Orchha, India: Legends & Tales
Dr. Sunil Deepak, 29 December 2019
Orchha is a tiny town in Madhya Pradesh state of Central India. It is known for its beautiful palaces, temples and cenotaphs built by the Bundela Kings in 16-17th centuries. Orchha is also linked to many popular legends and stories about its history, which are kept alive in the local ballads and folk-songs.
Orchha is famous for its beautiful cenotaphs built along the banks of Betwa river. The image above presents the cenotaph of the Orchha king Madhukar Shah.
Oral cultures of India
In India, oral traditions have always been important for keeping alive the local histories. Even today, many Indian myths and legends continue to be preserved through community singing traditions such as ballads and folk-songs.
Over centuries and millenniums, the ideas of mainstream Hinduism have interacted with the spiritual traditions of specific groups of people in the different parts of India (such as the adivasi or the forest dwellers, indigenous people), to influence and enrich each other.
For example, in the Bundelkhand region, the ballads and traditional nautanki-theatre in the rural communities, continue to represent the 12th century stories of the brave warrior-brothers Alha and Udal. These stories are a way to preserve local histories and continue to be very popular even today.
Historical background of Orchha
Bundelkhand is a socio-cultural-linguistic region located in central India, partly in Madhya Pradesh and partly in Uttar Pradesh. It is a region characterised by hills and rocky outcrops.
In the beginning of the 16th century, a Bundela king called Rudra Pratap had his capital in Gadhkundar, about 50 km from Orchha. He shifted his capital to Orchha town in 1530 CE. He died soon after shifting here and was succeeded by his son Bharati Chandra (1531-54), who was succeeded by his son, Madhukar Shah (1554-92). During the reign of Madhukar Shah, the Mughal empire started in central India and its influence arrived in Orchha.
Bundela kings 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 areas he had lost to Akbar.
Madhukar Shah’s elder son Rama Shah made peace with Akbar and was asked to live in Agra as a part of his court. While he stayed in emperor's court, Orchha was looked after by his younger brother, Indrajit Singh. They had a third brother, Bir Singh, who became friends with Akbar’s son, prince Salim. After Akbar's death in 1605, Salim took the name of 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. Emperor Jahangir came to visit his friend Bir Singh in Orchha and for that visit, some important buildings were built in the city.
After Jahangir, his son Shah Jahan took the Mughal throne in 1627, and 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 by Aurangzeb, son of emperor Shahjahan. Jujhar’s cousin brother Pahad Singh, who had sided with the Mughals, was made the ruler of Orchha in 1642. After Aurangzeb, the Mughal power declined and at the same time, over most of the 17-18th centuries the power of the Bundela kings of Orchha also declined.
Queen Ganesh Kunwar and the Statue of Lord Rama
The reign of the Bundela kings in Orchha is associated with different legends. The first legend of Orchha is about a divine Rama statue. King Madhukar Shah had ruled Orchha for 38 years, from 1554 to 1592. His queen was called Ganesh Kunwar. The king was a follower of Lord Krishna, while the queen was from Ayodhaya and a follower of Lord Rama. This was the time when Gosain Tulsidas had written the book called “Ram Charit Manas” (Story of Lord Rama) and had popularized the public enactments of this story through community-theatres called Ramlila during the annual Dushhera festival celebrated around October-November.
Ganesh Kunwar wanted a Rama temple in Orchha and thus, Madhukar Shah ordered the building the Chatturbhuj (literally ‘four-armed’) temple. The queen herself went to Ayodhaya to get the Rama statue for the new temple. On the way back, she dreamed that after leaving Ayodhaya, the statue will get stuck to the place where it will be put down and then it could not be shifted. So, the queen took care to never put the statue 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 the queen's palace.
Later, when the Chaturbhuj temple was completed, they found that the statue had become stuck in the palace and it could not be moved from there. Thus, her palace had to be converted into a temple, while the Chatturbhuj temple remained without its central deity. The image below shows the imposing Chatturbhuj temple and the queen's palace (yellow) converted into a temple, seen from the Orchha fort.
There are some other stories linked to this legend. For example, in one story, Ganesh Kunwar was doing a tapasya (penance) 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, lord Rama appeared to her, brought her to the river bank and told her to build his temple in Orchha.
These stories serve to reinforce the beliefs in the divine 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 this legend could have been a war between emperor Akbar and Madhukar Shah, so that Chatturbhuj temple was left incomplete. Some historians believe that the Chatturbhuj temple was completed during the reign of Bir Singh, 15-20 years later, by which time the queen's old palace had already been converted into the Rama temple and thus the deity’s statue was never shifted to the n ew temple. The image below shows the queen’s palace which became the Raja Ram Temple.
The wall paintings in the Raja Mahal inside the Orchha fort, built by Madhukar Shah, like the one shown in the next image, are mostly about Krishna, supporting the idea that he was a Krishna-devotee.
On the other hand, the wall paintings inside the Laxmi temple built under his third son, king Bir Singh , have scenes depicting the lives of both the divinities, lord Rama and lord Krishna, showing that by his time, the cults of both the gods had become popular in Orchha. Thus, it is possible that the cult of lord Rama was brought to Orchha by the queen Ganesh Kunwar during the reign of king Madhukar Shah. The image below shows a wall-painting panel from the Laxmi temple, where on the left an episode from Ramayana showing Lord Rama is depicted while on the right, there is a depiction of lord Krishna.
The beautiful courtesan Parveen Rai's love story
The second legend about Orchha is linked to Madhukar Shah's second son, Indrajit Singh and his favourite court poet and dancer, Praveen Rai. According to this legend, emperor Akbar had 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. (The image on the left is a panel in the Laxmi temple, it shows Praveen Rai and the king Indrajit).
The story of Indrajit, Praveen Rai and Akbar was written down by their contemporary Orchha poet Keshav Das, who was also Praveen Rai’s mentor, in his book “Kavipriya” (Poet's beloved).
Well-known Hindi author Maitreyee Pushpa has also written a book about this legend. According to her story, Praveen's original name was Savitri and she was the daughter of a courtesan called Kanchana from Gwalior. She 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 the Betwa river in Orchha 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 with the royal poet Keshav Das.
Another version of this story is that Praveen 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 could not have a proper wedding. With the help of the royal poet Keshav Das, she learned poetry, studied dance and became good at both. She wrote bhakti (devotional) poetry praising lord Rama which was published in a book titled "Ramkaleva of Ramchandrika".
Similarly, there are different versions of the story regarding Akbar's curiosity about the courtesan of Orchha. According to one story, Indrajit's cousin Pahad Singh had deliberately told Akbar exaggerated stories about Praveen and suggested that such a beautiful and good dancer should belong to the emperor's court. Actually, Pahad Singh wanted the throne of Orchha and hoped that the lovelorn Indrajit would die without Praveen or would go to war with the emperor and be killed. In fact, initially Indrajit refused to send Praveen to the emperor and an angry Akbar asked him to pay a huge fine. At that point, Praveen convinced Indrajit to let her go. He was disappointed, thinking that his beloved was greedy and wanted to become emperor’s concubine.
In his book Kavipriya, Keshav Das wrote about Praveen’s visit to the emperor’s court - Praveen was asked to sing. However, she sang about being a daughter of Orchha and about her love for Indrajit. Her song concluded with the following words: "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). 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 (in the image below). It was built in the 16th century. Indrajit Singh was the second son of Madhukar Shah, who ruled Orchha during the final years of the 16th century, while his elder brother Rama Shah was part of Akbar's court.
Some of the wall paintings in the Laxmi temple, built under King Bir Singh in the early 17th century show Praveen Rai and Indrajit, as also shown in the image presented above. Poet Keshav Das witnessed the last years of Madhukar Shah, the reign of Indrajit Singh and the early years of his successor, Bir Singh. Thus, the events linked with the legends of Praveen Rai and Indrajit had probably occurred around the end of 16th century. Since Akbar was born in 1542, so he was in his fifties at that time.
The image above also shows a wall-painting from Laxmi temple. It has a dancer with musicians dancing in a courtyard enclosed inside a fort. The architecture of the building on the left does look similar to Fatahpur Sikri, where emperor Akbar lived. There are 9 men sitting next to the emperor, which could be a reference to the famous 9 councillors (navratna or the nine jewels) of Akbar. The dancer in this picture can be Praveen Rai. This wall-painting also seems to confirm the story of Praveen Rai's visit to Akbar's court.
Legend of King Jujhar Singh and his brother Hardaul
There is the story of king Jujhar Singh, his wife Champawati, his younger brother Hardaul and their sister Kunjawati. The popular legend says that Jujhar had asked 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 king Bir Singh. Bir Singh was a close friend of emperor Jahangir. The eldest son of Jahangir had rebelled against his father and it is possible that Bir Singh had taken part in fighting against the rebellious son. After Jahangir’s death, that same son became emperor and took the name of Shahjahan, famous for having built the famous Tajmahal in Agra. Thus, emperor Shahjahan did not have good relations with Bir Singh’s family.
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 years old Hardaul became his Dewan (chief minister). One year later, in 1628, Hardaul was married to Himachal Kunwari and in 1630 his son Vijay Singh was born.
In 1631, Hardaul and some of his soldiers had died after eating food at the Dushhera feast in Orchha. It is said that king Jujhar Singh suspected an affair between his wife and his brother, and so he had got his brother killed. 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, were angry about the killing of Hardaul, built a shrine to him inside the special garden which had been built earlier by king Bir Singh for a visit of emperor Jahangir. The Hardaul story is a common theme in the folk songs and Nautanki-theatre in Orchha. Hardaul is seen as a minor divinity and his shrine is a pilgrimage place. People wishing for the resolution of their problems, tie a blue ribbon on the iron grill of the shrine.
Another related legend is about Hardaul and his sister Kunjawati, who was married in Datia. 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" (Pond of the beloved boy).
It is said that Hardaul was very close to Kunjawati. According to this legend, sometime 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 even today, in the rite of giving "Hardaul ka bhat" (Hardaul's rice) to the brides by their mothers' brothers.
Historical events linked with Hardaul's legend: In 1631, an enemy of Mughal empire called Khanjahan Lodhi, fleeing from Shahjahan's army, had passed through Orchha. Lodhi family had ruled Delhi before the Mughals. That man was Hardaul's friend and thus, Hardaul did not try to stop him. This earned the ire of Shahjahan who blamed king Jujhar Singh and forced him to send his son Vikramjit to go after Lodhi and kill him. 200 Orchha soldiers died in this fight. It is said that Jujhar Singh blamed Hardaul for creating this problem.
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 Singh got him killed because he was angry with him or he was insecure about him. Or, Jujhar Singh might have been innocent and Hardaul had actually died from some infection from the feast food. Four years after Hardaul’s death, in 1735 Jujhar Singh died fighting with the army of empweor Shahjahan, guided by his son Aurangzeb. After his death, his cousin Pahad Singh became the king of Orchha.
Many local persons do not agree with the version of this legend in which, Jujhar Singh asks his wife to poison his brother. They blame Vincent Smith, the British collector of Hamirpur, who had written down this story in his report in 1875 – they say that he had falsely 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 king Jujhar Singh, called 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, on the outskirts of Orchha city. Some people say that the girl he loved was princess Mehrunnissa, the daughter of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb.
Another story says that Sundar Shah was the love child of an Orchha king called Indrajit singh and princess Mehrunissa, daughter of Aurangzeb. This Indrajit Singh was different from the one mentioned above in the story of Praveen Rai.
In his old age, Sundar became famous as a Pir, a local saint, and was buried in Sundar Mahal. Thus, even today the Sundar Mahal is visited by people of different religions who come to pray at his tomb and to ask for his help in resolving some problem.
Historical background: According to the history books, emperor Aurangzeb had 4 daughters - Zebunnissa, Zeenatunnissa, Badrunnissa and the youngest, Mehrunnissa. However, according to the historians, Mehrunnissa had married Izad Baksh in 1672, who was the son of Shahzada Murad Baksh. She had supposedly died in Delhi in 1706.
On the other hand, king Jujhar Singh had died in 1635 and for 6 years, Orchha was directly under the Mughal emperor. In 1641, Jujhar Singh’s cousin brother Pahad Singh was placed on the Orchha throne by the emperor Shahjahan. Aurangzeb became the emperor many years later in 1658. Thus, it seems unlikely that one of Jujhar Singh’s son could have been there 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.
Later, two other Muslim sufi saints, Syed pir and Zahar pir also lived here and their shrines were also built inside Sundar Mahal. At present, this building is seen as a religious place for the followers of the different pirs.
The Temple Destroyed by the Mughals
According to Shah Jahan's biography, in 1635, when king Jujhar Singh was fighting him, he had sent his son Aurangzeb to destroy one of the temples 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. Given the vivacity of oral histories in Bundelkhand, I think the absence of legends about the destruction of a temple means that the temple destroyed by Aurangzeb was not located in Orchha.
Perhaps, Shah Jahan's order referred to the destruction of Keshav Dev temple in Mathura, which was also built by king Bir Singh Deo of Orchha and was destroyed by Auranjzeb.
The legends of Orchha are a part of oral-history traditions of Bundelkhand region that are still alive and popular among the people. For example, if you search for "Hardaul ka bhat" (Hardaul's rice) on Youtube, you can find many versions of the ballads and nautanki performances linked to this story.
These legends often have kernels of history embedded in them. Local persons have always experimented with their legends, adding embellishments and interlinking their own stories to them. Thus, usually the legends take different forms and have many local variations.
The Orchha kingdom's history is just 400-500 years old and yet, most of it seems to be undocumented. There must be many manuscripts about Orchha that have not been transcribed and translated, so we only have their popular history through these legends.
Note: This blog does not have the possibility of commenting on the posts. However, you can Comment through the Facebook Page of this blog or send an email to Sunil at: sunil.deepak(at)gmail.com If I like your comments or communication, I will be happy to add it to my article and give credit to you.
Note 2: I had visited different parts of Bundelkhand region including Orchha in 2017, and a first version of this article was published on my old blog "Arrey Kya Baat Hai" - this is an updated version.
This is a trilingual blog, it also has some posts in Italian and Hindi. Each section is independent, which means that the majority of the posts in Italian and Hindi are not translations of the English language posts, they are on different subjects.