We arrive to Bhopal in a dire state. Boris has lost more than seven kilos in a week, and we have not slept much in between doctors, nurses, a cat that tries to play with the ivy tubes, and a scandalous fight with the management of a hospital that was planning to get paid twice, from our insurance and from us. Anyways, we arrive to Bhopal as exhausted as we are happy to see Adity, a very special friend of ours. Her mother greets us at the door with a hug, her brother, Janmejay, grabs the bags and we are welcome into a home like we have not seen for a long while. We are family guests in Madya Pradesh. And soon we shall discover that ours is a privilege beyond imaginable borders.
Madhya Pradesh calls itself the heart of Incredible India, after the wide-spread government tourism campaign. The marketing line is not merely due to its geographical position, a large state in the very center of the subcontinent, but also because Madhya Pradesh prides in its human and natural diversity, wildlife, history and arts. Better known amongst western travellers for the provocative reliefs of the temples of Khajuraho, and for the beautiful forts and palaces in the north of the state (Orcha, Gwalior), the truth, we shall soon come to know, is that Madhya Pradesh hides treasures in every corner. Wherever one goes, nature and history show their wonders.
Guests in Bhopal. India with a cup of chai
From the house in Bhopal we watch monsoon pour down in cascades. The rainy season is just arriving this year, though with a great delay. Farmers have been looking at the skies for weeks. And we can only imagine the joy that water brings to the extensive fields of India. We look at the unfolding season with a book and a glass of rose syrup, with a view to the lake in Bhopal, and a solid roof over our heads. Monsoon is beautifully romantic when one is not travelling with a tent, when water does not drip through the cracks of your roof.
While we sit still and watch the magnificent storms from comfortable bamboo armchairs, the house is in a constant dance. A parade of lives and characters animates the wide corridors and rooms. An ayurvedic expert and a homeopathic doctor. The sitar and tabla teacher for the daily class. A journalist. Sadhus. Tantra mystics. Writers. Students. Professors. Friends. Ghandians. Polititians. Ecological activists. Farmers. The mali (gardener). Cooks. The dhobi (washer). A vet. A snake catcher. The whole world comes in an out at different times through different doors, like instruments of an orchestra cautiously directed for an invisible audience. Everyone comes and goes, and still the house feels peaceful, calm and silent, miles away from the crowded city streets, away from the noise. A jeweller. A tailor. A Brazilian. Aunts and cousins. And at 7 p.m. the unmissable date with the acupressure doctor, who relieves Boris of his gallstones pain.
At perfectly timed intervals, Bhandu Bhaiya comes in with a cup of tea. Wishes fulfilled before they even come to be. The genie in the lamp has always been called by our host even before thirst comes to our throats. In the house, life works like a clock. Breakfast is on the table before we open our eyes. Every morning a new variety of chutney makes us travel north and south throughout the Indian geography. At lunch time, the concept of thali moves into a new gastronomical dimension and only the promise of a sweet mango cream makes us want to keep some room for desert. We are invited to roam the garden where the family veg are grown, and meet the farmers that supply the house with grains. In this house we understand that food supplies follow careful protocols and shopping on our own at the market can cause havoc in the kitchen and the neighbourhood – how could the guests be allowed to buy potatoes? We are welcome, though, to join the cooks and peep through the richness of Indian cuisine, chatting with more signs than words in a mess of misunderstandings. Then, drink one more cup of tasty tea before sitting at the table for dinner. We are welcome to look into a world we know little about, a corner of India where we are at home as much as we are foreign, where we can watch everyday life unfold.
Pachmarhi. Imaginary landscapes. Nature that heals.
The way from Bhopal to the hill station of Pachmarhi alternates dusty towns and rural roads. Driving becomes a form of art with uncertain outcomes, when the one behind the wheel needs to surf through speeding cars, trucks and scooters, grandfathers in their bicycles, cows resting peacefully in the midst of traffic and an occasional tractor chilling in the middle of the way. I can only hope that our friends will not go mad every time I exclaim “uyuyuy” from the very back of the car. We travel in a team for the first time in ages, seven of us and the cat.
A bucolic trail of roadside villages marks the last part of the way, once we have almost unconsciously crossed the bridge into the idyllic natural area of Pachmarhi. Just two centuries back, Captain J Forsyth had come across a plateau of heavenly landscapes in the heart of Mahadeo Hills and it did not take long before a road, homes, club houses and a polo field got built in the hill station of Pachmarhi turning the silence of the jungle into a summer retreat. Churches, bungalows and gardens from the times of the British raj still dot the place. Nowadays Indian training troops cross ways with local villagers and increasing numbers of weekend tourists visiting the Satpura National Park.
When we reach the lush green hills of Pachmarhi, I realize that I have been here before. I have long known this place without knowing its name. It is a landscape of childhood memories from somebody else. When Adity used to tell me on any grey English day, stories of Indian summers, I could only hold on to the Jungle book for a picture of what childhood in the tropics could be like. Tigers and leopards were far away from rainy afternoons in an living room of Notthingham. Now we walk the path where my friend crushed once with her bike against a fence, then past the lemonade stalls and head towards the Pandav caves, a heritage complex of rooms excavated in the rock, where she would play mock guide with uninformed tourists like us. If time and space collided and my friend was still eight years old or if we were able to creep into her imaginary landscape without having known her before, we could perfectly be now the willing victims of her innocent games. A legend from her childhood tells that if you enter the smallest of all caves on the second row to the left, and push the stony wall with all your might, you will open a secret passage that runs beneath the hills and forests all the way to the cave temple of Jata Shankar, where cobras are worshipped along with stalagmites rising from the floor in the shape of a Shiva lingam. And once there, after a walk in the dak corridor, you will find yourself spat back to the outside world through a pool on the rocks.
Unfortunately, some of our early-age superpowers seem to get lost on the journey to adulthood and, even if we try, we can’t find the underground way. So this time we travel Pachmarhi with feet on the ground or rather just above, on the wheels of comfortable 4×4. We spend a few days roaming the natural reserve, climbing up our friends favourite sunset spots and hiking around at a slow pace. Pachmarhi is a maze of perfect canyons, boulders and waterways minuciously designed for all childhood creatures to live at ease, away from the noise of grownup worries. Is a place to let the fantastic side of us jump around with joy. And I smile seeing my friend turn grasshopper, while we follow her unable to keep her pace.
Along the verdant paths we carelessly walk towards anywhere. We follow our party of friends, without checking tracks or maps. Bee fall, fairy pool, duchess falls, all names bear an air of distinction, and everything catches our eye. The shapes of rocks, a tiny lake, flowing cascades, slippery stones descending through a gorge. We are told that a family of tigers roams the forest somewhere below. Everything makes us feel like we are travelling inside a picture book. Just the piles of plastic bottles left by tourists here and there remind us that we might be dreaming, that reality is something else. Here and there we come across the leftovers of a mango feast enjoyed by monkeys, who greet us from tree tops far away, as if challenging humans to leave more fruit peels than plastic traces.
The Satpura plateau is a garden of healing herbs, a pharmacy of nature. And in Pachmarhi village, behind a simple fence among the usual labyrinth of streets, people and cattle that India brings to mind, we meet Shukla uncle, a Vaidya (ayurvedic doctor), who has replicated in his yard the medicinal Eden of his native land. He has walked all the paths of the natural park picking herbs and making recipes that he claims can heal in miraculous ways. Boris is ecstatic, and Shukla uncle proudly shows us around his garden, herbal pharmacy and home. We listen, note, draw and photograph it all as if wishing to capture the natural wealth of a lifetime herbal doctor, knowing well that only with time, dedication and patience the herbalist gathers his treasure.
We leave Pachmarhi after a few days in nature, loaded with boxes of mangoes, wild honey and herbs, feeling healed and uplifted, and totally unaware that a slim travel companion has crept through our backpacks onto the car and is travelling back home with us from Pachmerhi to Bhopal. Several days later we find her, a tiny snake, silent and curling around herself, in our bed.
Back to Bhopal, the backdrop of our wanderings
The call for prayer announces the day from Taj Ul Masjid, the largest mosque in the city, and is replicated in unison from hundreds of minarets over half of the neighbourhoods of Bhopal – a city of mixed religions and identities, where sarees are as common as headscarves. Mughal architecture contrasts with newly built neighbourhoods, roads and malls and gardens oppose the dictatorship of concrete. Bhopal feels like a city of interwoven contrasts, and for us becomes the setting of everyday wanderings, a place we roam without cameras, without rush.
The rains give way to an unforgiving tropical sun, and the streets boil in temperature and movement. Only practical matters make us leave the shadows of the garden for the noisy streets of the crowded city, where heritage and urban landscapes become the backdrop in a plot of daily affairs, medical visits, herbal pharmacies, visa arrangements and vets. The doors we need to knock spread all over the curling streets of the old town, along the beeping traffic of a VIP road and uphill somewhere in between the new market and the city malls, where everything can be found. Bhopal is one of these cities where we walk without itinerary, as if we had always been there or would never dare to leave. It’s probably the city where we learn a life-lesson from India: do one thing per day, and hide from the heat the rest of the time. Most of the days, the nearby hills and Bharat Bhavan become the usual destination of our walks, for a soothing sunset view of the big lake and the cityscape.
Visitors to the house animate the afternoons and with every conversation India turns more complex, more incomprehensible. A society whose inner workings we may never grasp. Realities and events accumulate in the corners of our minds at the same pace as towers of books pile up around the room. Over dinner, history, politics and poetry mix in with Indian curiosities, family talks, questions and jokes. Anuradaji makes sure we get a good share of everything, from culture to sweets. We peep through the curtains of Indian life through the lenses of a family where art, cinema and literature are casually brought into any conversation, where Indian classical music and Italian opera overlap with the raindrops like morning soundtracks, and where anything one wishes to learn about is served in a silver tray.
Coco – the family teckel – lies on her tummy under someone’s feet, she is the unquestionable queen of the house, that soon learns to catch our cat when she runs away after any living thing that crosses the yard. The cows roam around munching on the roses that the gardener just watered. A squirrel flies over. The birds gather in a jammun tree. Beethoven comes down in waves from the upper floor. Anuradhaji calls to invite us for a visit to a Ghandian association, or to an Ashram, to a celebration, to a concert or a museum or out of town to one of the heritage sites nearby. In Bhopal we leave aside the dusty roads, the slow trucks and the shared taps to indulge in the comforts of leisure, aware that what we experience is a fraction of Indian life. For the first time in two years we don’t need to care about boiling drinking water, we are not supposed to bother about any sort of chores because somebody does the laundry and someone the shopping and someone else bakes chapati for lunch, while our hosts choose the evening program for us. We are given a gift of time we undeservedly take. We are given all the care to heal, and are guided through the country without efforts. From Bhopal to Pachmarhi, and to other destinations (like beautiful Maheshwar, holy Ujjain, or impressive Mandu…), we turn spoiled guests, as if our only mission was to enjoy the wonders of Madhya Pradesh.
Madya Pradesh (MP) is a large state in Central India, bordering Uttar Pradesh (nort-east), Chattisgarh (south-east), Maharashtra (south), Gujarat (west) and Rajastan (northwest).
Its capital is Bhopal, and largest city Indore.
MP has a population of over 75 million people of which over 20% belong to indigenous tribes.
Madhya Pradesh Tourism provides a comprehensive list of interesting sites to visit, including 3 UNESCO heritage sites in the state.