Orchha is a small town on the river Betwa in India’s northern Madhya Pradesh, a beautiful ancient land filled with magnificent forts, medieval palaces and sacred temples steeped in history and legend. It’s mystical, spiritual, colourful and the whole town is completely vegetarian.
A must-see is the evening Hindu aarti ceremony at the famous Ram Raja temple. The story behind this temple is fascinating and the bizarre ritual that took place was amazing to see. Legend has it that the ruling King Madhukar Shah was a devotee of the Hindu God Krishna, but his wife was devoted to Rama. It caused a rift between the couple, so the King demanded that his wife completed a pilgrimage and only return with Lord Rama by her side in the form of a child.
The Queen ordered a temple to be built in preparation for her return with Lord Rama and went on her pilgrimage. She prayed and fasted for months but to no avail, Rama never appeared. Eventually she was so fed up she tried to end her life in the river. At that moment, Rama appeared in the form of a child. She asked him to return to Orchha with her and he agreed, saying, “I will be the king of Orchha and the first place you seat me will be my final place.”
It took 8 months for the Queen to return to Orchha and the temple was not yet complete, so she placed the child/God/baby Rama on her kitchen table in the palace. When the temple was finished and she tried to move him he was stuck, as this was the first place she had seated him. The kitchen was then transformed into a temple and the idol of Lord Rama still stands there today.
Pretty far-fetched story, but what is amazing is the sheer devotion that takes place in this ceremony every night. Queues of people line up inside the temple in what can only be described as metal cattle holding pens, waiting for the doors of the shrine to open. There are TV screens for those stood at the back, focused in on the doors with anticipation as if a celebrity were about to appear. When they finally opened the crowd went wild, surging forward to get a glimpse of Rama and a blessing from the priest, who looked like a bit of a rock star. Stood at the back we could see the statue on the TV screen. It was a small stone sculpture surrounded by flowers. Even more bizarrely, it is believed that if worshippers look at the big toe on the left foot when they pray then their wish will come true!
The tension before the doors opened and the outpouring of emotion once the priest appeared was just fascinating to witness. Orchha is the only place where Rama is worshipped as a King and four times a day there is a gun salute in his honour.
Orchha is full of medieval architecture and many cenotaphs line the riverbank. We visited two palaces – Jahangir Mahal and Rai Parveen Mahal. The most amazing thing was that there was no one there. We had one palace completely to ourselves and wondered why are there not more tourists in Orchha?
It’s a beautiful, laid-back town, with an impressive history. The people are friendly and don’t hassle you (as much), cows and pigs live happily in the street and the vegetarian food is fantastic. It’s the India you dream about.