Australia is sharpening its focus on Madhya Pradesh. As a partner country to its impressive investment summit last year, I saw firsthand the significant Indian and foreign business interest in a state that has grown around 10 per cent every year over the past decade and whose agricultural growth is touching 25 per cent. Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan told me recently, MP is at the heart of India, open for business and committed to good governance. I visited the state with my family last week.
We started in Khajuraho, one of the state’s four Unesco world heritage sites. “Doesn’t it have rude sculptures?” asked my 10-year-old, brow a little furrowed. “We’ll see,” I said. The temples are magnificent, built over a thousand years ago and evoking through an astonishing array of sculptures the life, laughter, music and devotion of a celebratory culture and profound religion.
The myriad sculptures are a perfect mixture of exuberance and poise. There is such skill and acute observation in their rendition and so much in them which so immediately chimes with the joys and preoccupations of our own lives. Above them all, a crescendo of golden sandstone spires that conjure up the Himalayas, abode of the gods, and complete the symmetry of truly magnificent temples.
We spent hours looking at these preserved miracles and not once did the brow furrow again, although on the odd occasion I did detect a quickly shuffled step or averted eye. But on the erotic parts, which really are the least of it, my son put it best: “They celebrate life and the temples are alive with living.”
Next stop were the Bandhavgarh and Kanha nature reserves. Apart from tigers, there are leopards, wild dogs, sloth bears, antelope and hundreds of variously resplendent birds. But beyond this, is the rare and quiet beauty of the parks themselves. Old sal forests sheltering their care in the shade and along soft leaf-strewn paths; monkeys dancing in the treetops; golden meadows alight with flame trees and cut by sparkling waters; the iridescent blue of a kingfisher’s wing caught by the sun sometimes flickering through; ancient, imposing ridges of granite casting long shadows into the dying day; deer contentedly grazing in the gentle light; big blue skies streaked by the whitest clouds, like home.
Did we see the Lord of the Jungle? Not at first, just fearfully large, fresh pug marks in the sand; in themselves thrilling enough. Nature is a teacher. Kids put away their screens and scanned the horizon and learnt not everything comes at the flick of a switch. Patience is a virtue: that they found. In the end we were rewarded. We were close, close enough to almost touch. More experienced tiger travellers said you never forget such majesty, our guide said he still seeks it every day and as the years go by, bows with an ever greater appreciation of the need to ensure the survival of this mighty creation.
Not a bump in the road from Kanha to Jabalpur. Train on time and pleasant from there to Bhopal. More beautiful countryside along the way, a patchwork of green and gold undulating fields, flowering mango trees and picturesque villages all painted blue.
For decades, Bhopal has been synonymous with one of the world’s worst industrial disasters, Union Carbide’s gas leak in which thousands died. That has stolen its soul for too long. More than 30 years on from that tragedy, Bhopal’s future is brightening as the capital of one of India’s more dynamic states. A highlight was the new Madhya Pradesh Tribal Museum. This was of particular interest because DNA studies are now connecting our aboriginal peoples with ancestors in India. This is a rich heritage in India and it was wonderful to see a world-class presentation — their homes, art, stories and sports — of the many different tribal peoples of MP and Chhattisgarh. This is a link between our countries we should amplify.
We ended with a curious homecoming for me. Thirty years ago, I agreed with a friend at university to visit India and see Sanchi. That year I came to India (my friend did not) but did not get to Sanchi; over many trips and a previous posting since, I did not get to there. It was worth the wait.
Another world heritage site, the Great Stupa built more than 2,000 years ago is a revelation. It sits atop a hill surrounded by forest, looking out over exquisite countryside with a river meandering through. It is a haven of peace and tranquillity, captured by the great hemispherical stupa itself, which is said to symbolise both the upturned alms bowl of a Buddhist monk and an umbrella of protection for those who follow the path.
Back in Bhopal we did the traditional highlights ritual with the kids in the shade of an ancient tree. “This whole state is a highlight,” said my son. “Seeing a tiger in the singing grasses,” said my daughter. “I know I keep saying this but India is just amazing,” said the little one. Worlds within worlds. Thank you, Madhya Pradesh.
Patrick Suckling is the Australian High Commissioner to India.