Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh
Central India is where it all began for us, and with its rolling forested hills, its tigers and leopards, and large numbers of indigenous tribal people, it is very much the India of our storybooks and our imaginations.
Justly renowned for its fabulous national parks, it is also well worth taking the time to immerse yourself in Central India’s villages and meet some of the people whose ancestors have been in India since long before the Aryan invasion of India around 1500 BCE. We encourage as much exploration on foot or by bicycle in this part of the world. The slower you go the more you encounter.
What to See and Do
The lake city of Bhopal is Madhya Pradesh’s capital and is for some inexplicable reason left off most tourist itineraries. The city was famously ruled by women (three successive Begums) for most of the nineteenth century, which is perhaps part of its appeal to this particular female run travel company. It has three really outstanding museums including the magnificent tribal museum whose contents have all been designed and made by indigenous people from all over central India. The 200 BCE Buddhist stupa at Sanchi is a day trip away, and is both hugely atmospheric, perched on a hilltop overlooking the plains around, and with the most exquisitely carved images of the life of the Buddha on all of its four gateways. South east of the city are the rock paintings of Bhimbetka, hundreds of caves with paintings dating back 10,000 years of which many are open to the public. Though one is frequently the only visitor. Bhopal also holds a literary festival in January.
Central India’s National Parks and Tiger Reserves are numerous and wonderful. We have two favourites. Kanha, with its beautiful meadows and sal forested hills, as well as plenty of scope for cycling outside the park and walking in the buffer zone; and Satpura, accessed, rather magically, by a boat across the Denwa river and with options for safaris in the park that do not always involve a jeep (walking and canoe trips). Although the longing to see a tiger is understandable, and chances are good, it is worth entering the forest without expectations and enjoying everything it has to offer, the birdsong, the sun rising over Kanha’s ponds, herds of wild bison in Satpura’s almost prehistoric landscape, the excitement of seeing tiger pug marks on a sandy path and the knowledge of who is prowling in the forest, whether you see her or not.
Central Indian tribal and village life continues in many ways as it has done for millennia, rice and wheat threshed using bullocks and a threshing stone; winnowing with a basket and fan; food cooked on open mud built chulha hearths; and many homes still made from mud and straw and gobar cow dung. Things are changing, most noticeably the concretisation of many buildings, but a relaxed attitude to life remains. Children attend school but run free and barefoot as soon as they are released from their studies, no overanxious parent hovering as they scale a tree or dive into the village pond. Work is taken gently, and all celebrations oiled with mahua the distilled liquor from the flowers of the mahua tree.
We aim to bring into the minds of our guests an understanding of both the joys and the hardships of rural and tribal Indians. We strongly believe that foreigners showing an appreciation of the simple but productive lives of those at the low end of India’s social hierarchy can send a message to those in power that this way of life is worthy of their support and protection. We also believe that the financial support we provide by employing local people in full time, year round jobs helps to prevent migration to cities and the damage and exploitation that comes with this.
We work in an area where tourists are not common and we genuinely work hard to ensure that we do good not harm. We take only couples, families, or very small groups to villages and give guidance on the acceptability of taking photographs and how best to return the great favour of being welcomed into people’s homes. All guests are given a fact sheet with some tips on cultural etiquette.
We strongly recommend that all able bodied guests do as much of their sightseeing as possible on foot or by bicycle. Not only is this better for the environment but it makes for a far more interactive sort of tourism, which we feel benefits everyone.
Where to Stay
Shergarh Tented Camp by Kanha Tiger Reserve’s Mukki gate, is the creation of the sensitive and talented Katie and Jehan Bhujwala (also of The Bhuj House). Six tents (canvas roofs and walls but solid foundations and luxurious bathrooms) dot the forested land that surrounds the pond in which frogs croak and over which dragonflies hover and birds sing. In house naturalists Raj and Sonsingh are both experts and have their own very different ways of showing you their forest. Katie and Jehan encourage excursions beyond the park gates with bike rides through the beautiful nearby villages, home to indigenous Baiga people. The camp manager Neville is young and charming and along with a feeling of luxury the atmosphere at Shergarh is more homely feeling than many other high end lodges. Food is a delicious mixture of Indian and Western and all the staff come from the local village.
Bhoramdeo Jungle Retreat is in the little visited state of Chhattisgarh. Sunny Upadhyay born and raised in the nearby small town of Kawardha and fulfilled his dream of building a rural home-stay in the temple village of Bhoramdeo back in 2003. Village tours in his knowledgeable and capable hands are both fun and fascinating: there is a joie de vivre about Sunny that is gloriously infectious. He has five simple rooms surrounding a beautifully planted garden and serves the best vegetarian food in India.
Jehan Numa Palace in Bhopal offers a taste of old fashioned nawab style grandeur. The hotel is owned by the Rashid family whose race horses are exercised on a track that runs in front of some of the rooms, there’s a large pool, small gym and spa, and various restaurants including the excellent Mughlai grill Under the Mango Tree and a great bakery. Despite its size it remains friendly and not too formal. Just on the edge of town is the sister hotel Jehan Numa Retreat a little further from all that is going on in the city, a more rural feeling spacious place with the kitchen garden supplying food for the restaurant and a wonderful open air tandoori restaurant Under the Neem Tree. Jehan Numa Retreat is a little more upmarket and lovely for a night or two en route to Reni Pani.
Reni Pani Jungle Lodge is the third of the Rashid family’s hotel trio and is the most luxurious of the lodges we have in our collection. Deep in the Satpura forest lie twelve luxury cottages with shady sit outs and smart bathrooms. Satpura National Park has sublime landscape and, as one of India’s newest reserves is a fine example of tourism’s beneficial effect on large mammal conservation, providing jobs that decrease the financial appeal of poaching, watch people in the form of guides and the tourists themselves, and funds for better management of invasive species. One can explore Satpura by jeep, but also, more excitingly on foot, boat or by canoe.
Sample Itineraries and CostS
Village India AND KAnha Tiger Reserve
A twelve day immersion into central Indian rural life begins with a night in Mumbai at Abode our favourite boutique hotel, in the heart of Colaba, followed by four nights in tented luxury at Shergarh Tented Camp, Kanha National Park. You will have the opportunity to drive into the national park on five safaris as well as a walk in the buffer zone and local cycle rides. A three hour drive brings you to Bhoramdeo Jungle Retreat for a four night stay exploring the fabulous villages and countryside that surround Sunny's farmhouse style home. From here you will fly back flying back to Mumbai for two nights at Abode including a city tour with Reality Tours and Travel a brilliant tour company that employs current and former slum dwellers as its guides and ploughs 80% of its profits back into educational projects in slum areas.
If you have the time to extend this tour by a week it works really well with a few nights' R&R in Karnataka and inland Goa, in the two peaceful home-stays we use: Off the Grid offering trekking and wild swimming; and Olaulim Backyards for an even more slow and sultry end to your holiday.
Or in Wayanad in the heaven that is the five hundred acre estate of Fringe Ford. Here you can enter primary rain forest on foot, in the safe hands of an expert guide but with the possibility of seeing elephants, gaur and even tigers without being cut off from it all in a jeep. Fringe Ford is an extremely special place.
This costs around £2550 per person (£3300 with Goa and Karnataka/Wayanad).
Central Indian Wildlife and Culture
This two week wildlife and culture tour begins and ends in Delhi with an Anglo soft landing at Tikli Bottom before flying down to Bhopal for two nights at Jehan Numa Retreat, a magical hotel run by Zafar of the lovely Rashid family. Bhopal is home to two spectacular anthropology museums, and we can arrange a tour of the superb tribal museum with its wonderful curator Shampa Shah. The tour also includes trips out to the Buddhist stupa at Sanchi and the glorious cave paintings at Bhimbetka. From here to the Rashid family's country pad, the very special Reni Pani for four nights and six safari-type activities including the rare treat of canoeing and walking in the jungle. A long drive to Kanha brings you back onto our home territory for three nights at Shergarh Tented Camp. We’d recommend an absolute minimum of four nights at Bhoramdeo Jungle Retreat at the end before a final night at Colonel’s Retreat in Delhi with a late flight home on the final day.
This tour costs approximately £3800 per person.
Children are accommodated free if they share their parents’ room. We have a lot of experience of Indian travel with children in tow – being in a country where people actually like children is wonderfully rewarding for all concerned.