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Sanchi Stupa
Dusty, Arid and Wonderful
... a journey into Madhya Pradesh

Kuntal Malia

Ever tried telling a seasoned traveller you are heading off to Madhya Pradesh for a holiday?

Chances are your statement will have eyebrows hitting the ceiling -- perceived wisdom among the travel junkies is that MP is a bit like that place the late Dorothy Parker once cuttingly dismissed in these words: "When you get there, you find there is no there, there!"

But to anyone who has actually been there and seen what Madhya Pradesh has to offer, these comments occasion wonder. You get to thinking, are people like, big time blind to the possibilities, the amazing variety the state has if you only care to look?

One thing that needs mentioning upfront is that if you are into five-star tourism, you might as well bypass Madhya Pradesh as hundreds do every year. The state is not known for its variety of luxury hotels. However, the MP tourism department offers a very decent setup, and for those on a real shoestring, there are dharamshalas all over the place.

Bhopal, the capital city, is a bit like any other metro -- crowds, traffic jams, pollution, the works. Situated over the remnants of a 11th century city named Bhojapal, modern-day Bhopal -- famous as the locals say for its "garda, zarda, namarda and purdah" -- does offer some interesting sites: The impressive Taj-ul-Masajid, nicknamed the Mother of Mosques for its size; its pale rose minarets dwarf all else nearby. And there's the red sandstone Jama Masjid situated in the most intriguing quarter of the city, the Chowk. And the Moti Masjid -- a poor cousin of Delhi's Jama Masjid -- but nevertheless worth a dekho for its gold minarets. However, Bhopal is not really for the hard core tourist -- the real wonders of MP lie elsewhere.

First up, a trip to Sanchi, 46 km from Bhopal, is essential. The famed Sanchi Stupa, one of the oldest religious structures in the world, erected by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka is the obvious attraction. The surrounding complex of awesomely sculpted toranas, temples, monasteries and intricately carved pillars transport you back in time, hundreds of years, to a more relaxed, peaceful world of monks and Buddhist chants and the ambience of a kingdom at peace, with itself and the rest of the world. The unique-looking stupa, perched on a bluff, commands a spectacular view of the serene green plains far below. If you are lucky a train may toot past, miles below, bringing one back to the present with a bit of a jerk.

Pachmarhi, a hill station nestling in the Satpura ranges lies 165 km away from Bhopal. This is for lovers of tranquility, of the ethereal beauty of nature at its unspoilt best -- a world of murmuring rivulets and sal forests, valleys, mysterious ravines and mazes of gorges sculpted by time out of red sandstone. And if you are really lucky, the local wildlife decides to let you catch a glimpse or three. And if you like your relaxation mixed in with some more regulation sight-seeing, then the caves in the Mahedeo Hills are for you -- rock paintings, some of them over 10,000 years old, being the prime attraction.

The perfect way to end your day at Panchmari is watching the sunset over Dhup Ghadh -- aaah, bliss. What I liked best about the place is that once you are there, getting from point A to point B involves walking -- and the walks take you through the beating, living heart of nature.

ManduFrom there, an ideal move is towards Mandu -- the place that celebrates the love of the poet-prince Baz Bahadur for his consort. Strange and mysterious, Mandu with its crumbling, mossy architecture and ghostly monuments is a forgotten kingdom out of one of Grimm's romantic tales. The wonderfully located Roopmati pavilion alone is enough to leave you with the thought that our ancestors, unlike us, knew what romance was all about. The pavilion was built by this dreamer king, for a beautiful Hindu singer named Roopmati. As the story goes he wooed her by building this pavilion and its attached castle and invited her to marry him and come and live with him there . She consented. But Akbar hearing of her legendary beauty and of the wonderful ambience of the Baz Bahadur palace sent an army to capture the palace, with her in it. She committed suicide. Sit there at the Roopmati Pavilion, looking out across at the sun setting over the Narmada river, and you enter the world of the senses. Of romance, with a capital R.

It is possible that this spirit of luxury and gaiety has prevailed in Mandu for a long time because it had for long been under Mughal rule. And under them, Mandu was declared a place for pleasure and, in fact, was renamed Shadiabad - The City of Joy. The Mughal rulers built exquisite palaces there like the Jahaz, shaped like a ship and large enough to house Ghiyath Shah's enormous harem. And Hindola Mahal, a strange-looking palace that looks like a livi ng optical allusion -- an assembly hall it is constructed to allow Mandu rulers to reach the upper reaches without dismounting from their elephants. There are outstanding specimens of architecture too at Mandu such as the Jama Masjid and Hoshang Shah's tomb.

ManduIn fact, some of the structures reveal the passage of history very clearly . The mildewed-over, grey marble (once white) Hoshang Shah tomb is a prime example -- pillars from Hindu temples have been used in this Muslim construction. The tomb is one of the few or perhaps only Islamic monuments that actually sports trishuls on its pillars! In 1659 Shah Jahan visited this tomb, with a few architects in tow, just before he ordered the construction of the Taj Mahal.

Indore, which dates back to medieval times, is an ideal last stop on your MP itinerary -- if only because it so neatly straddles the past and the present. Planned and built by Holkar queen Rani Ahilyabai, one of the ablest queens, Indore has some interesting monuments of the period, the Lal Bagh Palace being perhaps the highlight, with its interiors modelled on the lines of the Versailles palace of the Sun King, Louis XIV. This gushingly lovely palace, which took 30 years to complete, sports every conceivable architectural frill ever invented. Built at an extraordinary cost by British architects, the sugary Lal Bagh looks as if it borrows a cupola or three from every famous palace of Europe. The sober seven-storey Raj Wada palace down the road is a sight more elegant.

Raj WadaAnd Indore, besides, boasts some of the finest eating that Madhya Pradesh has to offer -- its Zaveri Bazaar being a must stop on any gourmet's itinerary. Malpudda, rabadi, gol-gappa or panipuri for the uninitiated and kala jamun are items that are the standouts, in a vast and varied menu. And the later it is at night when you wander through the stalls, the better the food you get to eat.

Religion. Romance. History. Modernity. Nature at its most idyllic. Madhya Pradesh has it all -- so what's the matter, you want more?

For more information on travelling to Pachmarhi check out our travelog Whistlestop tour of Panchmari.

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