Western Madhya Pradesh
Western Madhya Pradesh includes the holy cities of Ujjain, one of the sites of the Kumbh Mela, and Maheshwar as well as the holy island of Omkareshwar on the sacred Narmada River. It is also home to Mandu which offers one of India's finest examples of Afghan architecture.
The erotic carvings that swathe Khajuraho’s three groups of Unesco World Heritage Site–listed temples are among the finest temple art in the world. The Western Group of temples, in particular, contains some stunning sculptures. Many travellers complain about the tiring persistence of touts here, and the village is fully on the tour bus map.
Famous for its medieval hilltop fort, and described by Mughal emperor Babur as ‘the pearl amongst fortresses in India’, Gwalior makes an interesting stop en route to some of the better-known destinations in this part of India. The city also houses the elaborate Jai Vilas Palace, the historic seat of the Scindias, one of the country’s most revered families.
Rising from the plains, 46km northeast of Bhopal, is a rounded hill topped with some of India’s oldest Buddhist structures. In 262 BC, repentant of the horrors he had inflicted on Kalinga, in present-day Odisha, the Mauryan emperor Ashoka embraced Buddhism. As a penance he built the Great Stupa at Sanchi, near the birthplace of his wife.
Perched on top of a pleasantly green, thinly forested 20-sq-km plateau, picturesque Mandu is home to some of India’s finest examples of Afghan architecture as well as impressive baobab trees, originally from Africa. The area is littered with Unesco World Heritage Site–declared palaces, tombs, monuments and mosques.
The Holkar dynasty left behind some fine buildings here, and you’ll find some cool cafes thanks to the city’s ever-burgeoning coffee culture, but Indore – Madhya Pradesh’s business powerhouse – is primarily used by tourists as the gateway to Omkareshwar, Maheshwar or Mandu. That said, it’s a fine spot to reload.
First impressions don’t always impress. And that’s the case with Ujjain. The area around the train and bus stations is chaotic and nothing special, but wander down towards the river ghats, via Ujjain’s maze of alleyways, and you’ll discover an older, more spiritual side to this city that has been attracting traders and pilgrims for hundreds of years.
Chhattisgarh is remote, its public transport system is poor and its tourist infrastructure outside the main cities is almost nonexistent, but for the intrepid traveller, time spent here may well prove to be the highlight of your trip to this part of India. The country’s most densely forested state is blessed with natural beauty – waterfalls and unspoilt nature reserves abound.
This Om-shaped island attracts pilgrims in large numbers and has become a popular chill-out destination for a certain kind of spiritual traveller. The controversial dam has changed the look of Omkareshwar considerably, but the island has retained its spiritual vibe and remains a pleasant and authentic – if overly commercialised – pilgrimage point.
The capital of the Bastar region is an ideal base for exploring tribal Chhattisgarh. The town itself hosts a haat (market) every Sunday where you’ll see Adivasis (tribal people) buying, selling and bartering alongside town traders, but it’s in the surrounding villages where Adivasi life can be fully appreciated.