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 the Orchha king. By that time, Orchha had at least three big temples - Raja Ram temple, Chatturbhuj temple and Laxmi Narayan temple. However, in Orchha, I could not find any story about a temple destruction. Perhaps, Shah Jahan's order referred to the destruction of Keshav Dev temple in Mathura, which was also built by Bir Singh Deo and was destroyed by Auranjzeb?

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 are supposed to 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.

Another local story considers the two towers to be the memorials of Prince Baghraj (son of Bir Singh Deo) and Mahatma Anupgiri.

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.


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. All the legends mentioned here have different versions, thus you can find other stories about them. For example, many persons do not agree with the story about the illicit relationship between queen Ganesh Kunwar and her brother-in-law. If you want to know more about these stories, you can read my post about legends of Orchha.


Sunday, 8 October 2017

Butterfly Cho Cho San's tragic love story

Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly is among my favourites. It is the tragic story of a young Japanese girl's love for an American marine.

Recently I went to see a show about this opera. It was a multi-medial show by the Italian musicologist Fabio Sartorelli. It had stories, piano performances of music from the opera, old video-footage and live performance of some scenes by three young actors.

This post is about this show organised by Elia Dalla Costa cultural centre and held at the Civic Theater of Schio (VI, Italy).

Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly

"Madama Butterfly" was based on a French novel written by Pierre Loti in 1887. The opera was written by Italian writer and musician Giacomo Puccini around the turn of 19th century. It premiered as a two-act opera in 1904 in Milan but was heavily criticised. Later that year, Puccini rewrote it as a three-act opera, which became successful.

Operas are the theater of emotions in songs. The tone and the timbre of the voices of singer-actors such as tenor, soprano and mezzo soprano, determines their roles. Operas are a part of the Western classical music tradition.

This opera was based in the 19th century Japan. After centuries of isolation, Japan had opened to the west in 1854. As Western ships started arriving in Japan, their marines wanted the "women of pleasure", but Japan did not allow prostitution. So the women were sold as "temporary wives" to those marines.

Opera's heroine Cho Cho (Butterfly) is a 15 year old girl who becomes the temporary wife of an American marine called Pinkerton. She is naive and falls in love with the man she thinks is her husband. A month later, Pinkerton goes back to America telling Cho Cho that he will be back soon. Cho Cho gives birth to a boy and waits for her "husband". Finally after 3 years, Pinkerton returns but is accompanied by his American wife. Cho Cho commits suicide to facilitate that her son can go to America with his father.

This theme has been adapted also in innumerable Bollywood films such as "Ram Teri Ganga Maili", in which young innocent girls from villages or mountains fall for slick city guys.

Fabio Sartorelli

Fabio Sartorelli is a musicologist from Bologna university and had studied piano at Milan conservatory. He teaches at Como conservatory and Academy of Scala theater of Milan. He also gives talks and performances related to the lives, works and performances of music artists like Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Puccini, Stravinskij and Verdi.

Sartorelli's show

The show touched on Puccini's opera from different angles - from the ideas of racism and colonialism that form the context of the opera, to Giacomo Puccini as a person, and from the different versions of the story of Madam Butterfly written by other authors, to the emotional culmination of the opera when Cho Cho San commits suicide.

Sartorelli explained that in the initial version of the opera, Pinkerton did not appear in the final act and did not show any remorse about what had happened to Butterfly. No tenor wanted to play Pinkerton's role and the opera was heavily criticised. Thus Puccini changed this part of the opera.

The opera was written in a period when there was great public interest in the mysterious Japan that had opened its doors to the foreigners after many centuries. The earlier books about this story, not knowing how the Japanese people talked, had used the American black slaves as a model for expressing them linguistically.

On one hand, the opera showed Cho Cho as a Christian convert, which might have made it easier for the western audience to identify with her fate as an unfortunate woman. On another, the "woman" was actually a 15 year old child, also because in that epoch, exploitation of minors was not seen in the way we look at it today.

The show also touched on Puccini as a person, such as his love for cars, his travels to America, his fame in that country, and his money-making from advertising for pens and mouth-washes.

Three young actors from Piccolo Teatro of Milan (Francesca, Niccolo and Carlo) performed some scenes from the opera.

Sartorelli is an able communicator and a good piano player. He understands the stage, how to raise the tension and how to make people laugh. Though some of the issues touched upon in the show were serious - such as racism and the misrepresentation of cultures, Sartorelli treated them lightly, with wit and irony.

I loved the whole show and Sartorelli's skill in putting together so many different ways of looking at and understanding the opera, its history and the stories of persons linked with it.


For me a key reflection from this show was that we can look at the famous creative maestros like Giacomo Puccini in critical ways - to see them not as mythical figures but as human beings, with their weaknesses and warts, without diminishing in any way the recognition of their genius in creating amazing works of art.

It is also important to remember the context of those times when we criticise many of its specific aspects. Such an opera, if written today, would very likely be booed and forced to close down by protesters. For example, for much less, in recent times writers have been accused of cultural appropriation and made to pay a heavy price.

Loving operas written hundred or more years ago means learning to look at those artistic works from different angles and yet continue to be touched and moved by them.


Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Those magnificent men on their flying machines

Many men have a special relationship with their motorcycles. For a long time, I could not get why they felt that way. I had ridden on motorbikes in my younger days and while I had loved the thrill of speed with the wind rushing past, I had not got hooked to that sensation. It all changed around a decade ago.

This post is a photo-essay about motorbikes and the guys who love them.


In Italy, I live in Schio, in the foothills of Alps. Schio has a strong motorbike loving community and the Schio moto-club is almost one century old. We have regular motorbike rallies, of the vintage bikes and, of moto-cross with sport-bikes. Most of the pictures with this post are from two recent local motorbike events (Schio-Pasubio vintage motoraduno and Off-road moto-cross).

In the final part of this post, I also have a few pictures of motorbikes from India and Brazil.

A word about the title of this post.  Those magnificent men in their flying machines, was the title of a 1965 British film. If you have never seen this film, do look for it and watch it, it is wonderful. The film was about airplanes but it also fits this post.

From motorbike hater to lover

At the age when many men love motorbikes, I was content to read "Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance". I was convinced that riding a motorcycle was a surefire recipe for an accident. These ideas may have been linked to the death of a friend's brother in a motorcycle accident.

For a long time, I held on to those ideas. When my son became an adolescent and many boys of his age were going around on their motorbikes, I insisted that I would rather help him buy a used car than a motorcycle.

And then, after crossing fifty, when most men put away their bikes and opt for the safety of a car, I suddenly discovered my passion for motorcycles. I can't pinpoint the exact moment when it happened but suddenly I realized that I loved watching and dreaming about motorbikes.

Probably, horse-riding is similar to motorbike riding at some level? Like motorbikes, often cowboys have a special feeling for their horses. I am not sure what Freud would have to say about this, but I am sure that you can guess it!

My passion for motorbikes started with vintage bikes. I remember coming across an exhibition of vintage bikes some 7-8 years ago, and I was completely taken by them. Since then, whenever there is a rally of vintage motorcycles, I go there to look at and admire the old models of bikes.

There was a time when there were just two kinds of motorbikes - the ones for normal roads and the ones for rocky terrains and track-roads. Today there is a larger differentiation in the kinds of bikes such as custom-made, cruisers, choppers, rat bikes, bobbers, sport, naked, trike and sidecar. I am not sure about the differences between most of them.

The motocross bikes are lighter and have robust suspensions. Usually they do not have head-lights or direction-lights. At the motocross rallies, I day dream about flying in the air on my motorbike in my next incarnation.

Bikes for an election rally in India

In 2015-16, I lived in Guwahati (Assam, India). Not just Guwahati, the whole of the north-east of India has a very strong motorbike culture. One day in Muchkhowa, I had seen a big group of bikers doing an election campaign for BJP (image below).

During my medical college days in Delhi, Royal-en-field and Bullet were the dream-bikes of most guys. Today of course, they have much wider choice of bikes in India.

A Bike-dad from Brazil

The next couple of images are from Baja beach near Abaetetuba in Para state of Brazil. A guy with his son had come to beach on his bike. First I saw their bike while they were sitting at the beach.

A couple of hours later, as the sun was going down, I saw them going away. This picture of them (below) on the bike as they leave the beach, is one of my all time favourite images.


I hope that you have liked some random thoughts and pictures about motorbikes.

I had a lot of fun putting together the pictures for this post, as I could spend hours looking at old albums and reliving the thrill of those moments.

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