Orchha, India: Legends & Tales

Dr. Sunil Deepak, 29 December 2019

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

Cenotaph of Madhukar Shah, Orchha, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

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. This post is about the legends of Orchha.

Oral cultures of India

In India, oral traditions have always been important for keeping alive the local histories. Even today, the Indian myths and legends continue to be preserved through community traditions such as ballads and folk-songs.

Over centuries and millenniums, the ideas of mainstream Hinduism interact with the spiritual traditions of specific groups of people in India such as the adivasi (forest dwellers, indigenous people), influence and enrich each other.

For example, in the Bundelkhand region, the ballads and nautanki-theater about the 12th century stories of the brave warrior-brothers Alha and Udal continue to be very popular even today.

Historical background of Orchha

Bundelkhand region is 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, Bundela king Rudra Pratap had his capital in Gadhkundar, about 50 km from Orchha, which became his capital 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.

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 by the forces of Shahjahan's son Aurangzeb. 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.

Queen Ganesh Kunwar and the Statue of Lord Rama

The first legend of Orchha is about a Rama statue. King 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 (Story of Rama) and had popularized the public celebrations of Ramlila during Dushhera festival.

Ganesh Kunwar wanted a Rama temple in Orchha and thus, Madhukar Shah ordered the building the Chatturbhuj temple. The queen herself went to Ayodhaya to get the Rama statue for the new temple. At that time, she dreamed that after leaving 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 the queen's palace. Later, when 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. The image below shows Chatturbhuj temple and the queen's palace (yellow) converted into a temple, seen from the Orchha fort.

Chaturbhuj & Ram Raja temples, Orchha, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

There are many variations of 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, 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 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.

Ram Raja temple, Orchha, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

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, Orchha Fort, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

On the other hand, the wall paintings inside the Laxmi temple built under his third son, king 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.

Ram & Krishna wall-painting, Laxmi temple, Orchha, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

The beautiful courtesan Parveen Rai's love story

Indrajit & Praveen Rai, Orchha, India - Images by Sunil DeepakThe second legend about Orchha is linked to Madhukar Shah's second son, 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.

The 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 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 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 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 the bhakti poetry in "Ramkaleva of Ramchandrika".

Similarly, there are different versions of the story regarding Akbar's curiosity about her. 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 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 his book 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). 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 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.

Praveen Rai Palace, Orchha, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Some of the wall paintings in the Laxmi temple, built under King 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. Since Akbar was born in 1542, so he was in his fifties at that time.

Praveen Rai at Fatehpur Sikri wall-painting, Orchha, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

The image above shows a wall-painting from Laxmi temple, where Praveen Rai is dancing in a courtyard enclosed inside a fort. The architecture of the building on the left does look similar to Fatahpur Sikri, where Akbar lived. There are 9 men sitting by the side, which could be a reference to the 9 councillors (navratna) of Akbar. This wall-painting 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 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 king Bir Singh, who had been a close friend of emperor Jahangir and could have been involved in fighting the rebellion of his son, who later became emperor Shahjahan. Thus, after Jahangir's death, Shahjahan did not have good relations with Orchha.

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 (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 died after eating at 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 inside the special garden which had been built earlier by king Bir Singh for a visit of emperor Jahangir. This story is a common theme in the folk songs and Nautanki-theater in Orchha. It is a pilgrimage place and people wishing for the resolution of their problems, tie a blue ribbon on the shrine.

Hardaul's statue, Orchha, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

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, 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 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. 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 Orchha soldiers had died in this fight. Jujhar Singh blamed Hardaul for creating this problem.

Hardaul's shrine, Orchha, 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. Or Jujhar Singh might have been innocent and Hardaul might have died from some infection from the feast food. In 1735 Jujhar Singh died fighting with Auranzeb's army, and his cousin Pahad Singh became the king of Orchha.

Many local persons do not agree with the version of this legend, where Jujhar Singh 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, 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 who had loved 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 who come to pray at his tomb and ask for his help in resolving some problem.

Sundar Mahal, Orchha, 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.

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.

Sundar Shah tomb, Orchha, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Later, two other sufi saints, Syed pir and Zahar pir also lived here and their shrines were also built inside Sundar Mahal. At present, it 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 he had sent his son Aurangzeb to destroy the temple of the Orchha king. At that time Jujhar Singh was the king of Orchha. 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.

Conclusions

The legends of Orchha are a part of oral-history traditions 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.

The 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 the legends take different forms and have many local variations.

The Orchha kingdom's history is just 400-500 years ago and yet, most of it is undocumented. There must be many manuscripts about Orchha that have not been transcribed and translated, so we only have its popular history through the legends. 

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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.

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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.

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Email: sunil.deepak(at)gmail.com