The unexplored heart of India
While best known for Khajuraho’s temples and tiger-spotting in its dense forests, Madhya Pradesh is home to several not-so-known destinations. Anurag Mallick and Priya Ganapathy list a few offbeat places to explore in the state
Madhya Pradesh, the heart of Incredible India, is a vast state offering a myriad mix of natural beauty, heritage, spirituality and culture. In short it can be called a microcosm of India. From the dense forests of Bandhavgarh, Panna and Pench known for Royal Bengal tigers, intricate stone carvings of Khajuraho’s temples, majestic forts and palaces of Gwalior and Mandu to religious destinations like Sanchi and pilgrimage spots like Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh has innumerable attractions. While the more popular ones are tourist havens, there are several not-so-known places in the state that are fascinating. Here are some of its hidden surprises.
Amarkantak: Source of the holy Narmada
If you love the serenity of River Narmada at Omkareshwar and Maheshwar, track the source of the sacred river at Amarkantak, where the Vindhya and the Satpura mountain ranges join. Amarkantak is a green paradise located within the Achanakmar-Amarkantak Biosphere Reserve. The most visited temple here is the Narmada Udgam Temple, where a rising stream of Narmada can be seen. The group of ancient Trimukhi temples of the Kalachuri dynasty built by Maharaja Karnadeva (1041–1073 AD) – Sarvodaya Jain temple and Shri Yantra Mandir – are examples of architectural ingenuity. Also popular is the Kabir Chabutra, where the 15th-century Indian mystic and poet Kabir is said to have meditated and achieved salvation. The 40-m-high Kapildhara waterfall 6 km away, marks the spot where Sage Kapila performed penance.
Getting there: Fly to Jabalpur and drive 228 km to Amarkantak
Patalkot: Subterranean wonder
Believed to be the mythological gateway to the nether world, Patalkot lies in the dense green tracts of the Tamia region of Chhindwara. Associated with various legends, it is said to be the meditation spot of Lord Shiva and is believed to have been the region from where Lord Hanumana, in the epic Ramayana, had set off to rescue Lord Rama and Lakshmana from Ahiravana. While legends abound in this green horse-shoe shaped valley surrounded by hills, the rocks here are said to date back to the Archaean era, representing the time from 4,000 to 2,500 million years ago! A treasure trove of rich flora, Patalkot valley is home to a large variety of medicinal plants, which are used by the local Gond and Bharia tribal communities to make herbal medicines. The closest accommodation option is a PWD guest house at Tamia, 20 km away.
Getting there: Patalkot is 78 km from district headquarter Chhindwara
Behrugarh: Batik printing
Named after the powerful Kal Bhairav temple, Bhairavgarh or Behrugarh is a suburb of Ujjain renowned for the traditional wax-resist dyeing technique called dabu, popularly known as batik. In the 2nd century AD, Greek chronicler Ptolemy noted that the “mallow-tinted cotton from Ozene (Ujjain)” was shipped to Rome. Historians say, the art was introduced in Behrugarh around 400 years ago during Mughal rule, when craftsman from Gujarat and Rajasthan migrated here. Even today, artists carry on the tradition of dyeing fabric handed down through generations. Using wooden blocks or a stylus made of coconut husk intricate designs are drawn with wax or printed on rolls of fabric, which is then repeatedly dipped into vats of dye. To create a multi-coloured pattern, the fabric is given another wax coat and dipped into a darker colour dye. Each subsequent colour is masked with wax to retain its hue. After drying, the cloth is crumpled to achieve the signature delicate lacy veins through which the dye bleeds into the fabric, creating batik’s signature look. Finally, the fabric is immersed in boiling water to melt the wax, which is reused. The fabric is then washed and dried. About 500 families in Behrugarh are involved in the craft, with stores here selling a wide range of batik products.
Getting there: Ujjain is 56 km from Indore, and Behrugarh lies in the city’s northern outskirts.
Dhar: The City of Sword Blades
An erstwhile royal capital, the historic town of Dhar was once known as Dhara Nagar or the City of Sword Blades. In 920 AD, King Bhojadeva transferred his headquarters from Ujjain to Dhar and made it the seat of the Paramara chiefs of Malwa. Located on a hillock, the ancient Dharagiri or Dhar Fort can be accessed by a rock-paved road that ends at an old prison housing a small archeological museum. Inside the fort, the Kharbuja Mahal, a 16th-century palace with melon-shaped domes, offers stunning panoramic views. The town has several other monuments like the royal chhatris (cenotaphs), shrine of the royal patron deity Kalika Mata, the beautiful Lat Masjid and the 11th-century Bhojshala.
Getting there: Dhar is 55 km west of Mhow and 36 km from Mandu
Bagh: Buddhist cave paintings to block printing
Located by the Bhagini river, the rock-cut Buddhist caves of Bagh were quarried out of a sandstone hill on the southern slopes of the Vindhyas during the Satvahana rule (5th to 7th century). Accessed by a 200-m-long bridge, only seven of the nine caves have survived. They were mostly viharas (monasteries) with a small chaitya (prayer hall) at the back. Cave Number 4 or Rang Mahal housed the most intricate paintings, including that of Bodhisattva Padmapani, regarded as a prototype of the one at Ajanta. The dark cavernous hall is lined with gigantic pillars. It is said, the paintings were created with lamp black, red lac and pigments from mineral sources. Organic vegetable gum was used for binding. To prevent damage by rainwater, the Archaeological Survey of India has stripped and transplanted the murals to the Archaeological Museum in Gwalior and Bagh’s on-site museum. The retrieved paintings depict Buddhist jatakas (tales). Bagh is also home to the unique craft of thappa chhapai or ‘block printing’ using natural colours.
Getting there: 97 km from Dhar and 161 km from Indore, it is reachable via Rajgadh on NH-47. Drive 5 km on Kukshi Road, and turn left from the blue signboard for the 3 km drive to Bagh Caves
Burhanpur: Second Mughal capital
Burhanpur served as the second Mughal capital between 1600 and 1720. Founded as the capital of Khandesh, the city was named after Sufi saint Sheikh Burhanuddin. Ruled by the Farooqi kings for around two centuries, it was a secular state where Sanskrit shared space alongside Arabic and Farsi. Burhanpur was a cradle of culture and a training centre for Mughal princes and princesses, including Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb! A legacy of its heritage are the more than 100 monuments dotting the city. Some of the absolutely unique monuments are Dargah-e-Hakimi, the revered resting place of Bohra saint Syedi Abdul Qadir Hakimuddin; Gurudwara Bari Sangat, where the last Sikh Guru Gobind Singh wrote the holy book Guru Granth Sahib; Kundi Bhandara, the only example of a 17th-century subterranean waterworks channel; Jama Masjid with its 130-ft minars supported by 15 rows of intersecting arches and the Zenana Hamam (ladies bath) at Badshahi Qila, a seven-storeyed palace, motifs from which represent the Taj Mahal in Agra.
Nearly 1.75 lakh people live within the fort, making it one of the largest living forts in India. The other popular monument is the tomb of warrior Shah Nawaz Khan, also called Kala (Black) Taj Mahal. At Chowk Mohalla, Emperor Jahangir constructed a Mardana Turkish hammam, which lay buried and was unearthed 25 years ago. Across the Tapti, the Ahukhana is an old hunting lodge and 28-acre deer park that was converted into a rose garden by Mumtaz Begum. After she died in 1631, her embalmed body was kept in a pavilion here for six months. For six centuries merchants flocked to Burhanpur’s Tana Gujri mandi, the leading cotton market in Madhya Pradesh. French chronicler Tavernier noted Burhanpur as the biggest yarn market of Asia! When Mahatma Gandhi visited Burhanpur in 1933, during the Quit India movement, the charkha (spinning wheel) gifted to him, became a swadeshi symbol.
Getting there: Burhanpur is 181 km from Indore via SH-27.
Asirgarh: Gateway to the Deccan
Overlooking a pass in the Satpuras connecting the Narmada and Tapti river valleys, Asirgarh was known as Dakkani Darwaza or Doorway to the Deccan as it straddled a key trade route between north India and the Deccan. From the base of the hill, a 5-km ascent ends at the fort’s 120-ft high walls. Spread over 60 acres, the vast complex has three forts: the lower Malaygarh, the mid Kamargarh built by Aurangzeb, and the highest and oldest part, Asirgarh. At the summit stands Jama Masjid, a Farooqi era mosque, similar to the one in Burhanpur, with the builder’s name inscribed in Arabic and Sanskrit! In early-15th century, the fort was treacherously taken from the local king Asa Ahir, who was murdered by Nasir Khan. In 1600, Mughal emperor Akbar laid siege to Asirgarh for six months; even bombarding the fort with mounted cannons atop a hill, but in vain. The round hill is called Akbar Topi for its semblance to his headgear! Finally, Akbar too adopted a Trojan horse style deceit to capture Asirgarh. Stone inscriptions record Shah Jahan’s revolt against Jahangir when he was governor of Burhanpur and Aurangzeb’s overthrow of Shah Jahan. After the Marathas, the fort fell into British hands and became a cantonment. The remains of barracks, a prison, church, cemetery and the gallows are seen. The ancient temple of Asireshwar Mahadev is the oldest structure in the complex.
Getting there: Asirgarh is 22 km north of Burhanpur