The Best Places to Visit in Madhya Pradesh – the Heart of India
You may not have heard of Madhya Pradesh in Central India but this interesting and under-rated state is actually the 2nd largest state in India which is also known as ‘the heart of India.’ Madhya Pradesh has a rich historical heritage and there are so many fascinating places to visit in Madhya Pradesh – it’s home to some amazing UNESCO heritage sites and temples, natural wonders and holy cities. Madhya Pradesh is home to some of India’s best National Parks and is one of the best places in the world to spot a tiger in the wild!
While India is hurtling into the modern era, visiting Madhya Pradesh still gives you the chance to witness traditional Indian countryside life and even see tribal villages that have hardly changed for thousands of years.
Even though there are so many incredible places to visit in Madhya Pradesh is not so firmly on the tourist trail as some of India’s most popular tourist destinations like Rajasthan, the Taj Mahal and the Golden Triangle, Kerala and Goa but MP has so much to offer for travellers who like to get a bit more off the beaten track and experience the ‘real India’
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I’ve visited Madhya Pradesh 3 times now so I thought it was about time I wrote more about the interesting and under-rated heart of India and the best places to visit in Madhya Pradesh.
Here is my pick of the top places to visit in Madhya Pradesh
See the erotic carvings on the temples of Khajuraho
The temples of Khajuraho are one of the most popular places to visit in Madhya Pradesh and one of the top experiences in all of India. The temples boast some of the finest ancient temple art in the world and were built during the Rajput Chandela Dynasty between 950 – 1030 AD. The group of temples are a UNESCO world heritage site that are known for the erotic sculptures that adorn the walls and are sometimes nicknamed ‘the kama sutra’ temples.
Whilst the erotic figures are certainly titillating they actually only make up for around 10% of the incredible sculptures that can be seen on these Jain and Hindu temples, the remaining 90% depict the daily life and symbolic values of ancient Indian culture is a beautiful and timeless way.
The Western group of temples contains some of the best preserved temples, and is the only one you have to pay for, and there are more temples dotted around the countryside that you can also explore. I recommend doing the audio guided tour to learn about the history and architecture of the beautiful temples and if you visit in the evening you can also see the sound and light show.
Read more about the best places to visit, stay and eat in my Khajuraho Travel Guide.
Search for wild tigers in National Parks
Many of the top places to visit in Madhya Pradesh are nationals parks as some of India’s best national parks are located within Madhya Pradesh, including the Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Panna National Parks. If you are a wildlife lover then don’t miss the chance to visit at least one of these national parks to experience Indian wildlife first-hand and be in with the chance of seeing a tiger in the wild!
If you don’t have time to visit them all you should at least go to Kanha National Park, which is the largest national park in the state. The park is also known as the Kanha Tiger Reserve, and is ranked in the top 10 Famous Places for Tourists in the country! Kanha was also the setting of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’. Unfortunately, the tiger population here is just 40, so not everyone gets the chance to see one of these incredible cats, the jeep infront of me saw a tiger but sadly I didn’t but your chance increase the more safaris you do and there is an abundance of other wildlife to see here, like leopards, deer, antelopes, hyenas, crocodiles, wolves and snakes.
You can also take a jeep safari tour through the Bandhavgarh National Park and your chances of a tiger sighting increase. Or head to Pench National Park, which is known for its numerous Bengal Tiger sightings, some of which are baby cubs. There are great eco camps and places to stay in all the national parks.
Experience the history and heritage at Orchha
Orchha is a small historic town located on the boulder strewn banks of the Betwa River. Orchha is probably my favourite place in Madhya Pradesh as its a lovely off beat gem with many impressive historic monuments, the chance to witness rural life and its not yet overrun by tourists and is less hassled and more laid back than Khajuraho.
Orchha was established by Rudra Pratap Singh in the 16th century who built the Fort of Orchha. This impressive and imposing fortified complex is home to a large number of ancient monuments, palaces and temples. The main sights here are two 17th century palaces – Raj Mahal (the King’s Palace) and Jehangir Mahal where you can explore the medieval Islamic architecture, steep staircases, arcaded passages and courtyards. The entire complex oozes history and is quite a magnificent sight as are the amazing views from the top.
Scattered around the town and nearby countryside are many more interesting places to visit like the imposing 16th Century Chaturbhuj Temple, the Lakshmi Narayan Temple and don’t miss the unique and lively 16th century Ram Raja Temple which is still popular with pilgrims today. Also take time to explore the countryside, go river rafting and don’t miss watching the sunset over the Chhatris.
There are some interesting and unique places to stay in Orchha – Orchha Homestay is an excellent NGO initiative which enables travellers an interesting and unique insight into rural Indian life whilst also providing an important income stream for poor families. Rooms are basic so if you need more comfort how about staying in a wing of the Jehangir Mahal at Hotel Sheesh Mahal! Orchha is definitely one of the top places to visit in Madhya Pradesh. Read more about Orchha here
Visit some of India’s oldest Buddhist relics at Sanchi
Built during the reign of Emperor Ashoka in 3rd Century B.C., The Great Stupa in Sanchi is the oldest stone structure in all of India! The centre of the stupa houses some of the country’s oldest Buddhist relics, making it an important pilgrim site for Buddhists all over the world. But it spreads much further than this. In fact, Sanchi is just one of many stupas in the area. There are 40 in total that are spread out all over the region. The stupa features numerous archways, each of which tells the story of Buddha’s life. I highly recommend getting a guide to take you around that can tell you the stories and about the history of Sanchi.
Tour Madhya Pradesh’s Golden Triangle – Ujjain, Mandu and Omkareshwar
Unlike the Golden triangle of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, Madhya Pradesh’s Golden Triangle is much less travelled, though it’s just as impressive. Arguably the three best places to visit in Madhya Pradesh are on this route; Ujjain, Mandu and Omkareshwar where you can explore many historic monuments and important ancient temples and holy places.
Ujjain is the starting point for Madhya Pradesh’s Golden Triangle and is fascinating all on its own thanks to its long history and culture. It dates back to around 2000 BCE, and its history can be seen in sites like the ancient walled city, the Jantar Mantar and Kaliadeh Palace. Ujjain is also one of the holiest cities in India and a host of the Kumbh Mela. The city is also home to one of India’s 12 sacred Jyotirlingam sites which is inside the famous Mahakaleshwar Temple, make sure you attend the aarti here too.
After Ujjain, make your way to ancient city of Mandu, a ruined fortress city that is now abandoned but was once an important military outpost. Today Mandu is uninhabited and has been described as the Hampi of Central India. The fortress town sits on a rocky outcrop and was once an important military center. Wander around the fortress and admire the palaces, mosques and Jain temples of 14th century that sit within the city. Be sure not to miss the Jama Masjid, Roopmati’s Pavilion, Baz Bahadur’s Palace and Shri Mandavagadh Teerth before setting off to Omkareshwar.
Omkareshwar is a Hindu temple that is dedicated to Shiva and is situated on an island in the sacred River Narmada that looks like the “Om” symbol when viewed from above. It is the Jyotirlinga that makes this temple so important, as it is one of India’s 12 revered Jyotirlinga shrines of Shiva and the temple still attracts many pilgrims.
Experience Maheshwar, a more laid back version of Varanasi
If you loved Varanasi, you will love its laid back sister Maheshwar. Or perhaps Varanasi was a bit too intense, then Maheshwar is a fantastic alternative. The city sits along the banks of the Narmada River around 91kms north of the city of Indore. It was the capital city of Malwa during the Maratha Holkar reign and remnants of this can still be seen today and there are over 100 temples in the city that tell the story of its history.
Maheshwar is believed to be built right on top of the ancient city of Somvanshya Shastrarjun Kshatriya. It is also believed by some to be the site of the ancient city of Mahishmati. In the late eighteenth century, the city became the capital of the great Maratha queen Rajmata Ahilya Devi Holkar. She completely adorned the city with many buildings, including a palace, a riverfront ghat and a fort (Ahilya Fort). The fort is now a magnificent heritage hotel.
Today, Maheshwar is one of the top places to visit in Madhya Pradesh. It’s a religious city and the locals are generally quiet, laid-back and friendly. It is also a colourful city thanks to its long history in weaving. In fact, India’s finest hand loom fabrics are weaved here, which have very intricate and distinctive designs of stripes, checks and floral borders so its a great place to buy a sari.
Explore the heritage and enjoy the lakeside city of the capital Bhopal.
Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh’s capital city, is a fine example of old and new, showing both the ancient and modern side of India. Bhopal is known as a ‘city of lakes’ and is known to be one of the greenest cities in the country as well as being a city filled with culture and history.
The best way to see the sights of Bhopal is by taking the Bhopal Heritage Walk run by MP Tourism where you’ll wander around the old city and admire the Mughal and Islamic architecture, including the Taj Ul Masajid (the biggest mosque in India) as well as many more interesting mosques, temples, palaces and museums.
You can also stay in some great palaces and heritage hotels in Bhopal, I stayed in the fabulous Jehan Numa Palace Hotel with its mixture of British Colonial and Italian Renaissance architecture with added Indian charm. I loved how there was even a horse track through the hotel so I could watch the horses from my balcony. I also got to see the magnificent Noor-Us-Sabah Palace which sits on a hill top overlooking the entire city.
See the imposing Gwalior Fort
The highlight of visiting Gwalior is undoubtedly exploring the imposing and impressive hilltop Gwalior Fort. The fort’s history stretches back to the 8th century and has noticeable elements from various periods in history. The complex is dominated by the Man Singh Palace, which is still distinctively decorated its circular towers and turquoise tiles, there is also several smaller palaces, museums and temples, and of course magnificent views over the city.
The fort covers an area of 3 square kilometres and its walls are 11 metres high. There are two gates, the most impressive approach is via the steep climb up to the Eastern Gate but you can also get an auto to the Western Gate. There are also some interesting rock sculptures with intricate statues and idols carved into the sandstone rocks on the Western approach.
This, my 3rd visit to Madhya Pradesh, was kindly hosted by Madhya Pradesh Tourism as part of the Madhya Pradesh Travel Mart 2017 but all opinions here are my own. I also saw many of these sights on an offbeat tour of North India with India Someday. For more info on visiting Madhya Pradesh check out MP Tourism and Trip Savvy’s Madhya Pradesh Guide.
This is just 8 of the best places to visit in Madhya Pradesh, there is still much more to discover in this underrated state. Have you visited Madhya Pradesh? What was your highlight?
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