Incredible legacy

Print edition : October 23, 2009

Rafting on the Betwa river in Orchha, Madhya Pradesh.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

SOMETHING about Madhya Pradesh beckons visitors, not just as tourists but as lovers who traverse the enticing contours of its lands and then part with a heavy heart, only to return again, to resume and honour their intimate relationship with it. Bhopal, the State capital, is famous for inducing visitors into making the city their home.

From the inspiring love legends of Mandu to the formidable regality of Gwalior, from the civilisational testimonies of Bhimbetka to the architectural eroticism of Khajuraho, from the spiritual mysticism of Omkareshwar and Chitrakoot to the unblemished biodiversity of the national parks at Kanha and Bandhavgarh, Madhya Pradesh is a microcosm of Incredible India.

Patalkot, the deep valley housing tribal people, is Indias own Grand Canyon, only greener. In Gondwana, home to the Gond tribe, Madhya Pradesh accommodates within its vast expanse perhaps the oldest part of the subcontinent.

Madhya Pradesh boasts a rich cultural heritage, biological diversity and architectural splendour. However, its potential as a premier tourist destination had not been tapped until recently. The turnaround happened as a result of the focussed, growth-oriented strategy of the Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Development Corporation Ltd (MPSTDC) headed by Ashwani Lohani. When he took over as Managing Director in June 2006, the MPSTDC was on the verge of being dissolved. Since then it has bounced back as the heart of Incredible India.

The State government has left no stone unturned to boost tourism. tourism policy, announced in 1995 with the aim of speeding up development of the sector, envisages creation of an environment conducive to attracting private investment while prescribing a meaningful role for the government.

The Bandhavgarh National Park has the highest density of tiger population in India.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

By initiating several measures such as strengthening infrastructure, augmenting luxurious and budget accommodation, providing better recreational facilities, augmenting transport facilities, aggressively marketing tourist destinations to ensure optimal use of infrastructure, evolving new policies to boost foreign exchange earnings and promoting the arts and crafts, the government is now more serious than ever about making tourism its thrust area for generating profits and putting the State on the itinerary of the Indian as well as the global tourist.

The government also provides special incentives to those investing in tourism establishments by making available suitable land and exempting them from luxury tax, sales tax and entertainment tax for a period of 10 years from the date of commencement of commercial operations.

For the convenience of tourists, especially those on a tight schedule, the major attractions of the State have been categorised under various heads. So Gwalior, Orchha, Khajuraho, Sanchi and Mandu have been showcased under the head of cultural tourism, with facilities such as heritage hotels, museums and craft villages.

Similarly, wildlife and adventure tourism includes national parks (Pachmarhi, Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Panna, Satpura and Pench), Tigra Lake (Gwalior), Upper Lake (Bhopal) and Gandhi Sagar (Mandsaur). Log huts, camping grounds, trekking, water sports, aero-sports, angling, cruises and caravans along with exciting tent accommodation for that out there feel have turned these destinations into a tourists paradise.

Places such as Pachmarhi, Khajuraho, Bhopal, Gwalior, Indore, Mainpat, Tamia and Jabalpur have convention centres, exhibition grounds, shopping facilities, evening entertainment, golf courses, country clubs and weekend getaways, making them sought-after leisure destinations that are also good for business meets.

The Rock paintings at Bhimbetka date back to Palaeolithic times.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Those with a religious bent can visit Ujjain, Maheshwar, Omkareshwar, Chitrakoot, Amarkantak, Rajim, Sanchi, Bhopal and Orchha, all of which fall under the head pilgrim tourism. Budget accommodation, cafeterias and the ever-essential day shelters are available at these places.

The MPSTDC runs six three-star hotels and three heritage resorts. Six of its other establishments are ISO certified. It is in the process of opening new establishments and setting up other tourism-related infrastructure.

The State is also known for its enchanting festivals, which are marked by traditional gaiety and enthusiasm, including the traditional dance festival of Khajuraho, the Tansen music festival of Gwalior, the Ustad Allauddin Khan music festival of Maihar and the literary Kalidas samaroh in Ujjain.

Madhya Pradesh is also known for its rich ethnic legacy as reflected in its tribal festivals. The tribal festivals in Jhabua, such as the Bhagoriya, are marked by carefree revelry, drinking bouts and exotic entertainment such as cock-fighting and dancing.

The Bega tribal people perform their traditional dance in Bhopal.-A.M. FARUQUI

The discerning visitor gets an opportunity to appreciate, among other things, the genuine and strong tradition of democracy in tribal society, the harmonious living with nature and the amicable sharing of community resources.

The lingering legacy of tribal cultures can also be felt through the States handicrafts, which remind one of the resilience of tradition, struggling against modernity yet existing along with it. They exhibit hereditary skills in the colourful craftsmanship of a deftly woven silk or cotton-blended sari, block-printed fabrics, stuffed leather toys or floor coverings.

The tribal art of Madhya Pradesh is exhaustive to say the least and includes folk paintings; bamboo, cane, terracotta, papier mache and jute artwork; stonecraft; ironcraft; metalcraft; gold thread embroidery work; dolls and ornaments.

The State tourist map now includes rural and ecotourism. At heritage village Amla near Ujjain, one can experience the joy and tranquillity of a sleepy Indian village. Tourists can plan a day trip to the village or spend a week there, experiencing the delightfully uneven contours of village life, its culture, rituals, handicrafts, agriculture, performing arts, the village palace, temples and, above all, get a feeling of association with the roots of real India.

Pranpur, renowned for the gossamer-thin Chanderi sari, which has been woven here for centuries, is a craft-lovers delight. The weaver community forms the greater part of the village population. Chanderi is known for its traditional motifs and fragile pastel colours. Apart from weaving, traditional crafts such as bamboo weaving, stone cutting and pottery are also practised here. The village is situated 110 kilometres from Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh.

Bhopal and Jabalpur have emerged as premier ecotourism destinations. Barussot, situated within the Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary near Bhopal, is one of the better known ecotourism sites in Madhya Pradesh. Staying at the forest rest house, one can savour archaeological sites amidst nature and wildlife. The sanctuary is parallel to the northern side of the Narmada river, while towards the west of the sanctuary flows the Kolar river.

Similarly, Dumna and Madan Mahal in Jabalpur offer trekking, camping, biodiversity and wildlife trails and adventure sports.

The Bheraghat herbal park, a part of the Jabalpur ecotourism circuit, is a herbal ecotourism site that offers herbal therapy and herbal knowledge trips. It is also known for the pristine glory of white marble rocks, rising 30 feet (9 metres) on either side of the Narmada.

A classical dancer performing in Khajuraho at the festival of dances.-PTI

Apart from the forts of Gwalior and Orchha, the State is home to as many as 40 garh is, or fortresses, primarily in Mandsaur, Neemuch, Panna, Vidisha and Satna. The fort city of Mandu, situated at a height of 2,000 ft (600 m) on the Vindhyas, was originally the capital of the Parmar rulers of Malwa. Later, the sultans of Malwa named it Shadiabad, or city of joy, a sobriquet that best describes this beautiful city.

And indeed, Mandu is a living urban celebration of life and joy, basking in the romantic nostalgia of the poet-prince Baaz Bahadur and his muse, Rani Roopmati. The wandering balladeers of Malwa still sing of the romance of these royal lovers, even as Roopmatis pavilion, etched high up on a hillock, gazes down at Baaz Bahadurs palace, an ode to the romance expressed through the magnificence of Afghan architecture.

Be it the Jahaz Mahal, the elegant ship palace, or the Hindola Mahal, the swinging palace, the palaces of Mandu offer an enticing blend of innovation and romance carved exquisitely in stone.

The tomb of Hoshang Shah, which to an extent inspired the architecture of the Taj Mahal after Shah Jahan sent four of his best architects to study it, is another marvel of Afghan architecture. The Jami Masjid, inspired by the great mosque of Damascus, is a study in grandeur, with its high plinth and huge domed porch projecting at the centre.

The palace of gold coins, Ashrafi Mahal, faces the Jami Masjid and was actually conceived as a centre of academics for young boys. It was built by Hoshang Shahs successor Mahmud Shah Khilji.

The lone surviving storey of its original seven-storeyed tower is a testament to Khiljis victory over Rana Kumbha of Mewar.

The fort city of Mandu, at a height of 600 metres, has palaces that are exquisite representations of romance in stone.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Madhya Pradesh can well be called the rock shelter capital of India. One can find rock shelters and paintings almost everywhere in the State, most notable of which are the Bhimbetka rock shelters and cave paintings near Bhopal.

The prehistoric caves of Bhimbetka have fascinating rock paintings that date back to Palaeolithic times and are said to be at least as old as the specimens at Pyrenees. One of the earliest human dwellings, these caves reveal a cultural sequence right from the late Stone Age to the early historical period. Painted rock shelters can also be found at Pachmarhi. The Manna Deo rock paintings depict the lives of Stone Age women and men who camped there thousands of years ago.

Pachmarhi also establishes its uniqueness with Dhoopgarh, which means sunshine fort. At 1,350 m above mean sea level, Dhoopgarh is Pachmarhis highest point. As the golden carpet of evening unfolds, ushering the hilly town into the alleys of night, one witnesses the pre-dusk spectacle of the sun going down over the horizon, in the vast amphitheatre of hills. The State is home to several architectural wonders that reflect its intimate dialogue with religion and spirituality. The magnificent mosques of Bhopal, the grand temples of Chitrakoot, Omkareshwar and Bhojpur, the exquisite churches of Pachmarhi and the celebrated ethereal Buddhist stupas at Sanchi, all bear testimony to the fact that religion has found elaborate articulation in architecture. The stupas bear testimony to the States rich religious heritage. Remnants of an ancient reformist movement lie glowing in the aura of Buddhist spirituality and art, nestled in the arresting serenity of Sanchi.

The most famous of these, the Stupa 1, was originally built by the Mauryan emperor Asoka when he was the governor of Ujjain. Asokas famous edict warning against schism in Buddhism is engraved on the fragment of a Chunar sandstone pillar. The four gateways at Sanchi depict various chronological milestones from the history of Buddhist mysticism. The discerning tourist can savour all this while staying at the tourism departments hotel, Gateway Retreat.

The modernist architecture of the churches nestled amidst the hills of Pachmarhi redefine the beauty of Christian architecture. The beautiful stained glass paintings in these churches depict a seamless merging of art and religion that is difficult to savour simultaneously in any other part of India. These, along with the cantonment towns cemeteries, reflect an overbearing colonial nostalgia.

Bhopal has some of the finest Islamic architecture in the world. A shining example of this is the Taj-ul-Masajid, which means The Crown of Mosques.

Similarly, the grandeur of the Hindu temples of Chitrakoot, nestled amidst the northern spurs of the Vindhyas and on the sacred island of Omkareshwar, shaped like the mystical Hindu symbol aum, are a testament to the spiritual history of Hinduism. The Shri Omkar Mandhata, which houses one of the 12 Jyotirlingas in the country, has intricate carvings in soft stone, lending its pliable surface an unmatched detail.

The spiritual legacy of Chitrakoot comprises myth, romance, adventure and religion. It is in the dense forests of Chitrakoot that Rama and Sita are supposed to have spent 11 of their 14 years of exile.

The State is a haven for nature lovers and has the highest number of tiger reserves in the country, earning itself the sobriquet tiger State. Bandhavgarh National Park has the highest density of tiger population in India. Spread over 448 square km, it is home to a wide spectrum of wildlife, including deer, leopard, sambar, wild boar and over 200 species of birds. The haunting Bandhavgarh Fort and prehistoric caves overlook the park.

With a dense forest expanse, stretching over 940 sq km and dotted with sal and bamboo trees, rolling grasslands and meandering streams, Kanha National Park offers nature at its best to those tired of urban chaos. Created in 1974 under Project Tiger, it is the only home of the rare hard-hoofed barasingha, or swamp deer.

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