Hot, dusty Madhya Pradesh is a vast landlocked expanse of scrub-covered hills and sun-parched plains that make up 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 has a vibrant Muslim heritage and some interesting museums. The people of Bhopal suffered significantly when there was a gas leak incident from the nearby pesticide plant in 1984, the incident is considered to be the world's worst industrial disaster. Nearby Bhopal, 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, 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 Orchha and 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.
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.
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 or Chhattisgarh you’re likely to meet more than a handful of foreign tourists.
In November 2000, sixteen districts seceded from eastern Madhya Pradesh to form the state of Chhattisgarh. Violent Naxalite (Maoist rebel groups) activity in the region, arising from the exploitation of the area’s rich mineral resources (and of the tribal peoples who live on the land) has meant the state has until recently attracted a mere trickle of foreign visitors, but the ever-diminishing violence means this may soon change; the Chhattisgarh Tourism Board runs a string of well-located resorts and hotels, and independent hotels and tour operators are springing up in the most popular destinations.
The state is particularly fascinating for its many tribal groups, particularly in the Bastar region, which also boasts beautiful landscapes. However, before travelling anywhere south of the capital, Raipur, you must obtain up-to-date information about the state of security around your intended destination – and travel with a guide if you want to head into the countryside. Violent conflict between Naxalite guerrillas and security forces and state-sponsored right-wing militias, although on the wane, continues to occasionally erupt in remote southern parts of the state.
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.
Madhya Pradesh only came into being after Independence from British rule, when the Central Provinces were amalgamated with a number of smaller princedoms. Since then, the state, more than 90% 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 Madhya Pradesh 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 sees tourism as one way of boosting Madhya Pradesh’s economic prospects. The tourist board is always coming up with plans to make the state more accessible, including a new intrastate air service
The best time to visit both Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh is during the relatively cool winter (Oct–March), though during the coldest months (Dec–Feb) it gets a bit chilly at night and in the early morning, and you may need a sweater or light jacket, especially in the upland areas. From April to 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 until September making the roads even more difficult than usual, though it’s a good opportunity to see the waterfalls in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh at their impressive full flow.
While Madhya Pradesh has one of the Kumbh Mela sites at Ujjain, it won’t be hosting it again till 2028. However, there are a couple of major arts festivals.
Tens of thousands of pilgrims and sadhus make the 23km climb up Chauragarh Mountain in Pachmarhi to see the all-powerful lingam.
One of India’s premier dance events, this free festival features traditional and classical dance from all over India.
A major four-day festival of Indian classical music to commemorate the life of the great sixteenth-century composer and musician Mian Tansen, held next to his tomb in Behat village, Gwalior.
Among the last tracts of central India mapped by the British, the Mahadeo Hills weren’t explored until 1857, when Captain J. Forsyth and his party of Bengal Lancers stumbled upon an idyllic saucer-shaped plateau at the heart of the range, strewn with huge boulders and crisscrossed by streams. Five years later a road was cut from the railhead at Piparia, and by the end of the century Pachmarhi had become the summer capital of the entire Central Provinces, complete with a military sanatorium, churches, clubhouses, racecourse and polo pitch. Aside from the faded Raj atmosphere and myriad walks and hikes, the main incentive to travel up here is in order to scramble around the surrounding forest in search of prehistoric rock art or to visit Satpura National Park, home to a handful of (elusive) tigers and leopards.
Pachmarhi town, more than 1000m above sea level, is clean, green and relaxed, despite the presence of a large military cantonment in its midst. It has retained a distinctly colonial ambience, enhanced by the elegant British bungalows and church spires that nose incongruously above the tropical tree line. In the evenings families stroll and picnic in the parklands, while army bands and scout troops march around the maidans.
Popular during the summer with Indian tourists, especially on long holiday weekends, Pachmarhi remains sleepy for much of the rest of the year. The big exception to this is during the annual Shivratri Mela (Feb/March), when thousands of pilgrims pour through en route to the top of nearby Chauragarh Mountain. The festival marks the anniversary of Shiva’s tandav dance and his wedding anniversary.
Straddling the main Delhi–Mumbai train line, Gwalior is northern Madhya Pradesh’s largest city and boasts one of India’s most magnificent hilltop forts. The sandstone citadel, with its temples and palaces, peers down from the edge of a sheer-sided plateau above a haze of exhaust fumes and busy streets. The city’s other unmissable attraction is the extraordinarily flamboyant Jai Vilas Palace, owned by the local ruling family, the Scindias. Their personalities and influence are everywhere, from the chhatris (cenotaphs) north of Jayaji Chowk to the excellent Sarod Ghar classical music museum. Despite its proximity to Agra, 119km north, Gwalior sees few foreign tourists and its drab modern centre lacks the charm of its nearby Rajasthani counterparts. That said, it is a worthwhile place to pause for a day, particularly around late November or early December, when the old Mughal tombs host one of India’s premier classical music events, the Tansen Samaroh Festival.
A short walk north of the Gwalior Gate, just outside the fort compound, the modest Gujuri Mahal was built by Man Singh to woo his favourite rani, Mrignayani, when she was still a peasant girl. The elegant sandstone palace now houses the Archeological Museum, whose large collection of sculptures, inscriptions and paintings is well worth a look, even if the labels are woefully uninformative. Highlights include the twin Ashoka lion capitals from Vidisha in gallery two, and gallery nine’s erotic bas-relief, but the most famous exhibit is the exquisitely carved salabhanjika, a small female figurine noted for her sensuous curves and sublime facial expression.
Entered via the Hathiya (“elephant”) Paur gateway, with its twin turrets and ornate blue tilework, the Man Singh Palace (sometimes called Man Mandir Palace) was declared “the noblest specimen of Hindu domestic architecture in northern India” by nineteenth-century explorer Sir Alexander Cunningham. Built between 1486 and 1517 by the Tomar ruler Man Singh, it’s also known as the Chit Mandir (“Painted Palace”) for the rich ceramic mosaics encrusting its facade. The best-preserved fragments of tilework, on its south side, can be seen from the bank left of the main Hathiya Paur gateway. Spread in luxurious bands of turquoise, emerald green and yellow across the ornate stonework are tigers, elephants, peacocks and crocodiles brandishing flowers.
By contrast, the interior of the four-storey palace is very plain. However, there are some fine pierced-stone jali screens, behind which the women of the palace would assemble to receive instruction from Gwalior’s great music gurus. The circular chambers in the lower storeys were once dungeons.
On the south side of the plateau, the 30m-tall Teli-ka-Mandir is the fort’s oldest surviving monument. Dating from the mid-eighth century, it consists of a huge rectangular sanctuary tower capped with an unusual vaulted-arch roof, whose peepal-leaf shape derives from the chaitya windows of much earlier rock-cut Buddhist caves. In the aftermath of the 1857 Indian uprising, the Vishnu temple was used by the British as a soda factory, and restoration work continues. At the head of the Urwahi ravine, just north of the Teli-ka-Mandir, the Suraj Kund is the 100m-long tank whose waters are reputed to have cured the tenth-century ruler Suraj Sen, later Suraj Pal, of leprosy.
At the eastern edge of the fort, the Sasbahu, or “mother-and-daughter-in-law”, temples overlook the city near an unsightly TV mast. The larger one has a three-storey mandapa (assembly hall), supported by four intricate pillars, while the smaller one consists of an open-sided porch with a pyramidal roof. Both were erected late in the eleventh century and are dedicated to Vishnu.
South of the Sasbahu mandirs, the huge, gold-tipped, white-domed marble building to the south is a modern Sikh gurudwara, built to commemorate a Sikh hero who was imprisoned in the fort. Before entering, cover your arms, legs and head, remove your socks and shoes and wash your feet in the tank at the bottom of the steps.
Near the Urwahi Gate at the southern entrance to the fort, the sheer sandstone cliffs around the fort harbour some imposing rock-cut Jain sculptures. Carved between the seventh and fifteenth centuries, most of the large honey-coloured figures depict the 24 Jain teacher-saviours – the tirthankaras, or “Crossing Makers” – standing with their arms held stiffly at their sides, or sitting cross-legged, the palms of their hands upturned. Many lost their faces and genitalia when Mughal emperor Babur’s iconoclastic army descended on the city in 1527.
The city’s most famous Muslim building is the sixteenth-century Tomb of Ghaus Mohammed, an Afghan prince who helped Babur take Gwalior Fort. It’s a fine specimen of early Mughal architecture, and a popular local shrine. Elegant hexagonal pavilions stand at each of its four corners; in the centre, the large central dome retains a few remnants of its blue-glazed tiles. The tomb’s walls are inlaid with exquisite pierced-stone jali screens.
The second and smaller of the tombs in the gardens is that of the famous Mughal singer-musician Tansen, one of the “Nine Jewels” of Emperor Akbar’s court. Every year, performers and aficionados from all over India flock here for Gwalior’s annual Tansen Samaroh music festival (Nov/Dec). Local superstition holds that the leaves of the tamarind tree growing on the plinth nearby have a salutary effect on the singing voice, which is why its bottom branches have been stripped bare.
The Jai Vilas Palace is one of India’s most grandiose and eccentric nineteenth-century relics, although the lack of labelling and information can make for a frustrating visit. It was built in 1875 during the reign of Maharaja Jayaji Rao Scindia, who dispatched his friend Colonel Michael Filose on a grand tour of Europe to seek inspiration; Filose returned with a vast shipment of furniture, fabric, paintings, tapestries and cut glass, together with the blueprints for a building that borrowed heavily from Buckingham Palace, Versailles, Greek ruins and Italian-Baroque stately homes. The result is a shamelessly over-the-top blend of Doric, Tuscan and Corinthian architecture.
The Scindias, who still occupy part of the palace, have opened two wings to the public. The first wing, a museum, includes countless Mughal paintings, Persian rugs, gold and silver ornaments and antique furniture that belonged to the estate of Louis XVI before the French Revolution, while a still more extravagant wing lies across the courtyard from the museum.
The Sarod Ghar Museum of music occupies the beautiful ancestral home of the Bangash family, whose ancestors, originally Afghan horse-traders who settled in India, produced a dynasty of musical virtuosos, including Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan and his son Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. The museum traces Gwalior’s rich musical legacy, from Tansen, who performed in Mughal emperor Akbar’s court, to the invention by Gulam Ali Khan Bangash of the sarod, whose ethereal tones accompany you as you progress through the galleries.
Two characteristically ostentatious Scindia family tombs are found in the south of Gwalior. Inside a walled courtyard, the Scindia chhatris feature intricate stonework and ornately painted scenes of life inside the nineteenth-century Maratha royal court. Built in 1817 to commemorate Maharaja Jiyaji Rao Scindia, the larger of the pair is most remarkable for the intricate outside panelling of interwoven flowers. The second chhatri is a more compact and finely detailed version of the former, constructed in 1843 for the recently departed Maharaja Janakaji Scindia; sculptures and carvings depict the hectic lifestyle of a king.
Constructed by Bir Singh Deo at the height of the Bundela “golden age”, the little-visited majestic palace at Datia, 30km northwest of Jhansi and 71km southeast of Gwalior, is one of India’s finest Rajput buildings.
Presiding over a mass of white- and blue-washed brick houses from its seat atop a rock outcrop, the 440-room, seven-storey Bir Singh Deo Palace (sometimes called Nrsing Dev Palace) stands in the east of town. Half the fun of visiting is trying to find a path from its pitch-black subterranean chambers, hewn out of the solid base of the hill for use during the hot season, to the rani’s airy apartment on the top floor. In between, a maze of cross-cutting corridors, flying walkways, walls encrusted with fragments of ceramic tiles, latticed screens and archways, hidden passages, pavilions and suites of apartments lead you in ever-decreasing circles until you eventually run out of staircases. The views from the upper storeys are breathtaking. There are guides on hand, armed with torches, to show you around if you wish, and they can also open up some of the rooms that contain wall paintings.
Shivpuri, 112km south of Gwalior and the former summer capital of the Scindias, is worth a stop-off to see the Madhav Rao Scindia Chhatri, a white marble synthesis of Hindu and Islamic architectural styles with spires and pavilions. There are also several other lesser chhatris, and tranquil gardens, complete with Victorian lamps and ornamental balustrades. Nearby, the Madhav National Park has deer, leopards, sloth bears, crocodiles and blackbucks, as well as a Scindia-era hunting lodge and castle.
An essential stop en route to or from Khajuraho, Orchha (“hidden place”) certainly lives up to its name, residing amid a tangle of scrubby dhak forest 18km southeast of Jhansi. In spite of its tumbledown state, the fortified and now deserted medieval town remains an architectural gem, its guano-splashed temple shikharas, derelict palaces, havelis and weed-choked sandstone cenotaphs floating serenely above the banks of the River Betwa. Clustered around the foot of the exotic ruins, the sleepy village makes an excellent spot to unwind after the hassle of northern cities. However, it’s now firmly established on the tour-group circuit, so try to spend a night or two here after the coach parties have moved off.
Just beyond the bridge, the first building you come to across Orchha’s medieval granite bridge is the well-preserved ruin of the royal palace, or Raj Mahal. Of the two rectangular courtyards inside, the second, formerly used by the Bundela ranis, is the most dramatic. Opulent royal quarters, raised balconies and interlocking walkways rise in symmetrical tiers on all four sides, crowned by domed pavilions and turrets; the apartments projecting into the quadrangle on the ground floor belonged to the most-favoured queens. As you wander around, look out for the fragments of mirror inlay and vibrant painting plastered over their walls and ceilings. Some of the friezes are in remarkable condition, depicting Vishnu’s various outlandish incarnations, court and hunting scenes, and lively festivals.
Reached via a path that leads from the Raj Mahal around the northern side of the hill, the Rai Praveen Mahal is a small, double-storeyed brick apartment built by Raja Indramani for his concubine in the mid-1670s. The gifted poetess, musician and dancer Rai Praveen beguiled the Mughal emperor Akbar when she was sent to him as a gift, but was eventually returned to Orchha to live out her remaining days. Set amid the well-watered lawns of the Anand Mahal gardens, the building has a main assembly hall on the ground floor (used to host music and dance performances), a boudoir upstairs and cool underground apartments.
South of the Rai Praveen Mahal, Orchha’s most admired palace, the Jahangir Mahal was built by Bir Singh Deo as a monumental welcome present for the Mughal emperor when he paid a state visit here in the seventeenth century. Jahangir had come to invest his old ally with the sword of Abdul Fazal – the emperor’s erstwhile enemy whom Bir Singh had murdered some years earlier. Entered through an ornate ceremonial gateway, the main, east-facing facade is still encrusted with turquoise tiles. Two stone elephants flank the stairway, holding bells in their trunks to announce the arrival of the raja, and there are three storeys of elegant hanging balconies, terraces, apartments and onion domes piled around a central courtyard. This palace, however, has a much lighter feel, with countless windows and pierced stone screens looking out over the exotic Orchha skyline to the west, and a sea of treetops and ruined temples in the other direction.
Just west of the Jahangir Mahal and built during the early eighteenth century, long after Orchha’s demise, the Sheesh Mahal (“Palace of Mirrors”) was originally intended to be an exclusive country retreat for the local raja, Udait Singh. Following Independence, the property was inherited by the state government, who converted it into a hotel. The rather squat palace stands between the Raj Mahal and the Jahangir Mahal, at the far end of an open-sided courtyard. Covered in a coat of whitewash and stripped of most of its Persian rugs and antiques, the building retains only traces of its former splendour, though there are stunning views from its upper terraces and turrets. If they’re not occupied, check out the palatial suites (rooms 1 and 2), which contain original bathroom fittings.
A short walk south of the Raj Mahal, the small Saket Museum of Ramayana Correlogram has an intriguing collection of Hindu folk art from across India. Highlights include Mithila paintings (produced using paint made from cow’s milk) from Bihar and colourful masks from Odisha and Uttar Pradesh.
The Ram Raja Mandir stands just west of the bazaar’s main crossroads, in a cool marble-tiled courtyard. Local legend has it that Madhukar Shah constructed the building as a palace for his wife, Rani Ganesha, and it only became a temple after a Rama icon, which the queen had dutifully carried all the way from her home town of Ayodhya, could not be lifted from the spot where she first set it down; it remains there to this day, and the temple is a popular pilgrimage site.
A path leads through the Mughal-style Phool Bagh ornamental garden to Hardaul ka Baithak, a grand pavilion where Bir Singh Deo’s second son, Hardaul, ally of Jahangir and romantic paragon, once held court. Newlyweds come here to seek blessing from Hardaul, who, despite being poisoned by his jealous brother who accused him of intimacy with his sister-in-law, is thought to confer good luck. The tall towers rising above the gardens like disregarded bridge supports are dastgirs (“wind-catchers”), Persian-style cooling towers that provided air-conditioning for the neighbouring palace, Palkhi Mahal; they’re thought to be the only ones of their kind surviving in India.
With its huge pointed shikharas soaring high above the village just south of the market, Chatturbuj Mandir is the temple originally built to house Rani Ganesha’s icon. In cruciform shape, representing the four-armed Vishnu, with seven storeys and spacious courtyards ringed by arched balconies, it epitomizes the regal Bundelkhand style, inspired by the Mughals, with Rajput, Persian and European touches. It’s unusual for a Hindu temple, with few carvings and a wealth of space – perhaps to accommodate followers of the bhakti cult (a form of worship involving large congregations of people rather than a small elite of priests). You can climb up the narrow staircases between storeys to the temple’s roof, pierced by an ornate shikhara whose niches shelter nesting vultures.
The solitary Lakshmi Narayan Mandir crowns a rocky hillock just under 1km west of Orchha village, at the end of a long, paved pathway. It takes around fifteen minutes to walk here from the market, for which you are rewarded with fine views and excellent seventeenth-and nineteenth-century paintings. For a small tip, the chowkidar will lead you through the galleries inside the temple. Look out for the frieze depicting the battle of Jhansi, in which the rani appears in an upper room of the fort next to her horse, while musket-bearing British troops scuttle about below. Elsewhere, episodes from the much-loved Krishna story crop up alongside portraits of the Bundela rajas and their military and architectural achievements, while a side pillar bears a sketch of two very inebriated English soldiers.
After running in tandem across an endless expanse of wheat fields and tribal villages, the main Kolkata to Mumbai road and train lines converge on eastern Madhya Pradesh’s largest city. However, Jabalpur, 330km east of Bhopal, is only really worth visiting en route to the Marble Rocks, gouged by the Narmada River nearby, or to the national parks and tiger reserves, Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Pench, all half a day’s journey away.
Widely considered the greatest of India’s wildlife reserves, Kanha National Park encompasses some 940 square kilometres of deciduous forest, savanna grassland, hills and gently meandering rivers – home to hundreds of species of birds and animals, including tigers. Despite the arduous overland haul to the park, few travellers are disappointed by its beauty, which is particularly striking at dawn. Tiger sightings are not guaranteed, but even a fleeting glimpse of one should be considered a great privilege. Moreover, the wealth of other creatures and some of central India’s most quintessentially Kiplingesque countryside make it a wonderful place to spend a few days.
Kanha’s tigers, are its biggest draw, and the jeep drivers and guides, who are well aware of this, scan the sandy tracks for pug marks and respond to the agitated alarm calls of nearby animals. Although the Kanha zone has been a prime site for spotting tigers in the past, at the time of research sightings here were less common here than in Kisli, Sarhi and Mukki. If you’re intent on seeing a tiger, plan on spending three nights at the park and taking around five excursions; the cats are most often spotted lounging among camouflaging brakes of bamboo or in the tall elephant grass lining streams and waterholes.
Central portions of the Kanha Valley were designated a wildlife sanctuary in 1933. Previously, the whole area was one enormous viceregal hunting ground, its game the exclusive preserve of high-ranking British army officers and civil servants seeking trophies for their colonial bungalows. Not until the 1950s though, after a particularly voracious hunter bagged thirty tigers in a single shoot, did the government declare Kanha a bona fide national park. Kanha was one of the original participants in Indira Gandhi’s Project Tiger, which helped numbers recover. The forest department claims there are around 78 tigers, but guides and naturalists say 40 to 45 is a more accurate estimate (for most of India’s tiger reserves, halving the official figures will generally give you a more realistic idea). As part of a long-term project, the park has expanded to encompass a large protective buffer zone – a move not without its opponents among the local tribal community, who depend on the forest for food and firewood. Over the years, the authorities have had a hard time reconciling the needs of the villagers with the demands of conservation and tourism; but for the time being at least, an equitable balance seems to have been struck.
Yet serious challenges remain: although poaching is now largely under control here, it still remains a threat; illegal timber-felling continues; the buffer zone is increasingly being encroached upon; and there is little effort to check the growth of new hotels. There have also been problems when the big cats have strayed outside the park’s boundaries and killed cattle and some local villagers have responded by leaving out poison. Visit the website of campaign organization Travel Operators for Tigers to find out what role travellers can play in protecting India’s tigers.
Madhya Pradesh’s second national park, Bandhavgarh, tucked away in the hilly northeast of the state, has one of the highest relative densities of tigers of any of India’s reserves and shelters some fascinating ruins. Although it’s a long haul to Bandhavgarh from either Jabalpur or Khajuraho, it’s worth it – not only to track tigers but also, as all the accommodation is close to the park gates, to watch the array of birdlife from the comfort of your lodge.
Though there are flat grassy maidans in the south of the park, Bandhavgarh is predominantly rugged and hilly, with sal trees in the valleys, and mixed forest in the upper reaches, which shelter a diverse avian population. Bandhavgarh’s headquarters and main gate are in the village of Tala, connected to Umaria, by a road slicing through the park’s narrow midriff. On the whole, jeep safaris tend to stick to the core area where the chances of spotting a tiger (there are estimated to be around 35–45) are high. Deer species include gazelle, barking deer, nilgai (blueball) and chital (spotted deer). Sloth bears, porcupines, sambar and muntjac also hide away in the forest, while hyenas, foxes and jackals appear occasionally in the open country. If you’re very fortunate, you may catch sight of an elusive leopard. Look out too for some very exotic birds, including red jungle fowl, white-naped woodpecker, painted spurfowl and long-billed vultures. Perhaps the most enjoyable way of viewing game is to take an elephant ride in the misty dawn.
Straddling both MP and Maharashtra (and far quieter than its more famous counterparts), Pench Tiger Reserve has an estimated fourteen to sixteen tigers and sightings are relatively common. The 758-square-kilometre park, made up largely of tropical deciduous forest, is also home to leopards, jackals, deer and 285 species of bird.
The state’s economic powerhouse and the biggest city in western Madhya Pradesh, Indore is huge, modern and pretty dull. If you find yourself with time to kill en route to or from Mandu, 98km southwest, however, you could stop and check out a couple of worthwhile sights. Indore’s sights lie west of the railway line, in and around the bazaar. Two broad thoroughfares, MG Road and Jawahar Marg, form the north and south boundaries of this cluttered and chaotic district, which is interrupted in the east by the confluence of the Saraswati and Khan rivers. The city’s principal landmark is the eighteenth-century former Holkar palace of Raj Wada, which presides over a palm-fringed square in the heart of the city and boasts a seven-storey gateway. Most of the palace collapsed after a fire in 1984, and only the facade and a temple survive.
Set against the rugged Vindhya hills, the medieval ghost-town of Mandu, 98km southwest of Indore, is one of central India’s most atmospheric monuments. This tranquil backwater sees far fewer visitors than it deserves, save for the busloads of exuberant Indian day-trippers on weekends. Visit at the height of the monsoons, when the rocky plateau and its steeply shelving sides are carpeted with green vegetation, and you’ll understand why the Malwa sultans christened their capital Shadiabad – “City of Joy”.
Even during the relentless heat of the dry season, the ruins are an exotic spectacle. Elegant Islamic palaces, mosques and mausoleums crumble beside large medieval reservoirs and precipitous ravines, while below, an endless vista of scorched plains and tiny villages stretches off to the horizon. Mandu can be visited as a day-trip from Indore, but you’ll enjoy it more if you spend a night or two, giving you time not only to explore the ruins, but also to witness the memorable sunsets over the Narmada Valley.
On the banks of the sacred Shirpa River, Ujjain is one of India’s seven holiest cities. Like Haridwar, Nasik and Prayag, it plays host every twelve years to the country’s largest religious gathering, the Kumbh Mela, which has in the past drawn an estimated thirty million pilgrims here to bathe. Outside festival times, Ujjain is great for people-watching, as pilgrims and locals alike go about their daily business. Around the main temples, you see modern Hinduism at its most kitsch, with all types of devotional paraphernalia, gaudy lighting and plastic flower garlands for sale. At the ghats, women flap wet saris dry, children splash in the water, and pujaris ply their trade beneath the rows of riverside shrines. A mini-Varanasi Ujjain is not, but the temples rising behind the ghats are majestic at dusk, and with the ringing of bells and incense drifting around, this atmospheric place can feel timeless.
The Western Railway cuts straight through the centre of Ujjain, forming a neat divide between the spacious and affluent residential suburbs to the south and the more interesting, densely packed streets northwest of the station. Unless you spend all day wandering through the bazaar, sightseeing in Ujjain usually means treading the temple trail, with a brief foray south of the ghats to visit the Vedha Shala observatory.
Overlooking the north bank of the mighty Narmada River, 91km southwest of Indore, Maheshwar was the site of King Kartvirajun’s ancient capital, Mahishmati, a city mentioned in both the Mahabharata and Ramayana. In the eighteenth century, Maharani Ahilya Bai built a palace and several temples here, giving the town a new lease of life. Today, it’s a prominent port of call on the Narmada Hindu pilgrimage circuit, but well off the tourist trail.
East of the main river crossing at Barwaha, the Narmada River dips southwards, sweeps north again to form a wide bend, and then forks around a 2km-long wedge-shaped outcrop of sandstone. Seen from above, the island, cut by several deep ravines, bears an uncanny resemblance to the “Om” symbol. This, coupled with the presence on its sheer south-facing side of a revered shivalingam, has made Omkareshwar, 77km south of Indore, one of central India’s most sacred Hindu sites.
Since ancient times, pilgrims have flocked here for darshan and a holy dip in the river, while the town’s remoteness and loaded religious feel also long made it a favourite with hard-core Western and Israeli dope-heads – though the town’s modernization has made it less attractive to that crowd in recent years. Despite its changes – and the contentious Omkareshwar dam (completed 2007), which led to the displacement of many thousands of people from nearby villages, the place manages to retain an authentic atmosphere among its temples, wayside shrines, bathing places and caves, which are strung together by an old paved pilgrims’ trail.
The little-known state of Chhattisgarh has remained off the tourist radar for decades, but as it slowly opens up to tourists it’s ripe for exploration. Main sights include Amarkantak – straddling the border with MP, this is one of the least-visited major Hindu holy sites in India, and offers a pleasant, hassle-free way to experience an important pilgrimage destination – and the nearby Achanakmar Wildlife Sanctuary, the only place in Chhattisgarh where tigers can be seen. Meanwhile, in the south, the tribal heartland of Bastar is rich in cultural and natural attractions. The easiest way to travel in and out of the state is by train via Raipur, the state’s busy and scruffy capital – but there’s little to see there otherwise.
In addition to the major sights there are many other places worth a visit – for full details, contact the Tourism Board. In the north, for example, 85km east of Raipur, Sirpur, the region’s former capital and now a village, has a few fine fifth- to eleventh-century Buddhist and Hindu temples. Sirpur borders the hilly Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary, which offers the chance to see leopards and even elephants. Way up in the north, towards Patna in UP, the state’s hill station, Mainpat offers relief from the hot season and has a sizeable Tibetan population. Meanwhile, just across the state border from Kanha in MP, exquisite erotic carvings based on the Kama Sutra can be seen on the eleventh-century nagar-style temples at Bhoramdeo, which make those at Khajuraho seem tame by comparison.