Orchha is a historical town in the Niwari district of Madhya Pradesh, India with a total population of around 12,000 inhabitants. The town encompasses a very dense collection of the historical buildings, gardens and traditional housings. It was the seat of an eponymous former princely state of central India, in the Bundelkhand region. The historical settlement derived its name from the phrase ‘Ondo chhe’ meaning ‘low’ or ‘hidden’. The site was indeed bowl-like, buffered by bluffs and forests, lying on the Betwa River.
Orchha was founded in the 16th century by the Bundela chief Rudra Pratap Singh, who became the first King of Orchha. The son of Rudra Pratap Singh, Bharti Chand (r.1531-1554), shifted the capital from Garh Kundar to Orchha, because the site was a better place to fortify against the growing Mughal pressure. After almost a decade of mayhem, Bir Singh Deo (r.1605-1627) became the king of Orchha who was perhaps the greatest of the Bundela Kings of Orchha. Bir Singh Deo became closely affiliated with the Mughal heir prince Salim. On suggestion of the latter, he ambushed and murdered Akbar's closest counsellor Abu' Fazal in 1602. Although Akbar's army invaded Orchha the same year, and Bir Singh Deo had to flee, his vicious act was rewarded three years later, with the ascension of Prince Salim to the Mughal throne as Jehangir. Jehangir installed Bir Singh Deo as king of Orchha. Bir Singh Deo was a great builder, not only in Orchha, but he also constructed the Forts of Datia and Jhansi, and temples in Mathura and Varanasi which spread the Bundeli architectural styles to the various parts of North India. Later Hamir Singh, who ruled from 1848 to 1874, was elevated to the rank of Maharaja in 1865. Maharaja Pratap Singh (born 1854, died 1930), who succeeded to the throne in 1874, devoted himself entirely to the development of his state, himself designing most of the engineering and irrigation works that were executed during his reign in Orchha.
Even though the seat of power changed frequently in Orchha, the city flourished and grew under the leadership of Bundeli kings and became the inception point for a new style of architecture known as the Bundeli architectural style.
As the capital of the Bundela dynasty from 1531-1783 CE, Orchha's monuments, gardens, temples, and murals as an ensemble, represent remarkable evolution in town planning, fortification of settlement, in buildings, garden design and art. The cultural landscape fostered various traditions of myths, ballads, literary and folk arts.
Criterion (ii): Orchha thrived to be an example and epitome of the Bundela dynasty to showcase their unique architectural style. The local geography aided to the incorporation of the various pragmatic planning principles in the historical town while the individual elements of architecture and gardens in various buildings and houses, borrowed from the several Rajput and Mughal traditions, gave a harmonious visual language to the settlement. In Orchha, the blending of the existing Raj put culture with the invading Mughal culture carne to an exquisite apogee.
The fortification, town planning, the garden design in Orchha evolved into a unique new form with amalgamation of Mughal style of gardens (cf. char bagh), Rajput Fort gardens, Hindu sacred groves and evolved hydrology systems. These gardens were strategically located around area of dense activities to provide relief to the urban fabric and to enhance the views from the high stories of palaces and temples. Thus, Orchha houses a unique ensemble of monuments and sites to understand the organization of the 16th-18th century society in India.
Criterion (iv): Palatine and temple designs of the Bundelas were stylistic innovations in medieval Rajput architecture. Based upon archetypal mandala forms with elements from Sultanate and Mughal architecture, they are unique aesthetic statements. The three palaces, Rani Mahal (now Ram Raja Temple), Raja Mahal, and Jahangir Mahal have a mandala plan, i.e. square subdivided into smaller squares and rectangles with open space in the center leading to highly evolved composition and massing and play of solids and voids. These open courtyards alternating with pavilions at higher stories such that interior open spaces form an inverted pyramid structure, mark the achievement of the Bundeli architectural style, which influenced the later architecture of the whole of Bundelkhand.
In this style the proportions are not only very different from the architecture elsewhere in the region but also imbibes various elements of both Mughal and Rajput architecture. This amalgamation of various styles can be seen in both tangible and intangible practices resulting in the structures like those of cenotaphs of Bundeli rulers, town morphology and rituals which together outline the Outstanding Universal Value of the historic ensemble of Orchha.
Orchha is a living cultural site where the new development has not been too much against the character of the historical township. The cultural landscape survives as a discernible palimpsest, its historic layers still overpowering the new development. Orchha has retained the geomorphological character with evident historical connections between the settlement, the river Betwa and the forest around it. The ensemble of the monuments, gardens and temples have been maintained over years owing to their constant use and maintenance efforts by the community in many cases and the Bundeli architectural style till date, remains the architectural language of the whole settlement.
Orchha, though different chronologically, can be compared to Champaner and Hampi in India and at international level to the City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto in Italy and Angkor in Cambodia. The architecture and settlement planning of Orchha has had a heavy influence from both Rajput and Mughal style. As a smaller kingdom within the center of India Orchha survived often on excellent diplomatic relations with the then neighboring kingdoms or states. This allowed a vast exchange of information and technology for building design, urban planning principles, cultural and agricultural practices.
At international level, Angkor in Cambodia, which is a world heritage site, can be a parallel since both the sites contains several temples, some of which are still functional, hydraulic structures, landscapes as well as the planning principles as a strong response to the geographical context. The sites are very different in scale yet in both the sites, architecture forms a harmonious whole, due to the coherent use of local materials and vernacular techniques leading to a unique architectural style. Both Angkor and Orchha are major sites exemplifying cultural, religious and symbolic values, as well as containing high architectural, archaeological and artistic significance where the population still practice agriculture as their main occupation.
Similarly, in Europe, the City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto in Italy exhibit the unique architectural style developed over time while having its roots in the roman architecture. The Palladian style promoted through the various urban buildings in the same time period as was the Bundeli architecture in Orchha, made great impact on the regional architectural style and spread to England and other European countries. The parallel can be drawn for Orchha where the Bundeli style also though rooted in the Rajput style evolved into something unique which influenced the architecture and garden design principles for the vast region of Bundelkhand in India.
In India, the group of monuments in Hampi and the Champaner-Pavgadh archaeological park have remarkable parallels to the historic ensemble of Orchha in terms of the concentration of temples, monuments, landscape features. Both Hampi and Champaner also showcase the development of a unique architectural style developed from the amalgamation of various styles, like in Orchha where the architectural style took inspiration from other various sources, paving way to development of a unique and eclectic style which is can be only referred to as Bundeli architectural style. Orchha however distinguishes itself by remaining the living site where the town flourished due to its strategic defensive location, its huge religious importance and valor and exemplary diplomacy of the BundeIi ruler of Orchha in the given geopolitical environment.