Heart of India

Print edition : June 29, 2007

One of the 22 remaining temples in Khajuraho built 1,000 years ago by the Chandela kings.-PHOTO: A.M. FARUQUI

The State is a historian's delight and a tourist's paradise.

IT is not difficult to understand why Madhya Pradesh is known as "the heart of India". Apart from its geographical location in central India, the State bears the marks of virtually all phases of Indian history - it is dotted with innumerable exquisite Hindu and Jain temples, Buddhist stupas, and imperial Mughal and British forts and palaces. Its stunning mountains, meandering rivers, dense forests and grasslands are home to a wide variety of plants and wildlife - including tigers. The State is a veritable tourist paradise.

Those looking for religious inspiration find plenty to feed on in Madhya Pradesh. Without doubt the centrepiece of Madhya Pradesh is the complex of exquisite temples in Khajuraho, India's gift of love to the world. One thousand years ago, under the generous and artistic patronage of the Chandela Rajput kings of Central India, 85 temples, magnificent in form and richly carved, came up on one site, near the village of Khajuraho. In an inspired burst of creativity, the temples were completed in just 100 years, between A.D. 950 and A.D.1050. Of the original 85, only 22 survived the ravages of time. These remain as a collective paean to life, to joy and to creativity - the Chandelas believed that the gratification of earthly desires was a step closer to the attainment of the infinite.

But why did the Chandelas choose Khajuraho or Khajirvahila - garden of dates, as it was known then - as the site for their stupendous creations? Even in those days it was no more than a small village. It is possible, given the eclectic patronage of the Chandelas and the wide variety of beliefs represented in the temples, that they intended to create a seat of religion and learning at Khajuraho. Yet another theory is that the erotica of Khajuraho, and indeed of other temples, had a specific purpose. In the days when boys lived in hermitages, following the Hindu law of being "brahmacharis" until they attained manhood, the only way they could prepare themselves for the worldly role of the `householder' was through the study of these sculptures and the earthly passions they depicted. There is no doubt however that the temples represent the expression of a highly mature civilisation.

To the east, near the border with Chhattisgarh, is the town of Amarkantak. Here, at the meeting point of the Vindhya and the Satpura mountain ranges, is the source of Narmada, which flows west, and the Sone, which cascades east. Government brochures show sylvan surroundings: holy ponds, lofty hills, dense forests, breathtaking waterfalls. According to the Tourism Department, the pervading air of serenity makes Amarkantak a much sought-after destination.

Further north, on the border with Uttar Pradesh, is Chitrakoot, perched on `the hill of many wonders'. The spiritual history of the area can be traced to legends that it was in these deep forests that Rama and Sita spent 11 of their 14 years in exile; that the great sage Atri and Sati Anusuya meditated; and that the principal trinity of the Hindu pantheon, Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh, took their incarnations. Today Chitrakoot, which nestles peacefully in the northern spurs of the Vindhyas, is a place of tranquil forest glades, rivers and streams.

Maheshwar, in the west of the State, is said to have been built on the site of the ancient city of Mahishmati, the glorious capital of King Kartivarjun of southern Avanti. The temple town on the banks of the Narmada is mentioned in both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In the late 18th century, Maheshwar became the capital of the state of Indore under Holkar queen Rani Ahilyabai, who restored it to its former glory. Maheshwar's temples and mighty fort stand in quiet beauty, mirrored in the river below. Today, the town is also known for its distinctive handwoven sarees.

The sacred island of Omkareshwar, 77 kilometres south of Indore, is another popular place of Hindu pilgrimage. The devotees who gather here say that the island at the confluence of the rivers Narmada and Kaveri is shaped like the holiest of all Hindu symbols - `Om' (in Sanskrit). Be that as it may, official sources say that the Shri Omkar Mandhata temple houses one of only 12 Jyotirlingas in India. As in so many of Madhya Pradesh's sacred shrines, the natural surroundings are awe-inspiring.

Ujjain is another holy city to which Hindu pilgrims flock in great numbers. Modern Ujjain is situated on the banks of the river Shipra, regarded since time immemorial as sacred. This belief has its origins in the mythological tale of the churning of the ocean by gods and demons, with Vasuki, the serpent acting as the rope. The story tells how the ocean bed yielded 14 gems, then Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and finally the coveted vessel of nectar, which would make the drinker immortal. Amid the scramble between the gods and demons that ensued in the skies, a few drops fell from the cup. They are said to have landed in Hardwar, Nasik, Prayag, and Ujjayini - hence the sanctity of the waters of the Shipra.

Bhojpur, 28 km from Bhopal, founded by and named after the legendary Parmar King of Dhar, Raja Bhoj (1010-1053) is renowned for the ruins of its magnificent Shiva temple and Cyclopean dam. The temple, which is often referred to as the Somnath of the east, is known as the Bhojeshwar temple. The temple construction is incomplete and the earth ramp used to raise it to the dome-level still stands. Had it been completed, it would have had very few rivals. As it is, even with the ravages of time, the Tourism Department hails it as one of the best examples of early medieval Hindu temple architecture.

A TIGER IN the Kanha National Park, which has a reputation for being one of the finest and best-administered national parks in Asia.-PHOTO: KISHOR RITHE

The Buddhist complex at Sanchi houses some of the earliest religious structures in the country. Its stupas, monasteries, temples and pillars date from 3 B.C. to A.D.12. The most famous, Sanchi Stupa 1, was built by Mauryan emperor Ashoka, the then ruler of Ujjayini, whose wife Devi was the daughter of a merchant from adjacent Vidisha. Legend has it that their son Mahindra and daughter Sanghamitra were born in Ujjayini and sent to Sri Lanka, where they converted the king, the queen and their people to Buddhism. A Chunar sandstone pillar fragment, shining with the proverbial Mauryan polish, lies near Stupa 1 and carries Ashoka's famous warning against schism in the Buddhist community. The four gateways of the stupa, which were built in 1 B.C., are carved with stories of Buddha's past and present. Official sources say they remain among the finest specimens of early classical art in the subcontinent.

For nature lovers too the State is a delight. The Bandhavgarh National Park is compact but full of wildlife; the density of the tiger population in Bandhavgarh is said to be the highest in India. It was also once home to the White Tigers of Rewa, which unfortunately, were hunted out of existence. The last recorded wild white tiger was captured as a cub by Maharajah Martand Singh in 1951 and housed at his palace. The tiger where he earned the name Mohan, or enchanter. Thanks to the science of taxidermy, Mohan is on display today for visitors to the palace. The national park is spread over 448 square kilometres and supports deer, leopard, sambar, wild boar and over 200 species of birds. The Bandhavgarh fort dominates the park's skyline. Also worth visiting are the numerous caves whose interiors reveal prehistoric inscriptions and drawings.

The Kanha National Park has a reputation for being one of the finest and best-administered national parks in Asia. A haven for its animal and avian population, it was created in 1955 through a law and the management has worked hard to protect the wildlife that roam the 940 square kilometre area. Its sal and bamboo forests, rolling grasslands and meandering streams form the core of the tiger reserve, which was created in 1974 under Project Tiger. The park is the only habitat of the rare hard-ground barasingha (Cervus duvauceli branderi), or swamp deer.

The Panna National Park is a mere half an hour drive from the temples of Khajuraho. Tiger sightings are not guaranteed but cheetal, sambar, nilgai, chinkara, chowsingha, langoor, wild boar and jackal, are frequently seen. During the monsoon the park turns lush green and is replete with cascading waterfalls. Among the most popular of these is the Pandav fall on the Ken river. Relics of the Gondwana period (rule of the tribal people of Central India) are scattered all over the reserve.

THE GREAT STUPA in Sanchi. The complex houses some of the earliest religious structures in the country, which date from 3 B.C. to A.D.12.-PHOTO: ANJANA CHANDRAMOULY

And, of course, one cannot forget the Pench National Park, the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling's most famous work, The Jungle Book. Perhaps surprisingly for those who are familiar with the book, the park boasts the highest density of herbivores in India.

Bhedaghat, a comparatively little known destination, is breathtakingly beautiful. Two enormous marble rocks soar to a height of a hundred feet on either side of the Narmada river. The marble white pinnacles are laced with black and green volcanic rock and cast dappled shadows on the clear waters of the river. At night the moonlight has a magical effect. A little distance away the river becomes turbulent and plunges away in the mighty waterfall, Dhuandhar.

The rock shelters of Bhimbetka lie in the foothills of the Vindhya mountains amid a rocky terrain of dense forest and craggy cliffs, 46 km south of Bhopal. Over 500 of them are painted with scenes from the life of the neolithic cave-dwellers who once inhabited the area. They are an invaluable chronicle in the history of man and the area has recently been designated a United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) world heritage site. According to the UNESCO website, elements of the hunter-gatherer economy depicted on the rocks can be found in the Adivasi tribes of the surrounding area.

Pachmarhi, a hill station 295 km from Bhimbetka, is also an archaeological treasure trove. The cave shelters in the surrounding Mahadeo Hills also have rock paintings, most of which have been placed in the period A.D.500-800. According to the Tourism Department, the earliest paintings are 10,000 years old. The hill station is cool, peaceful and has some good trekking paths.

Indore lies to the extreme west of Madhya Pradesh on the banks of the rivers Saraswati and Khan, about 186 km from Bhopal. The city derives its name from the 18th century Indreshwar temple. The history of Indore is inseparable from the history of the Holkars. The founder of the House of Holkar was Malhar Rao Holkar, born in 1693. He was rewarded the territory of Indore by the Peshwa for his skill on the battlefield. Malhar Rao was succeeded by his grandson. On the death of his grandson, who did not have an heir, his mother, Maharani Devi Ahilyabai, ascended the throne. Planned by the Queen herself, the city is dotted with beautiful monuments and a veritable homage to the Holkar dynasty.

Not far from Indore, perched along the Vindhya ranges at an altitude of 2,000 feet, is Mandu, the fortified capital of the Parmar rulers of Malwa. Towards the end of the 13th century, it fell under the rule of the sultans of Malwa, the first of whom named it Shadiabad - `city of joy'; according to local government sources, the pervading spirit of Mandu was gaiety. Its rulers built exquisite palaces such as the Jahaz and Hindola Mahals, ornamental canals, baths and pavilions. Each of Mandu's structures is an architectural gem; some are outstanding. The sheer size of the Jami Masjid deserves mention. Hoshang Shah's tomb provided inspiration to the master builders of the Taj Mahal centuries later.

In the north of the State is the temple city of Orchha - a medieval stone city upon which the hand of time has rested lightly. Orchha was founded in the 16th century by the Bundela Rajput chieftain, Rudra Pratap, who chose this stretch of land along the Betwa river for his capital. Of the succeeding rulers, the most notable was Raja Bir Singh Ju Deo, who built the exquisite Jehangir Mahal, a tiered palace crowned by graceful chhatris. From here the view of soaring temple spires and cenotaphs is spectacular. In the Laxminarayan Temple and Raj Mahal, vibrant murals of the Bundela school of painting encompass a variety of religious and secular themes and bring the walls and ceilings to life.

GWALIOR FORT, WHICH passed through several hands, Tomar, Mughal, British and more, but ended up in the hands of the Scindias.-PHOTO: THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Further north is another city steeped in history. A multitude of reigning dynasties of the great Rajput clans of the Pratiharas, Kacchwahas and Tomars left indelible imprints of their rule in this city of palaces, temples and monuments. Its fort, over which battles raged, can be seen from afar. The royal seat of Gwalior passed through several hands, Tomar, Mughal, British and more, but finally ended up in the hands of the Scindias until Independence. Their descendants live in Gwalior today. Gwalior's rich cultural tradition has been woven into the fabric of the vibrant and bustling city. But the past of the princes can be found in the city's great palaces and museums.

Shivpuri, 94 km west of Jhansi, was the summer capital of the Scindia rulers of Gwalior. Earlier, its dense forests were the hunting grounds of the Mughal emperors - the Emperor Akbar is said to have captured great herds of elephants. Tigers also roamed the wooded hills, but many of them fell victim to the royal hunt. Today Shivpuri is a sanctuary for rare animals and birds.

In order to tap the tourist potential of so much history and such a rich variety of natural endowments the Madhya Pradesh government is taking a number of steps to improve the State's infrastructure, in particular air, road and rail links. Bhopal and Indore airports will soon be upgraded to international status. Khajuraho, which already has a domestic airport, will be linked with the rail network by the end of the year.

The government is encouraging private hotels and taking steps to upgrade the 45 hotels and seven restaurants it runs under the Madhya Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation. The organisation's head office and the converted train bogie restaurant-cum-bar Shan-e-Bhopal have recently been certified as ISO 9001-2000.

According to the Managing Director of Madhya Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation, Ashwani Lohani, the initiatives of the past 2-3 years have started showing results - the State received one crore tourists in 2006-07, at least 10 lakh more than the usual.