A Medieval Fairytale Palace Hidden In The Forest

Trip Start Sep 29, 2007
Trip End Dec 20, 2010

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Where I stayed
Shri Mahant Guesthouse

Flag of India  , Madhya Pradesh,
Saturday, August 15, 2009

The early morning bus to Orchha was a prime specimen of comfort for a surprising change with leg room and few stops on the way. The people of Northern Madhya Pradesh state proved to be a friendly bunch even giving us free bananas and cucumbers at one rest stop. During a 20minute stop Nads and i did a clown show for the chai wallahs and ladoo sellers at the bus station who whooped in laughter and clapped as we well, made clowns of ourselves. it was a hilariously funny bus trip because we had overdosed on chai and a share pack of Tangy Spanish Tomato Lays chips.

The bus left us on the highway and we struck a deal with three lads in a rickshaw to take us to Orchha, 8km away. Competition was fierce for our fare and a short fight broke out. The lads sparked up their MP3 player and attached it to some hardcore speakers from which blasted Hindi movie music as we joined the 'Wacky Races' inspired rickshaw race into town. We kept all our fingers and toes well inside the rig while enduring the crazy driving bumper car style. That's why we travel Indian style for Indian prices, it's way more fun.

We scored a hotel right next to the Ram Raja temple where Hindus faithfuls believe Lord Rama lives and breathes. Gold. The monsoonal rain made an appearance shortly after we arrived turning the dry as a bone road into a flooded stream within ten minutes. We grabbed the brollies and set off to check out the friendly town. We walked down to the boulder strewn Betwa River past a sadhu who offered us chai and past a colourful temple where people were taking shelter. We listened to the divine sounds of women and children chanting and singing at the shrine and felt grateful once again for being in India. Magik. I took a very depressing phtograph of an anorexic cow standing in the middle of the road in the pouring rain, it looked hauntingly sad.

The next morning we rolled out the yoga mats on the rooftop next to the Ram Raja temple and got the prana started for the day whilst vendors set up their chai, food and sweets and flower offering stalls below us. I had done my first headstand asana on the Mona Lisa rooftop in Varanasi so was happy to be making progress with the yoga thanks to my good teacher in Tulasi from the ashram. Reeettaaainnnn. We bought some chunky jewellery and had breakfast with some cows. There were no foreign tourists around as most people were day trippers here so we set off for the fairytale palace of Jehangir Mahal and had it to ourselves. It's a medieval castle of breathtaking architecture and we had a great time exploring it and roaming around the surrounding forest amidst ruins.

The fort complex is located on a seasonal island in River Betwa but there were no crocodiles in the moat nor dragons inside to protect it. There were some persistent tour guides though and one guy even had an umbrella with his name and a 'For Rant (Rent)' sign on it. Not sure if you could rent him or his umbrella. A four-arched bridge leads to the amazing fort complex on the island. The Jahangir Mahal was built in stone by Bir Singh Deo in the early part of the 17th century to mark the visit of the Mughal Emperor, quite the arse kissing welcome gift. Barbie would have loved to live here too, it was like a gothic dollhouse. Everything was symmetrical and every angle you looked from gave you a different glimpse of beauty. We spent seven hours there exploring each level, trekking up every staircase, finding all the secret rooms, watching the resident black-faced monkeys and soaking up the views from the rooftop.

We entered through a tall set of wooden doors complete with heavy duty spikes designed to keep invaders and elephants out. My first reaction was that it would be a great venue for a psytrance party and i even picked out a space for the DJ decks. This palace was made to stand the test of time and was in very good condition, almost in it's original state. The stone had aged well and the colours were gorgeous. The castle's splendour is evidence of the glory of the Bundela rulers of the time. Some original artworks remained painted on the ceilings. The palace is built on a rectangular base and is relieved by a circular tower at each corner surmounted by a dome, while two lines of graceful balconies supported on brackets mark the central storeys. The roof is crowned by eight large fluted onion domes, with smaller domes between them, connected by an ornamental balustrade. Vultures sit and spread their wings on the spires at the top. It's all so pleasing to the eye. I even found a bondage room complete with metal rings built into the walls. It was early so we did a photo shoot and Nads made a movie of me in the central courtyard doing an umbrella jump for joy dancing an singing act from  'Singing In The Rain' from the 1952 comedy musical film:

I'm singing in the rain
Just singing in the rain
What a glorious feelin'
I'm happy again
I'm laughing at clouds
So dark up above
The sun's in my heart
And I'm ready for love
Let the stormy clouds chase
Everyone from the place
Come on with the rain
I've a smile on my face
I walk down the lane
With a happy refrain
Just singin',
Singin' in the rain

Dancin' in the rain
Dee-ah dee-ah dee-ah
Dee-ah dee-ah dee-ah
I'm happy again!
I'm singin' and dancin' in the rain!

I'm dancin' and singin' in the rain...

Be sure to watch the video below for a live performance.
You can't beat India in the monsoon season, everybody has a smile on their face. The palace was light and airy with countless windows and pierced stone screens that looked out over the skyline to the west and over the tops of trees and ruins in the other directions. it made you want to roam around the forest surrounding the castle and so we did. There were lots of goats and some ruins of havelis and Rapunzel type towers that have been overgrown with jungle, it looks like a maze of secret gardens. While Nads went to get some water, i watched some guys chase and milk a goat, drink the milk then throw rocks at the goat and also found a dead cow. The best views of the palace were from through the forest where it was framed by tree branches and looked even more like a surreal fantasy come to life, it was as though you were dreaming. It reminded me of the fairytale Sleeping Beauty:

Sleeping Beauty is a love story which includes a princess and a handsome prince. At the christening of a long-wished-for princess, fairies invited as godmothers offered gifts, such as beauty, wit, and musical talent. However, a wicked fairy who had been overlooked placed the princess under an enchantment as her gift, saying that, on reaching adulthood, she would prick her finger on a spindle and die. A good fairy, though unable to completely reverse the spell, said that the princess would instead sleep for a hundred years, until awakened by the kiss of a prince and true love's first kiss.

The king forbade spinning on distaff or spindle, or the possession of one, upon pain of death, throughout the kingdom, but all in vain. When the princess was fifteen or sixteen she chanced to come upon an old woman in a tower of the castle, who was spinning. The Princess asked to try the unfamiliar task and the inevitable happened. The wicked fairy's curse was fulfilled. The good fairy returned and put everyone in the castle to sleep. A forest of briars sprang up around the castle, shielding it from the outside world: no one could try to penetrate it without facing certain death in the thorns.

After a hundred years had passed, a prince who had heard the story of the enchantment braved the wood, which parted at his approach, and entered the castle. He trembled upon seeing the princess's beauty and fell on his knees before her. He kissed her, then she woke up, then everyone in the castle woke and they all lived happily ever after.

We went out of the palace walls to the river then checked out the 'pleasure pavilion' or concubine's palace which i think was more like camel stables. We re-entered the palace through the ornate ceremonial gateway that was built for the Emperor's visit and where two stone elephants flank both sides with bells in their mouths before going to the cenotaphs which are tributes to Orchha's rulers. We met lots of kids on the way home and stuck temporary tattoos all over them.

This day of adventure was one of the best days of my life and is counted as further proof that i was a princess in Northern India in one of my past lives. True story.

The next day we did the early yoga then went to the morning puja at the Ram Raja temple where hindu frenzy was in full swing with people chanting, making offerings of food, sweets, flowers and cash, touching their foreheads to the floor, lighting incense and circling statues of Rama. Lord Rama is worshipped as king.

Orchha lived up to it's name (hidden place) and goes down as one of the most special places we've visited, completely under-rated by Lonely Planet and other travellers, that's our opinion anyway.
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