Hot, dusty Madhya Pradesh is a vast landlocked expanse of scrub-covered hills, sun-parched plains and one third of India’s forests. Stretching from beyond the headwaters of the mighty Narmada River to the fringes of the Western Ghats, it’s a transitional zone between the Gangetic lowlands in the north and the high, dry Deccan plateau to the south. Despite its diverse array of exceptional attractions, ranging from ancient temples and hilltop forts to some of India’s best tiger reserves, Madhya Pradesh receives only a fraction of the tourist traffic that pours between Delhi, Agra, Varanasi and the south. For those who make the effort, this gem of a state is both culturally rewarding and largely hassle-free.
In the centre of Madhya Pradesh, the state capital Bhopal, though synonymous with industrial disaster, has a vibrant Muslim heritage and some interesting museums. Nearby is Sanchi, one of India’s most significant Buddhist sites. The hill station of Pachmarhi, meanwhile, has echoes of the Raj, numerous hiking routes and the little-visited Satpura National Park.
In the north of the state, the city of Gwalior has a stunning hilltop fort and is within striking distance of Datia’s Rajput palace, the Scindia family’s mausoleums at Shivpuri, and Orchha, the atmospheric ruined capital of the Bundella rajas. Further east is the state’s biggest attraction, the cluster of magnificent sandstone temples at Khajuraho, renowned for their intricate erotic carvings.
Nondescript Jabalpur is the biggest city in eastern Madhya Pradesh, a region that has few historic sites but does boast the Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Pench reserves, among the last strongholds for many endangered species, most notably the tiger. Alongside Orchha and Khajuraho, these parks are the only places in Madhya Pradesh you’re likely to meet more than a handful of foreign tourists.
Western Madhya Pradesh is home to Indore, a modern city of industry. Though of little interest in itself, Indore is a good base for exploring Mandu, the romantic former capital of the Malwa sultans, the Hindu pilgrimage centres of Omkareshwar and Maheshwar, and the holy city of Ujjain, one of the sites of the Kumbh Mela.
The best time to visit Madhya Pradesh is during the relatively cool winter months (Nov–Feb). In April, May and June, daytime temperatures frequently exceed 40°C, but if you can stand the heat, this is the best time to catch glimpses of tigers in the national parks. The increasingly meagre rains finally sweep in from the southeast in late June or early July.
Any exploration of central India will be illuminated if you have a grasp of its long and turbulent history. Most of the marauding armies that have swept across the Subcontinent over the last two millennia passed through this corridor, leaving in their wake a bumper crop of monuments. The very first traces of settlement in Madhya Pradesh are the 10,000-year-old paintings on the lonely hilltop of Bhimbetka, near Bhopal. Aboriginal rock art was still being created here during the Mauryan emperor Ashoka’s evangelical dissemination of Buddhism, in the second century BC. Nearby Sanchi is this era’s most impressive relic. By the end of the first millennium AD, central India was divided into several kingdoms. The Paramaras, whose ruler Raja Bhoj founded Bhopal, controlled the southern and central area, known as Malwa, while the Chandellas, responsible for some of the Subcontinent’s most exquisite temples – most notably at Khajuraho – held sway in the north.
Muslim influence started to grow in the thirteenth century, and by the mid-sixteenth century the whole region was under Mughal rule, which left its mark on the architecture and culture of Mandu, Gwalior and Bhopal, in particular. The Marathas briefly took control before the arrival of the British in the seventeenth century. Under the British, the middle of India was known as the “Central Provinces”, and administered jointly from Nagpur (now in Maharashtra), and the summer capital Pachmarhi.
Madhya Pradesh, or MP, only came into being after Independence, when the Central Provinces were amalgamated with a number of smaller princedoms. Since then, the state, more than ninety percent Hindu and with a substantial rural and tribal population, has remained far more stable than neighbouring Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Major civil unrest between Hindus and Muslims was virtually unheard of until the Bhopal riots of 1992–93, sparked off by events in Ayodhya. Now Hindu-Muslim relations in MP are relatively cordial again, the state has turned to focus on the latest enemy – recurring drought across the poverty-stricken plains and the social and environmental consequences of the damming of the Narmada River. The state remains one of India’s poorest, despite flourishing automotive, cement and soybean industries, and the state government see tourism as one way of boosting Madhya Pradesh’s economic prospects.