Complete destination

Print edition : October 24, 2008

In Bhopal, an artificial lake, which provides water to the residents of the city.-PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The Madhya Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation has put the State in a prominent spot on Indias tourism map.

INCREDIBLE India. That is how the country as a tourist destination is being presented to the world. And few other States justify this description better than Madhya Pradesh. The State, literally in the heart of India, is so diverse in its natural and wildlife resources and places of historical and religious significance.

But surprisingly, the State did not figure in the itinerary of the average tourist until four to five years ago. The agency responsible for projecting the tourism potential of the State, the Madhya Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation (MPTDC), was gasping for breath. It was running into huge losses and was barely able to keep itself afloat.

The turnover of the MPTDC in 2003-04 was a measly Rs.12.5 crore (commercial operations) and the same year, the company incurred a loss of over Rs.50 lakh. However, beginning 2004-05, a number of initiatives were started and one of them was to rejuvenate the MPTDC and overhaul the tourism sector. Realising the huge potential of the State in the tourism sector, the State government decided to market its tourist attractions aggressively. What followed was a slew of measures such as doing away with wasteful expenditure, focussing on growth in revenue and aggressive marketing. The results were visible from 2004-05 itself, when the MPTDC registered a profit of Rs.2.5 crore. This may have been a modest sum, but it signalled the onset of the States journey to establish itself as a major centre of tourism. The MPTDC became a dynamic organisation. Its turnover in 2007-08 climbed to over Rs.42 crore and the corporation earned a profit of Rs.6 crore. In 2008-09, it is expected to go up to Rs.60 crore.

There was an increase in tourist arrivals at an annual average of 40 per cent. According to some calculations, more than 1.41 crore tourists visited the State last year. Madhya Pradesh received four National Tourism Awards from the Government of India last year, establishing the fact that the governments efforts to promote tourism have borne fruit. The awards were given in four categories the best performing tourism State, the most innovative tourism product, the most tourist-friendly monument and the most tourist-friendly national park.

What brought about this turnaround? Ashwani Lohani, the Managing Director of the MPTDC, describes it as the result of a focussed, growth-oriented strategy.

He says: From the very beginning, we realised we had no option but to turn the corporation around and to achieve that objective we fixed a target of 30-40 per cent growth in revenue irrespective of expenditure in the initial three years. My belief was that growth in revenue would kick-start the turnaround process and then expenditure could be tackled.

We took some bold decisions, adopted an aggressive marketing strategy and came up with some innovative ideas like converting an abandoned rail coach in March 2007 into a professionally run luxury restaurant called Shaane Bhopal, which is a roaring success now. The restaurant bagged the award for the most innovative tourism product in 2007. All this was backed with massive promotional campaigns. We first decided [on] the direction we had to take and ran the corporation on commercial lines.

In the pursuit of his goals, Lohani had the staff by his side. We took the staff into confidence, looked after them well and made them realise the benefits of a clean, efficient and professional work culture, he says. The results are there for everyone to see.

The corporation 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 as well. It is also in the forefront of establishing other tourism-related infrastructure to make Madhya Pradesh the most-preferred tourist destination.

Those looking for a spiritual journey in Madhya Pradesh can start from Amarkantak. Situated at an altitude of 1,065 metres, where the Vindhya and the Satpura mountain ranges meet in sylvan surroundings, Amarkantak, the source of the rivers Narmada and Sone, is a pilgrim centre for Hindus.

Another equally famous destination is Chitrakoot, which the poet Tulsidas made famous through his Ramcharitmanas. Chitrakoot, the hill of many wonders, is nestled in the northern spur of the Vindhyas. It is a place of tranquil forest glades and quiet rivers.

The barasingha, in the Kanha National Park, an irresistible attraction for wildlife enthusiasts.-

Its spiritual legacy goes back to ages: it was in these deep forests that Rama and Sita, the protagonists of the epic Ramayana, are supposed to have spent 11 of their 14 years of exile; it was here that the sage Atri and Anasuya meditated; and it was here that the trinity of the Hindu pantheon Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara took their incarnations.

Then comes Maheshwar, which was a glorious city at the dawn of Indian civilisation when it was known as Mahishmati, the capital of the king Kartivarjun. This temple town, on the banks of the Narmada, finds mention in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. It was revived to its position of importance by the Holkar queen Rani Ahilyabai of Indore. Maheshwar has several temples and forts standing in quiet beauty, mirrored in the river below. Today, Maheshwar is also known for its hand-woven Maheshwari saris.

Omkareshwar, the sacred island shaped like the holiest of all Hindu symbols, Om, is another pilgrimage spot where devotees gather in vast numbers. The devout kneel before the jyotirlinga at the temple of Shri Omkar Mandhata, located at the confluence of the Narmada and the Kaveri. And here, as in many of Madhya Pradeshs sacred shrines, the works of nature complement those of humankind to provide a setting that is awe-inspiring in its magnificence.

Sanchi, a sacred pilgrimage site for Buddhists, is known for its stupas, monasteries, temples and pillars dating from the 3rd century B.C. to the 12th century A.D. The most famous of these monuments, Sanchi Stupa 1, was originally built by the Mauryan emperor Asoka, when he was the governor of Ujjain.

A Chunar sandstone pillar fragment shining with the proverbial Mauryan polish lies near Stupa 1 and carries Asokas famous edict warning against schism in the Buddhist community. The four gateways of the stupa, built in the 1st century B.C., have stories of the Buddha carved on them and are the finest specimens of early classical art. Ujjain is another holy city for Hindus. Modern Ujjain is on the banks of the sacred river Shipra.

The MPTDC CONVERTED an abandoned broad gauge rail coach into a luxury restaurant called Shaane Bhopal. It bagged the Government of Indias award for the most innovative tourism product.-

Bhojpur, another holy destination, is famous for its magnificent Bhojeshwar temple. Founded by the Parmar king of Dhar, Raja Bhoj (1010-1053), and named after him, it is 28 km from Bhopal and is renowned for the remains of a magnificent Siva temple and a cyclopean dam. The Bhojeshwar temple has earned the nomenclature Somnath of the East. The temple was never completed. Even with the ravages of time, it remains one of the best examples of temple architecture of the 11th-13th centuries.

Madhya Pradesh, with its rich wildlife, is a nature lovers delight. Bandhavgarh in Rewa district is a small national park yet full of game. The density of the tiger population at Bandhavgarh is the highest in India. Rewa is considered the land of white tigers. The last known and most famous white tiger was captured by Maharajah Martand Singh in 1951. This white tiger, Mohan, is now stuffed and on display at the maharajas palace. Stretching over 448 sq km, Bandhavgarh is rich in other forms of wildlife such as deer, leopard, sambar and wild boar. It is equally rich in bird life and is home to over 200 species. Dominating the park is the Bandhavgarh fort and numerous prehistoric caves with inscriptions and drawings.

Kanha is another favourite haunt of wildlife enthusiasts. Its sal and bamboo forests, rolling grasslands and meandering streams stretch over 940 sq km in dramatic splendour, forming the core of the Kanha Tiger Reserve, created in 1974 under Project Tiger. The park is the only habitat of the rare hard-hoofed barasingha (Cervus duvaceli branderi), or swamp deer. The Kanha National Park came into being through a special statute in 1955.

A series of stringent conservation programmes for the protection of the parks flora and fauna have given Kanha its reputation for being one of the finest and best-administered national parks in Asia.

The Panna National Park, another destination for nature lovers, is just 25 km from Khajuraho. Tiger sightings are reported here regularly. Cheetal, sambar, nilgai, chinkara, chowsingha, langur, wild boar and jackal are also frequently sighted here. Gorges and falls along the course of the Ken river in the reserve make it more mesmerising. During the monsoon months, the park is a lush green haven with cascading waterfalls.

IN SANCHI, KNOWN for its stupas, monasteries, temples and pillars that date from the 3rd century B.C. to the 12th century A.D, a fine specimen of early classical art.-

Bheraghat, though a comparatively lesser-known destination, is an ode to Mother Nature. In glittering splendour, the marble rocks at Bheraghat rise a 100 feet (30.48 m) on either side of the Narmada river.

The State is steeped in history. The Bhimbetka caves, surrounded by the northern fringe of the Vindhya ranges, lie 46 km south of Bhopal. In this terrain of dense forests and craggy cliffs, over 600 rock shelters belonging to the Neolithic period were discovered recently. Here, in panoramic detail, paintings in over 500 caves depict the life of prehistoric cave-dwellers, making the Bhimbetka group an archaeological treasure.

Although the splendour of its past dominates Gwalior city, this ancient capital of the Gwalior state has made a successful transition into a modern Indian city. A multitude of reigning dynasties of the Rajput clans the Pratiharas, the Kacchwahas and the Tomars have left indelible marks on this city of palaces, temples and monuments.

Indore, another historic city, planned and built by Rani Ahilyabai, lies in the western fringes of the State, on the banks of the rivers Saraswati and Khan. The rivers meet at the centre of the city. The bustling and vibrant city, 186 km from Bhopal, derives its name from the 18th century Indreshwar temple.

Mandu is another city with a rich history. Perched at an altitude of 2,000 feet (609.6 m) on the Vindhyas, it was originally the fort capital of the Parmar rulers of Malwa. Towards the end of the 13th century, Mandu came under the sway of the Sultans of Malwa, the first of whom named it Shadiabad city of joy.

And the pervading spirit of Mandu was indeed gaiety. Its rulers built exquisite palaces such as the Jahaz and Hindola mahals, ornamental canals, baths and pavilions. Every monument of Mandu is an architectural gem. Some of them, like the massive Jami Masjid and Hoshang Shahs tomb which provided the inspiration centuries later to the builders of Taj Mahal, are outstanding.

The temple city of Orchha is yet another legacy from the past. Orchhas grandeur has been captured in stone. In this medieval city, the hand of time rests lightly and the palaces and temples built by the Bundela rulers in the 16th and 17th centuries retain much of their pristine perfection.

Pachmarhi is Madhya Pradeshs verdant jewel, a place where nature has found exquisite expression in myriad enchanting ways. Green shades embrace the mountains and everywhere the gentle murmur of flowing water is heard. Pachmarhi is also an archaeological treasure house.

THE MANY PALACES, temples and monuments in Gwalior are a legacy of the dynasties that ruled the region.-

In the cave shelters in the Mahadeo hills is an astonishing wealth of rock paintings. Most of these belong to A.D. 500-A.D. 800, but the earliest paintings are said to be 10,000 years old.

Shivpuri is another city steeped in royal legacy. It was the summer capital of the Scindia rulers of Gwalior. Its dense forests were the hunting grounds of the Mughal emperors. Emperor Akbar is said to have captured vast herds of elephants here.

Any discussion on Madhya Pradesh cannot be complete without a mention of the exquisite temples of Khajuraho: Indias gift of love to mankind, the ultimate in erotica. In Indias architecture, the Khajuraho complex remains unique. A thousand years ago, under the artistic patronage of the Chandela Rajput kings of central India, 85 temples, magnificent in form and rich in carvings, came up on one site, near the village of Khajuraho.

The short span of 100 years, from A.D. 950-A.D. 1050, saw the completion of all the temples, in an inspired burst of creativity. Of the original 85, only 22 have survived the ravages of time. These remain a collective paean to life, to joy and to creativity.

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