The Chaturbhuj Temple right in the heart of Orchha dominates the village quite unlike any other temple I have visited in India. It’s a magnificent, huge, tall, skyscraper-like structure, the impressive towering shikaras in the shape of pine cones almost seem to reach out to the sky.
Construction of the temple was started in 1558 by Madhukar Shah who built it for his wife, Rani Ganesh Kunwari. It was subsequently completed by his son Vir Singh Deo.
So why did Madhukar Shah build the Chaturbhuj Temple on such a grand scale for his wife ?
Here we now have to delve into local legend. One night, Queen Rani Ganesh Kunwari had a dream visitation by Lord Rama, who instructed her to build a temple for him. Her husband, Madhukar Shah, approved the building of the temple and work commenced whilst the queen traveled to Ayodhya and returned with an image of Rama that was intended to be housed in the newly built temple.
Upon her return the Chaturbhuj Temple was still under construction, hardly surprising as it’s a massive building and I suspect may have taken decades to complete. So whilst everyone waited for the temple to be completed, the idol of Rama was placed in her palace next door, the Rani Mahal. Upon completion of the Chaturbhuj Temple, attempts were made to move Rama’s idol out of the Rani Mahal, but all efforts failed – the idol “refused” to be relocated.
So the Chaturbhuj Temple remained without an idol in its santum, and as the Rama idol was now being actively worshipped in the Rani Mahal palace, the building was converted into the Ram Raja Temple. Today the Chaturbhuj Temple houses an image of Radheykrishan.
The interior of the 105m high temple is as impressive as the exterior. Here the footprint of the building becomes even more obvious, with its cross shape representing the four arms of Rama (an avatar of Vishnu). I’ve only subsequently worked out that “chatur” means “four” and “bhuj” means “arms”, and the layout of the temple is very similar to that of a western Basilica.
Having explored the Chaturbhuj Temple at ground level, there may be the opportunity to now gain some elevation. I say “may” because how this is a arranged seems a little random, and it’s not clear how official this really is. Look out for people hanging around a small doorway on the right as you enter the temple.
No money was asked for, but I did give a tip at the end of this mini adventure. I was “guided” by a boy in quite a rushed fashion, I almost got the sense that he shouldn’t be doing it at all. By torchlight we scaled narrow steep steps to reach an upper gallery, then walked further around the inside perimeter of the temple before climbing up more stairs to the roof of the temple.
There’s lots of opportunities to get great views of both the temple interior and across Orchha and its many monuments, and plenty of those outside views coupled with nice carved window apertures (I’m a bit of a sucker for these in truth 🙂 )
If you decide to do this, I have to warn you that it’s not exactly health and safety compliant !
The winding staircases are dangerously dark, some of the steps are nearly a meter high with inadequate space for your feet and much of the masonry is crumbling. There’s about 70 steps in total, for me in two stages but I suspect there are many ways to reach the Chaturbhuj Temple roof.
Views from the top are about as good as it can get to survey the other monuments of Orchha, with the meandering Betwa river, Sawan Bhadon, Ram Raja Temple, Orchha Fort complex and a host of other temples and chattris laid out in front of you.
Also remember to look up, as you may be fortunate enough to spot some Indian vultures either circling the temple or perched high up on the pinnacles of the towers.
Indian Vultures have suffered huge population declines (around 98%) in recent years, due to the widespread use of a cattle drug which persists in carcasses and causes kidney failure in vultures. The Govovernent has banned the drug as of 2010 but it is still being used and it will take a while before it is replaced.
There are two stories associated with the Chaturbhuj Temple towers and gold. One is that the towers were completely encased with gold that has since been stolen. The other (and perhaps more plausable), is that Madhukar Shah provided a kalasha (or horn-shaped crown) made of over 100 pounds of pure gold that was placed on top of the temple. However, this secondary story also concludes with the robbery of the precious metal.
My time on the roof of the temple was short-lived. Within a couple of minutes we (myself and the guide) were ushered away to start the climb down. This would be a great spot for sunset photos over Orchha, but I really don’t know if that’s possible with timings.
The route down was punctuated by more circling of the upper gallery, offering alternative views of the inside of the temple, before navigating the final flight down to ground level.
With that my exploration of the Chaturbhuj Temple came to a close. A hugely impressive building with an unexpected twist thanks to the mini excursion up to the roof. If you do visit this temple be on the lookout for that opportunity.
Finally, if you are staying outside of Orchha it is well worth visting the center of the village in the early evening, many of the monuments are illuminated and the Chaturbhuj Temple is no exception. It makes for an impressive and atmospheric scene, as the imposing building does utterly dominate its surroundings.
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