On the clifftop above Gwalior, where one of the finest living forts in India has been going about its business since 1486, we can hear the faint cacophony of car horns, firecrackers and music. It's Basant Panchami, the auspicious spring season of weddings. Outside the palace, whose graceful details and bloody history have left us as much chilled as charmed, the fortress seethes with life.
An elite school for boys, a Sikh pilgrim shrine and a busy hospital add their own brands of noise and colour. Fragments of a vanishing Gwalior cling to the warren of lanes in the old quarter of the city below, where dairymen, millers and the sellers of hay, keep a country toehold among the cobblers, quilters and cycle repairers whose tiny shops overflow on to the streets.
Drive 75 miles south of Agra or take the comfortable Shatabdi Express train to Gwalior, and you find the pace slowing with every mile. The vast, central north Indian state of Madhya Pradesh is something like Rajasthan must have seemed to European visitors in the 1930s: a place of infinite riches but without today's hassle and hordes. True, the riches are more widely scattered. You need wheels here and you need stamina. But it's worth it.
In Gwalior we stay at the newly renovated Usha Kiran Palace, once the guesthouse of one of India's most powerful ruling families. Italian tiles, crunchy silk curtains and early photographs of the maharajas getting up to high jinks with their British guests brighten a 19th-century extravaganza of a building. Its eccentricity pales into insignificance beside the Scindias' Jai Vilas Palace next door where the museum collection takes kitsch to a whole new scale. We're talking three-and-a-half ton chandeliers here, not to mention a carpet the size of a couple of tennis courts and a silver model train, which once pottered round the royal dinner table laden with decanters and cigars.
Among the marvels of Madhya Pradesh, it is Orchha, 75 miles east of Gwalior whose siren song has most effectively lured us back. A ghost city, marooned in a bend of the Betwa river, Orchha has been abandoned since the late 18th century, when the Bundela kings moved away. Green parakeets swoop in through the scalloped windows of more than 80 ruinous temples, palaces and monuments. We seek out the vividly remembered old caretaker in the Raj Mahal palace, whose lack of English is no bar to the loving detail with which he brings to life the exploits of the gods, depicted in flaking murals.
Modern Orchha takes a deep breath in the evenings when the coach parties en route between Agra and the temples of Khajuraho have gone. We sit peacefully by the river as the cows wander homewards and children splash in the shallows. Outside the ice cream-coloured temple, yet more wedding parties struggle through the throng, the anxious-looking teenage brides guided by giggling friends among the wandering cows and the sellers of sweetmeats, garlands and vermilion powder. At 7pm the doors of the temple fly open as a soldier with a fixed bayonet presents arms and we are sucked inside with the crowd as the nightly puja for the god-king Rama begins.
As historic monuments, the fabulous temples of Khajuraho, another four hours' drive to the east, no longer qualify as "living"; but exultant life, abundant, sensuous and uninhibited, breathes from every surface. The famed eroticism of the 10th- and 11th-century sculptures that cover the exterior walls draw hordes of visitors, but the serene parkland across which the three groups of temples are scattered easily absorbs them. We ignore the guides with the furtive, plastic hand mirrors and take in the whole show: gods, elephants and amorous couples alike. My favourites are the tiers of gorgeous stone girls poised on every façade, wearing little else but faint satisfied smiles. As a celebration of all human activity, Khajuraho amounts to a round of applause for life itself.
The national parks of Madhya Pradesh claim some of the highest remaining concentrations of tigers left in the subcontinent, their population currently under threat as never before, both from the illegal skin trade and from forest laws giving potential access to up to 40 million tribal people.
With three days in Bandhavgarh National Park, we are virtually promised a sighting. Sure enough, eight encounters of the stripy kind ensue. There's an element of circus in these celebrity walkabouts, involving radio signals, flashing cameras and a frenzied revving of 4x4s. At siesta time, a cavalcade of elephants is on hand to carry spotters to wherever the big cats may be snoozing. Nevertheless, the moment when monkeys and deer suddenly call out in alarm and a barred patch of shadow detaches itself from the undergrowth to stroll nonchalantly across our path is still a memory to trip the heart.
What's new in the Indian jungle is the application of South African eco-safari know-how in the shape of apartnership between the Taj Group of hotels and CCAfrica. At Bandhavgarh, we see the outcome; relaxed, stylish, super-professional, with staff for whom nothing seems too much trouble, Mahua Kothi makes a promising start on ushering India's luxury wildlife tourism to a whole new level.
Madhya Pradesh's days as a sleepy tourist backwater may be numbered.
1. TAKE THE TRAIN: DELHI
A rail journey is a must-do Indian travel experience. The high-speed, air-conditioned Shatabdi Express makes light of getting from Delhi to Gwalior, the start of your Madhya Pradesh travels. There are two departures every day and breakfast or dinner are included in the ticket, which costs from $17 (£9.40) one-way.
2. GWALIOR FORT
Even if the daily son et lumière show at 7.30pm isn't usually your thing, the performance at the Man Mandir Palace inside Gwalior Fort is unmissable, if only for the chance to spend an hour contemplating a superb example of 15th-century Hindu architecture.
3. ROYAL STYLE IN GWALIOR
Usha Kiran Palace (00800 45881825; tajhotels.com) in Gwalior is a grandiose, Gleneagles-style hotel. Despite a sharp new makeover, which has added a beguiling spa and two swish garden suites, the atmosphere clings to its stately past as the maharaja's guest house. Meals are excellent and make sure you ask for a rooftop dinner. Doubles start at from US$215(£119) per room per night.
4. JAIN TEMPLES, SONAGIRI.
Wild peacocks patrol some 80 gleaming Jain shrines that spill like sugar cubes down the hillside at Sonagiri 42 miles south east of Gwalior. In the monastery courtyard below, naked ascetics dispense advice to villagers. Tourists are rare in this unique place.
Hung with bees' nests and dozing bats, the pinky-ochre Sir Singh Bundela Palace rears seven storeys high over a busy market town 18 miles north west of Jhansi. It's easy to get lost in its labyrinthine corridors and stairways but the flaking frescos and exquisite stonework of the royal apartments on the top floors are worth the climb.
Orchha, with its palaces, temples and tombs crumbling peacefully along the banks of the Betwa River, has to be one of the most romantic spots in north India. You need a couple of days to make the most of the sites.
Academic arguments rage around the eroticism of the sculptures that decorate the three groups of magnificent temples on the Khajuraho World Heritage site. Whatever theories prevail, there is plenty to keep you mesmerised among the graceful stone dancing girls, the gods and demons and armies of elephants that crowd every surface of the 1,000 year-old façades.
8. BANDHAVGARH PARK
Stately Sal forest, open grassland, ancient cave dwellings and the ruins of a huge fortress is where you stand a good chance of meeting a tiger. This beautiful national park opens from October to June.
9. A FIVE-STAR SAFARI
Informal, super-spoiling (think flower petals in the tub and a personal butler), Mahua Kothi at Bandhavgarh National Park is the first of a new wave of luxury eco-lodges offered by Taj Safaris (00800 4588 1825; tajsafaris.com). South-African trained naturalists interpret the jungle with professional zeal during the daily safari activities. One night starts at US$380 (£210) per person, per night, full board with all activities and guiding.
10. FORGOTTEN CITY
Hire a bike to explore one of north India's most evocative ghost towns. The hilltop ruins of Mandu, 60 miles south west of Indore, include some of the finest Islamic buildings in Asia - their elegant simplicity is said to have influenced the builders of the Taj Mahal. Watch the sunset over the plains from the Nil Kanth Palace.
THE COMPACT GUIDE
HOW TO GET THERE:
Juliet Clough travelled courtesy of cazenove + loyd and Taj Safaris. An 11-night, tailor-made trip to Delhi and Madhya Pradesh with cazenove + loyd (020-7384 2332; cazloyd.com) starts at £2,706 per person. This includes a stay at the Usha Kiran Palace in Gwalior, the Taj Chandela at Khajuraho, Mahua Kothi and the Taj Ambassador in Delhi. The price includes return flights, transfers, accommodation on a b&b basis, and some meals.
India Tourism (020-7437 3677; incredibleindia.org).Reuse content