Chris­tine Man­field’s es­sen­tial In­dia

With fab­u­lous food and at­trac­tions, Mad­hya Pradesh whets the ap­petite

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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.

BEST SIGHTS

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

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