It is a scene that can be best described as a stereotype. The India that every foreign traveller dreams about — the mystical, spiritual India where the bizarre and the regular meet at street corners, where cows are worshipped , where saffron clad men with tambura in hand try hard to look saintly but end up being talented street musicians, where kitsch and colour sell at bazaars. I land amidst this potpourri on one Saturday night.
“Do not miss the aarti when you visit Orchha. It’s at the Ram Raja temple,” tweets a friend and traveller in response to my travel plans and I comply. But I am late for my tryst with God. The aarti has just then got over as devotees throng the shrine for a final darshan and the indifferent priest mechanically completes his duties for the day. As I walk back, wading through the crowd of men and beasts, I hear a gunshot behind us, coming from the temple. I am told that it is a gun salute for the deity.
There are many legends around the temple. Stories of Lord Ram visiting the queen in her dreams and asking her to build a temple for him are the most common ones. Later in the evening, when the dramatic sound and light show lit the fortresses of Raj, Sheesh and Jehangir Mahals, I hear another story behind the Ram Raja temple.
The legend goes that while king Madhukar Shah was a devotee of Krishna, his wife was an ardent devotee of Rama. The clash in devotion and deities apparently created a rift between the couple, when the king demanded that the queen return from her pilgrimage to Ayodhya with her deity in tow, but in the form of a boy. Faced with a choice of never being able to return to Orchha again, the queen fervently prayed to her God.
Her prayers pleased Ram. He agreed to come back to Orchha with her in the form of a boy, but on a condition – he will not move from one temple to another; but will stay where she initially houses him. The sight of Ram as a child pleased the king that he agreed to build a temple for him, while the deity was worshipped by the queen in her palace. When the temple was eventually ready, the deity refused to move but remained in the queen’s palace which eventually became the Ram Raja temple. Ram is worshipped not just as a God, but as a king as well and his temple resembles a palace. And the temple built by the king is the adjoining Chaturbhuj temple which towers around the monument.
The temple is an interesting fusion of modern architecture in an ancient palace with shrines scattered around. They simply do not blend although religion and heritage meet right in the heart of the town. All the other monuments in Orchha crowd around the Ram Raja temple. The courtyard is now an open bazaar selling anything from sweets to knick knacks. The cows stand stubbornly in your path, accustomed to being worshipped and fed. The tiled flooring inside have become shelters for devotees who prepare to sleep.
The gun salute reverberates through the night as the lights fade away. As I walk back to my room at Jehangir Mahal, I see the distant outlines of the Ram Raja and Chaturbhuj temples bathed in moonlight. I promise myself that I will not be late for my next meeting with the Lord.