Standing from the terrace of the Jehangir Mahal, I can see the monuments of Orchha framed against the dawn with the mist gently hovering over them. Beyond the terrace of the Raj Mahal, is the towering Chaturbhuj temple with the Ram Raj Mandir adjacent to it. And in the distant horizon, lies the Laxmi Narayan temple, hardly visible in the mist. The vultures distract me as the eyes scan the remaining montage of monuments, all wrapped in a hazy sheet of white, orange and yellow.

But as I gaze at them, I realise that Orchha is not just a landscape of buildings. It is a town where the walls speak stories, where paintings reveal a culture, where tales of friendship, romance, betrayal, mysticism and sacrifice echo from every monument. Intriguing, funny, unbelievable and irresistible these stories breathe life into these ancient mahals and mandirs, some of them still in ruins.

While most guides will show you the paintings of the Raj Mahal and tell you how Jehangir Mahal is a symbol of friendship between the Mughal emperor and a Bundelkhand king, they will not take you down to the Rai Praveen Mahal close by.

Stories around royalty are always infused with romance and here is your own Anarkali–Prince Salim story, except that this is no tragedy. The romance between courtesan Rai Praveen and the Bundelkhand king Indrajit became lore in the works of poet Keshav Das. One common folk tale speaks of how Akbar wanted her in his harem against the wishes of the Bundelkhand king. But the witty courtesan spoke her way out of Akbar’s heart who sent her back to Orchha. She apparently thwarted the Mughal emperor saying, “Only a royal servant or a crow or a dog will like to eat something that has already been tasted and polluted by another.”

I am more fascinated by the lesser known monuments and the local versions around it. After seeing the three temples — Ram Raja Temple, Chaturbhuj and the exquisite Laxmi Narayan temple which houses murals of Jhansi Rani — I decide to hire a local auto driver who claims ‘netagiri’ is his main business and agrees to show me around.

He shows me two tall pillars that stand amidst a colourful but dirty market. They are called Sawan Bhadon. The locals say that they stand for two brothers who meet everyday at midnight. And I hear this version as well. Bagh Raj, son of Bir Singh Deo, met a seer during a hunting expedition. The seer, who was observing a vow of silence, was quiet when the prince asked him about a particular kill he was chasing. But the prince misunderstood the silence and went in the wrong direction. After a long frustrating day, he ordered the seer to be killed instead. The just king in return ordered the death of the prince. If you still believe that these pillars stand for the seer and the prince, then think again. Only my guide book offers a plausible connection that these could be ventilators of an underground chamber for the army. They actually look like tall chimney vents to me.

And then I hear the most interesting tale of all, which would probably match up to a soap opera. It is the story behind the ruins of a melancholic yellow palace which now houses a bazaar — the palace of Dinman Hardol, brother of Raja Jhujjar. A small temple close by has made the prince into a God. “Woh hamara bhagwan hai, hamari raksha karta hai, kabhi bhi zinda aayega,” said a local woman, claiming that Hardol is alive and is their God. And that is when my netagiri guide tells me this story.

Hardol, the popular prince, was resented by Jhujjar who further suspected his wife of having an illicit relationship with him. Jhujjar ordered his wife to poison Hardol to prove her innocence, and Hardol willingly accepted it. The story doesn’t end here. When Jhujjar’s niece was getting married, his sister asked the king to help; who sarcastically asked her to seek the dead Hardol. The dead prince apparently attended the wedding and served the guests as well. The local woman exclaimed that even today it is believed that Lala Hardol attends weddings he is invited to and most locals leave an invitation card for him and seek his blessings as well. I did see a lot of local patrons around the temple and realised that real India lives somewhere in the legends of Lala Hardol.