If you ever have the good fortune of finding yourself in Orchha, remember to spare a while for a visit to Rai Praveen Mahal and Anand Mandal Gardens. It is quite easy to find the place – all you have to do is cross over the bridge from the town to the fortified island, keep left after you have entered the main gate, pass the half-ruined remains of stone structures on either side until you come to a low wall on your left.

Enter the small gateway quietly, do not disturb the peace that hangs over everything like a veil covers a beautiful face. Of course, there’s no beauty in what you see beneath the veil here now, all is bare. The open ground before you is scorched by the pitiless sun. Sit for a while, close your eyes and remember…this was once the home of the most beautiful and gifted woman in all of Bundelkhand – the beloved  Rai Praveen.

It is said that here she spent her time in the company of her three dasis (female attendants) who tutored her in the arts of poetry, singing and dancing.  If you enter her Mahal and ascend to the upper floor you will seeher represented on the walls along with her three attendants preparing her for her evening performances.

When it was dark, the oil lamps were lit and the musicians tuned their instruments. She emerged once more, this time to dance, and Indramani watched her adoringly. Her feet beat intricate patterns on the stone as her body sinuously moved to the music. They say there was a time when storm clouds held back from raining until she had completed her performance and retired indoors with her lover.

The room for love was down below in a basement, cooled by air vents just above the water trough outside. The summer breeze would wash over the surface of the water and stream into the room, filling it with mist. A pool in the centre of the room was filled with flowers that breathed out a soft bouquet of fragrances.

Outside, the night played with leaves of blossoming trees and the flowers in beds, a melody of the dark.

There was a time, they said when the Mughal Emperor in Delhi was so enamoured by her beauty and her art that he commanded her to present herself at his court in the Capital. She did… and when he wooed her with gifts and praise and asked her to remain, she replied that she was like half-eaten food fit only to be eaten by creatures of the wild and outcasts.

Did the Emperor qualify?

Realising he had been outwitted, he permitted her to return to Indramani her beloved.

Memory is hazy now. Some say her lover’s name wasn’t Indramani but Indrajit, others that it was this date and not that. But who cares about these needless facts…one truth is certain Rai Praveen existed once, her art of words and voice and movements bewitched her times…then she passed on.

Is there a chhatri (cenotaph) that marks her memory? You ask.

Some will tell you no, others will offer you directions to some lonely stretch along the wooded river bank. It’s there, somewhere, they say.

The river knows but will not speak.

It is time to go now. You get up and leave, stopping at the gate to turn around and watch silence settle once again, a delicate veil over the past.

Written by: Randhir Khare
Photographs: Susan Bullough Khare
Copy editor: Shayon Bhattacharya

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