I am beginning to feel a bit like the captain of a warship. In the movies, you always see naval vessels firing upon each other fire first on one side of their target and then the other before hitting the enemy ship.

Similarly, over the past six months, I first visited Ladakh, the northern-most region of India, and then Kerala in the south before landing in Madhya Pradesh, the state whose tourism board uses geography to its advantage and advertises itself as the heart of India.

Madhya Pradesh is famous for its three UNESCO World Heritage sites – the Great Stupa at Sanchi, the Upper Paleotlithic rock paintings at Bhimbetka, and the erotic sculptures adorning the walls of the temples at Khajuraho. But more than that, the state’s reserve forests – Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Pench, and Panna to name a few – attract nature enthusiasts; for pilgrims, Madhya Pradesh offers Mahakaleshwar, Omkareshwar, and Amarkantak among others; history buffs have the forts of Mandu, Orchha, Jhansi, and Gwalior to hold their attention.

The way our trip had been planned meant that the starting point would be Indore. Instead of flying in, I thought I would use this opportunity to get better acquainted with India’s rail network – it is not that I have never travelled on it before but usually it was over short stretches such as Bangalore to Madras or Mangalore to Madurai.

I was told it would be an experience and indeed it was! When I tried to book my ticket, first, the website was down for maintenance. Then, their servers were too busy to handle requests.

I decided to download the Indian Railways’ mobile phone application and book my ticket through that but even that is apparently shut down at regular intervals to give priority to tatkal tickets. Eventually, the system broke me down and I had to approach a ticket sales agent.

The journey itself was not a civilised experience either. Even though I could access the First Class Waiting Room, other passengers were lying sprawled on the sofas, appeared unkempt, and some were even changing in public behind a pillar or with the help of a towel. First Class is clearly not what it used to be, a fact made even more poignant by photographs of the station from the 1930s on the walls.

I arrived in Indore early in the morning and I was off sight-seeing by noon. I had heard much about Indore, the home of Daly College. Unfortunately, the city did not live up to its hype. It was, I realised by the end of my trip, the liveliest city in Madhya Pradesh, but that was not saying much.

Our first stop was the Central Museum. I suppose it retains its name only by the grace of semantics, for it was a building with a shabby exterior and dull interior. Some of the artifacts on display, such as 1,700-year-old coins, were interesting but ruined by the lack of placards carrying information about the displays. For example, “coins” or “fossils” is hardly helpful. Furthermore, due to the poor lighting and glare from the glass cases, photography is difficult – I’d suggest that you save your money and not spring for a camera ticket.

Holkar coat of arms Holkar coat of arms

Our next stop in Indore was Lalbagh Palace. Built by Shivaji Rao Holkar in the 1880s, the 28-acre estate was completed in 1921 by his successor, Tukoji Rao Holkar III. Tukoji Rao Holkar III had three wives, one of whom was American Sharmista Devi Sahib Holkar (née Nancy Anne Miller), six daughters, and one son, Yeshwant Rao Holkar II, in whose favour the king abdicated his throne in 1926.

The Holkar estate was taken over by the government in 1978 after the death of Tukoji Rao Holkar III. Our guide said it was because the king had left no male descendents but it might well be the case that his survivors could not afford the estate duty. After the death of Yeshwant Rao Holkar II in 1961, his daughter, Usha Devi Holkar had to liquidate a sizeable chunk of the family assets to pay a whopping estate duty of Rs. 1.14 crores.

The palace reveals strong European influence on the Holkars, the interior decoration done mostly in baroque or rococo style and the architecture borrowing heavily from classical Greek styles; the gates of the estate were modeled on their counterparts at Buckingham Palace and were manufactured in England and imported to Indore; a statue of Queen Victoria adorns the gardens.

The Holkars of Indore are known particularly for their collection of jewels but this collection was dispersed a long time ago, first when the British forced Tukoji Rao Holkar III to abdicate over the Malabar Hill Murders, then the Government of India upon independence, and finally in a sensational jewelry heist in the 1990s.

The upkeep of Lalbagh Palace is quite poor – it is dusty and no thoughts have been given to illumination. There are few informational placards around the palace nor are there audio guides available; the barricades to parts of the building have been constructed without delicacy.

Despite this, the palace is worth a visit because the Holkars played an important role in Indian history until the Battle of Mahidpur in 1817 during the Third Anglo-Maratha War. The visit is more beneficial in conjunction with what would be our next stop, the Rajwada in the heart of Indore.

Rajwada, Indore Rajwada, Indore

Rajwada is a seven-storeyed Holkar residence built in 1766 that today stands at a busy traffic circle in Indore. Our guide was not clear, who commissioned it or who oversaw its design but it was during the reign of Ahilya Holkar’s father-in-law, Malhar Rao Holkar, that the residence was built.

The vicinity used to have several Sikh businesses and sadly, part of the structure was burned down in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots of Rajiv Gandhi’s prime ministership. Rajwada is not quite in disrepair but it is poorly maintained. The renovations of 2007 by Usha Devi Holkar might have helped matters but there is still a long way to go in terms of making it an attractive stop for tourists.

Though the remains of the building itself are not particularly pleasing to the eyes, it was at the centre of Maratha power in northern India for 50 years. What I found interesting was the small and amateurish display of the history of the Holkar dynasty on the first floor to the left of the entrance. Unfortunately, the Holkars are not the subject of a plethora of scholarly tomes and I appreciated what little information I could glean from the exhibition.

For example, while the Anglicisation of the later Holkars was glaringly visible at Lalbagh, I was not aware of Tukoji Rao Holkar III’s promotion of education for women and support of other such social issues. The upper floors of Rajwada remain closed for tourists. As at the Central Museum, I found little use for my camera here.

In front of Rajwada is a traffic circle within which is a small park with a statue of Ahilya Holkar. Even from what little I learned of the Maratha queen, she came across as a smart and capable ruler who has not been given her proper place in Indian history books. In fact, I had not even heard of the Holkars in my ICSE high school in Udhagai.

Yet she won praise from her contemporaries as well as historians, who came after her; even her rivals and enemies acknowledged Ahilya Holkar’s wise rule. Although once cannot question the contribution of the Marathas and Ahilya Holkar in particular towards the renovation of hundreds of Hindu temples despoiled by Muslim rulers, once cannot credit them with much aesthetic sense.

Their renovations stand plain in comparison to the wondrous structures they sought to revitalise. To draw a feeble parallel for the Western reader or for those not acquainted with Hindu architecture, imagine that a wing of St. Peter’s was destroyed and it was renovated by a benefactor in Bauhaus style.

Our last stop of the evening was the Jain Kaanch Mandir. It was an unnecessary stop, I think, but it made the list because it features on several lists of things to see when in Indore. Nonetheless, a fact that struck me was that the Mahavira statue was black.

We had to call it quits after the Kaanch Mandir because of the time of the year – December – and it got dark by 1730 hours.

Roopmati Pavilion, Mandu Roopmati Pavilion, Mandu

The next day, we headed to Mandu, about 100 kilometres to the southwest of Indore. The earliest references to this town tell us that Mandavgarh was a fortified settlement as early as the 6th century BCE. However, it rose to prominence under the Parmars during the 10th and 11th centuries.

A lot of the major attractions in Mandavgarh today, however, are of Islamic origin. This is because Allauddin Khilji captured the city in 1305 and it remained under Islamic rule until 1732 when the Marathas under Peshwa Baji Rao I took the city.

Our first stop in Mandu was the Mandavgarh fort, built in the 10th century by Raja Bhoj. The popularity of the fort, however, stems from the saga of a singer in Malwa, Rani Roopmati.

Apparently, Sultan Baz Bahadur of Mandu went out hunting once when he chanced upon a shepherdess singing in the woods with her friends. The sultan, a lover of the arts, was spellbound by her melodious voice and begged her to join him in his capital.

Roopmati agreed on the condition that she was never far from her beloved Narmada river. Baz bahadur agreed immediately and had the Rewa Kund built for her. The military observation post at Mandu fort – where Roopmati stayed – from which Baz Bahadur’s palace could be seen is today called Roopmati Pavilion.

As fame of Roopmati’s singing and beauty grew, the Mughal emperor Akbar became jealous that a minor king could possess such a treasure that the Mughal court lacked. He demanded of Baz Bahadur that Roopmati be sent to Delhi to grace the Mughal court with her singing.

When the sultan of Mandu refused, the Mughal emperor sent his general Adham Khan to emphasise his request. After a bloody battle at Sarangpur in which Baz Bahadur’s forces were defeated, the Mughal army went on a rampage in the town; thousands were killed with barbaric cruelty. The object of the invasion, Roopmati, evaded capture by consuming poison.

Some doubt this tale of love between the Muslim sultan and his Hindu mistress. Indeed, there are several similar stories told world over. The case of Madinat al-Zahra in the suburbs of Cordoba, Spain, comes most immediately to mind.

In any case, the romantic story gives Mandavgarh one of its key attractions in Roopmati Pavilion. To reach the observation post, there is a short yet steep path from where tourist vehicles are allowed to park. Alternatively, there are narrow steps that lead the way up. The pavilion is not inaccessible but older people and those with leg injuries will find it slightly challenging.

Jami Masjid, Mandu Jami Masjid, Mandu

After Roopmati Pavilion, we moved on to Mandu’s Jami Masjid, completed in 1440 during the reign of Mahmud I. The layout is reminiscent of the simple Arabian mosques with their hypostyle worship halls and cloisters surrounding a courtyard in a geometric pattern.

The mosque is so bereft of adornment save its pleasing geometry that it does not even have a minaret. Unlike the Dilawar Khan and Malik Mughis mosques, the Jami Masjid retains a purely Islamic architecture as it was not built from Hindu temples and therefore avoids the corbelled arches and post and beam structure common to Hindu architecture.

Inside the Hindola Mahal Inside the Hindola Mahal

Our next stop was the Hindola Mahal. There is some debate about whether it was built in the beginning of the 15th century by Hoshang Shah or towards the end by Ghiyas al-Din. No matter, the building derives its name from its sloping walls which apparently give it the appearance of a swing.

Inside, the Hindola Mahal has a high and flat roof supported by five massive ogee arches. I was quite surprised by the thickness of the walls and the size of the arches. The structure follows the same look and feel of the Jami Masjid in that it derives its elegance from it clean lines and simple architecture, apparently the trend in 15th century Malwa.

The surroundings of the Hindola Mahal suggests that it was used as a pleasure palace; with the water bodies around it and the lawns, it would be a cool and relaxing place for the sultan and his harem to retire to.

Jahaz Mahal Jahaz Mahal

Right next to the Hindola Mahal is the Jahaz Mahal. ‘Jahaz’ means ship in Urdu and the reason the building is called so is that it is situated between two artificial lakes, giving its reflection in the waters the appearance of a ship on a moonlit night. While it is difficult to realise it in the dry season, the palace is located on a narrow strip of land between the Kapur Talao and the Munj Talao.

Unlike the Hindola Mahal, we are quite certain the Jahaz Mahal was built in the middle of the 15th century. Many uses have been ascribed to the building. While the guides at the site tell everyone the building served as the sultan’s harem, it has also been suggested that the palace served as a sarai, an inn, for travellers. Of course, nothing precludes the Jahaz Mahal from having been put to different uses under different administrations.

What struck me most was the museum, housed in the Taveli Mahal – admittedly by the grace of semantics – that I stopped by on my way out of the complex. Despite containing two Islamic buildings, the museum on site was filled with broken statues of Hindu gods and goddesses.

I asked our guide how this came to be, that a Hindu sculptures would be found strewn around a Mughal pleasure complex. He replied that some have suggested that much of the raw material that went into Islamic buildings was salvaged from captured and desecrated Hindu temples and palaces – the wood was destroyed but the stone could be reused.

This is not entirely unlikely when viewed in the backdrop of the Islamic treatment of dharmic shrines all over India but I have never heard this explanation for the structures around Mandavgarh. This question requires some more reading on my part.

There were a few other stops, we made in Mandavgarh – Echo Point, Ashrafi Mahal, Hoshang Shah’s tomb – but those were almost in passing. The first rule of the tourist’s handbook is that you cannot see everything in one trip – the sooner one makes peace with this fact, the sooner one will start enjoying one’s tours.

Furthermore, after catching the highlights of the town in the places we had already seen, only historians specialising in that region or local history aficionados remain interested in spending more time at all the other points. Thus, we called it a day after the museum at the Jahaz Mahal complex.

Day Three, whether by design or otherwise, turned out to be a day of pilgrimage. Madhya Pradesh is littered with temples, particularly to Shiva, and we visited one of the most sacred of those temples – the Mahakaleshwar Temple in Ujjain. Mahakaleshwar is the site of one of the twelve jyotirlingas and therefore considered to be a most holy place for Shiva worship. Predictably, it is a very crowded spot for devotees and tourists alike.

Mahakaleshwar Mahakaleshwar

I know that one of the things one simply must do when visiting Mahakaleshwar is witness the bhasmaarti but that was going to be a bit difficult given our logistics – we were still camped out in Indore and planning on hitting Ujjain on the way to Bhopal.

The Mahakaleshwar temple structure itself was destroyed by the Islamic armies of Shams-ud-din Iltutmish in 1234 and rebuilt by a general of Peshwa Baji Rao in 1736, Raanoji Rao Shinde.

Due to the destruction and rebuilding, Mahakaleshwar does not offer much by way of aesthetic gratification as Chola or Hoysala temples might. Interestingly, the idol at Mahakaleshwar faces south, normally considered an inauspicious direction because that is where the abode of Yama lies. However, Mahakaleshwar, as the name implies, is the conqueror of Time itself.

We were very lucky in that the crowd thinned just as we got to Ujjain around ten though it became more crowded almost immediately after; we were not too far behind in the queue for regular darshan and we could even get into the sanctum sanctorum for worship.

You are not allowed to carry cameras or mobile phones into the temple – if you have them on you at the gate, you will be asked to return outside where a stall is provided for people to leave their footwear and valuables.

The priests at Mahakaleshwar are quasi-touts, scanning the crowds for devotees, who look wealthy and then offering them an opportunity to do an abhishekam of the lingam themselves for a fee. Apparently, I look like a wealthy foreigner and I was escorted through the crowd in the garbhagriha to the front to worship in ease and privilege.

After Mahakaleshwar, we went to the Chintaman Ganesh temple where the idol is swayambhu. One thing I will tell you about these swayambhu murtis is that they are, in essence, a three-dimensional version of a Rorschach test – one might as well see a replica of Q as of whichever deity is being claimed!

Chintaman Ganesh was also a victim of Islamic vandalism – the shikhara and domes are clearly more recent but the pillars in the temple date back to the 11th century to when the Paramaras ruled over Malwa.

Next, we visited Bada Ganesh, Gadkalika, Panchamukhi Hanuman, Harsiddhi Mata, and Kaal Bhairav temples in quick succession. Ujjain is a Shaktipeetha as well as the site of a jyotirlinga, so a Kal Bhairav temple can be found there too as per custom.

As per Hindu beliefs, the elbow of Sati fell in Avanti, as Ujjain was then known, after Vishnu’s Sudarshana chakra cut up her body (or the force of Shiva’s taandav disintegrated her body). The temple around where the elbow fell is the Gadkalika temple.

The Harsiddhi Mata Mandir is said to have been built by Vikramaditya, putting the date of the original temple somewhere in the first century BCE. Of course, the temple looks very new – one just has to accept large chunks of mythology when one goes to these places.

As every child knows, according to the Bhavishya Purana, Vikramaditya was supposed to be a great and wise king. His exploits as narrated in the Vetala Panchvimshati or Simhasana-Dwatrimshika make for instructive, thought-provoking, and entertaining reading. The ceiling in the Harsiddhi Mata Mandir really stood out for me. On it was a yantra surrounded by images of all the 64 yoginis.

The Kaal Bhairav temple where Hindus offer meat and alcohol to the deity was most interesting. The place is at the end of a long lane off the main road that is lined on both sides with stalls selling alcohol and other offerings that can be made at the temple.

At the corner, on the main road, is a police station, the Central Jail, and the residence of a couple of the top prison officials. The part where it gets interesting is that the sale of alcohol in India is regulated by a license, and none of these stall owners have licenses to sell the small – 180 ml – bottles of liquor.

Despite the police presence right next to the stalls, raids on these stalls are at infrequent yet predictable intervals. Talk about backs being scratched! The crowd, of course, was most uncivilised and entirely ignorant of advanced crowd organisation methods like queues.

Trashnama – A Chronicle of Indian Tourism

After lunch, we moved on to our last visit of the day – Sandipani Ashram – before heading towards the state capital, Bhopal. Legend says that Krishna, Balarama, and Sudama studied here under Rishi Sandipani.

I have no clue how the geolocation was done, via word of mouth, close scrutiny of ancient texts, or some other method. There is no modern scientific evidence for the claim as far as I know. In any case, I did not like the atmosphere at the ashram – rather than being a serene place of learning or even of worship, it had the feel of a cheap trinket being used to indulge people’s fantastic notions of the past.

As we drove around Ujjain from temple to temple, I could not help notice the state of the Ram Ghat on the Shipra river. Ujjain is one of the four places the Kumbh Mela is held, the other three being Allahabad, Nasik, and Haridwar, and in Ujjain, the Mela is held along the Ram Ghat once every twelve years.

The riverside is filthy, even our guide admitted, and yet one of Hinduism’s holiest festivals occurred on the spot amidst the filth. This was not an Indian problem – never have I seen a dirty gurdwara, for example, and no mosque, church, or synagogue come anywhere close to the filth around many of Hinduism’s holiest shrines.

We reached Bhopal in the evening as planned. Despite being the state capital, Bhopal seemed like a large yet sleepy town. Most of the town was dusty and littered, and the only nice parts of town I saw were, unsurprisingly, in the vicinity of the chief minister’s residence. I admit that a first and cursory glance at a town hardly reveals all, but as our local driver the next day succinctly explained, “भोपाल में वह रौनक नहीं है जो इंदौर मैं है।”

The Great Stupa The Great Stupa

Early next morning, we set off for the first thing in our itinerary that I was excited to see – the Great Stupa at Sanchi, some 45 kms away from Bhopal. The Great Stupa is perhaps the oldest, surviving man-made structure in India. Built around the early 3rd century BCE by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, the stupa holds the relics of Gautama Buddha.

Our guide suggested that the original stupa was badly vandalised and it was during Sunga reign that it was rebuilt and embellished. In fact, all the aspects of the stupa that attract the most attention today are later additions. For example, the three-tiered chhatra on top, the balustrade, and the toranas were all commissioned by the Sungas and Satavahanas a century or more after the original stupa had been constructed.

The small schools and monasteries around the stupa date back to the Gupta period. Sanchi was also the spot from where Ashoka’s son, Mahendra started his proselytising mission to Sri Lanka. By the way, it should be noted that Sanchi has no connection to Buddha – he was born in Lumbini and he attained nirvana at Bodh Gaya. Buddha did not even visit Sanchi.

Chetiyagiri Vihara Chetiyagiri Vihara

When one enters, the first structure one encounters is the Chetiyagiri Vihara. This structure is a Buddhist temple inaugurated in November 1952 and houses the remains of Buddha’s two principle students, Sariputra and Maudgalyayana.

Apparently, Buddha also had two principle female students, Khema and Uppalavanna: whether this symmetry was a later concoction or whether it was just coincidence is hard to tell with my superficial readings on Buddhism. Anyway, the remains of Sariputra and Maudgalyayana were placed in the Chetiyagiri Vihara after they were returned by Britain, where they had been sent after excavation from Stupa No. 3 at Sanchi by Alexander Cunningham in 1851.

This stupa still stands and is to the left of the Great Stupa as one enters from the north. Some of the remains were sent to Burma and Sri Lanka, where they were also enshrined. The holy relics are put on display only on the last Sunday of November every year because…the temple was inaugurated by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on November 29, 1952, the last Sunday of the month!

The temple is very clean and well-maintained. However, it does not come under Sanchi management auspices because the Great Stupa has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1989. I am not clear whether the Mahabodhi Society of Ceylon manages the Chetiyagiri Vihara or only organises the annual festival.

The Torana, at the Sanchi Stupa The Torana, at the Sanchi Stupa

As one approaches the Great Stupa, one does so from the North Gate. This has the most famous torana, the one with the broken dharma chakra, the triratna, and other popular motifs. Since the torana was constructed before the era of murti puja in Buddhism, it is decorated with carvings of tales from the Buddha’s life and the Jataka Tales.

An interesting scene on the North Gateway depicts three foreigners worshipping the stupa. The load bearing elephants carved on the gateway used to have actual ivory tusks that were provided by ivory traders from nearby Vidisha during the reign of Ashoka. The oldest gateway, however, is actually the southern one. Near this gateway is a broken Ashokan pillar with the Schism Edict engraved in Prakrit.

The broken shaft of the polished pillar is kept a few feet back, in the shade, and its lion capital is in the small museum on site. The complete pillar weighs approximately 50 tonnes and was made from a single piece of stone transported from Mirzapur, nearly 700 kms away. The tragedy of the Ashokan pillar is that it was pulled down and broken by a local businessman to use as a sugarcane press.

There are similar carvings on the eastern and western toranas. The West Gate is famous for the four yakshas that bear the weight of the torana: each of them is in a different mood – happy, discomforted, sad, and angry.

The four are a metaphor for bearing the burden of life with the right attitude. Off the West Gate is also the monastery built by Ashoka’s wife. Along with the usual chambers for meditation, scholarship, and lodging, the monastery contained a large begging bowl in which monks were supposed to place all that they had received as alms; the food would then be shared equally by all residents.

Sanchi also has several inscriptions. Of course, dozens of stone slabs are marked with the names of wealthy patrons, who donated them but there are more substantial inscriptions on site as well beyond the “xyz danam” of the stones in the balustrade.

First, as already mentioned, is the Schism Edict of the Ashokan Pillar. Second, there is a detailed epigraphic record of the donation by the Gupta emperor Chandragupta II around the end of the 4th century. The third notable inscription dates to the 9th century and is the Sanskrit mantra, “Ye dharma hetu…”

Taken together, the inscriptions indicate that Sanchi was a thriving religious site for over a thousand years and offerings flowed from far and wide. The volume of epigraphy available at Sanchi helped James Prinsep to decipher the Brahmi script in 1837.

After the crowds of Ujjain, I was delighted to find Sanchi practically deserted; this allowed me ample time to walk around the site, poking at stones and peering at inscriptions, not to mention the taking of obligatory photographs for my various social media accounts.

We could not, to my great chagrin, visit the Heliodorus column at Vidisha. barely 10 kms from Sanchi, the famous column is the oldest record of a Westerner accepting the precepts of sanathan dharma, specifically Vaishnavism. We know this from the two Brahmi inscriptions on the pillar. Of course, there may have been many earlier Western converts to Hinduism but none as wealthy as the ambassador of Antiakalidas, the Greek king of Taxila, to the court of King Bhaghabadra.

On the way back to Bhopal, we stopped by a marker that indicated the passing of the Tropic of Cancer through the region. Since it was just a day after the winter solstice, I couldn’t help but stop and take a photo of the marker.

In the evening, I wandered down to Bhojtal, the 31 km2 artificial lake built by and named after Raja Bhoj from whom both the city also gets its name. It still supplies almost half of Bhopal’s water needs. The lakefront is supposed to be prime property with the chief minister’s house a stone’s throw away, but there was still litter to be seen.

There is a statue of Raja Bhoj by the lake, as well as an old train I took to be a model until I saw all the placards and photos around it. The waterfront was a nice place to while away the short evening. We ambled about for a bit before taking a boat ride and heading back to our hotel.

We set off for the hill station of Pachmarhi the next day, planning to stop by the rock shelters of Bhimbetka. Discovered in 1957 by VS Wakankar, Bhimbetka was made a World heritage site in 2003. The place is absolutely fantastic if ruined somewhat by our cuckoo guide, who did not accept Charles

Darwin’s theory of evolution…keeping my mouth shut that day was the hardest thing I had ever done! He also seemed to be a proponent of a crude version of the Aryan Invasion Theory. I have my issues with that too, but there might be some merit to certain aspects of the theory.