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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. 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.
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.
BUNDELAS OF ORCHHA
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.
Despite, the blessings of the Goddess Vidhyachal, the Orchha rulers drew their legitimacy of kingship from the male Vaishnav incarnation of Ram and Krishna. 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
SACRED SPACE OF HARDOL KI BAITHAK
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.
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.
 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.
 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.