Orchha Fort is a huge complex containing a large number of monuments including palaces, gateways and temples, accessed from the town by an arched causeway. The entrance ticket for the fort is valid for all other monuments in Orchha, so it pays to get here early in the morning so you have time to visit some of the other sites later in the day.
All the key players in the initial building and later additions to the fort complex have their chhatris located just 1km away on the banks of the river Betwa, make sure you have time to visit them whilst in Orchha.
Having purchased your ticket at the office, the first monument of note you will come to is the Diwan-e-Am.
This pillared hall was built by Madhukar Shah in the 17th century. Inspired by the Mughal courts, the hall was designed for the king to meet the public and deal with matters of administration and justice.
The King was able to access the public hall with its 28 columns directly from his own private residence, which led straight to the highest platform where he would preside over matters. His ministers and nobles would be assembled on the remaining two levels, in order of their rank.
The highlight of this hall is of course the paintings. Look up at the vaulted ceilings to see lively paintings in the Bundela style of peacocks, parrots, antelopes, bison, elephants and courtly life.
(click on the smaller images to view full-size)
Although hunting was an important part of any nobleman’s life, it is said that Madhukar Shah once refused to kill a lion when ordered to by the imperial court. This was a defiant gesture, thought to have been done because the lion symbolised Narasimha, the half-man half-lion incarnation of Vishnu. By all accounts this resulted in Madhukar gaining even more respect from the Mughal court.
Leaving the Diwan-e-Am, continue ahead and then turn right to reach the Raja Mahal.
Construction of the Raja Mahal (King’s Palace) was started in 1531 by Bharti Chand, he was the first of the Orchha rulers to have a chhatri built in his memory, a short distance away south of the fort.
This was his private residence, the first phase of building being the perfectly square courtyard that you come to after passing through a smaller initial courtyard.
The rooms around the inner courtyard provided cool retreats, and served as a private residence for the king, his wives and children.
The highlight of the Raja Mahal in many respects are the paintings which are located in six rooms around the inner courtyard. These rooms are lavishly painted in vibrant colours, once again in the Bundela style, celebrating the avatars of Vishnu and scenes from the Ramayana.
(Reminder : click on the smaller square thumbnails to view larger images, there’s a lot of them! )
Further scenes include an image of a king with the body of a large bird (presumably representing Garuda, Vishnu’s mount), and Vishnu resting on the snake Anata while his consort Lakshmi massages his legs.
There’s another interesting panel depicting a brilliantly coloured mythological Chungal bird, with the head of an elephant and the body of a lion. It has captured some small elephants, and is having its head pecked by a peacock. This scene can also be seen at the wonderfully painted Lakshmi Narayan Temple just a short distance away.
How many of these rooms you will get to see is probably going to be down to pure chance. They appear to be locked for much of the time, with attendants occasionally offering to open them for you to take a look inside.
At the far side of the second courtyard in one of the rooms, be on the lookout for a very unusual painting. It’s quite subtle, and at the time of photographing it I didn’t actually spot the detail. Here in a niche, there is an image of an elephant, which is actually a composite picture of 12 women ! I’m afraid my photograph is not a good one, it’s heavily cropped, but hopefully this gives you a sense of the image.
The paintings are really impressive, and hard to take in at first. Although the doors may be shut to these rooms, possibly to restrict the amount of sunlight penetrating the interior, try and seek out a guard/caretaker to make sure you don’t miss out !
Bharti Chand was succeeded by his brother, Madhukar Shah, who added a rectangular courtyard to the original Raja Mahal building. In a slightly different style of architecture, this accounts for the many different types of arch you can see at the Raja Mahal.
There are many staircases offering the chance to climb up on to the upper levels, in total there are five storeys. From here you can look down on the central courtyard and across at other fort complex buildings surrounding you.
One building I didn’t visit at the fort complex was the Sheesh Mahal. This was built by Udait Singh as royal accomodation but has now been converted into a hotel.
Retrace your steps back down to the ground floor, head out of the Raja Mahal and continue ahead up a flight of steps to reach the Jahangir Mahal. This small entrance to the Jahangir Mahal closest to the Raja Mahal is believed to have been the servants’ door.
The Jahangir Mahal, built in 1610, is architecturally the most impressive and intricate of any building to be found in Orchha. The Mahal is a massive 67m square building, containing a single courtyard with strong Hindu and Muslim elements.
It was built by Raja Bir Singh Deo to commemorate the visit of the Mughal emperor Jahangir to Orchha, but appears to have been used as both a guest house and a place of entertainment rather than as a royal residence.
Raja Bir Singh Deo ruled over Orchha from 1605 to 1627, his chhatri is the largest of the fifteen chhatris to be found by the river Betwa. By all accounts he was the most famous and powerful of all the Orchha rulers, a dashing personality, great warrior, bold, and organised administrator. He was also responsible for the superb Lakshmi Narayan Temple which sits on the hill above Orchha.
As with the Raja Mahal, you can climb steps up to the various levels for views flooded with cupolas, domes, pavilions and balconies. It’s a magnificent sight.
From these upper levels there are also excellent views down to lesser buildings on the periphery of the fort complex, heading down to the Betwa river in the far distance.
Having explored all these various levels, head back down to the courtyard at ground level, and go through a door directly opposite to where you came in. It’s not signposted, it may even appear to be closed, but it should open and lead you via a passageway to the original ceremonial gateway of Orchha Fort.
This is a finely carved entrance torana (or archway), with guardian elephants made of stone flanking the doorway. It’s well worth descending the steps here and walking away from the Jahangir Mahal for a short distance, the view looking back at the fort from here is really impressive, coupled with the fact that very few visitors seem to get this far within the fort complex.
The other reason for coming this far is to take a quick look at the Unth Khana.
Within the Orchha Fort complex there are several structures built to support the powerful army that was maintained by the Bundela state. The Unth Khana is believed to be one such structure, a camel stable.
However, there is an alternative interpretation for this building. Despite the lack of external decoration, the interior does have decoration and even rings on the ceiling, possibly for swings. This has led some experts to believe that the “camel stable” name attributed to the building merely reflects the elegant proportions, and that it was in fact a pleasure pavillion.
This is backed up by its location, set on a high plateau providing a panorama of the river and forest landscape down below. Personally, I think it is a camel stable 🙂
A short distance from here is the Rai Parveen Mahal. Built in the late 16th century, the palace is named after Rai Parveen, a courtesan who was famous for her beauty. Unfortunately I failed to visit this building, which does have paintings of Rai Parveen herself in the upper rooms.
The Orchha Fort complex opens at 8am, it’s well worth getting there as close to opening as you can. The complex is massive and you could easily spend an entire day here if you’re keen to explore everything it has to offer. However, if like me you are limited for time, the early start does mean you have a valid ticket for any other sites you may want to see in the afternoon.
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