Hot, dusty Madhya Pradesh is a vast landlocked expanse of scrub-covered hills, sun-parched plains and one third of India’s forests. Stretching from beyond the headwaters of the mighty Narmada River to the fringes of the Western Ghats, it’s a transitional zone between the Gangetic lowlands in the north and the high, dry Deccan plateau to the south. Despite its diverse array of exceptional attractions, ranging from ancient temples and hilltop forts to some of India’s best tiger reserves, Madhya Pradesh receives only a fraction of the tourist traffic that pours between Delhi, Agra, Varanasi and the south. For those who make the effort, this gem of a state is both culturally rewarding and largely hassle-free.
In the centre of Madhya Pradesh, the state capital Bhopal, though synonymous with industrial disaster, has a vibrant Muslim heritage and some interesting museums. Nearby is Sanchi, one of India’s most significant Buddhist sites. The hill station of Pachmarhi, meanwhile, has echoes of the Raj, numerous hiking routes and the little-visited Satpura National Park.
In the north of the state, the city of Gwalior has a stunning hilltop fort and is within striking distance of Datia’s Rajput palace, the Scindia family’s mausoleums at Shivpuri, and Orchha, the atmospheric ruined capital of the Bundella rajas. Further east is the state’s biggest attraction, the cluster of magnificent sandstone temples at Khajuraho, renowned for their intricate erotic carvings.
Nondescript Jabalpur is the biggest city in eastern Madhya Pradesh, a region that has few historic sites but does boast the Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Pench reserves, among the last strongholds for many endangered species, most notably the tiger. Alongside Orchha and Khajuraho, these parks are the only places in Madhya Pradesh you’re likely to meet more than a handful of foreign tourists.
Western Madhya Pradesh is home to Indore, a modern city of industry. Though of little interest in itself, Indore is a good base for exploring Mandu, the romantic former capital of the Malwa sultans, the Hindu pilgrimage centres of Omkareshwar and Maheshwar, and the holy city of Ujjain, one of the sites of the Kumbh Mela.
The best time to visit Madhya Pradesh is during the relatively cool winter months (Nov–Feb). In April, May and June, daytime temperatures frequently exceed 40°C, but if you can stand the heat, this is the best time to catch glimpses of tigers in the national parks. The increasingly meagre rains finally sweep in from the southeast in late June or early July.
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