Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Travels in Central India - Part 1

I have visited many places in south and north India but never had chance of visiting central India. Recently I got opportunity to work for a month in Indore which is in state of Madhya Pradesh, very much the central India and I decided to explore some places during long weekends. My first impression of Indore was that it had looks of typical provincial town - it is dirty and crowded, roads are terrible and traffic is chaotic. Very much like any other Indian city, you might say. Indore, it seems, is one of fastest developing cities in India and has become educational hub with dozens of colleges and also on its outskirts, in place called Pithampur, it now has one of biggest Industrial areas of Asia. Indore in fact is also called mini-Mumbai but considering what has become of Mumbai of lately, It shouldn't be seen as a matter of pride. My first week in Indore was extremely depressing. City is such that it can leave you mad. Every second person on streets, chew paan masala and spitting is almost a second nature to everyone. In fact spitting is so rampant that if you are in Indore (or elsewhere in Madhya Pradesh, as I learnt later), you are advised to stand clear of any window, buses and other vehicles because you never know when someone will roll down the window and spit copious quantities of red saliva. It is almost a malaise there. You see on roads, driver of cars suddenly opening the doors to relieve their mouths of paan laden salvia, all the while when car is speeding. Being an Indian, you would expect me to be immune to this, but no, you have to see this phenomenon to believe it. Imagine thousands or may be lakhs of people in coordinated spitting spree and you get the picture. Custodians of Indore city and generally of Madhya Pradesh would do very well by launching a mass anti-spitting campaign.

How to Travel?
If you like backpacking and travel cheap and believe that best way of really seeing a place is by travelling in local transport then there are some things you should know about Madhya Pradesh. First, local buses here are as big as matchboxes but they contain an ocean of humanity within them. Chances are that if you happen to be any taller than 5 feet, then you have to cut off your legs below knees to fit your body inside the seats which are designed for kids. And obviously that is only if you can get a seat in bus which is more often than not packed like can of sardines. And if you could still survive the campiness, you have to face another challenge, smoke of beedis. People in these parts, love beedis and they love to smoke while travelling. And no, you can't complain to driver or conductor of bus because they themselves smoke. It is a normal, accepted behavior. Do I hear about smoking ban in public places! Nobody would have heard it here. Only thing which works is hostile stare and threat of violence.

Travel Times
And now something important, especially if you are time challenged and want to squeeze the time you are going to spend on road. Average speed possible while travelling in local buses is 20km/hr. So normally everywhere else in world, if your destination is 60 km away, you would expect to reach in 1 hour, but not in Madhya Pradesh. Here you should be happy if you can reach in 3 hours. The reasons are many, buses don’t run they drag and then they stop every 2 miles to unload and load sea of people. There are just too many people everywhere. Roads are so bad at places that they resemble lunar surface and at places they are as wide as pissmark. To make things worse, most drivers have no lane sense. By the way, the slowness of travel is not limited to just local buses but also to many trains. For example one of the trains which I almost took form Indore to Bhopal, around 300km away, takes
7 hours and stops at some 20 stations.

Where to Stay:
In most town getting a cheap place to stay is easy but do check water supply in toilets. In one of town called Pipariya , where I arrived very late in night , I got a room which the manager proudly told me was royal suite fitted with bathing tub and other modern amenities like a local type of four poster bed. Well, in morning, with my pants down I found out that there wasn’t any water in toilet and bath tub had cobwebs. In Ujjain, I had to fight and shut up hotel guys who would sit outside my room ,shout loudly and argue over lost towels from rooms, all at midnight. In Pachmarhi, the Bengali families which had invaded the town, had taken it on themselves to not let anyone sleep, in audible range, so excited were they at finally coming on picnic.

People, Food and Cows
In this Middle India, everyone seems to take middle stance, centre of both left and right. Binary logic is unknown in these parts. If you ask anyone some question, chances are that you will hardly get the definite answer. Also more people you ask, more varied answers you will get for same question. Don’t trust anyone for what he says. It is not that they are malicious. It is just that they are "like this only". And finally, nowhere else have I seen such veneration to cows. Even being and Indian and having default in-built deference to the holy animal, I found local devotion beyond my comprehension. In most cities or towns you will find posters and banners extorting public to save cow. In some places, like Ujjain, I saw proclamations like "Only Cow can save the universe". Blimey, how please! And in most towns you see cows abandoned on roads and forced to eat paper and plastic garbage. Ah! talking about eating and food, the little said the better. Place is not known for its cuisines. Or maybe it is because I am not that fond of food or a connoisseur so I didn’t look for places where I could relish some local dishes. But whatever I ate at places which you are bound to get to while backpacking (like bus stands, cheap hotels, railway stations etc.) was certainly not remarkable. I mean, what is the deal with Poha and Kachori and Jalebis for breakfast and lunch and dinner! I am sticking to vegetarianism and only option I could see was "spicy chats" masquerading as food. With all due respect “Poha Jalebi” is worse kind of food I have seen. Poha and Jalebi separately, I can understand ; But together? May before I leave this place, I will make an attempt and discover some food here.

Central India – what is?
Ok, so now that I have offloaded all my pent up anger, I can move on to positive side of things. For me, whatever little travels I did, have been a discovery of central India and I loved it. From Administrative point of view, central India comprises of states of Madhya Pradesh and newly formed Chhattisgarh. Though seeing central India from a historical perspective is more interesting because there are different regions each with its unique history and culture. This makes travel in each region unique. Malwa, Nimmar and Bundelkhand can be broadly seen as 3 distinct regions. Malwa is central west part occupying a plateau of volcanic origin. Ujjain, Indore, Mandu, Omkareshwar are some prominent places in Malwa. The culture of the region has had influences from Gujarati, Rajasthani and Marathi cultures and Malwi is the most commonly used language in villages. Nimmar lies on south west part of Madhya Pradesh and Khandwa and Burhanur are prominent towns in it. Nimadi languages or dialect is spoken in these parts. Bundelkhand is central northern parts in Madhya Pradesh and some places in Uttar Pradesh. Jhansi, Orcha, Gwalior, Jabalpur, Khajuraho etc. are important towns or cities in region. There have been some demands of making Bundelkhan into a separate state. Bundeli is a common dialect of region. Central India is also home to one of India's largest and (well) holy river called Narmada which forms boundary between south and North India as it flows from west to east. Flowing between Satpura and Vindhya hill ranges, Narmada has religious significance and in some village, I found people greeting others as "Narmade" (respect to Narmada), very heart warming. Satpura and Vindhya ranges were once thickly forested and housed various animals. Most of forests have now been cleared and animals poached for man's wanton desires. But many national parks and reserves have been created in recent times to control the damage and preserve some of natural bounty. Central India is also home to some ancient tribes and tribal tour is very exciting to see a different people and culture. I couldn’t do that because of being time poor. But will return some day.

So, Central India as it turned out is really the heart of India, as the MP Govt. tourism also says "India ka dil dekho" (come and see India’s heart). It has some amazing forests and tiger reserves in Bundelkhand and Malwa, Geologically, parts of it are as old as Gondwanaland and some of its cities like Ujjain have been at centre of golden period of Hinduism. Malwa region has been hotbed of political turmoil in times of kings and nawabs and is replete with architecturally significant sites. If you are patient and tolerant, then the region exposes it real beauty as I found out.

To be continued..................


Anonymous said...

Well, it seems like you had a hilarious experience in MP. Seriously after reading this article I was couldn’t control myself and was laughing like anything. Most of the things which you have mentioned were true, specially spitting everywhere, blindly worshiping cows, 5 feet buses and a big applause for close observation on Beedi.

Things are like this in MP but on some points I disagree with you. Like 20 stations in between Bhopal & Indore. It looks like you have boarded some special train (Passenger train) Also under Food section, it would be great if you would have mentioned the Chat gali of Indore which starts by 11pm at night and goes till 4 in morning. And common, “Poha Jalebi” is the divine food of MP; you might have not liked it but specialty of it is, you can have it round the clock and specially at railway station.

Every place have its own pros and cons. Listing all the cons is really sad for me :(. MP is really not that bad as you posted.

Gaurav said...

I am not saying MP is bad. Im fact I liked it a lot. As I said, one has to be patient and tolerant to see the better side. I am little low on patience but I am cultivating it. Wait for other parts of stories in coming week....

Anonymous said...


Shalabh said...

Nice Story. By the way, this inconsistent information malaise is common to most of India, including the North. My 4-5 months of travels in Himachal have taught me that most information I get locally is approximate at best and inaccurate at worst.

However, for me, this unpreditability adds that oomph to travelling. :)

Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.