Inside the just-opened art district at the Mandu Festival, the bristles of local artist Rajendra Yadav’s brush swiftly enveloped a wooden panel with the intricate patterns of Gond art. “For our tribal community, painting is a celebration of life,” says Yadav, whose works at the festival’s art district pointed to a changing direction in tourism strategy for Madhya Pradesh.
For a society reeling from the catastrophic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, rewriting of programming by the Mandu Festival to include a tribal art that celebrates life provided the much-needed relief. “This edition of the festival is a huge turning point. You have something like a normal life offered here,” says Krish Chowdhry (of travel industry-specific B2B marketing company Candid India) who participated in the three-day event.
Touted as a major wildlife tourism destination, Madhya Pradesh is changing its identity to align with the needs of a world paralysed by the pandemic. The second edition of the Mandu Festival, held in the hill town of Madhya Pradesh’s Malwa region during February 13-15, added paintings, art installations, morning ragas and yoga sessions to cycle tours, heritage walks, horse trails and fishing trips for its participants from across the country.
While fusion folk band Kabir Cafe performed a soulful rendition of poet Kabir’s verses on the opening day of the festival, a crafts district and a food district displayed a rich local culinary heritage and handicrafts.
“The town lends itself beautifully to people who want to unwind,” says Sonia Meena, deputy secretary, Madhya Pradesh tourism department, which is rebranding the state as a wellness destination. “Post-Covid-19, people have become oriented to wellness,” adds Meena, additional managing director of Madhya Pradesh Tourism.
When the state’s rebranding as a wellness destination is complete, the Mandu Festival will be remembered as an important foundation. Alongside an array of major wildlife sanctuaries in the state like the Kanha Tiger Reserve, Bandhavgarh National Park and Panna National Park, calm and nature-endowed small towns like Mandu will bestow the rare status of a wellness destination to Madhya Pradesh. “Mandu is not very crowded and suited to visitors seeking mindfulness,” says Meena.
There were several takers for the yoga sessions and fishing trips during the Mandu Festival. It helped that the sleepy town with just 15,000 inhabitants boasts of 23 notified water bodies. The state tourism department is also investing in new products like eco tourism and rural tourism under a responsible tourism strategy to add weight to its wellness campaign.
Tour operators are excited at the prospect of adding a wellness destination like Mandu to their list during the pandemic. “Mandu is a beautiful destination that offers peace and tranquility. There are many quiet spots in the hill town where one can indulge in yoga and meditation,” says Prabhat Verma, executive director, Le Passage to India, part of TUI India, the country’s leading inbound tour operator.
Mandu, Verma says, is usually offered by tour operators as a monsoon destination. “Thanks to the Mandu Festival, travel agents and tour operators are now convinced that the town could be promoted as a wellness destination,” he adds. “It is an ideal place for rest, relaxation and rejuvenation.”
History and heritage of the town, too, are aligning with Mandu’s newfound role as a wellness destination. At the Mandu Festival, the participants were treated to a sound and light show at one of the town’s many forts, narrating its rich history under the Paramara dynasty, the Khalji Sultans and the Mughals. A highlight of the show was the fascinating love story of Sultan Baz Bahadur and poet Rani Rupmati the town witnessed in the 15th century.
“The story of Baz Bahadur and Rani Rupmati is authentic, but there is a lot of hype built around it,” says Sanjay Kumar Kothari, CEO of Kolkata-based Just Holidays, which specialises in high-end leisure travel. “I haven’t seen any other domestic destination situated on a small hill with so much history,” adds Kothari. “Jaipur is comparable, but it is on a plain.”
Adds Veneeta Rawat, director, Amazing Vacations (based in Mumbai), who participated in the Mandu Festival: “The monuments in Mandu are spectacular and the world needs to know about them.” The ancient history of Mandu, witnessed in the ruins of the Lohani caves and temples scattered in the town and medieval monuments like Jami Masjid and Jahaz Mahal, pack a rich heritage.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer
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