Christine Manfield’s essential India
With fabulous food and attractions, Madhya Pradesh whets the appetite
The landlocked central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh has many hidden gems; it’s a region less travelled and offers an amazing diversity of options — a veritable paradise for foodies.
This state easily rivals the majesty of Rajasthan’s heritage properties with its forts and palaces and the tribal lands of lush forests and dry plains are the perfect habitat for the Bengal tiger and other wildlife. The stunning region of rural India is less touched by modern development than the rest of the country, and is still abundant in astounding natural beauty, stretching from the rugged ravines of Chambal to the borders of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. With its boundaries touching seven other states, Madhya Pradesh inherits some of the surrounding cultures and traditions, making it a vibrant state to explore.
Chaat snacks are hugely popular, and are a benchmark of the state’s cuisine — dahi bhalla, raj kachori, aloo kachori, samosa chaat, each sprinkled with namkeen (small crunchy fried titbits such as sev, dhania chivda or dal moth). The justifiably famous breakfast staple poha jalebi — rice flakes cooked with tempered mustard seeds, curry leaves, potato, green chilli and turmeric and topped with shredded coconut, pomegranate seeds, sliced red onion and lime and served with syrupy hot jalebis — is a unique combination. Sensational.
TEMPLES: Visit the extraordinary and immaculately restored 10th-century Hindu temple complex of the Chandela Dynasty at Khajuraho, with its explicit, sensuous, erotic Kama Sutra stone carvings. These exquisite depictions of human life and emotions equate passion with spiritual union. There are gods and goddesses and even a few depictions of bestiality. Visit during the Khajuraho Dance Festival, which runs for a week in late February; it’s a bewitching extravaganza and a showcase for India’s rich classical dance, with the beautiful temples as a backdrop.
TIGERS: The east and south of the state are tiger territory. There are various national parks where you can go on a tiger safari, and these are havens for the region’s diverse wildlife. Fly into Khajuraho and drive to Panna or Bandhavgarh, or fly into Jabalpur or Nagpur and drive to Pench, or Khana to see the barasingha deer that has defied extinction. Each national park hosts luxury safari camps.
SPECTACLE: Fly into Indore and spend an hour or so exploring the sights of the town — the ornate Kanch Mandir Jain temple, the Raj Wada mansion in the centre and Lal Bagh Palace. Join the queue of locals at Johny’s Hot Dogs for either egg benjo (a spiced omelet in a white bun), bao bhaji (vegetable hot dog) or mutton hot dog, the tender meat sandwiched in a soft white bun, which can also have egg added, before driving south to Maheshwar, on the Narmada River, one of India’s holiest waterways. This temple town is mentioned in the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata and is known for its spiritual significance, drawing pilgrims and Hindu holy men to its ancient temples and ghats, a spectacle I witnessed one February during the Maha Shivarati Festival. Today, Maheshwar is also known for its distinctive handwoven Maheshwari saris and beautiful textiles.
EXPLORE: Spend a day exploring Mandu (between Indore and Maheshwar) in the heart of the Malwa region, home to extraordinarily intact medieval Afghan architectural ruins with forts and palaces, hamams and pavilions, an easy 90-minute drive from Ahilya Fort. Perched along the Vindhya ranges, Mandu was originally the fort capital of the Parmar rulers of Malwa and was built as a city of pleasure for leisurely pursuits. Stop for a picnic lunch at the ruins of Chishtikhan’s Palace, overlooking the valley below.
EXOTIC WONDERS: Another great way to explore the state is to drive from Khajuraho to the deserted, exotic medieval ruins of Orchha with its derelict sandstone palaces and havelis on the banks of the Betwa River then on to Bhopal and south to Indore; there are lots of architectural wonders along the way such as the beautiful Taj-ulMasjid mosque and Jehan Numa Palace in Bhopal. More: mptourism.com.
SLEEP AND EAT
AHILYA FORT, MAHESHWAR: This massive, 18thcentury fort, which dominates the Narmada River at Maheshwar, a 90-minute drive south of Indore and off the beaten track, makes for an appealing visit. Converted into a heritage hotel, it offers an intimate and genuine experience of India. Richard Holkar, the proprietor, is a direct descendant of Queen Ahilya Bai, and the son of the last Maharajah of Indore (the dynasty’s cultural imprint is visible everywhere in town). The property supports a local school project and the neighbouring Rewha women’s textile workshop and co-operative, both just outside the main gate of the fort. Another terrific weaving co-operative in the village centre is Women Weave, a charitable trust established by Sally Holker (Richard’s former wife) for local women, whose beautiful contemporary fabrics are available to buy from their shop. It’s essential to stay for at least a few days; forget the worries of the world and be pampered by the genuine hospitality and generosity on offer — my favourite room is Bul Bul, which looks out on to the quiet internal courtyard.
Known for its delicious home-style cooking, with produce picked each day from the thriving organic kitchen garden that comes complete with chooks, meals are served table d’hote, either at the main table or if you pre- fer, at your own private table. There is no fixed dining room; meals are truly a movable feast. By special request, a private dinner can be arranged on Rupmati Island further along the river, with food cooked over hot coals — particularly magical during the full moon, sitting at a lavishly set table out in the open around a raging fire. Lunch is casual and features chilled soups and light Western fare like salads and pasta. The evening dinner highlights Indian recipes from Richard’s cookbook Cooking of the Maharajahs. (he is a keen cook and food enthusiast and oversees the daily menus whether he is in residence or not). There’s a lovely swimming pool in the garden for relaxing, or you can take a walk through the village — early morning is best — and taste poha jalebi and some of the local street food from one of the roadside stalls. Take a boat ride out to the phallic-looking Baneshwar Temple in the centre of the river and watch the sunset over the water. One of my favourite retreats in India, a place with heart and soul. More: ahilyafort.com; womenweave.org.
BAGHVAN JUNGLE LODGE, PENCH NATIONAL PARK: A stylish, eco-friendly safari lodge from the Taj Group, this property lies at the southern part of the state, one of Central India’s lesser-known reserves. The most direct access is from Nagpur, about two hours by road, and it’s worth staying a few days before venturing to another part of the state. I like it for its size and laid-back ambience — an intimate property with only 12 bungalow suites, each with its own covered rooftop platform, set among the undulating forest landscape near the river. This is a great place for birdwatching, taking an elephant safari, and the game drives in the jungle searching for wildlife can be quite adventurous. The food is fitting for its surroundings with an emphasis on light healthy flavours for breakfast and lunch (I am a fan of their stuffed rotis, especially the cauliflower gobi roti), while dinner can be a feast of the regional specialities of Madhya Pradesh — the vegetable dishes play a starring role, and don’t miss the nourishing spicy lentil soup. More: tajsafaris.com.
LALIT TEMPLE VIEW HOTEL, KHAJURAHO: This boutique hotel makes an ideal base for visiting the ancient temples of Khajuraho; its rooms overlook the lush gardens. I usually liaise with the chef and arrange a menu to avoid the monotony of the buffet table, so whether you’re having lunch or dinner in the Panna restaurant, ask them to prepare the Murgh Matka (their signature chicken dish, cooked in a clay pot in a curd gravy with aromatic spices) and Baingan ka Bhata (eggplant roasted on the wood grill, then mashed with garam masala and green
Hindu temple complex at Khajuraho, top; Christine Manfield, above; Mandu ruins, below