India, one of the oldest civilisations in the world, is a mosaic of multicultural experiences, with its storied history, rich heritage and myriad attractions. India is also a billion plus people and the juxtaposition of their customs and traditions — a people who have over the centuries defined cultural and religious coexistence, and made India the ‘home of holiness’. Most of the world’s religions and schools of thought have millions of adherents in the country, and this religious multiplicity is reflected in the innumerable opulent temples and mosques, marvelous churches, serene monasteries and resplendent gurudwaras, both new and old that dot the country.

The cosmopolitan cauldron evidenced across the nation, is perhaps best seen in Madhya Pradesh, the state often referred to as the ‘heart of India’ due to its central location and confluences of cultures. Landlocked by five other bordering states and imbuing their influences, the geographic location of Madhya Pradesh has endowed the state with a unique identity that has made it home to cultural and spiritual heritages of almost all major religions. The plentitude of iconic monuments, intricately carved temples, stupas, forts and palaces attest to this diversity of cultures and religions.

Madhya Pradesh has everything for travel-thirsty souls. Witness life at its very basic with the various tribal groups, or follow the trails of Hinduism’s divine Lord Rama in Chitrakoot, or lose yourself in the legend of the poet prince Baz Bahadur and his beautiful consort Roopmati in Mandu. Romance with nature on a moonlit night in the vicinity of the marble rocks of Jabalpur, or let the sands of time, which have rested gracefully on the numerous chhatris, palaces and forts of Orchha and Gwalior, whisper to you the tales of medieval India, as you meander your way through Madhya Pradesh.

From prehistoric caves to the regal kingdoms of Guptas to those of the Rajputs, Marathas, and Mughals, the landscape of Madhya Pradesh is a map depicting passage of time, embroidered with chronicles of prehistoric people, mighty empires and cultural relics. The state is also home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites namely Bhimbetka, Khajuraho, and Sanchi. These three UNESCO World Heritage Sites are some of the places you should not miss on a visit to Madhya Pradesh.

Bhimbetka Rock Shelters: An archaeological treasure that spans the Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods, the Bhimbetka Rock Shelters lie nestled within the lush green Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary in the Raisen district of Madhya Pradesh. Bearing witness to human evolution itself, the Bhimbetka Rock Shelters are a rare glimpse of man’s ingenuity left behind by our earliest ancestors.

Showing evidence of human settlement, some of these natural caves in Bhimbetka have well-preserved prehistoric cave paintings with the earliest ones dating back to more than 10,000 years and which bears resemblance to the rock shelters in Lascaux, France. Another prehistoric link is evidenced in the Bhil, a prominent extant tribe in Madhya Pradesh, whose style of painting resembles that of the painting style of aborigines of Australia.

From scenes of hunting, dancing and walking through forests to climbing trees and riding on horsebacks, elephants and chariots, these paintings are a record of man’s cultural and social development in different eras. A visit to the ‘Rock’ is a treat for lovers of all things archaeological, artsy and mysterious.

Khajuraho: Built between 950-1050 AD by the Chandela Dynasty in what is now the Chhatarpur district of Madhya Pradesh, ‘Khajuraho Group of Monuments’ are a masterclass in balancing architectural splendor and sculptural elegance. These Nagara-style temples were built as symbolic expressions depicting various themes of meditation, social life, spiritual teachings and human relationships through art. The temples of Khajuraho are India’s unique gift to the world, representing love and joys of life in a sublime expression.

Distinguished in three cluster groups, these temples are dedicated to Hinduism and Jainism with 20 still standing today, out of the original 85 temples in the complex. The ornate Kandariya Mahadeva Temple meaning ‘Great God of the Cave’, is the largest in the medieval temple group and is the finest example of ancient Indian art and craftsmanship.

Sanchi Stupa: Located in the small village of Sanchi on a hill near the capital city of Bhopal, Sanchi Stupa is one of the oldest stone structures in India built during the Mauryan period by the great emperor Ashoka. An example of a unique architectural legacy and history, the iconic hemispherical edifice of the Sanchi Stupa has three elements to it — ‘Anda’, ‘Harmika’, and ‘Chhatra’. The dome-shaped ‘Anda’ depicts the universe centered inside the mound. It is surrounded by ‘harmika’ (square railing) representing the cosmic mountain held by a central pillar supporting a triple umbrella form called ‘Chattra’. The stupa symbolizes the three jewels of Buddhism, including the Buddha, the Dharma (Teachings) and Sangha (Community).

The structure is enclosed at four points by ornate ceremonial gateways, which act as canvases that hold detailed scenes depicting Buddhist stories. The Sanchi Stupa stands over18 meters tall and is surrounded by many smaller stupas, monolithic pillars, temples and monasteries. According to UNESCO, the stupa is the oldest Buddhist sanctuary in existence and finest example of aniconic arts and free-standing architecture.

Most recently in 2021, the marble rock formations of Bhedaghat-Lameta Ghat in Narmada valley and biodiversity-rich Satpura Tiger Reserve (STR) have found their place in UNESCO’s tentative list of natural world heritage sites.

But there is a lot more to Madhya Pradesh than the UNESCO cultural sites. Awaiting visitors are such natural and architectural marvels as the Orchha Fort Complex, Jahaz Mahal, Bhojeshwar temple, Gwalior Fort and the Udayagiri Caves among others that dot the vast landscape of the state.

The state is also home to six tiger reserves — Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Panna, Pench, Satpura, and Sanjay-Dubri. Pench National Park is said to have inspired Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’ and the real Mowgli was found in the Jungle of Seoni. In addition, today, the tiger reserve at Bandhavgarh boasts the highest density of royal Bengal tigers in the world.

Madhya Pradesh is also a shopper’s paradise with beautiful Maheshwari and Chanderi textiles and the bell-metal craft of Bastar. Chanderi sarees, in particular, have gained a well-earned reputation for their exquisite weaving artistry.

Chanderi is a small town in Madhya Pradesh, which is celebrated for its prominence in Indian history and its age-old weaving tradition of Chanderi fabrics. It is one of the biggest weaving industries which was patronized by the royal family of Gwalior who set up a training center to train and empower locals. With its beautiful colors and zari work, Chanderi weaves never fail to impress the ethnic fabric lovers.

Every day a new story is woven in the quaint town of Chanderi where every fourth house in the street is lined up with a loom. Most of the artisan’s work from their home whereas some work is carried out at the Chanderi Handloom Park, which was established in 2017 by the Ministry of Textile, to facilitate weavers with 240 looms. The weavers’ cluster of Chanderi is the biggest in the country with over 11,000 weavers and around 5,000 pit looms.

However, no trip to Madhya Pradesh will be complete without tasting some of the finest street foods in the country. Even if you are not a fan of street-food, the stupendous variety of foods on offer by street vendors will lure you when visiting any city in the state. But, it is only when you visit the city of Indore that you get to taste the original Madhya Pradesh street food culture. And, nowhere is this culture more exemplified than at Indore’s Sarafa Market.

The Sarafa Market, which interestingly is a jeweler’s market during the day, magically transforms into a food paradise at night. The street food bazaar offers plenty of stalls selling local delicacies such as Joshiji-ka-dahiwada, fried Indore Garadu, Saawariya-ki-sabudana khichdi and bhutte-ka-kees. Additionally, to keep up with modern preferences, there are also outlets selling south Indian snacks and Chinese delicacies. If your stomach is willing, every item offered at these street-food venues in Sarafa Market is worth a try.

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