams as Vishnu the savior the idea of Vishnu itself through several stories like Gajendra Moksha and the other are parallel stories of his ten incarnations that appear at different points of mythological periods in various forms to replace the disorder with order, the evil with goodness. Of these 10 incarnation as the forms of Vishnu as Ram, and Krishna.

Official Tailoring – Darning the Linguistic Fabric By Navina Jafa The state of Gujarat boasts a unique style of weaving popularly known as the double Ikat Patola. It is an ancient and very intricate technique of tie or knot dyeing on the warp and weft separately before weaving. Traditional patterns emerge in jewel colors, most of them from the memory of the weavers, in a spectacular mosaic that is reflected on both sides of the woven fabric. This serves as a perfect metaphor for the wide canvas of languages and their dialects that reflect India’s cultural and linguistic diversity. The rich Indian linguistic heritage is similar to streams that flow separately, but often mingle and in that interaction one regional culture deepens and enriches the other. Languages are specific to the cultural environment and these manifestations of communication by human beings are dynamic. The creation of the states of India on the basis of language erected artificial political boundaries between regions. These served to curb the flowing dynamic cultures across areas that shared affinities other than language or dialect. From the cultural perspective it is clear that the history of this ancient civilization is characterized by an incredible cultural continuity. The civilizational essence has always been to take the past in the present and move towards the future. In each community the evolution of different languages reflects the imaginative response to unique geographical resources and spaces. Crossing time and space, communities bonded with each other encompassing the past for their present and future. There is an inherent societal behavioral idea of continuity, of constant adaptation and assimilation. When the soul that characterizes the country remains unchanged, why disturb the equilibrium? When cultural identities whose free spirit is structured there is always tension within the social fabric, and the price communities pay for this politicization is socio-cultural chaos. For any meaningful cultural policy directive in the context of India, ‘it is essential to constantly keep in view the complex, intricate and multilayered, multidimensional cultural fabric of the country, both in time and space.” Since last week much has been written and debated over a directive prescribing Hindi in government’s social media communication, and encouraging the use of Hindi for governmental official communication. Such directives like many others ignore India’s intrinsic linguistic diversity and inherent plurality and appear to be a politicization of cultural heritage. Although they claim that it is the only way to promote a sense of national pride and nationalism, they defy the very essence of what this civilization is about. Our sense of Nationalism in the 19th C actually emerged when the British introduced several tools that created networks across the physical landscape such as the postal and transport systems, and various documentation institutions e.g. Anthropological and Archaeological Surveys of India. English was major ingredient for the creation of the sense of a Nation. Culture remains the most important issue that underlies all engagement since the manifestation of the culture of a civilization is primarily language. The need of the hour is to look at preserving this heritage in a sustained and systematic manner. As my guru Dr Kapila Vastyayan says there are 50,000 unread estampages of inscriptions from our monuments and coins lying in the Epigraphical sections of the Archaeological Survey of India in Mysore and Nagpur. Inscriptions in innumerable monuments remain undeciphered even today. This is because within the fold of our major languages many of them have more than one script, for example, Marathi has four, and similarly there are different scripts for Pali, Prakrit, Kharoshti, Arabic, Persian and the Dravidian languages. However, today, we have no more than 35 inscription readers, all of them above 70 years of age, left. There is an urgent need to invest in a mentorship program in order to have a larger pool of skilled people to conserve languages. Otherwise what our monuments can speak will remain unheard. While it is imperative for the government to prepare policy / vision statements, the principle of less government in the field of culture needs to be followed immediately. Today there are ten ministries dealing with matters relating to different aspects of culture. This results in a fragmented approach and a piecemeal attention to problems and issues. The first step could be to bring all these matters under one umbrella /comprehensive ministry/ department alongside the setting up of an advisory body of balanced and progressive cultural professionals’ e.g. Indologists, anthropologists, historians, sociologists, linguists and art specialists. Only then can we move forward towards preventing the politicization of culture.

Facelift of a Historical City – From Kyoto to Kashi

Negotiating Heritage, Preserving the Soul – From Kyoto to Kashi
Navina Jafa
At the turn of the century a series of World Conferences saw the debates addressing renewal of historical cities. Noted historian Arnold Toyenbee had expressed that cities can survive and prosper only as they meet challenges of the current age and they need to be renewed every 100 years. It is extremely convenient to develop templates as part of development projects, however, the challenge is the tailoring of such projects that are aligned with the inherent character defining each city. The Kyoto to Kashi agreement initiated by Prime Minister Modi is indeed a bold step, but the genetic complexity of Varanasi/ Kashi/ Anandvan/Banaras needs to be kept in mind. Having worked on the urban cultural geography of the city along that of 6 others, as part of my PHD thesis, I wonder how this will happen. Will the new players realize that no one wants to move out of the demarcated spiritual psychological urban geography perceived as Moksha Sthan? This is the area believed to be where your soul is released from the cycle of life and does not have to take a rebirth. It includes the river front along with onion like layers in the aligned back- lane areas. Along these areas is constructed the space where roads and sewage systems were created by the colonial rulers. Both the riverfront dense neighborhoods and roads remains clogged, dirty, congested and comprises the main area of the city from Assi, Lanka to Gaudauliya . This stretch covers the main part of the historical city and stretches for several kilometers. It does not include the other side of the river bordering RamNagar. The area represents the living heritage of an ancient heritagescape which refuses to be compromised in face of contemporary needs. It is that unchangeable, non-negotiable, inherent character which has retained its magnetism over centuries and has always made people around the world to visit this ancient city.
It is not the intention of the Prime Minister Modi that I am doubting, it is negotiating with sustenance of the spirit ‘wonder that is India’ in Basham’s words by the application of the proposed renewal technique; since, many a time, creating world class cities is normally about efficient management of cities in a contained canvas. For the renewal Kashi project we could not have had a better partner than the Japanese who are steeped in tradition, and are known for meticulous delivery. Yet, will the will of Modi, and the systematic approach of the Japanese be able to negotiate spaces for preserving the plural categories human societies and traditions that have existed, and adapted since centuries? Varanasi, like the rest of India is an ever dynamic process of multiplicity and not monolithic structures. Each of several cultural and regional social groups in Kashi want and have always vied for representation in the area around the Moksha Sthan that defines the internal network of the main city. Is super- imposing the idea of the concept of monolithic renewal of this evergreen urban space a challenge to the city’s inherent Indian Spirit of plural cultural spaces? The methodology of the idea of World class Urbanization is usually about doing away with plurality adopting a reductionist approach for efficient administration leading to creating soul-less cities. India as a civilization has always defied being put in a canvas, and Varanasi with the flowing Ganga river is constant reminder of plural dynamism. The honeycomb coexistence of contradictory community cultures is the mark of Kashi: the wild co-existence of Aghors and Vishwanath with that of shasthi peeth Valabacharya seat of Vaishnavism, echo of Buddha’s First Sermon with that of the silence of Jain saint Parashavnath, rhythm of looms of thousands of Muslim weavers with the bold beats of Kathak playing the Banaras gharana of tabla, lilting sensuous sound of tappa and thumri singing with coexisting with chants of the women of Panini Vidyalaya defying patriarchy, the colorful religious ethos of Tulsi’s Ramayana with fervor captured in edifices built by Rani Ahilya Bai and Marathas represented in temples and ghats, where the Maulvi of a mosque offers flowers to the priest of the Vishwanath temple. The stern, modern nationalist spirit of Banaras Hindu University, and temple of India is balanced with the wildness of aroma of cannabis smoked populace and stained beetle leaf lips opening with carefree laughter. I hope that this complex contradictory terrain of the intangible heritage is addressed in the renewal program.
In my opinion the renewal program needs to fill the vacuum that exists between two metaphorical spaces namely between the Cosmic, and individual nirvana, and that space is the civic public space. The most important part of the program therefore needs to create an educational awareness where the citizen’s wisdom of life, forces them to come together along with efficient infrastructure to address in a sustainable manner clean public spaces (both on land and river), functional, clean toilets for women, large number of dustbins, and mechanism for disposing garbage. Sometimes I think Kashi or the city of light is a metaphor to find our soul in the chaos and dirt, but that is perspective that needs to be changed so that there is a tangible truth of finding Vishwanath in every nook and corner renewing the famous saying that goes for Kashi is jitney kankar utne Shanker. (There is Shiva in all pebbles of Kashi).