I haven’t explored India as much as I would have liked. There are still so many places on my travel bucket list that I hope to check off, like Hampi, Coorg, Puri, and Kaziranga. Until April, Madhya Pradesh was also one of them. Since the pandemic has made international travel trickier and more complicated, I have set my eyes on domestic destinations (Gokarna, Goa, and Kerala have been my favourites), and this year, I designed the perfect itinerary for Madhya Pradesh for a friend’s birthday. It was a six-day trip and we covered three destinations: nature, history, and luxury were our three solid themes.
There is no right way to do this. For us, this Madhya Pradesh itinerary fit the mould of our expectations because safaris and Khajuraho temples were our top priorities. Gwalior was just a luxe stopover, where we did nothing but enjoyed our stay at a wonderful Taj palace. But there are numerous other combinations—Madhya Pradesh has a myriad of national park, historic cities, and lovely stay options, and I found the connectivity and infrastructure for tourists to be impressive.
This Madhya Pradesh itinerary is just an introduction to the state. Stay for longer, add more stops, and explore more thoroughly to know it inside out. If you have an affinity towards history, add Sanchi Stupa, Orchha, and Ujjain to your list. Or, Pench and Kanha for a deeper lesson in animal conservation.
Hot tip: Waterfalls are aplenty here. Ask your guide for suggestions and if there’s one around, take a detour for a spectacularly gushing experience of water cascading down with full force.
Delhi to Jabalpur flight: 2 hours non-stop flight
Jabalpur to Umaria: 4 hours by road
Stay: Samode Safari Lodge (Rs 80,000 upwards per night); Bagh Tola (Rs 25,000 upwards per night)
Scorching summer is the best time to spot tigers. But it’s called the dry season for a reason—there’s not a speck of green as you drive from the airport to the safari resort. That changes when you enter the park. The browns still dominate the landscape, but the skies are a clear, pure blue and fluffed up with snowhite clouds. A pack of langurs spring from branch to branch, shaking leaves and twigs to the ground. A clearing with a waterhole attracts a family of deer and you want to keep a pair of binoculars close for all the flights (the nature kind) around you.
Bagh Tola is a boutique safari lodge with tented accommodation. It is located 20 minutes from the Tala gate, and had a homestay vibe that we dug. There’s no TV there and the internet is spotty in rooms, but all the safari enthusiasts dine together in the dining hall and it’s a community experience.
We did two safaris in three days. On our evening safari, we were exiting the park from the Tala zone when we caught a black mama bear with a cub on her back—too far for pictures, but an amazing sight for the naked eye. The next morning, we went to the buffer zone, and the wait for two-and-a-half hours was worth it. Patience was rewarded when three tigers (a mama and two of her cubs) pranced to the waterhole as only tigers do. And then something even more extraordinary happened: we witnessed the tigress hunt a domesticated bull.
One thing to remember about the safari experience is respect. You’re nature’s guest and you have to treat it kindly. No messing. No littering. No jumping from the jeep. No scaring away the animals. Pack your patience and learn to admire the setting with or without animals. And always tip generously. The pandemic has broken the back of the hospitality and tourism industry, so if you can, make sure your guides and drivers and hotel staff know you appreciate the service.
Book your safaris in advance because there are a limited number of vehicles allowed in the park. The buffer zone and the main park both have the same cost (Rs 4,000 for a Jeep), and a guide also accompanies you. You can ask your hotel to make the reservation or do it yourself on the government website.
Umaria to Khajuraho: 3.5 hours by road
Stay: Radisson Khajuraho (Rs 13,000 upwards per night); The LaLit Temple View Khajuraho (Rs 10,000 upwards per night)
The Khajuraho Temple complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. What it means is that UNESCO has recognised it as a historic monument that needs to be conserved as a cultural asset for future generations and such international attention brings big bucks from tourism. Khajuraho depends on tourist dollars, so the pandemic was a devastating blow to the town.
It wasn’t packed with tourists in April this year. One reason could have been that it was unbearably hot to be out under the sun. The scenes, however unfriendly the weather, were spectacular. Can you believe that they started building in the medieval era? The Chandela dynasty rulers built them between 905 and 1050 AD. The sandstone structures are decorated with sculptures and figures depicting scenes. Each temple is raised on a platform, and a flight of stairs take you to the mandapa (hall), where the shrine is. The towers are adorned with art—scenes of domesticity, animals, educational stories, and amorous couples. It’s the pinnacle of temple architecture in north India.
There were once 85 temples in the complex; today, there are 20. You can see the signs of conservation—the structure looks different in bits where the ASI has used different materials. Many are under renovation.
We walked around for hours without a guide and went up and down the platforms to admire the architecture. I’d suggest hiring a guide who can explain in detail how they have been conserved and what the story behind the statues and carvings are. You can also attend the light and sound show in the evening. I found it too long, but all around me patrons were delighted by it. Another hot tip: step into the shops and restaurant across the road to bring back a souvenir (and pump money into the town). Raja’s Cafe overlooks the temples from its terrace and it’s a great spot (very popular too) for an evening coffee.
Your ticket to the western temples also includes a visit to the Khajuraho museum. Photography isn’t permitted and there’s not much to do here, but it has a collection of artefacts from the temples that you may find interesting.
Khajuraho has a small airport with direct flights from Delhi, but it wasn’t operational when we made the trip. Check flights and you can also have a safari experience at Panna. Ken River Lodge, located along River Ken, is a lovely place to stay. River Ken is famous for its crocodiles, so it will be an exciting adventure.
Khajuraho to Gwalior: 6 hours on train
Stay: Taj Usha Kiran Palace (Rs 10,000 per night); Radisson Gwalior (Rs 5,000 upwards per night)
Did you know that the legendary classic musician Tansen was from Madhya Pradesh? He sang for the royal court of Gwalior and his tomb is located in Gwalior. There’s even an annual event dedicated to the musical genius that’s organised every December. I didn’t.
In fact, the city is filled with historic forts, temples, and palaces from different dynasties. Gwalior Fort is an 8th century fort that overlooks the city. Jai Vilas Palace is a 19th-century palace built by Jayajirao Scindia, which has now passed down to his grandson and politician Jyotiraditya Scindia. Around 35 kilometres from the city is the Chausath Yogini Temple that has a major significance in India—its circular architecture is the inspiration behind the Parliament in Delhi.
So if you’re a history lover, Gwalior will treat you with tales of the bygone era of Maharajas and kingdoms.
I didn’t step out of the majestic hotel that I had booked for a night—the 19th-century royal guest house built by the same Jayajirao Scindia. Taj Usha Kiran Palace is palatial and its royal furnishings, old-world architecture and white facade, canopied beds, charming courtyard and garden areas evoke the feeling that you’re in a regal dwelling. In the evening, take the 100-year elevator to the top of the palace and see Jai Vilas Palace glittering under the twinkle of stars.
Expect top-notch service, culinary extravaganza, and comfortable rooms at this hotel. We didn’t have the time to book a massage, but Taj’s Jiva Spa is always excellent.
And that’s it. This concludes my version of the perfect itinerary for Madhya Pradesh. There’s so much to see, so don’t let this limit you. Go ahead and find your own adventures and sightings.