Madhya Pradesh, also known as the heart of incredible India, has so much to offer and the places to visit near Bhopal are no exception. I decided to tick them off my overflowing bucket list and headed to the centre of India. I love raw travel, so I decided to take an overnight train from Delhi to Bhopal. However, if you are traveling in India for the first time, I would recommend taking one of the short flights that operate daily between all major cities and Bhopal.
Places to visit near Bhopal
My first place of interest close to Bhopal city was Udayagiri Caves. Located at a distance of 62 kms from Bhopal, there are two different routes via Sanchi to the caves. Though I preferred to ride through the shortest route, I will not suggest that road if you are traveling by car.
Established between 4th – 5th centuries A.D., the Udayagiri caves house some of the oldest Hindu rock cut sculptures and inscriptions in India. They are considered to be an important archaeological site from the Gupta Period (an ancient Indian empire that existed from circa 320 to 550 CE and covered northern, central and parts of southern India). The complex houses 20 caves, out of which two are dedicated to Jainism and the remaining 18 are directly related to Hinduism.
I was amazed to see the massive relief sculpture of the Hindu god Vishnu in his incarnation as a boar-headed Varaha. Varaha is believed to be the third reincarnation among the top ten principal avatars of Lord Vishnu. Apart from this massive sculpture of the demonic messiah, there are caves where rock sculptures of Shiva, Ganesha, and other gods and goddesses are also carved.
For history buffs there are three caves inside the complex where Sanskrit inscriptions in Gupta lipi (characters) are inscribed. To my surprise, my guide told me that the caves have not been thoroughly investigated by archaeologists. Do pay a visit and see if you can discover something new.
Sanchi Group of Stupas
After spending an hour in the Udayagiri caves, I moved on to my next destination for the day, Sanchi. Famous for its Buddhist stupas and monuments, it is a small village just 45 kms from Bhopal. Touted as one of the most visited tourist sites in central India, the nostalgic allure of Sanchi can be experienced through its stupas and the magnificent carvings on its facade.
The stupas were built by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd Century BC and are considered to be the oldest stone structures of India. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the year 1989. Though it was commissioned by the Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd Century BC, the stupas enjoyed the patronage of four different empires – Mauryan, Shungas, Satvayanas and the Guptas. Until the 12th century BC, work continued on Sanchi, after which it was abandoned.
The moment I entered, I was awestruck by the majesty of these Mauryan stupas. The entrance is dominated by four intricately carved gateways. They truly showcase the finest of Buddhist art in India. The four gateways illustrate Buddhist legends, known as Jatakas and events in Ashoka’s life.
Though I was mesmerized by the sheer beauty of the carved gateways, my curious eyes kept searching for the form of Buddha. I was getting impatient when I saw a monk who was going round the stupa offering his prayers. I was sure he could show me the elusive Buddha, so I waited for him just outside the northern gate. When I asked him why there were no images of Buddha on the carved gateway, he told me that the stupas were built on the principals of the Hinayana system of Buddhism, where Buddha was never portrayed in sculptures and paintings. Interesting!
Another intriguing fact about this place is that in the pre-independence era, the British wanted to ship the gateways to England to protect them and even the French emperor Napoleon had shown interest to posses one of the gateways. Thankfully they remain where they belong.
In the words of Buddha, “It is better to travel well than to arrive”. I headed back to Bhopal delighted with my day, knowing that I treaded the path once taken by legends.
I had a wonderful time at Sanchi and I rank it on top for places to visit near Bhopal.
Bhimbetka Rock Shelters
Next day, after an early breakfast I went to visit the Bhimbetka Rock Shelters that lay 45 km south east of Bhopal. Exhibiting the life of the Stone Age people in the sub-continent, they are the richest gallery of pre-historic art in India. Some of the rock paintings found at Bhimbetka are more than 35,000 years old. The paintings inside the caves also prove the early existence of dance art in India. It was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003.
Apparently, the rocks bear a striking resemblance to rock art sites like Kakadu National Park in Australia, the cave paintings of the Bushmen in Kalahari Desert and the upper Paleolithic Lascaux cave paintings in France.
For me the Bhimbetka rock shelters were a completely different world. It was a city of the earliest humans on this planet. There are about 750 rock shelters spread over the Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary under 5 core zones of Bineka, Bhonrawali, Bhimbetka, Lakha Juar (East), and Lakha Juar (West). However, Bhimbetka steals the show because it reflects the continuous sequence of the Stone Age culture in the form of rock paintings marked inside the shelters.
Early men have inked their anger, joy, fear, sadness, and love on these walls. A particular zoo rock shelter will acquaint you with a Mesolithic boar and other animals like elephants, rhinoceros, boar, spotting dears, and snake.
Another feature of the shelter is a small cave temple inside the core zone. It is believed that Bhim, the hero deity of the epic Mahabharata, lived here for a year or so during his 14-year exile. The name Bhimbetka is derived from the Sanskrit word of Bhim + Baithka that means ‘the sitting place of Bhim’.
After Bhimbetka, I was on my way to the Bhojeshwar Temple. Situated 28 kms from Bhopal in Bhojpur, this quiet place is known for its huge Shiva Lingam (a phallic-shaped representation of the Hindu deity, Shiva, the emblem of the generative power in nature). Crafted out of a single rock, the Shiva Lingam in Bhojpur is believed to be India’s largest Lingam. The doorway of the temple is magnificently built with two finely sculpted figures standing on either side, while the temple has a brilliantly rising dome supported by four pillars.
I would recommend visiting this temple in the morning to avoid the crowd of devotees. Interestingly, this temple was never completed. Though it is a remarkable monument, I wonder why such a big lingam was built. Was it made to show royal grandeur or utmost devotion to Shiva? Either way, it is a sight to behold.
I would definitely recommend including Bhopal if you are traveling to central India. You can put your questions in the comment box and I would love to answer them. If you want us to plan a holiday in Central India and Bhopal for you, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.