Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Fortress of the Bundels

Capturing romance through a labyrinth of strategy.

There are only so many ways one can get to Orchha (catch a train into Jhansi and it’s a mere 20 minute road trip), but why this place in the middle of nowhere? One would wonder!

It’s stuff dreams are made of….. the tales which feed fantasies….. that’s why

Orchha is on the road to Khajuraho from Jhansi. It’s a sleepy little town once the capital of the princely state of Bundelkhand, set amongst a wonderful complex of well-preserved palaces and temples. The most talked-about feature here is the Orchha Fort.

Founded in the 16th century by Rudra Pratap Singh, the first King of Orchha, the fort has still managed to keep its grandeur. Approached by a multi-arched bridge, it has three palaces set in an open quadrangle. The Jehangir Mahal, the Raj Mahal and the Rai Parveen Mahal. The fort was strategically built on a small island created by the Betwa river splitting into two narrow streams before rejoining. The river gave it automatic protection with the waters being guarded by crocodiles!

As the story goes Raja Rudrapratap wasn’t particularly interested in administering his kingdom in his youth. He was more involved in hunting and came upon Orchha accidentally during one of his sojourns. He was so captivated by its natural beauty, with rivers, forests and hills surrounding the land, that he called upon his ministers and announced that from then on he would give up hunting and make this place his capital. His ministers were given the job of thinking up a name for the new capital. Convinced of its strategic location the minister went around the land in search of a feature characteristic to the area to name the place after but gave up! On one side he found the forests stretching into the horizon and on the other end the river showed no sign of ending even as he rode on. When he mentioned his predicament to the Raja, the Raja asked his royal litterateurs to improvise on the two words ore and chhor (ore and chhor are terms in the local language denoting “beginning” and “end”). From then on the clever fusion of the two terms, Orchha, gave the place its name. Now how is that for a story ?

Jehangir Mahal was built by Raja Bir Singh Ju Deo in the 17th century to commemorate the visit of Emperor Jehangir to Orchha. Its strong lines are counterbalanced by delicate chhatris and trellis work, the whole conveying an effect of extraordinary richness. It is believed that it was an appeasement gift to Jehangir, so as to protect the state against any attacks by the Islamic empire. Seems like the trick worked. Orchha was the only Bundela state not subjugated to plunder in the 18th century. The fort has a fascinating mix of Hindu and Islamic architecture. The umbrella-like structure on the top, called Chhatris, are typically a mix of Islamic domes topped with the Hindu symbol of the lotus. Throughout you see tiles and paintwork in green and blue, each representing one of the religions.

Raj Mahal, situated to the west of the quadrangle, was built in the late 17th century by Raja Madhukar Shah, the deeply religious predecessor of Raja Bir Singh Ju Deo. The plain exteriors, crowned by chhatris, give way to interiors with exquisite murals having bold & colourful religious themes. The most notable amongst these are the ones in the Queen’s quarters depicting the various avatars of Lord Vishnu.

Incidentally, the Shah descendants are still very much active in the region through properties designed to host tourists. The Bundelkhand Riverside Resort boasts of heritage interiors, personalized service and a great location right next to the river with views of the chhatris.

Rai Parveen Mahal, on the other hand, is quite another story. Rai Parveen, an enigmatic poetess and musician, was also the beautiful paramour of Raja Indramani (1672-76). The much talked-about siren was sent to Delhi on the orders of Emperor Akbar who was also captivated by her. Some even say that she was offered as a gift, stories of her talent having traveled further than herself. She so impressed the Great Mughal with her wit that he returned her to Orchha with honour. The incident is that when the Emperor wanted her she chided him that a “used object” (of the Bundels) like her did not befit an Emperor!

Rai Parveen was fond of fruit trees and gardens. The palace built for her is a low, two-storeyed brick structure designed to match the height of the trees in the surrounding, beautifully landscaped gardens of Anand Mahal, with its octagonal flower beds and elaborate water supply system. Skillfully carved niches allow light into the Mahal which has a main hall and smaller chambers.

As I was looking down at Rai Parveen Mahal from Jehangir Mahal, I got eerily reminded of the character from Vrindavanlal Verma’s highly acclaimed novel “Mrignayani”. My guide, the resourceful Mr. Sanjay Yadav, immediately confirmed that Rai Parveen was the main source of inspiration for the author’s heroine!

It was 6:30 pm and the fort was closing. As the wind whipped my hair, standing at the entrance of the grand fort, I could not help but feel the ghost of Mrignayani. Floating in her beautiful dress of Chanderis, singing raags from the Gwalior Gharana…. echoing through the walls. The image that stays in your mind is of a woman with eyes like that of a doe (Mrignayani …Mrig meaning a doe and Nayan meaning eyes).

It was easy to imagine art romancing the sunset. But like so many love stories, the mirage shattered when I learnt that this enigmatic woman was always a part of the fort but still the king never married her. I do not know if I can convince you to visit Orchha because of Rudra Pratap’s legacy but I can assure you that Mrignayani’s romance will take shape in front of your eyes as the sunlight weaves stories untold. Everything else, however grand, pales in comparison to her haunting presence that is still so strong.

Written for Landscape magazine

Papia Hajra

( Edited by Pashupati Sah )

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