Thousands of years ago, my ancestor crouched below a craggy overhang in modern-day Madhya Pradesh and painted the one image he couldn’t erase from his mind: a humongous boar thundering out of the darkness until it loomed over him, its face lowered. Whether the creature was mythical or real, the human’s fear is unmistakeable; after all his striving, his surrender to the elements is complete. I imagine this was my Stone Age self’s favourite story narrated by torchlight on a summer night.
It’s the image that put the ancient cave shelters of Bhimbetka on my bucket list; the open forest gallery of rock art from the Upper Paleolithic to the Medieval Period is near Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. I’m not sure how long our stick-figure protagonist survived, but from the adjacent rock paintings of animals and people, we know that the wind rustles a millennia of secrets within this quiet forest.
It’s the quality of the silence that surprises me most on our week-long girls’ trip in Madhya Pradesh. Sanchi’s stupas, white as bone, the profundity of its Buddhist heritage vibrating off the new grass springing from the ground. Khajuraho’s temples are seared in my memory, golden at sunrise and rose at sunset, a wordless but powerful celebration of the divine and the erotic, with an openness that cannot be imagined today.
Orchha’s now-empty palaces, its gorgeous murals of kings and deities flowering out from the walls and ceilings, still regal despite haphazard restoration; the ghosts of dancers still shimmering mid-air on the open-air pavilions. And of course, Bhimbetka with its fantastical rocks whittled by the wind, sun and rain, speaking across the centuries in a language I can grasp. Faced with an explosion of primitive and medieval creativity, I can’t help but wonder: where did our aesthetic sense disappear? The art is anonymous but the divine detailing persuades you to stop a moment and imagine a hushed but palpable past.
The state placed smack dab in India’s centre has all the complexity and vibrancy of a beating heart. It took us a week to go from the bustling capital of Bhopal, with its mosques built by begums and its fabulous museums, to Orchha, Khajuraho, Sanchi and Bhimbetka. At each pit stop we said, “We have to come back,” because there were always little-known gems only a couple of hours away – and we hadn’t even factored in time for one of Madhya Pradesh’s biggest draws: wildlife. Located on the Gondwana plate, this land is one of the world’s oldest geological formations, and provides a crucial watershed for the country with its rivers and forests. Of course, Madhya Pradesh’s critters aren’t only found in national parks. We were lucky to spot vultures gracefully sailing between Orchha’s cenotaphs, chameleons basking in Khajuraho and spotted owls, egrets, tree pies, and drongos nestling in Sanchi.
The itinerary had been nailed by my friend Suhani with inputs from the rest of us four. While Bhimbetka was on my bucket list, Suhani was pulled in by Sanchi, Deepanjana had been dreaming of Khajuraho for a decade, everyone had gushed to Bijal about Orchha, and Lalitha had earmarked eateries everywhere. We established a rhythm: Up at the crack of dawn to beat the holidaymakers at these highly popular monuments, locate a museum to escape the heatstroke-inducing midday, head out again in the late afternoon, marvel at the sunset, and settle in before midnight.
The roads are dusty and often poorly lit, the mobile network whimsical at best, most often non-existent. The monuments are often terribly maintained, and the restoration can break your heart – paintings on Orchha’s palace walls have been lost to whitewashing, the former royal mint in Orchha is taken over by cow dung and bundles of hay, bags of cement arbitrarily lie in royal chambers and temples. Khajuraho’s temples in particular have vertical sculptures tacked horizontally or in awkward cornices, not to mention cement replicas of sculpture jarring the original facade. Bhimbetka, on the other hand, is a delight to walk around in, although the loose cordoning means that the art is perpetually in danger from the breath, sweat and fingerprints of visitors – perhaps why several caves are closed to public access.
The state is surprisingly well-suited for a girls’ trip; I wouldn’t feel safe travelling alone here. But the people are lovely, with the kindness that comes with being accustomed to living with very little and valuing interdependence. Our guide at Orchha turned out to have previously helped actress Katrina Kaif navigate her visit here for the Slice ad; before we go, he asks what we think of his dream of launching a restaurant serving Bundeli food, a cuisine he says is so time-consuming that it is only made at home. He also introduced us to the desi version of “Say ‘cheese’” – “Say ‘ghee’”! Ten rupees still goes a long way here, and you can still stalk off mid-negotiation with a rickshaw driver and be called back to receive a lower price.
Our heritage-and-ruins trip turned out to be particularly ideal for a pack of girls on the loose because it is a treasure trove for shopaholics. We raided the government-run Mrignayanee Emporium at nearly every stop for saris, bedcovers and bric-a-brac, loaded up on sweet-boxes of gajak (made of sesame and jaggery), and were sorely tempted by the Bastar carved wood furniture. If you’re on a girls’ trip like us, you might like to turn up in saris one morning at the Khajuraho temples as we did, for a fun photo shoot. (Watch out for the sprinklers at Duladeo Temple – they prompted a Bollywood-style dash over hedges.)
Click through for our itinerary to Bhopal, Orchha, Khajuraho, Sanchi and Bhimbetka. October to March is the best time to visit. Monuments often tend to be open from sunrise to sunset; check with the booking office for exact timings.
Next page: Bhopal
is Assistant Web Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves places by the sea, and travels to shift her own boundaries. She tweets as @Saumya_Ancheri.
Hey there! Like what you see (or not)? Tell us what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.