Driving around for a fortnight
Four families, four cars, fifteen of us, for four thousand kilometres over a fortnight: to me this was a flight of fantasy that such a plan could see execution. Yet, here are we are and here is what you can expect when you make a trip to magical Madhya Pradesh, which as their tourism ad says, is the heart of India.
Madhya Pradesh (MP) happens to be (one of!) my “home states”, there is much more that the state has to offer than just family and friends.
MP has many things for you to explore and enjoy: food in Indore, forts and palaces in many places (Maheshwar, Gwalior, Orchha), history (all over the state!), jungles (Panna, Ken, Kanha, Satpuda, Bhimbetka), temples (Khajuraho, Datia, Maihar, and indeed in every city and town), hills (Pachmarhi), rivers (Narmada and Ken), and lakes (where else but in the City of Lakes: Bhopal) – and this list is just where we went.
MP has much to explore in every 200-400 kms: new scenery emerges, the things of interest evolve, and the locations have varied new things to offer. This means that if you want to thoroughly explore MP, driving around in your own vehicle is a practical and good idea. It allows you independence of timing and movement (something that a train may not be able to do) and allows you to do manageable distances with reasonable driving requirements without tiring you. The distances are not large enough to consider flying around and, in any case, airports are not always very close to where you eventually want to end up.
Roads are good. Some sections are exceptionally good: the national and state highways that you will use are largely well made. However, some caveats right upfront: there are sections where work is going on to make them wider or better – this leads to diversions currently which can make driving somewhat difficult. Beware also of potholes in a few places which can some suddenly. Both the incidents we had can be attributed to largish potholes emerging suddenly. Hopefully as the new road sections get built and as some of the older ones improved, driving around will become more common and more explored.
So now that it is sorted that you can do a good road journey across the state, how do you think about the itinerary?
We started from Mumbai: so, the Mumbai-Indore and the Indore-Mumbai legs (600 kms one way) is just the set-up cost of reaching Madhya Pradesh. This is a very frequented route: even a reasonably “slow” and cautious driver like me can do a door-to-door journey between these two cities (with reasonable breaks built in) in twelve hours. Alternatively, you can start and end your MP trip in Indore and fly in and out from this well-connected city.
This is broadly our “realized” itinerary. We were able to do most of the things that you find this table. Remember that when you are travelling long distances in unfamiliar locations, you have to budget for a few things: people sleep and wake up at different times, children can take time getting ready, you may simply want to rest at a place after long drives, work can intervene which can add an unknown and uncertain variable, and finally, incidents that require your immediate attention may happen. This means that if you can achieve say 80% of this itinerary over the timeframe of a fortnight, you have done really well! Anything more and that means you are treading into a territory where you may be converting the holiday into work! The idea of the trip is not only to explore places but also to, as William Henry Davis would put it, “stand and stare”.
The overall journey from Mumbai to Mumbai ends up being closer to around four thousand kilometres. There are some long days of driving and if you are an occasional driver, it is useful to recognize that you and your family will want to rest after long drives. Budget for days as buffer. For example, all I did in Gwalior was read a Mary Clark Higgins’ “Where are you now?”. There is nothing better than sitting in the lawns of the Taj Usha Kiran on a wintery morning with the sun at your back and reading a thriller in a day! It had been years since I picked up a crime fiction book on a whim from a library. Most of our team did something similar at Kanha – there are times when you just need to spend time with yourself or the group.
If you chart this route out on a map, you will find that this is a full circle. This means two things: (a) you can go clockwise or anti-clockwise, and (b) you can start at whichever city you want to: if you are flying in-and-out of MP, you can start at Indore, Bhopal, Gwalior, Khajuraho, or Jabalpur and build your journey from there.
Food (and some aspects of stay)
Before we get into where to go and what to do, one must talk about food in MP. Indore is world-famous for its spicy, delicious, lip-smacking food – and there is no better way to experience it than at Chappan Dukan and its varied “stalls”. Especially on a wintry night, the hot garadus, bhutte ka kees, and the cheesy potato spirals are a delight – and top that up with thandai and paan.
At Gwalior Taj Usha Kiran, you must, if you are into spicy food, try the Nepalese-Marathi cuisine and especially the vegetable with 18 spices! You will be amazed to find fantastic continental, tribal, Indian, and global food in the middle of the Kanha jungle at the Pugdundee resort – and they can make such a fabulous outdoor dining arrangement. Pair a chilly night with light winds on top of the hill station of Pachmarhi with melodious and lively live music, the food experience at the WelcomeHeritage Golf View is simply divine.
Lest you think that you need to be in expensive, top-end hotels to get good food, you will be mistaken. All the eateries that we stopped at: dhabas at Maihar and Katni, the food court at Dodi (right midway between Bhopal and Indore), and the Badri Seth Marwadi Bhoj and Raja Café at Khajurao – all had hot, authentic Indian food for all ages and palates.
The one thing that you should rest assured of in your trip to MP is food – the heart of the country takes its taste palate very seriously!
Where to go?
In most of the next section, we will let photos do their thing of being worth a thousand words. I do not intend to replace TripAdvisor or other portals from where you can get excellent advice on the things to do and where to stay. I also do not want to be the guide of history or diversity of a place – however, if this is of interest, drop in a line!
Maheshwar: The Shiv Panchayat, the tani-baini sarees, the history of the fort and Ahalya Bai make this an interesting short detour on the way to Indore from Mumbai. Wikipedia and local guides both say that this place was earlier called Mahishmati (so all you fans of Bahubali – go see where the history begins).
Indore: We could not do justice to the city of Indore’s historical landmarks as we camped in the city for both legs of our trip as the anchor destination. We had long drives coming into Indore both times and hence all that was explored were the eateries at Chappan Dukan. The city and some of its surrounding areas have a lot more to offer. Since we can always come back here more easily, in a long MP trip, Indore remained underexplored.
Bhopal: The City of Lakes has a fantastic evening experience to offer in its speed boats (which is what we took) and cruises in its big lake. Budget for traffic and some chaos to get in but once you are in the speed boat and can see the setting sun in the rippled waters of the lake, the effort is worth it. If you have time (we left Indore leisurely, but you could come into Bhopal sooner in the day), definitely visit the Tribal Museum/Manav Sanghrahalaya.
Sanchi: The first of the three UNESCO World Heritage sites in MP that we went to. Find a good guide and you can happily spend many hours soaking in the history of the Ashokan era. How three hours went by, we simply do not know. One popular photo location is the angle from where the imprint on the new Rs 200 note is taken. Find it!
Bhimbetka: We came to the second world heritage site in a day! Again, a good guide and some time on hand can get you some fascinating history of mankind going back tens of thousands of years and some very beautiful scenes to shoot. Remember you will be walking a lot at both Sanchi at Bhimbetka – plan for that.
Drive to Gwalior: One reason we wrapped up Sanchi and Bhimbetka in one day is to take the Bombay Agra Road (also called AB Road) to Gwalior. There is a way from Bhopal to Gwalior via Sanchi, but the AB Road is a smoother drive. If you go via Sanchi (may take you longer), you can also drop by at Udaygiri. Note however, that especially in winters, days give way to dark nights very quickly and sometimes it can be foggy. It is best to wrap up drives while the sun is out.
Gwalior: There is much to do in this city. Like Indore, which was the seat of the Holkars, Gwalior was a seat of one of the other branches of Marathas, the Scindias. There is much to be seen here and I have some of the key highlights noted above. However, having done ~1,500 kms of drive, this turned out to be an ideal location for simply resting and recharging. We heard very good reviews of the Museum at the hotel, but we just did a small heritage walk in the hotel itself. Gwalior and the surrounding regions have much to offer – maybe a 3–5-day trip centred around Gwalior is called for some other time.
Can you identify this deity? I thought this was a very unique sculpture – I have never imagined this deity with such features. And while we are at it, can you think of a good caption for this photo of the moon over Taj Usha Kiran?
Orchha: With a quick stop at Datia shaktipeeth, we headed onwards to Orchha with its famous palace with its chattris. The guide mentioned that this palace was used for only one night by Jahangir. There is an interesting backstory of how the idol of Ram came to the city of Orchha and why Ram is worshipped here as a king and not as a God. The setting sun creates offers photographers a shot at some very grand shots. Even with my simple OnePlus phone, some of the photos are captivating. And, oh btw, you criss-cross multiple times between MP and Uttar Pradesh (UP) in this drive. As things stand, fuel is ~Rs 10/litre cheaper in UP!
Khajuraho: The third of the three world heritage sites in Madhya Pradesh. The temples are fabulous. Again, budget time and find a good guide to understand the intricacies. The guides tend to point towards to erotic images and the fantastic carvings. There are many other interesting aspects to the temples like the Vamana avatar and the Varaha avatar of Vishnu have temples along with the the Shaivite Kandariya Mahadeva temple. The sound-and-light show is interesting but can be given a miss: we came in with the high expectations of Somnath and Cellular Jail sound-and-light shows here and came back a tad disappointed.
Ken alligator sanctuary/Raneh falls: Raneh falls were closed as apparently some dam had held back the waters. This meant we ended up at the Ken alligator sanctuary (in the same location). There is an extinct volcano which is now a lake and there are 80+ alligators in the Ken river.
Maihar: The trip to Maihar mata was unplanned. This was a small detour on the way from Khajuraho to Bhedaghat. The drive out of Khajuraho via the Panna reserve, especially in the early morning crisp air, is beautiful. The ropeway at Maihar ascends at a steep angle and makes one pray to the mata fervently! The view from the top is beautiful; if only the management of the access to the ropeway was half as well organized, it would have been excellent.
Dhuadhar falls: While we missed the Raneh falls, Dhuadhar did not disappoint: the mist from the falling water comes all the way to the onlookers.
Bhedaghat: For all those who remember the song from Ashoka, yes, this is the place to come to. We lucked out that we came here just towards the last boats were to depart (the system can do with some pre-booking and better management). The setting sun offers stunning views of the marble mountains. The guides have some fun, lyrical ways of reciting the narrative here – anyone with a working knowledge of Hindi will enjoy their puns and rhymes.
Kanha: Anyone who has been here swears by the beauty of jungle. We came back mesmerized by the beauty of the jungle and of Mother Nature who decided to send heavy rains our way in one of our safari outings. The canter ride with open sides got us completely drenched in the stormy, thundery rain (which some bits of hail). We did spot a tiger (though I must concede I could not identify the sleeping beauty in the rains). Deer, wild boars, Indian gaurs, fowl, and many other animals made the sighting fun.
One very important caveat: the safari booking on the forest website will ask you (indeed allow you only) to register those above 12. Only after reaching there, you will be informed that children between the ages of five and 12 also require a permit. The only way you can solve this at the last minute on-site is through the classic Indian jugaad and mai-baap sarkaar.
Pachmarhi: Situated at a height similar to Mahabaleshwar, this is the highest point in MP and neighbouring state of Chattisgarh (till the turn of the century, both these states were one). The waterfalls at Bee falls, caves at Reechgarh, sunrise and sunset points at Dhoopgarh, lakes (and the zipline on it), stargazing, Ayurvedic dawai shop: there is much to commend in Pachmarhi. Maybe we could have spent a night or two more here – it was such a serene, quiet, and beautiful place!
Some driving tips
Google Maps works in almost all the places. However, it is best to call ahead and ask which route to take. In many cases (for example, on the way to Pachmarhi), there were two routes where one ended up being a dead-end due to some road construction. Similarly, the routes in and out of Kanha required some help from the local resort. Maps work fine otherwise within and between cities.
Remember the potholes we spoke about. We had a couple of instances: (a) a pothole just before the last toll while entering Gwalior caused a rear tyre of a car to burst (not just puncture), and (b) at Seoni (on the drive from Kanha to Pachmarhi), a pothole caused a car to break suddenly leading to a run-in from the car behind. In both cases, there were no injuries or damage to any luggage. However, the cars took some beating, especially in the second instance. Locals help and the car helplines work. The experience can be traumatic, especially if it happens late in the darkening sky.
In many places, the parking capacity has not kept pace with the increasing tourist rush. Maihar and Dhuadhaar Falls are two key examples. Plan to drive your car in very small alleys to get to parking. In Kanha and Pachmarhi, you will end up driving in the local gypsies most of the time (though in Pachmarhi, you can access many points without needing a gypsy). Typically, you will end up getting a car and there does not seem to be a way to book the gypsies in advance.
Not so much as a driving tip as a routing one: we could have chosen to be in Jhansi instead of Gwalior (or along with Gwalior). If had a couple of days more, we could have planned a stop at Amarkantak – the origin point of Narmada. We missed Mandu, Omkareshwar, Udaygiri among the more famous spots in MP. Depending on your interest, you can plan to include some of these in your itinerary.
The best part of the driving for us was that we were four cars and four families. This meant that at every location we could spend a lot of time with each other. In the day and age of WhatsApp call, what is a drive if the passengers don’t dial in each other in a group call and play antakshari!
Hurrah Madhya Pradesh!
MP has typically been the road less taken when it comes to local Indian tourism. I hope you take this road – it is charming one which will offer you a wide variety of choices and memories of a lifetime!
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