Monday, 20 November 2017

The spy who came in from the leprosarium

Ideally, spies are people whom you would never suspect. Thus, they mix in with the background, so that we stop noticing them. Or they become so prominent that we take them for granted. Yet another strategy is to associate them with a condition that evokes fear, so that the spy-catchers do not wish to get close to them.

Ben Montgomery's book "The Leper spy" is about a person who was able to become a spy because she carried the signs of leprosy on her body. This post is about Montgomery's book, as well as about another story from Italy during the second World War, where leprosy had played an important role in saving many lives.

Ben Montgomery's book "The Leper Spy"

The book "The leper spy: The story of an unlikely hero of World War II" is the story of a woman called Josephine "Joey" Guerrero from Manila, who was diagnosed with leprosy, some months before Japan attacked and occupied Philippines. Joey was married to a doctor and had just delivered a daughter.

Joey decided to volunteer and help the American prisoners of war and resistance-fighters in Manila. Using the fear of leprosy among the Japanese soldiers, who did not want to go near her, she could visit different parts of the city and collect information about their military structures and plans, and carry them to the Americans.

After the surrender of Japanese forces and the end of the war, Joey found herself in a leprosarium outside the city, where the post-war destruction and lack of resources had a huge negative impact. Joey started writing letters to friends to ask for help. Stories of her work as a spy for the American forces helped to bring her to the US, where she could receive treatment for leprosy with the latest medicines of that time, such as Promin and Dapsone.

Montgomery is an able writer, bringing together the stories of different persons involved in the Second World War in the Pacific region and in Philippines, as well as the stories about the leprosy world in Carville (USA). It is an interesting read and helps to understand the history of Philippines and the early years of development of Carville.

However, while reading the book, I had an impression as if Joey was constantly hiding behind a mask. I could not get a feel about her as a person. In the first half of the book, this was because information about her is very limited. In the second half of the book, the information comes mostly from her official letters and writings. At the end of the book, for me Joey remained a shadowy figure.

During the 1970s, Joey had decided to move away from the limelight, away from being hailed as a heroine and away from being an activist fighting for a better understanding about leprosy. There is little information about the last 25 years of her life, till her death in 1996. The book informs that in this period, she had studied to become a sociologist and was involved in humanitarian work in Latin America and Africa.

However, if we do not look at the book primarily as Joey's life story, it is much more interesting in the way it tells us about the second World War in Philippines and the issues surrounding leprosy in the US in the post second world-war period.

A Genoa leprosarium for helping the Jews

There is another Second World War story, where the fear of leprosy played a role in saving people's lives. This story was shared by Dr Barabino, who works in the leprosy department in the San Martino hospital of Genoa in Italy.

San Martino hospital was started as a leprosy home in the 13th century. Over time, it became a general hospital and expanded. Now it is a big university hospital. During the 20th century, leprosy slowly started declining in Italy. At present, there are only 6-10 new cases of leprosy every year in Italy, and almost all of them are immigrants. This is similar to the situation in most other countries of Europe.

During the second World War, Mussolini in Italy was an ally of Hitler's Germany. Though Italy had promulgated anti-Jew laws in 1938, their deportations to the concentration camps started in 1943, when the German forces entered Italy and took over the command of the war. Around 20% of the 40,000 Jewish persons living in Italy at that time were deported to the concentration camps, where almost 90% of them died. During that period an Italian ex-pilot called Massimo Teglio (left) played an important role in saving many Jewish lives in Genoa.

On 2 November 1943, German soldiers attacked the office of Jewish community centre in Genoa and took away the documents with the list of names and addresses of Jews living in the city. In the following days and months, they started arresting persons and deporting them to the concentration camps. Massimo Teglio created a clandestine organisation called Delasem to save the Jews from the Nazis, to provide them with false identity papers and to help them to escape. A collaborator of Teglio called Lastrina was caught and killed. During this period, the leprosy hospital of San Martino was used as one of the hiding places for the Jews, as the soldiers of the German SS were afraid to go inside because of the fear of catching the disease.

The image below shows one of the old houses used by persons affected with leprosy in San Martino hospital.



***
The fear of leprosy is not something belonging only to the past. Today the disease is easily curable but still most persons do not know about it and continue to be afraid of it. I had another experience of this fear in 2010 in Rome, during the ceremony of conferring sainthood on Fr Damien, who had died in Kaluapapa (Hawai) while serving persons affected with leprosy.

For the ceremony many representatives of persons affected with leprosy had come to Rome. Italian organisation AIFO had made arrangements for these delegates to visit the President of Italy and I was part of this group. Normally, all visitors entering the President's house need to pass through a strict security check-up. However, when we went inside, the security staff stood back and did not come near us.

***
People who have had leprosy do not like the word "leper" as they feel that it is full of negative connotations and creates a stereotypical image of persons. They ask to not to use this word and instead say "persons affected with leprosy". However, in Ben Montgomery's book the word "leper" is used frequently and not just in its title.

Through Twitter, I asked Ben regarding the use of this word in his book. He answered: "Was hoping that using the term sparingly and within proper historical context would mitigate the negative connotation. Hansen's as a descriptor is still relatively foreign, and was almost unheard of during most of the period the book covers."

***

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Legends and stories of Orchha

Orchha is a tiny town in Madhya Pradesh (India), known for its beautiful palaces, temples and cenotaphs of the Bundela Kings from 16th and 17th centuries. It is also linked to many popular legends and stories that spice its history, and are sung in the local ballads and folk-songs.

Praveen Rai, Wall painting, Laxmi temple, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

The image above is of a wall-painting showing Praveen Rai, part of one such legends. This post is about four legends related to medieval Orchha. You can read more about Orchha and the Bundelkhand region of India in my other posts.

Oral cultures of India

When India became independent in 1947, 88% of its population could not read or write. We do not have similar data for the past, but probably for the majority of Indians, oral traditions always had a significant importance. Though today the literacy levels have improved, oral traditions conserved through sacred texts, ballads and folk-songs, continue to play an important cultural role in the popular transmission of history, especially in smaller towns and villages.

Myths and legends are usually understood as old stories about gods and supra-natural events. However, myth-building is an on-going process and through our oral traditions, even the recent events of our history can become part of myths. Indic ideas about cyclical nature of time, karma and reincarnation influence its popular culture, in which history and myths are both equally important and freely intermixed.

Different folk-art forms and rites during social events, from marriages to celebration of festivals, keep alive these legends in the communities. These include overarching stories, especially about the Hindu Gods and Goddesses, that are common across different states and languages of India, as well as, more regional or local stories, such as the legends and stories of Bundelkhand and Orchha.

Folk and oral traditions, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

For example, in the Bundelkhand region, the ballads and nautanki-theater about the 12th century story of the brave warrior-brothers Alha and Udal continue to be very popular. This post is about legends specifically linked to the kingdom of Orchha in Bundelkhand.

Historical background of Orchha

In the beginning of  the 16th century, Bundela king Rudra Pratap had his capital in Gadhkundar. As he won new territories, to better control his expanded kingdom he decided to build a new capital at Orchha, 52 km to the south of Garhkundar. For more than a hundred years, the descendants of Rudra Pratap ruled from Orchha. During later parts of 17th century, their influence gradually waned, though they continued to live in Orchha till late 18th century.

Parveen Rai wall-painting, Laxmi temple, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

This post looks at four legends linked to Orchha - queen Ganesh Kunwar's desire for a Rama temple; the love story of the courtesan Praveen Rai and the king Indrajit Singh; the legend of Jujhar Singh, and his brother Hardaul; and, the legend of the Muslim pir Sundar Shah.

Queen Ganesh Kunwar and the statue of Lord Rama

Madhukar Shah ruled Bundelkhand for 38 years, from 1554 to 1592. Ganesh Kunwar was his queen. The king was a follower of Krishna, while the queen was from Ayodhaya and a follower of Rama. This was the time when Gosain Tulsidas had written his Ram Charit Manas and had popularized the public celebrations of Ramlila during Dushhera festival.

Ganesh Kunwar wanted a Rama temple in Orchha and thus, Madhukar Shah started building the Chatturbhuj temple. The queen herself went to Ayodhaya to get the Rama statue for this temple. At that time, she dreamed that once outside Ayodhaya, the statue will get stuck wherever it will be put down and then it can not be shifted. So the queen took care to never place the staute on the ground during her journey back to Orchha. However, when the queen reached home, the Chatturbhuj temple was still incomplete and thus, it was decided to keep the statue in her palace. Later, when the temple was completed, they found that the statue had become stuck in the palace and it could not be moved from its place. Thus, her palace had to be converted into a temple. The image below shows Chatturbhuj temple and the queen's palace (yellow) converted into a temple, seen from the Orchha fort.

Chatturbhuj and Ram Raja temples, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

There are many variations of this legend. For example, in one story, Ganesh Kunwar was doing a tapasya along the banks of Sarayu river in Ayodhaya. After long prayers, when lord Rama did not appear, she jumped in the river, threatening to kill herself. There, in the water, Rama appeared to her, brought her to the river bank and told her to build the temple in Orchha.

These stories serve to reinforce the beliefs in superhuman godly powers in the Rama statue and strengthen the sanctity of Ram Raja temple of Orchha, which is an important pilgrimage place in Bundelkhand.

Historical background: The rational explanation behind the story could have been a war between emperor Akbar and Madhukar Shah, so that Chatturbhuj temple was left incomplete. Some historians believe that the temple was completed during the reign of his third son, Bir Singh 15-20 years later, by which time the queen's old palace had already been converted into the Rama temple.

The wall paintings in Raja Mahal inside the Orchha fort, built by Madhukar Shah, like the one shown in the image below, are mostly about Krishna, supporting the idea that he was a Krishna-devotee.

Krishna wall-painting, Raja ka Mahal, Fort, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

On the other hand, the wall paintings inside the Laxmi temple built under Bir Singh, have scenes about both, Rama and Krishna, showing that by his time, the cults of both the gods had become popular in Orchha. The image below shows one such wall-painting panel where on the left an episode of Ramayana is depicted while on the right, there is Krishna.

Rama & Krishna wall-paintings, Laxmi temple, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

The beautiful courtesan Parveen Rai's love story

The second legend about Orchha is linked to king Indrajit Singh and his favourite court poet and dancer, Praveen Rai. Emperor Akbar heard about the beauty and singing skills of Praveen and asked Indrajit to send her to Agra to the royal court. Indrajit was in love with Praveen and did not want to leave her, but she convinced him to send her to the emperor. Struck by her strong love for Indrajit, Akbar gave her gifts and sent her back to Orchha.

Parveen Rai wall painting, Laxmi temple, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil DeepakThe story of Indrajit, Praveen Rai and Akbar was written down by the Orchha poet Keshav Das in his book "Kavipriya".

Hindi author Maitreyee Pushpa had also written about this legend. According to her story, Praveen's original name was Savitri and she was the daughter of a courtesan Kanchana from Gwalior, who was invited to Orchha by the king Madhukar Shah. The king fell in love with Kanchana and asked her to stay in Orchha. One of the ghats on Orchha river is dedicated to Kanchana.

Savitri was a good dancer and was given the title of Praveen Rai. She shared the love for poetry with king Indrajit and the royal poet Keshav Das.

Another story about Praveen is that she was the beautiful daughter of a blacksmith. When Indrajit saw her, he was smitten and brought her to his palace. Since she belonged to a "lower caste", they did not have a proper wedding. With the help of Keshav Das, she learned poetry, studied dance and became good at both. She wrote the "Ramkaleva" of Ramchandrika.

Similarly, there are stories regarding Akbar's curiosity about her. Indrajit's cousin Pahad Singh had told Akbar about Praveen and suggested that such a beautiful and good dancer should belong to the emperor's court. Pahad Singh wanted the throne of Orchha and hoped that the love-lorn Indrajit will die without Praveen.

Indrajit refused to send Praveen to the emperor and an angry Akbar asked him to pay a huge fine. Praveen convinced Indrajit to let her go. He was disappointed, thinking that his beloved was greedy and wanted to be the concubine of the emperor.

In Kavipriya, Keshav Das wrote that in Akbar's court Praveen was asked to sing. She sang about being a daughter of Orchha and about her love for Indrajit. Then she said: "Vinati rai praveen ki suniye chatur sujan, juthi patar bhakhat hai bari, vayas, svan" (O wise and good man, listen to this request from Praveen Rai. Left over food is eaten only by low-castes, crows and dogs). Thus she called herself "left-over food", implying her relationship with Indrajit and thus being unfit for the emperor. The emperor, ashamed by her words, gifted her money, pearls and jewels, and sent her back to Orchha.

Yet another legend says that after coming back from Agra, Indrajit wanted to marry Praveen but his family did not allow him. Frustrated, Parveen immolated herself and Indrajit committed suicide.

The historical Background: The fort of Orchha includes Praveen Rai palace, also known as Anand Mahal. It was built in the 16th century. Indrajit Singh was the younger son of Madhukar Shah, who ruled Orchha during the final years of the 16th century.

Parveen Rai palace, Fort, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Some of the wall paintings in Laxmi temple, built under Bir Singh in the early 17th century show Praveen Rai. Poet Keshav Das lived during the last years of Madhukar Shah, during the reign of Indrajit Singh and during early years of Bir Singh. Thus the events linked with the legends of Praveen Rai and Indrajit had probably occurred around the end of 16th century.

Story of King Jujhar Singh and his brother Hardaul

There is also the story of Jujhar Singh, his wife Champawati, his younger brother Hardaul and their sister Kunjawati. The popular legend says that Jujhar had forced his wife Champawati to poison and kill Hardaul because he had suspected an illicit affair between the two.

Jujhar Singh was the eldest son of Bir Singh while Hardaul was the youngest. Since Hardaul's mother had died when he was young, his elder sister-in-law Champawati had raised him. In 1627, when Bir Singh died and Jujhar Singh became the king, 19 year old Hardaul became his Dewan. One year later, in 1628, Hardaul was married to Himachal Kunwari and in 1630 his son Vijay Singh was born.

In 1931, Hardaul and some of his soldiers died after eating the Dushhera feast in Orchha. It is said that Jujhar told his wife that she was having an affair with his brother and asked her to prove her faithfulness by giving poison to Hardaul. The legend also says that Hardaul loved his sister-in-law, because he thought of her as his mother, and he knowingly took the poison from her.

People of Orchha, indignant about the killing of Hardaul, built a shrine to him. This story is a common theme in the folk songs and Nautanki-theater in Orchha.

Hardaul statue, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Another related legend is about Hardaul and his sister Kunjawati. When Hardaul died, his sister took his body to Datia for cremation. A temple was created at this site. In 1715, a pond was also built in Datia near this temple, which is called "Lalla ka Talab".

It is said that Hardaul was very close to Kunjawati. According to this legend, some time after Hardaul's death, it was the time for the marriage of Kunjawati's daughter. During the marriage, when the time came for the rite where the bride's mama (mother's brother) offers bhat (rice) to the bride, everybody was astonished to see Hardaul, whose ghost had come to offer rice to his niece. This legend is still kept alive in Bundelkhand marriage ceremonies, in the rite of giving "Hardaul ka bhat" to the brides.

Historical events linked with Hardaul's legend: In 1631, an enemy of Mughal empire called Khanjahan Lodhi, fleeing from Shahjahan's army, passed through Orchha. He was Hardaul's friend and thus, Hardaul did not try to stop him. This earned the ire of Shahjahan who blamed Jujhar Singh and forced him to send his son Vikramjit to go after Lodhi and kill him. 200 Bundela soldiers had died in this war. Jujhar Singh blamed Hardaul for creating this problem.

Entrance, Hardaul shrine, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Hardaul was a very popular military commander. He had created a personal group of warriors who listened to him. Thus, it is possible that Jujhar got him killed because he was angry with him or perhaps, he was insecure about him.

Many Bundelkhand persons do not like the version of this legend, where Jujhar suspects an illicit relationship between his wife and his brother. They blame Vincent Smith, the British collector of Hamirpur in 1875, for not having understood the real story and for having created this legend about the illicit love story.

The legend of Pir Sundar Shah

There is another legend linked with the royals of Orchha but I could not find much information about it.

According to this legend, one of the sons of Jujhar Singh, prince Dhurbhajan, had fallen in love with a Muslim girl. To marry her, he had converted to Islam and taken the name of Sundar Shah. They had lived in the building known as Sundar Mahal, built on the top of a hillock near the Laxmi temple. Some people say that the girl he loved was princess Mehrunnissa, the daughter of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb.

In his old age, Sundar became famous as a Pir, a local saint and thus, even today the Sundar Mahal is visited by people wishing to pray at his tomb.

Tomb of Pir Sundar Shah, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Historical background: According to the history books, emperor Aurangzeb had 4 daughters - Zebunnissa, Zeenatunnissa, Badrunnissa and the youngest, Mehrunnissa, who had married Izad Baksh, son of Shahzada Murad Baksh, in 1672 and had died in Delhi in 1706.

Ruins of Sundar Mahal, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

On the other hand Jujhar Singh had died in 1636 and in 1641, his brother Pahad Singh was placed on the Orchha throne by the Mughals. Aurangzeb became the emperor many years later in 1658. Thus, it seems unlikely that Jujhar Singh had a son who was young enough to marry princess Mehrunnissa. However, this does not mean that the legend had no historical basis. It is possible that one of the sons of Jujhar Singh had indeed married a Muslim girl and taken the name of Sundar Shah, though his wife was not the daughter of emperor Aurangzeb.

Conclusions

The legends of Orchha are part of oral-history traditions that are still alive and popular among the people. For example, if you search for "Hardaul ka bhat" on Youtube, you can find many versions of the ballads and nautanki performances linked to this story.

Folk and oral traditions of  India - Images by Sunil Deepak

These legends have kernels of history embedded in them around which myths have been build up. For some parts of the legends, there are material proofs like the Ram Raja temple which is not built like a temple and is clearly an old palace building with fortress like walls. Other parts of the legends, such as the story of "Hardaul ka bhat" have very strong emotional echoes in the community traditions and are a matter of people's beliefs.

Local persons have always experimented with their legends, adding embellishments and interlinking stories to them. Thus the legends take different forms and have many local variations.

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Wednesday, 1 November 2017

The graphic art collection of the Casabianca Museum

Casabianca is a small art museum in a tiny little town called Malo (VI) in the north-east of Italy. It is a testimonial to the artistic passion and the vision of an Italian art-collector called Giobatta Meneguzzo. The museum presents his collection of contemporary drawings, graphic-art and art-prints.


Meeting Giobatta Meneguzzo

I live in Schio (VI), a tiny town in the foothills of Alps mountains in the north-east of Italy. Malo is a few kilometres away from our home. Some months ago, our local cultural association organised a "Meet an artist" programme, under which we were supposed to visit the house of a local sculptor and talk to him about his art.

My friend Roberto came to pick me up and informed me that on the way, we will make a brief stop to pick up Giobatta, who is the artist's uncle. That was my introduction to the 89 years old Giobatta and to his collection of contemporary graphic art housed in Casabianca (literally "White house") museum in Malo.


Giobatta was kind enough to take me around his museum. Later, as we travelled to his nephew's house, we talked a little. This post is based on that meeting. It provides an introduction to the Casabianca museum and to Giobatta.

Brief introduction about Geobatta

Geobatta was born in 1928 in Priabona, a small fraction of Malo. He studied to become a geometra, someone who does surveys of terrains and projects civil buildings. His introduction to the world of graphic arts came through art books and art magazines such as the works of Skira and a magazine called "Domus". Fascinated by art, he started collecting graphic art and art prints in the 1960s and continued till 1990s.

The Casabianca museum was established in 1978. It is situated in a 400 years old building belonging to the Morandi Bonacossi family. Built around 1668, it is a compact solid looking building that used to be the "Montecio farming estate". At the same time, it has an aristocratic touch as shown by the high vaults, big halls and well made solid pillars.

Casabianca Art Collection

The graphic art and prints collected by Giobatta are very different from the usual art collections in museums - most of them are small in size, many of them apparently very simple and some of them can be defined as ordinary or even ugly. Most of the time, people collecting art focus on big art works with a strong good-looking visual impact. People collecting art as a financial investment go for famous artists. Museums do not have works of relatively lesser-known artists.

Giobatta's approach was different - he wanted to understand the artistic expression through his own appreciation of art. He looked for art which touched him instead of collecting famous works of famous artists. This means that looking at the art displayed in Casabianca museum, you can have a very personal and subjective view of art, without being influenced by the words of well-known art critics and hypes created by auction houses.


Even if you have been to different art museums around the world, Casabianca museum will surprise you. Most museums highlight the important art works of their collection, especially those of the famous artists. Casabianca is different - the art works are put in an apparently random way without highlighting those of the famous artists. The museum seems to tell you that you should not wait for someone else to tell you what is beautiful or what is important - look at the art through your own eyes and see which art and artists speak to your heart. Discover your personal view of significant art.


Not knowing which art works were by famous or important artists, was disorienting when I went around the Casabianca museum accompanied by Giobatta. The art works displayed here represent most of the important art movements from 1960s to 1990s including pop-art, kinetic-art, neo-realism, conceptual art, American graffiti, anachronism movement, minimal art and body art. Overall there are 1200 art-works of 700 artists exhibited in the museum.

Fred Licht, the curator of Peggy Guggenheim museum wrote about the art works displayed in Casabianca museum in 1992: "You can enter into a dialogue with artists like Beuys or Serra or Manzoni, more directly and more efficiently by looking at their small sized works, instead of their giant operas which overwhelm the observer and delay or complicate the direct communication with the artist ..."

The museum is popular with school children who come here to look at art and to discuss the different art movements and styles that have influenced visual arts and specially graphic-arts during the second half of 20th century.

It was a hurried visit for me, as we had to go for our group visit to the house of another artist. Still, the unorthodox approach chosen by Giobatta piqued my interest and I am hoping to go back there to look properly at the art works.

Conclusions

Casabianca museum is a private art collection. It focuses on graphic art of second half of the 20th century. I am sure that today it is possible to see many examples of the graphic-art through internet. Still looking directly at the art works instead of admiring them as images is a completely different experience.

It was a hurried visit to the Casabianca museum on that day. However, even in that short visit, I was intrigued by the ideas of Giobatta and his art collection.


When we admire art we focus on the artists and their artistic expressions. People discovering artists and running art galleries is another group of people that has received some attention. However, who are the persons who collect art and why do they do it? Meeting Giobatta raised this question in my mind.

I am planning to go back to Casabianca and look at its exhibits with a little bit more time. If you are visiting this part of north-east Italy around Vicenza and its province, perhaps you will also like to visit this unique museum.

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Saturday, 28 October 2017

Discovering the beautiful architecture of Orchha

In the 16th century India, the Bundela kings chose Orchha as their capital. Its days of glory lasted till about the end of the 17th century. The surviving buildings from that period are among the most beautiful examples of Bundela architecture.

Laxmi temple, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

You can read more about the Bundelkhand region in one of my earlier blog-posts. This post is about the temples, cenotaphs (chhattris) and some other buildings of Orchha.

General information about Orchha

Orchha is a tiny sleepy town in northern Madhya Pradesh (MP), close to its border with Uttar Pradesh (UP). The nearest railway station is in Jhansi in UP, around 20 km away, from where you can easily get an auto or a car to reach Orchha. There is a local train station in Orchha but it is a bit away from the city and trains are infrequent.

Orchha is located along the Betwa river. The river's old name was Vetravati. In "Padma Purana" it was called the Ganges of Kaliyuga. Ancient sages Parashar and Bhrigu had their ashrams along its bank. Near Orchha, the river divides into different streams that create a big island in its middle, which hosts the Tangaranya forest. A narrow bridge (image below) that can be submerged during the monsoons, connects the island to the Orchha town.

Bridge on Betwa, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

The region around Orchha is full of old medieval towns with the ruins of medieval temples, forts and lakes. Unfortunately this area is not easily accessible for tourists. Except for a private taxi, the public transport options are extremely limited in the area.

The places described in this post are all located in a relatively small area of Orchha close to the river and can be easily visited on foot.

A Brief history of Orchha

It became the capital of Bundela king Rudra Pratap in 1530. He died soon after shifting here and was succeeded by Bharati Chandra (1531-54), and then, Madhukar Shah (1554-92). This last period coincided with the establishment of Mughal empire in India.

Bundelas had a tumultuous relationship with the Mughals. They lost wars to them, swore allegiance and then, whenever they got the chance, rebelled and fought for independence. Thus, the Mughals could never take them for granted. Mughal emperor Akbar's army attacked and defeated Madhukar Shah in 1577. He joined Akbar's court but later, continued to fight, eventually winning back some of the lost areas.

His son Rama Shah made peace with Akbar and joined his court. While he stayed in emperor's court, Orchha was looked after by his younger brother Indrajit Singh. They had another brother, Bir Singh who became an ally of prince Salim. After Akbar's death in 1605, Salim became emperor Jahangir (1605-27), and he made Bir Singh the king of Orchha (1606-27).

Bir Singh's reign is called the golden period of Orchha. He built different forts, temples and water-tanks in Bundelkhand, including the Jhansi fort. (In the image below the cenotaphs of Bir Singh and of his military commander, Kripa Ram Gaur)

Cenotaph of Birsingh Deo & Kriparam Gaur, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

After the arrival of Shah Jahan on the Mughal throne in 1627, fighting between the Bundelas and the Mughals restarted. Bir Singh's son King Jujhar Singh was forced to take refuge in a forest and was killed in 1635. His younger brother Pahad Singh, who had sided with the Mughals, was made the ruler of Orchha in 1642. Slowly over most of the 17-18th centuries Orchha kingdom declined.

Parts of this history are not clear. For example, Shah Jahan's biography says that in 1635, he had sent his son Aurangzeb to destroy the temple of Orchha. By that time, Orchha had at least three big temples - Raja Ram temple, Chatturbhuj temple and Laxmi temple. However, in Orchha, I could not find any story about a temple destruction.

The image below shows some of the cenotaphs Orchha built close to Betwa river.

Cenotaphs, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

The Vaishnav poet Keshavdasa, who wrote Rasikpriya about the love of Krishna and Radha, lived in Orchha during the final years of Madhukar Shah and during the reign of Bir Singh. He also wrote Birsimhadeva Charita and Jahangir Jas Chandrika in the praise of  Bir Singh and his patron Jahangir. The poet's house in Orchha is now used a school.

House of poet Keshav das, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Orchha Fort

The fort's construction was started under the first king Rudra Pratap and after his death, completed by his son Bharati Chandra. Their successors added other buildings to the original fort, especially Bir Singh Deo, who built "Jahangir Mahal" in the fort. The image below shows the fort walls and Raja Mahal built under Madhukar Shah.

Fort & Raja Mahal, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

The fort is located on an island close to Betwa. A 105 metres long bridge (Terah Dwari) built under the reign of Bir Singh links the fort to the town. (In the image below, the bridge and the town seen from the fort)

Bridge and city seen from the fort, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

It is a beautiful fort. I will write a separate post about it, so I won't go in details about it here.

Chatturbhuj temple

Bundelas were Vaishnav, followers of Krishna. However, Ganesh Kunwar, wife of Madhukar Shah, was a follower of Rama. Chatturbhuj was the first major temple of Orchha, built for her in mid 16th century. She went to Ayodhaya to get the lord Rama statue for this temple. However, it could not be installed in Chatturbhuj because of a war with the Mughals and the death of prince Hardaul. Therefore, it was decided to keep the statue in the Queen's palace.

However, there is a legend that tells a different story about the missing Rama statue from the Chatturbhuj temple. The legend says that the queen dreamed that the statue of Rama, once taken from Ayodhaya, must not be put on ground till it reached the place of its installation. However, when she brought the statue to Orchha, Chatturbhuj temple was not yet ready, so the statue was kept in her palace next door. Once the temple was ready, they found that the statue had become fixed to the ground in the palace and could not be moved. Thus, the beautiful Chatturbhuj temple remained without its deity while the queen was forced to convert her palace into a temple.

Chatturbhuj temple, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

The Chatturbhuj temple is built on a raised stone platform. The temple has a 3-storied building, with steps to go up to the ground floor. It is the tallest building in Orchha. After the entrance, the temple has an open area which leads to a rectangular building known as Mahamandap. A corridor from Mahamandap leads to Garbhgriha (the womb or the most sacred room).

Ram Raja temple

This old royal palace of Madhukar Shah's queen, converted into a temple, is the most important religious building in Orchha. It is an important pilgrimage centre for Bundelkhand region. It has an outer wall with a gate that leads to a vast open area.

Outer gate, Raja Ram temple, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Inside there is another high fortified wall and a second gate with a palanquin arch at the top. Behind the entrance, there is a screen-wall, before you reach the temple. Inside the temple complex, there are residential apartments arranged in three tiers. Painted in shades of yellow and orange, it is surrounded by a market.

Temple gate, Raja Ram temple, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Raja Ram temple's structure is clearly that of a palace. However, its architecture is completely different from all the other buildings of Orchha, perhaps because of its yellow and orange paint.

Fortress like walls, Raja Ram temple, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Phool bagh and the Hardaul temple

Phool Bagh gardens were built near the Raja Ram temple by king Bir Singh Deo in 1611 to welcome emperor Jahangir when he came to Orchha for king's coronation. It is said that the garden included a huge stone cup full of wine for the emperor's welcome ceremony.

Water channels and pathways divided this garden into four parts (char bagh), with a fountain at the centre. Each part had eleven octagonal areas for the flower beds. Thus it was clearly influenced by Mughal architecture including the use of water for beauty and cooling.

Octagonal flower beds, Ram Bagh garden, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Later the temple of Hardaul, younger son of Bir Singh Deo, was built in the centre of Rambagh and today it is better known as Hardaul Vatika. Prince Hardaul was poisoned by his elder brother king Jujhar Singh, who suspected that his wife had an illicit relationship with his brother. Hardaul was loved by people, who believed that he was innocent. Thus, the Hardaul temple was built by the people, who tie threads on its jaali (wire net) asking for divine help.

Hardaul shrine in Ram Bagh garden, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Other palaces and buildings near Raja Ram temple

There are many other buildings in this area including the palace of Jujhar Singh and a pair of towers known as Sawan-Bhadon, which were used for facilitating the circulation of air in an underground hall, to the side of Raja Ram temple.

Sawan Bhadon towers & Jujhar Palace, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

The towers have open vents at the top. This way of using towers to create air-current was supposedly imported from Persia. However, I could not find any archaeological document detailing the underground hall and the way the 2 towers fitted into it.

Laxmi temple

This temple is built on a hill by the side of a lake, a little away from the Orchha fort and the city centre. It was built under the reign of Bir Singh Deo. Externally, it is rectangular in shape with a multi-foliated projecting bastion at each corner. With holes for canons in its outer wall, it looks like a fort.

Laxmi temple, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

The entrance leads to an open area with covered corridors (Parikrama) on the four sides. The temple is full of beautiful wall-paintings, showing sacred themes as well as, historical scenes. I was really fascinated with these wall-paintings. I hope to write a separate post about them. In the mean time, here you can see two examples - one showing a scene from Ramayana and the other showing two Europeans (one with a gun and the other, with a glass of wine).

Ramayana wall paiting, Laxmi temple, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Wall painting of 2 Europeans, Laxcmi temple, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

The garbhgriha (main sacred room) is in the centre in an octagonal space placed at the tip of triangle-shaped building. It is said that it once had a gold statue of Laxmi. Its special architecture with external rectangle, and an inner triangular temple with octagonal dome, make it a special building for the Indian Vaastu Shastra.

At the top, the corners of the dome are decorated with conical stones that look like curved lotus petals. Its shikhara (pinnacle) is different from other Bundela pinnacles, as it includes birds and a circular wheel (symbolising Vishnu).

Octagonal dome and shikhar, Laxmi temple, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

At the top of the temple, the different domes and palanquin arches, so characteristic of the Bundela architectural style, are connected by the ramparts from where you can have beautiful views of the surroundings. When I visited it, I could not see the lake mentioned in the guide book - perhaps it was dry.

Chhattris (Cenotaphs)

Before the arrival of Turks in India, there was no tradition of building cenotaphs among the Hindu kings. The Muslim custom of building tombs for the dead emperors influenced Rajputs, who started building Chhattris (cenotaphs) to commemorate the memories of specific kings. Orchha has some of the most beautiful Rajput chhattris in India to commemorate its Bundela kings.

The chhattris were built along the bank of Betwa river. The cenotaph of each deceased king was built by his successor.They were usually built over the stones (samadhi), where the bodies of the deceased kings were cremated. They usually have halls with columns and multiple openings on the sides.

Chhattris (cenotaphs), Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

There is a group of 9 cenotaphs of Bundela kings in Orchha, subidivided in two parts - the first group has 3 (of Bharati Chandra, Madhukar Sah and Pahad Singh); the second group has 5 (Jaswant Singh, Bhagwant Singh, Sanwant Singh, Indramani Singh and Sujaan Singh). The second group is set in a char-bagh kind of garden.

An additional cenotaph, that of king Bir Singh Dev, is separate from all others, built on a promontory close to Betwa river, and is the biggest building. It was built by his son Jujhar Singh in 1627-28.

Bir Singh Deo Chhattri, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

The last cenotaph built in Orchha was of Sanwant Singh built by his son Het Singh in 1765. It is a small but beautiful building, showing that though the power and prestige of Bundela kings had diminished during 17th century, they continued to be in Orchha till late 18th century.

Apart from the royal cenotaphs, there are some other cenotaphs in the area. For example, in front of Bir Singh Dev's chhattri is the small but beautiful chhattri of Kirpa Ram Gaur, his military commander.

Kripa Ram Gaur chhattri, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Orchha does not have any cenotaphs for the Bundela queens, as found in some other places of Bundelkhand, such as the cenotaph of queen Kamalapat in Chhattarpur.

Sundar Shah Mahal

This building is from the 17th century. The legend says that Sundar Shah, the love child of king Indramani and princess Mehrunissa, daughter of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, lived here. Later, two sufi saints, Syed pir and Zahar pir also lived here and their shrines were built inside. At present, it is seen as a religious place for the followers of the two pirs.

Palace of sundar Shah, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Narayan Das Khare ki Kothi

Ruins of this old house are located near the Laxmi temple. I didn't go to see it, just saw it from a distance. It has a three-storied entrance gate which is visible from afar. On the top floor, the arched windows are surmounted by a semi-circular roof (a style called palanquin). The haveli was built in the 17th century. The house belonged to Narayan Das Khare who was a lekhpal (record keeper) or Deewan (revenue minister) of the Orchha kings.

Narayan Das Khare ki kothi, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Kirparam Gaur ki Haveli

As mentioned above, Kirpa Ram was a senapati (military commander) of Birsingh Deo. Orchha poet Keshav Das wrote about the his bravery. Only the entrance gate of this haveli remains.

Kripa Ram Gaur kothi ruins, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Wild Animals and birds in Orchha

The Tangaranya forest on the island in Betwa river, is a protected natural area. However, even the city provides different opportunities for nature lovers.

For example, Orchha hosts different species of vultures. Unfortunately, vultures have virtually disappeared from India, exterminated by the wide-spread use of an anti-inflammatory drug in the cattle. Thus I was thrilled when I saw the vultures around the cenotaphs. The image below shows a white-backed vulture.

White-backed vulture, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Inside the Orchha fort I came across a large number of Hanuman langoor monkeys. Their antics and group and family behaviours were endlessly fascinating.

Hanuman langoor monkeys, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Underneath the Terah Dwari bridge leading to the fort, there were many egrets, lapwigs and herons. The image below has one heron (I am not sure if it is a striated heron or a green heron).

Striated heron, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

The city also seemed full of noisy parrots.

Conclusions

I think that in terms of its colours and architecture, along with the rugged rocky terrain, hills and the wild looking Betwa river, Orchha is one of the most beautiful places in India.

I was suprised that it had so few visitors. Let me conclude this travel-diary with a picture of the magnificent chhattris of the Bundela kings along the Betwa river seen at sunset.

Betwa river and cenotaphs at sunset, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

As I think of Orchha, I think of the Bundela queen Ganesh Kunwar and her statue of lord Rama that she kept in her palace. I also think of the poisoning of prince Hardaul by his suspicious elder brother king Jujhar Singh. So many events and so many stories are hidden under the layers of history. The ruins, if they could speak, would have so much to tell us.

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