Two weeks exploring Madhya Pradesh, India

Why Madhya Pradesh (MP) ???  the first question asked by quite a lot of people whenever I mentioned this as my destination. We had no particular reason, my friend and myself when we decided on this state which is in the central part of India, for our 2-week trip in December 2016. MP always symbolized to me Khajuraho and Gwalior. As we started on the itinerary I was surprised with a rich mix of heritage, nature, wildlife, religious places and towns to explore in MP.  So heres the route we followed and a glimpse of MP captured by me

Bhopal :   We had 2 options, either to fly into Bhopal which is the state capital, or Indore which is the commercial hub of the state. There are no direct flights to either of them from Bangalore and Bhopal just became our start point. The two lakes, Upper Lake and the Lower Lake, form the main tourist attraction along with Taj-ul-Masjid one of Asias largest mosque. We spent an evening at the Tribal museum as it is open till 7pm.

The Buddhist Stupa of Sanchi is about 50kms from Bhopal and further 10kms from here are the the Udaygiri Caves. Hiring a cab is the best way to do these 2 places as the public transport system in MP is not very good.  Its takes around 5-6 hrs to do both the places. On the way to Sanchi you will cross the Tropic of Cancer.

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The Great Stupa at Sanchi
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Udaygiri Caves, Varaha sculpture of Vishnu in Cave 5

The next day we headed for Bhimbetka Rock Shelters which is around 45kms from city center. On the way is the Bhojeshwar Temple at Bhojpur, a 11th century incomplete temple of Siva and has a 7.5feet high lingam much frequented by locals. Surrounding the area there are archeological findings of temple drawings carved on the rocks. Bhimbetka has around 15 traces of Paleolitic, Mesolitic period paintings identified and marked with clear directions in the 3-4km area were a tourist can get a glimpse of early human life.

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Boar Rock at Bhimbetka Rock Shelters

Stay – Many options , we booked Lago Villa Homestay through airbnb

Kanha National Park  :  Unless you have a hired cab, getting from Bhopal to Kanha is not as easy you would think even tough this is the largest national park of MP.  Without a cab your best bet would be to reach Mandla, either taking a train/bus to Jabalpur and then a bus to Mandla or a direct bus to Mandla from Bhopal. From Mandla there a many small buses (cramped with people and no bookings) that ply to Kanha regularly.

This did not douse our enthusiasm for the evening safari that we had booked. Booking for all national parks in MP at least is very easy. The website is really good, giving you distinct options on which gates you want your safaris to be and timings. Per safari slot there are a max number of vehicles allowed so the earlier you book the better. By booking the safari you only pay the park costs, the vehicle cost and guide fees are to be paid separately at the park. Website for booking – https://forest.mponline.gov.in/Search.aspx

That evening there was no sighting of tiger although we did see swamp deer which is the pride of this park along with spotted deer, barking deer, sambar deer, gaur, wild boar, jackals and a few birds. The saal trees which makes up most of the forest makes the forest look beautiful and distinct.

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Taking a rest, Swamp Deers at Kanha National Park

Stay – Tuli Tiger Resort, beautifully furnished rooms with great food. They also arrange for the safari jeeps to be picked up from the hotel with a naturalist.

Jabalpur :  Dhuandhar Falls and the Marble Rocks at Bedaghat are the must dos here. The town itself is very charming, not very big, but still has most of the city style restaurants and hangouts. Bhedaghat is around 30kms from the town center and we took a cab to get here. Narmada river flows through the mesmerizing Marble Rocks to plunge into a waterfall, Dhuandar Falls. The boat ride through the marble rocks gives you great glimpses of the rocks with the boatmen weaving an entertaining story as they take you around. At the falls the ropeway that takes you to the other side is worth doing (tip: Instead of parking the car in the parking lot, you can drive it down near the falls, a better option as then you donot have to climb up the hill on our way back).

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Marble Rocks at Bedaghat, these can be seen only if you take the boat ride
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Duandhar Falls as seen from the cable car

Stay -Many options. The Samrat is where we stayed and upgraded the room to an executive one.

Bandhavgarh National Park :  We had a beautiful tiger sighting here. Tigress Spotty majestically walked past us carrying the fawn she had hunted for her 3 cubs.IMG_0787-BhandavgarhNationalPark.JPG

Again getting to this national park is not very easy unless you have a hired cab. From Jabalpur your best option would be to take the train to Umaria and then the bus to the park. We more or less gave up on public transport and hired a car from Jabalpur.

Stay – Tigers Den near Tala Gate (tip – Although most searches on the web say that tiger sightings are at Tala, these days we were told that Magdhi gate has had better sightings … Again all on luck we had both our safaris at Tala and here is where we saw Spotty).

Kahjuraho : A UNESCO World Heritage site famous for its erotic sculptures. The temples are grouped into Western Group, Eastern group and  Southern group. The Western Group has the most well preserved temples in a single huge complex,  Kandariya Mahadev temple being the largest temple among this. The Eastern group and Southern group temples are spread across the town and you will need a vehicle to cover all of them. All the temples can be done in a day provided you start your day early.

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Kandariya Mahadev temple, the tallest temple in the complex.

The walls of the temple have beautifully carved sculptures as found in most prominent temples in India however yes there is an added emphasis on the erotic sculptures here and you cannot just get away by saying that the erotic sculptures make less than 10% of the sculptures. I liked our guides interpretation, that the temples depict Dharma, Arth and Kama on the exterior and Moksha in the interior with the Kama too a means of attaining divinity. And you can relate this to the way the Kamasutra sculptures are placed. Typically the Kamasutra sculpture will be in the first level above it sculpture depicting Sringara/Love and on the top level Divinity. As you walk around there are many depictions of eroticism both inside and outside the temple, however the Kamasutra sculptures are found only on the outer walls.IMG_0940_1-Khajuraho-LakshmanaTemple.jpg

Next day morning we spent some time at Raneh Falls around 20kms from Kajuraho town. This is a canyon of around 5kms formed by the Ken river and the area is made up of crystalline granite in different shades of red and grey. The waterfalls depends on the water outlet from the dam built upstream so we didnt see any falls, however the area is breathtaking in its beauty.IMG_1347-Khajuraho-RanheFalls.JPG

Stay – Syna Resort , new hotel, closeby the western group of temples

Orchha :  A historical town built by the Bundela Rajputs around the 16th century. The fort having the Raja Mahal, Jehangir Mahal and the Rani Praveen Mahal along with the temples Rama Raja temple, Chaturbhuj temple and Laxmi temple which are spread across the town form quite a captivating history to be visited.  The Cenotaps or the Chattris as commonly known along the banks of Betwa river is also quite captivating especially as the sun sets over them.

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Jehangir Mahal , the most decorated Mahal of the fort
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Sunset with the Cenotaphs as the background and the Betwa river flowing by

Stay – Betwa Retreat, a MP tourism heritage hotel. Well maintained.

Gwalior : A well known city of MP for its early history to the British era when it remained a princely state under the Scindias going on to be become a major industrial area post Indian independence. For the traveler in me the present Gwalior was slightly disappointing as most of the old fort is in ruins and poorly maintained.

A very small percentage of the fort walls retain the architectural grandeur it must have once had. Man Mandir Palace built by the Tomar king is the only palace retaining its former glory. The Sas-Bahu temple and Teli ka Mandir nearby are interesting places to visit. As you come down the hill the Jain statues carved into the Gopacal hill is a sight to behold. Gujari Mahal which is out of the main fort area is now a Museum and was closed the day we were in town.

Importantly if you donot have your own cab then an auto(tuk-tuk) can take you only till the foot of the hill the main gate to the fort. From here you can hire Maruti van/car which will take you around the fort. Half a day to cover the entire fort would do.

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Fort walls, a part where we can still admire the beauty it must have once been
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Teli Ka Mandir and the Jain statues carved into the Gopachal mountain

Other places of interest, Jai Vilas Palace which is now a museum mostly of the Scindia rule, Tomb of Mohammad Ghaus and TanSen, the famous poet of Akbars court, are in the same complex  and Rani LakshmiBai Memorial. As we had an evening free we also visited the Sun temple(not worth the effort).

Stay – Tansen Residency , MP tourism hotel  surprisingly a very well run hotel.

Ujjain : A religious visit. An ancient holy city on the banks of river Kshipra now well known for the Simhastha/Kumb Mela held once in 12 years. The Mahakaleshwar Jyothirlinga temple one of the 12 Jyothirlingas is the most famous temple here. This is a city of temples and so we hired an e-auto (electric auto), much smother ride than the noraml auto and minus the noise however goes at lower speeds, to visit most of the temples. Mangalnath temple, Kal Bhairav temple (here the offering to the lord is Liqour), Gadkalika Temple, Gopal temple and others. The evening Aarthi on the banks of river Kshipra is a must do, beautiful sight to behold and a total devotional atmosphere.IMG_2058-Gwalior-UjjainAarti.JPG

Maheshwar : A small town now, once the capital of the Holkar Dynasty under the rule of Ahilya Devi Holkar. The Ahilya Palace is a very modest home unlike other palaces and tells a story of a very brave strategist and stateswoman of her time. The temples associated with the palace and the Narmada Ghat are in contrast architecturally rich and beautiful. The Rewa Society a Non-profit-Organisation of Weavers was also started by Ahilya Devi and they weave the famous Maheshwar Handlooms. The weaving units are within the fort.

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Stay – Kanchan Recreation, a homestay rather than a hotel. The staff are very courteous and make you feel really at home and you can enjoy some homemade food.We stayed here for 3 days and did day trips to Mandu and Omkareshwar.

Mandu : Old capital of the Khilji Dynasty which is mostly in ruins now. My memories of Mandu from the history lessons of high school is the famous love story of Rani Roopmati and Bhaz Bhahadur. So yes I got to walk through the Roopmati Pavillion and Bhaz  Bhadur Palace and a glimpse of the Narmada river which as the story goes Rani Roopmati paid tribute to everday from the Pavillion. You start Mandu with the Jama Masjid, Hoshang Shah Tomb, Asarfi Mahal, Ram temple and then drive to the next complex which has the beautiful Jahaz Mahal along with Taveli Mahal, Hindola Mahal, Hamam, Jal Mahal and other ruined parts of the palace. Roopmati Pavilion and Baz Bahadur are about 10kms off from the Jama Masjid site. On the way you will pass trough Rewa Kund and the Echo Point. At the echo point there is usually a local man who will call out the way they must have used this point to pass on messages.

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Jahaz Mahal, so named as it is in between two water bodies
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The famous Rani Roopmati Pavillion

Omkareshwar : Another religious visit only. The main temple, one of the 12 Jyothirlingas  is situated on an island and you can either take a boat across river Narmada or walk down the hanging bridge. We took the boat one way and walked the bridge on our return. The main sanctum is very small and more or less even now with all the construction around still does look like a part of a cave and most of the lingam is submerged in water. The Mamleshwar temple on the main land just before you start your decent to the Narmada Ghat is also considered to be a Jyothirlinga in some references.

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Narmada Ghat on the main land as seen from Omkareshwar temple

Indore: Our final stop before we boarded the flight back to Bangalore. City really does not have much as a tourist attraction. We visited the Rajwada in the evening and then later walked down to the Sarafa Bazar area. We did not find any eateries as we had read about the place and when enquired were told that the food stalls are put up after 8pm, till then the area is like any old market mainly silver and gold small shops. As we were walking around we saw some pani-puri stalls open, 10 puris each dipped in a different flavored water. So I gave it a go, my friend stopped by a small silver shop and picked up a trinket and then we got out of there. We were back here around 9pm and the place was crowded, what it being the 31st Dec evening seemed like the whole of Indore was out here. Many varieties of food to try out. The chats were really good and for me thats all I wanted to try as back here on Bangalore its very difficult to find a good chat center. We did not linger long as it was too crowded for us.

Stay – Hotel Shreemaya, their restaurant seemed to be a favorite with the locals as in the afternoon there were quite a few people waiting for food parcels and in the evening locals wanting to dine-out here on New Years eve.

Overall well spent 2 weeks. A lot of history to take in, beautiful architecture to admire, peaceful nature to soak-in and to just do nothing siting at the river ghats enjoying the sunset. MP has three main rivers Betwa, Kshipra and Narmada and you can see that reflected in the rich agriculture activities in every village. Wheat being the main crop, the harvest season had just finished so we could see lush green sapplings in most fields along with toor-dal (first time I was seeing toor-dal fields) , mustard, onion, fennel, sugarcane fields throughout the state.

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Women taking  part in the evening Aarti  at the Ghat by floating small diyas
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Sunset at Maheshwar, Narmada River
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Toor dal field, Mustard field and the lush green fields of wheat
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Mandu ki Imli (Tamrind) tree with the fruits also called as Baobab fruits only seen in Mandu

The road transport system from roads, pit stop areas to buses, bus stations through out the eastern and northern parts of the state is much to be desired for. There are new roads being laid out, but still a long way to go. The Ujjain-Indore-Omkareshwar stretch was the only part where we saw good roads.

Apart from this the usual “being in India” experience , people, food, oh yes MP does not have its own cuisine, which was pretty surprising, we more or less found the normal punjabi dishes menu except instead of tandoori rotis  tawa rotis/phulkas are a favorite. In Mandu they had Dal Paniya , like dal bati , but instead of the wheat batis  the paniyas are of corn flour and cooked on a tawa instead of coal.

So on that note the end of this pretty long blog. Do comment on the blog. Thanks for reading.

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