Royal Chhatris of Orchha – Testimony to mighty Bundelas
The Significance of Royal Cenotaphs or Chhatris
Reflecting in the meandering Betwa River stands a row of fourteen chhatris or cenotaphs dedicated to the erstwhile kings of Orchha. This must be the most melancholy sight in the entire region as they silently pay homage to the power and wealth of times gone by. In a way, they represent the proud history of the mighty Bundela rulers who presided here.
Built south of Orchha town, the cenotaphs nestle close together on the banks of the river. They were built between the 16th and the 18th century and all resemble temples, raised on elevated squares, except Bir Singh’s cenotaph. The majority are in the typical Panchayatana design with four subsidiary shrines surrounding the main shrine or Garbhagriha in the center. The spires or Shikharas reflect the North Indian or Nagara architecture.
Bir Singh’s cenotaph was built according to a palace design rather than a temple and has no dome. Because it lies in closer proximity to the Betwa, the waters of the river would surround it completely when the monsoons arrive. Inside the mausoleum is linked to the 4 main halls and those in the corners by a passageway. The entrance faces the river as the king was rumored to love the tranquil beauty of the river and enjoyed bathing in the river.
Other chhatris were constructed to commemorate rulers like Madhukar Shah, Bharti Chand, Sawan Singh, Bahar Singh, Pahar Singh, and Udait Singh. Although they do not house any mortal remains, it is said that they were each built on the sites of the king’s cremation.
The best place to admire these buildings is from across the Betwa. The early rising sun illuminates them at dawn and their magnificent silhouettes fall darkly on the water of the river at sunset.
The Tradition behind Orchha’s Chhatris
After succeeding Bharti Chand, his brother in 1554, Madhukar Shah was constantly fighting the northern rulers. Nevertheless, he was an able ruler of Orchha and when Akbar, the Mughal emperor heard about his strong religious believes the latter immediately decided to put them to the test. He declared it illegal to have a rosary, as well as a tilak, the vermillion dot on foreheads. Madhukar would not be deterred and during a visit to the Mughal court, he wore them both. The emperor was duly impressed by his courage and piety. The Shah became his people’s hero and from that day on his tilak became the distinctive custom of the Bundelas. Madhukar defied Akbar a second time when he would not slaughter a lion when ordered to do so, believing that it represents Narasimha, a Vishnu incarnation.
This insubordination enraged Akbar and on several occasions, he tried to seize Orchha. The first attempt took place in 1577 but Orchha could not be subdued. His attacks were relentless and he finally succeeded in 1588. During a battle led by Ulug Beg, Udai Singh Rathore and Sadiq Khan the Mughals managed to kill Madhukar’s sons, and eventually, he was expelled from Orchha in 1591. One year later he died in the hills of Narwar where he took refuge.
This tradition of constructing cenotaphs to commemorate their nobility and rulers is not unique to Orchha; they can be found in various parts of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Outside Jaisalmer, Bada Bagh has several magnificent chhatris built from sandstone and near the crematorium for the royals near Bikaner; Devi Kund has a few impressive chhatris. Other examples are those in Indore in Madhya Pradesh State, the Scindias cenotaphs at Shiv Puri, as well as the cenotaphs of the Holkar dynasty in Krishnapura.
Chandrashekhar Azad’s Memorial Park in Orchha
Chandra Shekhar Azad, leader of a revolutionary organization and freedom fighter used the forest near Orchha as refuge and hide-out but was finally taken captive in Allahabad at the Alfred Park by British forces in 1931 when he left his shelter. He could not face capture and shot himself. A memorial for this brave man, together with other revolutionaries was erected in Shaheed Smarak, two miles outside Orchha towards Jhansi.