On the map, it is just a brown line stealing up the length of the peninsula, starting from the tip at Kanyakumari, and gathering up Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Nagpur and Jabalpur as it arches into Varanasi. But out on the ground, NH7, the longest highway in the country, is likely to become a guiding cord as you traverse through the heart of India. On this drive the route, for the most part, follows this long and winding road. It is an ever-stretching carpet of asphalt unrolling before you, easing your way through stone and scrub, sand and soil. The road is a long line of changing landscapes. You encounter magnificent rock formations, roads so thickly canopied, they darken the tar; and parts so arid you can imagine yourselves marooned in a wild, unfriendly land. For the most part, though, the journey is enlivened by the people you meet: hospitable chai wallahs who push forward stools while they brew you a cup; farmers on bullock carts filled with hay observe you with shy interest; truck drivers riding colourful steed; groups of people who respond to requests for directions in helpful and utterly cacophonous choruses.

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The magnificent Charminar in Hyderabad
The magnificent Charminar in Hyderabad

Day 1
Route: Hyderabad-Basar
Distance: 211 km
Time: 4 hours 20 mins

Founded in the late 16th century by Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, Hyderabad has been known for centuries as a centre for the diamond and pearl trade in the Indian Subcontinent. Even today the city is called the ‘City of Pearls’, though now, along with its sister city Secunderabad, it has become one of the leaders in the information technology industry. Along with the city’s heritage sights such as Golconda Fort and the Charminar exist high-rises that house the offices of the leaders in the information technology trade. And the people drawn to this city have not only contributed to making it the fifth largest contributor to the nation’s GDP, but also to its car population and therefore traffic. However, road conditions, as seems to be the norm in the south, are excellent.

Leave the city after an early breakfast to avoid the rush hour traffic. Head northwards out of the city on the NH44 past Arepally. Once on the outskirts of Dichpally, about 19 km from Dhaggi, look out for the exit to Nizamabad. From Nizamabad, ask for directions to Basar, the first stopover on this route. 

Temple Town

Basar is best known as the home of the only temple to Saraswati, the goddess of learning, in India. Located on the banks of the Godavari, the temple attracts devotees from all over the country, but is particularly popular with young Hyderabadi parents whose children are just about to begin their education. For the traveller, the little town, no more than a village, offers the much needed peace and calm that a city can only ever dream to offer.

Things to See & Do

Basar, though heavily visited by pilgrims, is a pleasantly peaceful place. Even the bazaar is devoid of the usual dust and din. The Goddess Gyana Saraswathi temple’s loudspeaker announces the abhishekam at 4.00 am, waking you up. Don’t turn over and go back to sleep. Instead, get up and step out to walk on to the streets and take in the stillness and serenity. In the evening relax by the banks of the Godavari.

Post the Kurukshetra War, Sage Vyasa, along with his son and other disciples, left on a pilgrimage. After reaching the serene Kumaranchala Hills on the banks of the Godavari, he decided to settle. While Vyasa was meditating, the divine mother gave him darshan and ordained him to build temples for Saraswathi, Lakshmi and Kali. Her will was honoured and hence, due to the presence of the Shakti trio, Basar is considered to be the abode of the divine trinity.

Near the temple on the top of a hillock is Vyasa Gumfa, the cave where Vyasa had performed penance. The entrance is quite constricted, but within, the cave is wide and spacious.

A 2-day Basar Tour, organised by APTDC leaves every Saturday at noon from the Basheer Bagh office and covers the temples at Basar, Dichpalli Ramalayam, Alisagar, Raghunathalayam Quilla at Nizamabad and the Kalabhairava Swamy Temple near Kamareddi, with a night’s halt at the dormitory of the APTDC Guest House in Basar. Meals are not included.

Day 2

Route: Basar-Nagpur
Distance: 343 km
Time: 6 hours

After a peaceful night in Basar, wake up early in the morning to start your journey into Maharashtra. Head northwards out of the village to Bhaisa and then eastwards to Nirmal where you will rejoin the NH44 and follow it northwards to Nagpur. Stop for a hot meal on the way either on the outskirts of Adilabad or at one of the roadside dhabas.

Nagpur, the ‘City of Oranges’ and the capital of the erstwhile Central Provinces, meshes small town and metropolis, combining the advantages of both rather nicely. Founded by the Gond king of Deogad, Bakht Buland Shah, in 1702, it has some beautiful buildings and quite a bit of green. It also bears all the marks of a growing city; there are flyover constructions, traffic snarls and swanky multiplex-cum-shopping malls.

Things to See & Do

The Poddareshwar Ram Temple built of marble and sandstone
The Poddareshwar Ram Temple built of marble and sandstone

The Poddareshwar Ram Mandir on Central Avenue is a must-visit. Built in 1923, this edifice of marble and sandstone is beautiful. It is a family-owned temple complex with an attached dharamshala and goshala. Its architecture, carvings and murals are extremely absorbing.

Deekshabhoomi in Ramdashpeth, a 120-ft towering dome, was built to mark the conversion of Dr BR Ambedkar and thousands of his followers to Buddhism in 1956.

The dargah of Baba Tajuddin, located near the Ring Road on the way to Kamptee, is also worth visiting. A Sufi mast, he is listed as one of the five Sadgurus of his time. The shrine is situated next to a mental asylum, in which Baba Tajuddin was himself once incarcerated.

Shopping

While in Nagpur, do pick up the city’s famed oranges. The confectioners Haldiram’s have outlets across the city. Their sweets are irresistible and you can’t go without trying their speciality, the orange burfi. The outlets also offer thalis, authentic and well-made, which come highly recommended.

Day 3-4

Route: Nagpur-Pench National Park
Distance: 88 km
Time: 2.5 hours

Spend the night in Nagpur, and set out early the next morning for Pench National Park in Madhya Pradesh. Follow the NH44 till you see signs for the park’s Turia gate. 

The forests of Pench are famous for having within their limits, the tiger – king of the Indian jungle. This is Kipling country, and these are the very forests that inspired his well loved The Jungle Book. The park attracts wildlife enthusiasts by the thousands each year and while not all of them see the tiger, they definitely have a fabulous experience of moist and dry deciduous forests, a landscape of brown and green, that Pench is well-known for. The tiger, although the most charismatic, is not the only animal found here; leopard, dhole, wild boar, cheetal, sambar, nilgai, gaur, barking deer, chowsingha, langur, porcupine and blacknaped hare, all inhabit these undulating wilds. There are also several birds, including paradise flycatchers, raptors, vultures and racket-tailed drongos.

Also called the Indira Priyadarshini Pench Tiger Reserve, the park is part of the larger 2,500-sq-km Satpura-Maikal landscape. There are three gates to Pench: the Turia Gate, Karmajhuri Gate and Jamtara Gate. You can drive your own four-wheeler into the park, but only in the company of an authorised guide. Park Entry Indians ₹1,200; Foreigners ₹2,400; per round upto 6 pax

Things to See & Do

Jeep Safaris

Abhijit Bhatlekar
Jeep Safari at Pench
Jeep Safari at Pench

Morning Rides will be freezing in the winter months, take a blanket and wear warm clothes. At dawn, the jungle is surprisingly noisy – your guide will help you identify the various calls. Timings 6.00-9.00am

Evening Rides offer a burst of blue from a kingfisher or a frightened cheetal turning tail. Wild dogs, jackals, owls as well as birds add to the frisson. If the driver shuts off the engine and waits it out after hearing an alarm call, there’s a chance that a tiger may pass your way. Timings 3.00-6.00pm

Day 5

Route: Pench National Park-Tadoba
Distance: 221 km
Time: 5 hours

After two days of safaris and sightings, leave Pench for Tadoba. Take the NH44 back to Nagpur, where you can stop for a quick meal, and then continue on it for another 60 km until you reach Jamb. From here, take the SH264, and then the SH233 to the Khutwanda Gate. Navegaon Gate, though closer, should be avoided since the roads there are in terrible shape.

Mtdc
A prowling tiger at Tadoba
A prowling tiger at Tadoba

The 625 sq km Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve is one of the unsung sanctuaries of India. Nowhere near as touted as the parks of Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan, this southern, tropical, dry deciduous forest harbours some 43 tigers, not an inconsiderable achievement in these times of dwindling numbers.

If the Pench landscape is teak-dominated, brown and unvarying, Tadoba is green and offers much variety: bamboo thickets appear to contain infinite mysteries, little streams gurgle here and there, and copses intersperse with meadows. Apart from the tiger, Tadoba has leopards, sloth bears, gaurs, langurs, rusty spotted cats, Indian mouse deer, spotted deer, barking deer, sambar, wild boars, chowsingha, wild dogs and flying squirrels.

The park is named after a temple by the Tadoba Lake, practically at the centre of the park and dedicated to a local Gond eminence called Taru, who apparently died while fighting a tiger. Another reason this reserve is so interesting is that there doesn’t seem to be a core forest area that you aren’t allowed into and because the whole reserve is not very hilly, it is remarkably well served by roads.

Things to See & Do

This park is a lush forested area, with a wide variety of tree species. Bamboo thickets abound, little streams gurgle, and copses intersperse with meadows. The mahua is everywhere, with its distinctive smell. This park is home to tigers, panthers, bears, flying squirrels, cheetal, sambar, nilgai, chowsingha, barking deer and gaur, besides many species of birds and butterflies, and crocodiles. The waterholes dotted around the reserve are a beacon for animals. The roads inside, largely unpaved, are manageable by any car with a good suspension. Gypsys (seating six persons) are available for rent for a safari in Khutwanda and Moharli.

Tadoba Lake has nearly 20 marsh crocodiles, which may be seen floating by, or sunning on the banks. The temple dedicated to the local deity Taru is under a large tree by Tadoba Lake. Permission from the Forest Department is needed to visit the temple.

Day 6-7

Route: Tadoba-Warangal
Distance: 344 km
Time: 6 hours 40 mins

Take the afternoon safari and spend the night in Tadoba. The next morning, drive towards Chandrapur. Follow the Mancherial-Chandrapur-Nagpur Road to Mandamarri-Godavarikhani Road and then take the SH1, SH7 and SH3 to Warangal. Make sure you leave early and avoid driving on these stretches of road at night. There are dhabas and restaurants along the way, but if you want to reach before sunset, stock up on refreshments and stop only when necessary.

Architectural Treasure Trove

A view of the stunning 45-ft stone gateway to the Warangal Fort as you drive in is guaranteed to amaze you. Known as the hotbed of the revolutionary movement in the 1980s and 1990s, Warangal seldom seems to make it onto a tourist’s itinerary. But this city offers a wealth of architecture and exquisite sculptures that should not be missed.

Things to See & Do

Within the twin cities of Hanamkonda and Warangal, the obvious places to visit would be a whole lot of temples and the Warangal Fort. Getting an early start from your hotel room in the morning would enable you to be part of the aarti and puja. While at the fort and the 1,000 Pillar Temple, study the figurines, lotusshaped emblems, swans on arches, the lovely Kakatiya ladies and the architectural marvels on star-shaped platforms.

A carved pillar at the Thousand-Pillar Temple
A carved pillar at the Thousand-Pillar Temple

Built in 1163 by the Kakatiya king Rudradeva, the Thousand Pillar Temple rests on a star-shaped platform, and is evidence of the evolved nature of Kakatiya architecture. It is built in the Chalukyan style and has three shrines dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu and Surya. Inside the temple is a circular natya mandap. This is where the Kakatiya warriors used to perform the Perini Shiva Tandavam before going to war and also afterwards to celebrate victories. The 1,000 Pillar Temple comes to life during the Shivaratri festival in February when devotees walk on fiery embers as a mark of faith. Sample the laddoo and pulihora (tamarind rice) prasadam and you are bound to go back and buy some more.

Bhadrakali Temple is located on a hilltop and noted for its stone image of Goddess Bhadrakali in a sitting posture. The goddess with eight arms, a weapon in each, wears a captivating, fierce expression. Women throng this temple in huge numbers seeking strength from the devi to fulfill their wishes and fight obstacles. You are considered lucky if you can pick up a few glass bangles and flowers which are offered to the deity and distributed later.

Entrance arch at the Bhadrakali temple, Warangal
Entrance arch at the Bhadrakali temple, Warangal

The Hydri Darwaza at the 13th-century Warangal Fort’s entrance is so beautiful that you just have to stop and run your fingers over the ancient boundary wall. Inside there is a museum where the archaeology department has put several pieces of history depicting the Kakatiya rule. There is also a crumbling Swayambhudevalayam (a Shiva Temple) worth taking a peek at. The most interesting, however, are cannon balls of those times, some weighing half a kg and others even up to 25 kg!

Tucked away in a quiet lane next to Warangal’s NIT, Fathima Church technically falls in Kazipet in an area called Fathimanagar. This Roman Catholic cathedral is spread out over a large area, and is beautifully lit and serene. Plan a visit in the evening – at around 6.30 pm – for the service (which is in Telugu, but the priest translates in English as well). 

Day 8

Route: Warangal-Hyderabad
Distance: 245 km
Time: 3 hours

After two restful nights in Warangal, head back to Hyderabad on the NH202.

The Route

The route follows the NH44 for the most part. When in the national parks, keep an eye out for road signs that lead to the entrances to the park. Along the way, especially when you are driving to Warangal, ask for directions – the locals are very helpful. The NH202 will take you back from Warangal to Hyderabad.

Tips and Tricks

It’s best to leave Hyderabad early, both to avoid traffic within the city and the harshness of the sun. The route is dotted with petrol pumps (most of which have restrooms), auto repair shops and food stops. The two national parks on this itinerary are closed during the rains (June-September). The roads inside the parks are rough tracks. The jeeps on hire are open ones, so be armed with hats, scarves and sunscreen.

This route is dotted with eateries offering food and tea, petrol pumps, and shops that do motor repairs and such for the most part. It’s only when you leave the national and state highways to reach Pench or Tadoba that you may be slightly inconvenienced – you have to drive on dirt roads and there are almost no roadside eateries.

Stopovers

Basar

Where to Stay & Eat

AP Tourism’s Haritha Hotel (Cell: 09848074462; Tariff: ₹300-1,600) is in a scenic spot. Meals are available here.

Indraprastha Resort (Tel: 08752255100, Cell: 08008797777; Tariff: ₹3,000) on the highway has 40 rooms, a decent restaurant as well as ample parking.

There are several community-specific choultries. Lodges have also come up to cater to the festive occasions of Maha Shivratri, Devi Nava Rathri, Dattatreya Jayanthi, Vasantha Panchami and Vyasa Purnima, when there is a rush.

The Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam Guest House (Tel: 243503, 243550; Tariff: ₹800-1,500) has AC and non-AC rooms. Meals are available on order.

Basar being a holy place, nonvegetarian food, including eggs, is strictly forbidden. You get simple, wholesome meals at the eateries. Due to the proximity to the border, you can even get a taste of Maharashtrian food. Sakkar (sugar) is added in everything. Kamadhenu and Gayathri just opposite the temple have good food. But remember, if it is not festival time, all eateries shut shop by 8.30 pm.

Nagpur

Where to Stay & Eat

Nagpur has a variety of hotels. Among the luxury options are Tuli International (Tel: 0712-6653555; Tariff: ₹6,250-13,000) at Sadar, Pride Hotel (Tel: 2291102/ 06, 6622555; Tariff: ₹6,250-14,000) on Wardha Road and Centre Point (Tel: 2420910, 6699410; Tariff: ₹5,800-15,000) at Ramdashpeth. Hotel Hardeo (Tel: 6684888; Tariff: ₹5,100-6,100) at Sitabuldi is another decent option.

Hotel Centre Point, Nagpur
Hotel Centre Point, Nagpur

The pick of the mid-range options are Hotel Skylark (Tel: 2724654, 6653999; Tariff: ₹1,150-2,500), which has nice rooms and good service, and Darshan Towers (Tel: 6616845-47, 2726845-47; Tariff: ₹2,195-3,695).

Among the economy options are Hotel Grand (Tel: 6617850; Tariff:  ₹770-1,900), Blue Diamond (Tel: 2727461; Tariff: ₹900-1,800) and India Sun (Tel: 2768641; Tariff: ₹1,200-2,400).

Nagpur has a variety of restaurants that offer various cuisines. Zinq at Sadar has Italian, Nanking at Sadar offers Chinese food and Barbeque on Palm Road is great for Indian fare. For something typically Nagpurian though, try Saoji-style mutton or chicken on offer at Saoji Bhojanalayas that dot the city. Be warned though, the food is spicy. 

Pench National Park

Where to Stay & Eat

Taj Safari’s Baghvan (Mumbai Tel: 02266011825; Tariff: ₹32,000-45,000, with meals) is the best option in the national park. The 15-acre property has air-cooled cottages. Pench Jungle Camp (Tel: 07695-232843, Cell: 09630222417; Tariff:  ₹9,500-24,000) has cottages, rooms and tents. All rooms are air-cooled.

MPSTDC’s Kipling’s Court (Tel: 232830; Tariff: ₹3,690-5,690, dorm bed ₹1,290) has rooms with small balconies and also arranges safaris. Mowgli’s Den (Cell: 09300109890; Tariff: ₹2,800-4,000) has igloo-shaped cottages.

It is best to eat where you are staying. Kipling’s Court restaurant is open to non-residents and serves all meals.

Tadoba Tiger Reserve

Where to Stay & Eat

The best option here is Tiger Trails Jungle Lodges (Nagpur Tel: 0712-6541327, Cell: 09822930703; Tariff:  ₹8,000-10,000, per person, with meals) – a country-style guest house in the Chichghat Forest Valley. The luxurious Svasara Resort (Reservations Cell: 09370008008; Tariff: ₹10,000, per person, with meals and safari) is near the Kolara Gate. The MTDC Tourist Lodge (Cell: 08879222057; Tariff: ₹1,800-2,250) in Moharli village is situated on the Irai Lake.

Svasara Resort, Tadoba Tiger Reserve
Svasara Resort, Tadoba Tiger Reserve

Other good options at Tadoba National Park include Tadoba Tiger Resort (Cell: 09325718691, 09372335355; Tariff: ₹2,700-3,600, dorm bed ₹900) and Resort Saras (Cell: 09422139353; Tariff: ₹4,0004,500), both at Moharli.

For more information, contact Shalik Jogwe (Cell: 09420303020), a wildlife conservationist who facilitates trips to the national park.

Warangal

Where to Stay & Eat

Warangal has a few good hotels and a host of budget lodges. Since there is a huge rush during the summer holiday months and during the Shivaratri period, it would be wise to book ahead.

Telangana Tourism’s Haritha Kakatiya (Tel: 0870-2562236-37, Cell: 09951022203; Tariff: ₹1,731-2,720) has a restaurant as well as a bar. Hotel Ashoka (Tel: 2578491-92; Tariff: ₹1,575-3,250) is among the older hotels in Warangal, offering AC rooms. Hotel Ratna’s (Tel: 2500645/ 49; Tariff: ₹1,100-1,900) rates are cheaper. The rooms tend to smell a bit musty out here, but are good enough if you are not looking for top-level luxury. Hotel Suprabha (Tel: 2573888, 2574888; Tariff: ₹2,000-2,500) is relatively new, and offers Internet and complimentary breakfast, and is ideal when travelling with family.

Hotel Suprabha
Hotel Suprabha

The Kanishka Coffee Shop at Hotel Ashoka offers decent meals. Stick to the South Indian fare and you will not be disappointed. If you have to have dal and rajma and roti, there is Hotel Ashoka’s Kadambari Restaurant, but when in Warangal do as Orugallus do, and eat their traditional cuisine. Food at Suprabha’s Snowball Restaurant is quite good and you get the usual multicuisine menu. If vegetarian, pay a visit to their Cruise Coffee Shop. The masala and rava dosas are superb, and your sambhar bowls keep getting refilled. The thali meals leave you spoilt for choice. Also try the mirchi bajjis, sold on roadside stalls.

Driving Options

If the Basar detour does not appeal to you, you could break journey at Nizamabad (183 km from Hyderabad) instead. There are some accommodation options at Nizamabad, and you may want to look around the forests, monuments and temples there. If you’d prefer not to break off from the NH44, you could halt at Nirmal (210 km from Hyderabad), a bustling town famous for wooden toys and a style of painting bearing its name. A further 80-odd km brings you to Adilabad, another place where you can also halt. 

If your schedule allows fewer days, skip Basar and head straight to Nagpur; the drive (423 km from Hyderabad) is slightly demanding, but doable with sensible breaks. If you are still constrained for time, you could also limit your stay in Pench to one day and a night, i.e. two forest outings. On the other hand, extending the stay presents no trouble at all. The experience of both Pench and Tadoba will be enhanced by an additional day each and even Nagpur deserves a more leisurely look if possible.

THE DRIVE

Route: Hyderabad-Basar (211 km)-Nagpur (343 km)-Pench (88 km)-Tadoba (221 km)Warangal (344 km)-Hyderabad (145 km)
Distance: 1,473 km
Time: 8 days
States: Telangana, Maharashtra & Madhya Pradesh