Forts in Bundelkhand and Orchha
Bundelkhand is an ancient land. Since 7th century CE, the area was ruled by Chandels, initially under the Pratihara kings. They were succeeded by the Bundels. Though the region must have had more ancient forts, most of the existing forts date back to the Chandel and Bundel periods.
Different kinds of forts have been described in the ancient Indian texts - Dhanva durg (desert fort), Mahi durg (mud fort), Giri durg (Mountain fort), Nar durg (fort protected by men), Jal durg (Water fort) and Van durg (forest fort).
Construction of the Orchha fort
The first palaces for the king and the queen inside the Orchha fort were built between 1531 to 1539 under the reign of Bharati Chandra. This construction was continued by his brother Madhukar Shah. Many important constructions took place under Bir Singh Deo. For example, he was responsible for completing the Jahangiri Mahal.
The most significant construction after Bir Singh Deo was Sheesh Mahal (glass palace) adjoining Jahangir Mahal, which now hosts a hotel - it was built in 1763 under Udait Singh.
The fort is polygonal in shape with its longer side in the north-south axis. The moat separating it from the town was built by the deepening of Adhwar river, a tributary of Betwa river, which surrounds it from south-east. A terah-khamba (13 arches) bridge connects the fort to the city. Inside it has two main palaces - Raja Mahal and Jahangir Mahal, built along an east-west axis and many other imposing buildings.
This palace has three main parts (1) the 3-storied entrance gate (Northern entrance) leads to the Deewane-Aam (Hall of public audience); (2) behind the public court, there is a multi-storey building that includes Deewane Khas (hall of private audience) and (3) the residential part of the palace (shown in the map below).
All the rooms and corridors of this part of the building are decorated with wall paintings, mostly showing women and the scenes of the royal life with horses and elephants. The chhattris along the top of the building are decorated with tiles in different shades of blue, probably added during the Bir Singh Deo's reign.
The construction of this palace was started in late 15th century under the reign of Rama Shah and Indramani Singh. It was completed in 1606 under king Bir Singh Deo. He gave it the name of Jahangir Mahal to honour his friend and ally Mughal emperor Jahangir, who had destituted Rama Shah and made Bir Singh the king of Orchha. The palace has 136 rooms.
It is a three-storied square shaped building with bastions at the corners, very similar to the residential part of Raja Mahal in its architecture but with greater embellishments. It has a square shaped central courtyard with 5 fountains in the centre. The first floor has beautifully decorated rooms in the middle of the four sides along with terraces from where you can look down at the courtyard. Just like Raja Mahal, the second storey also has slightly receding terraces in the middle on the four sides.
The southern end of the palace has an imposing and majestic main entrance gate with carvings of elephants on the two sides. This is a five-storied structure, a chhajja marking each storey.
Its construction have traditional Indic elements such as trabeated entrance doors with horizontal beams. At the same time, Mughal and Persian influences can also be seen, for example in the arcuate structures, specially inside the building. These are amalgamated into Rajasthani architecture, giving rise to the Bundela style. However it lacks the surrounding walls with numerous arched windows inspired from European Gothic architecture that can be seen in the Raja Mahal.
Hamam khana adjoining Jahangir Mahal was also built in 1606. It is made like a Persian hammam (bath house) with a decorated water pool. The roof of this building has a water reservoir.
This palace was built during the care-taker reign of Indrajit Singh in late 16th and early 17th century, while his brother Rama Shah stayed at the court of emperor Akbar. You can read more about the beautiful courtesan Praveen Rai and her love story with the king in my post about legends of Orchha.
This square shaped building is located to the east of Jahangir Mahal. It is located on a raised area. Originally it was a baradari built in 16th century but in late 17th century a raised corridor was built all around it with arched gates on each side.
Temples, gardens and noble houses inside the fort
During the reign of Bir Singh Deo, many local nobles and royal associates had built their kothis and havelis (villas and big houses) inside the fort including those of Balwant Daua, Champat Rai, Bakasrai Pradhan and the poet Keshav Rai. These buildings (Dauji's kothi, Himma Hamir kothi, Fasiyane ki Kothi) are in ruins. If you do not have the time to go out and explore the grounds of Orchha fort, these can also be seen from the windows of the Jahangir Mahal.
For lack of time, I did not visit the vast grounds of the fort, that are covered with trees and plants and paths leading to the river. Ruins of noble houses and old temples dot the whole area. For the archaeology enthusiasts, this area offers hours and days of exploration and discoveries.
Orchha fort with its beautiful palaces and rich history requires many days for a proper exploration of all its wonders. Even in the one morning that I spent there, I came back with wonderful memories of its beautiful courtyards, wall paintings, symmetries of delicate terraces and chhattris.
(1) Exploring the many splendours of Bundelkhand
(2) Discovering the beautiful architecture of Orchha
(3) Legends and stories of Orchha