Madhya Pradesh (MP) lies in the centre of India, but many a traveller gives it a miss while criss-crossing the country. Their loss. Few regions in the world offer as incredible an offering as MP. History, culture, wildlife, landscapes, tribal settlements, water bodies, forests, birds, food are to be found within a few hours of one another.
What adds to the joy are the roads. The state has a well developed network of quality roads in most places for a smooth drive. MP also boasts a good transport infrastructure – air, rail and road – as well as hotels to suit all budgets and travel preferences. The best time to visit MP is between late October to early March – it can be extremely hot at other times. Of course, if you want to spot tigers, then March to June is a good time as they can be sighted around water pools.
The journey covered here covers a significant part of the state – you can easily crop these into smaller segments. The suggested itinerary here takes 17 days – but you can save a few days if you want to. Interestingly, unless otherwise mentioned, the destinations covered in this journey boast a collection of some of the finest places to stay in the world.
* Orchha: Spend a day admiring the many temples and palaces going as far back as the 16th century in this picturesque town located along the pristine Betwa river. If you drive from Delhi, you can get there late afternoon. Don’t miss the sunset when the town looks like one big silhouette reflecting in the river. Accommodation includes budget guest houses going up to comfortable hotels; don’t expect anything luxurious here.
* Khajuraho: Drive a few hours to get to Khajuraho, a town known for its temples with erotic sculptures dating back to the 10th century A.D. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, you have a choice of budget to luxury hotels. Try to be there on the day of the Hindu festival Shivratri; it falls on a different date every year in February or March. The town wears a festive look, with live theatre and processions marking the wedding of God Shiva and Parvati.
* Panna National Park: Khajuraho and Panna are separated by only a few miles, so you could stay in one and explore both. Panna also offers the option of checking into some of the finest lodges in the world. The forest is not popular on the tourist circuit but it is a gem waiting to be explored. Don’t miss a row boat safari on the Ken river – you will spot a rich abundance of bird life in it.
* Bandhavgarh National Park: Welcome to tiger country. This is what you go to Bandhavgarh for – even though a diverse collection of flora and fauna await.
* Kanha National Park: While people go primarily for tigers in Kanha, it is also home to the endangered Swamp Deer or the Barasingha; the latter is an exquisite animal deserving to be captured extensively on your cameras. Do visit the villages of the Baiga and Gond tribes; you will be surprised at their brightly coloured homes and clean villages despite the poverty. Pay close attention to the jewelry worn by women. These tribes also claim to be original inhabitants on Earth; does this mean Adam and Eve were Baigas and Gonds?
* Pench National Park: Welcome to Mowgli’s world; The Jungle Book was set in Pench. If you are lucky, you will see all the animals in the book – except the Panther and the Elephant.
* Satpura National Park: If you love the wild, Satpura is where you want to be. It is one of the few parks where you can do five kinds of safaris: jeep, foot, boat, elephant and night. The last mentioned takes the form of a three day trek across the forest with mobile camps being set up every evening.
* Bhimbetka: The drive from Satpura to Bhopal takes you past the rock shelters of Bhimbetka. Feel the earliest traces of human life through rock art and paintings; these span the Mesolithic (c. 8000 – 2500 B.C.), Chalcolithic (c. 2500 – 500 B.C.) and the Historic (c. 500 B.C. onwards) periods.
* Bhojpur: Take a detour from Bhimbetka to Bhopal to admire the Shiva Temple at Bhojpur. Called Bhojeshwar Temple, it has been left incomplete for reasons unknown. It was built with stones measuring upto 35x5x5 feet and weighing about 70 tons; the Lingam, symbolic of the Hindu God Shiva, is one of the biggest you would see in any temple rising upto 22 feet in height.
* Bhopal: How many people will tell you that Bhopal is an extraordinary hub for travellers? It is a city of lakes, all clean and shining, and a hub for attractions located within a few miles. These include Bhimbetka, Bhojpur, Sanchi, Vidisha and Gyaraspur. Make a base here, and start exploring.
* Sanchi: A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sanchi boasts some of the finest built and preserved Buddhist stupas in India. Sanchi draws us all to itself not only for its architectural and design finesse, but the site itself is very serene and calming for the soul.
* Vidisha: Vidisha, earlier known as Besnagar, was a thriving trade centre; its rich merchants funded most of the structures in Sanchi and the surrounding areas. Its main attraction is the Vijaymandir (Bijamandal), an 11th century structure, may have been a Hindu temple earlier before being converted into a mosque in 1682. Drive a bit and you will see the Heliodorus’ Pillar – standing lonely all by itself except on certain festive days when a baba (holy man) uses the site for exorcism ceremonies. The pillar, dating back to 150 B.C. with a length of 20 feet and 7 inches (according to a descriptive board), is believed to have been built by a Greek named Heliodorus, who had adopted Hinduism himself. If you want some adventure, explore the Udaigiri Caves; a group of 20 caves – 18 Hindu and the others Jain – these were carved into the sandstone hillsides around the 4th-5th centuries A.D. The caves are an intricate work of art, with beautifully chiselled entrances, architraves and pillars. Some caves have richly carved doorways guarded by figures of dwarapalas and other mythical figures.
* Gyaraspur: Keep driving and you will reach Gyaraspur; the first sight to greet you is that of the intricately carved 9th century Maladevi temple perched on the edge of a hill. It is partly cut into the rock, and partly constructed. The 10th century Bajramath temple is another elaborate structure at the entrance of the town. Approach the local bus stand and you will find the remains of an eight-pillared 9th century structure called Athkhamba (Ath means eight, and Khamba means pillar), standing on a high plinth. The pillars are intricately carved – and you can also see couples in intimate positions sculpted into the top of the four central pillars. Close by is the Hindola Torana; one look at it and you cannot help but wonder at its magnificence during its days of glory. What remain are the ruins of a 10th century Vishnu temple with many exquisite pillars still standing.
ROAD TRIPPING: DISTANCE – TIME CHART
* Delhi – Gwalior: 316 kms (198 miles) / 4:30 hrs
* Gwalior – Orchha: 145 kms (91 miles) / 2:40 hrs
* Orchha – Khajuraho – Panna National Park: 177 kms (111 miles) / 3:15 hrs
* Panna National Park – Bandhavgarh National Park: 200 kms (125 miles) / 4:00 hrs
* Bandhavgarh National Park – Kanha National Park: 210 kms (131 miles) / 4:10 hrs
* Kanha National Park – Pench National Park: 180 kms (113 miles) / 3:05 hrs
* Pench National Park – Satpura National Park: 300 kms (188 miles) / 6:30 hrs
* Satpura National Park – Bhimbetka – Bhojpur – Bhopal: 170 kms (106 miles) / 3:40 hrs
* Bhopal – Sanchi – Vidisha – Gyaraspur – Bhopal: 115 kms (72 miles) / 3:10 hrs One Way
* Bhopal – Gwalior: 444 kms (278 miles) / 7:55 hrs
Note: The above do not account for additional time due to breaks, traffic etc.
MASTER ITINERARY: 17 DAYS IN MADHYA PRADESH
This itinerary will allow you to cover the entire journey with ample time at each location. Of course, you can always modify the same to suit you – or take out bits of these and make smaller itineraries for yourself.
* Day 1: Reach Orchha by lunch time. Explore the town during late afternoon and evening.
* Day 2: Explore Orchha early morning and leave for Khajuraho to reach by lunch time. Explore.
* Day 3: Explore Khajuraho till late morning, and then head to Panna. Plan an afternoon jungle safari or an evening boat ride on the Ken river.
* Day 4: Go for two more safaris in the forest. Or use one half of the day to visit the Ajaygarh fort nearby.
* Day 5: Leave for Bandhavgarh in the morning to reach by lunch. Safari in the afternoon.
* Day 6: Two more safaris in Bandhavgarh.
* Day 7: Morning safari in Bandhavgarh. Drive to Kanha in the afternoon. Or skip the morning safari, reach Kanha by lunch and go for a safari there.
* Day 8: Two safaris in Kanha in different zones. Or use one half of the day to visit tribal villages.
* Day 9: Morning safari in Kanha. Drive to Pench in the afternoon. Or skip the morning safari, reach Pench by lunch and go for a safari there.
* Day 10: Two safaris in Pench.
* Day 11: Leave for Satpura in the morning. If you leave early enough, you could be in time for a safari in the afternoon.
* Day 12: Safaris in Satpura. Choose between foot, jeep and boat safaris. You can never have enough of the park.
* Day 13: Suggest spend another day at Satpura for more safaris.
* Day 14: Drive from Satpura to Bhopal with stops at Bhimbetka and Bhojpur. Reach by evening.
* Days 15-16: Visit Sanchi, Vidisha, Gyaraspur and explore Bhopal and its beautiful lakes.
* Day 17: Drive from Bhopal to your home. If headed to Delhi, you may want to take a night halt in Gwalior.
TRAVEL TIPS TO MADHYA PRADESH
* Getting there: Being the central state of India, there is no dearth of transport options – air, buses, trains and taxis.
* Accommodation: All kinds of accommodation is available across the state. Some locations do not offer quality options though. Check out what’s on offer before you head out.
* Best time to go: Summers can be very hot – thus avoidable. Unless you are going to forest reserves where wildlife sightings can be at their best. Late October to February are what you should look at.
*Duration of Trip: No simple answer. You can be there from two days to a month, or longer, and still come back with a memorable experience. The complete Route K17 is optimally done in about three weeks.
* Things to do: Take your pick. History, tribal villages, wildlife, birding, landscapes, culture – it is all on offer.
* Road Tripping: The state is best explored by road. Pack a few munchies, water and beverages and be off.