Nicknamed the Heart of India because of its central location, the state of Madhya Pradesh is the historical home to countless grand monuments and chest-pounding natural beauty.
Home to the vibrant capital city of Indore, three UNESCO World Heritage sites, vast national parks, rare wildlife and countless romantic legends, it’s little wonder that the Madhya Pradesh tourism offering was honoured with the Best Tourism State Award in 2012.
One such site of outstanding beauty is the ruined city of Mandu, a fortress town first mentioned in a Sankrit inscription in 555AD that became the setting for many a tale of love, loss, death and victory.
Seduced by its romantic past Kalpana Sunder travels to Mandu and lets the 21st century drift away…
Welcome to the pleasure palace
It’s like a scene from the Arabian Nights. The Jahaz Mahal in Mandu is named so after a reflection – they say that on moonlit nights, when the building casts its shadow on the waters, it looks like a ship. The former pleasure palace of the sybaritic king Ghiyas-ud-Din Khilji, it’s said to have housed 15,000 women, some of whom weren’t just a part of his harem, but also his bodyguards. They came from as far as Turkey and Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and the king trained them in the arts, music and defence. I’m lost in a surreal world of elegant palaces, magnificent mosques, centuries-old towers, medieval reservoirs and Wonder Women. Legendary tales are woven into the history of Mandu, the medieval kingdom that’s 98km from Indore.
I drive to Mandu through golden wheat fields dotted with small villages against the backdrop of the Vindhya Range. As I approach, there’s a deep ravine, a natural moat of sorts, leading to a plateau with fortified walls running for almost 45km. Tendrils of mist obscure the facades covered with shiny moss. Mandu started as a Hindu kingdom in the 10th-Century under Raja Bhoj and was later called Shadiabad or the City of Joy.
I ramble through the ruins with my guide Haneef who claims that the town’s architecture is unparalleled. We’re in the Royal Enclave, a part of Mandu that has a cluster of palaces and structures built around two artificial lakes. There are manicured lawns, flowerbeds and women dressed in rainbow-coloured saris (scruffy kids in tow) sitting on benches and having a snack. The two-storeyed Jahaz Mahal has pools shaped like a tortoise and a lotus, fed by a Persian wheel. What’s amazing is the medieval filtration system that used cloth, charcoal and sand to slow down the flow of water through snake-like spirals set in the floor. It’s said that when Emperor Jehangir and his wife Noor Jehan spent some time here, the entire building was lit up with lamps.
Elephant parking round the back
I walk to Hindola Mahal, a sandstone building with sloping walls that gives the illusion of swaying. With exquisite latticework, carvings of gods and goddesses, wide arches and soaring windows, this one’s a stunner. Today, there’s no roof, but a ramp at the back was apparently the place for the king to get on to the second floor from his elephant. This is ancient engineering at its best – the ingenious Champa Baoli with an arrangement of steps, subterranean chambers and balconies that lead downward from a pool of cool water would trap the winds blowing off the lake. The water is said to have had the fragrance of champak (magnolia) that provided sweet relief in the warm Malwa summers to the nobility.
I enjoy the fact that I can walk through the deserted ruins with nobody to disturb my thoughts. There’s just the sound of the breeze and the occasional screech of a koel. I walk through the Turkish bath created by Afghan rulers to remind them of their ancestral lands – the ceilings have apertures cut like stars to let light in. And an open-air theatre with three punctures in the wall to flash lights on the stage. I go back in time to debauched rulers and dancing girls and can almost hear the tinkling of bells.
Memorialised in marble
Mandu village is a cluster of rustic huts, tiny shops and carts selling tangy jaljeera and bulbous baobab fruits. Impish children play a raucous game of cricket and herds of goat and cattle walk by nonchalantly. In the centre is the imposing Jami Masjid, which was modelled on the design of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria.
I walk through long, arched chambers, ornate jaali screens, massive colonnades, decorated mihrabs and a massive prayer hall with a pulpit. Inside are brilliant blue lapis lazuli panels. There are three large domes and eight small ones – used to act as sound amplifiers for the preacher. Constructed over a period of 30-odd years, it was King Hoshang Shah’s dream whose tomb is adjacent to it. This magnificent mausoleum was the first marble monument to be built in India – a break from the sandstone usually preferred. The corridors encircling the tomb are in red sandstone with brackets that are distinctly Hindu in style.
The round Afghan dome surmounted by a crescent contains the tombs of Hoshang Shah, his wife, three sons and a daughter. My guide tells me that one can identify the gender of the buried from the signs on the tomb. A woman’s tomb has an inkpot, while a man’s also has a pen. The pièce de résistance is an obscure Urdu inscription stating that Shah Jahan had sent four of his architects led by Ustad Hamid in 1659 to study the tomb as inspiration for the Taj Mahal. Another ramble takes me to the ruins of Ashrafi Mahal in the village centre. Meant to be a madrassa, Muhammad Khilji had a change of heart later and made it his tomb. He also built a seven-storeyed victory tower to celebrate his win against the Rana of Mewar. I love the improvised tales my guide weaves into his narratives. Legend has it that Ghias-ud-Din didn’t like stout women in his harem, so he forced them to run up and down the stairs of this building to lose weight. Ancient treadmill indeed. It’s also said that when Jehangir was in Mandu, he loved the elevated views from his tower and to encourage his wife to climb, he would place an ashrafi (gold coin) on each step and later she’d distribute them to the poor.
I drive through dusty-red scrubland, the muddy banks of a lake and some tiny Bhil villages reaching an avenue lined with stubby baobab trees which give an African feel to the landscape.
My guide tells me it’s proof of the trade links they had with Africa in the mid-15th Century when emissaries arrived with rare gifts such as parrots and Arab horses. I arrive at the Rewa Kund – a lake whose waters are thought to have curative properties. It’s also Mandu’s showstopper – the place of its great love story.
Diamonds and dinosaurs
Legend has it that Rupmati, a beautiful village girl of Sarangapur, blessed with a divine voice was singing when besotted king Baz Bahadur asked her to be his wife. She replied that she’d join him only if she could see and worship the Narmada River, her goddess, every day.
The king built her a pavilion from where she could view the river, but on days that the mist obscured her view she’d refuse to even eat. Divine intervention brought the holy waters to a tank nearby – the Rewa Kund. In the end, Baz Bahadur had to flee from the Mughals and Rupmati committed suicide by swallowing crushed diamonds.
There are innumerable ruins that dot Mandu’s landscape. The Archaeological Survey of India has been unearthing treasures over the years including fossilised dinosaur eggs that were found in this region in 2007. Millions of years ago, before kings and sultans made Mandu a pleasure resort, these gigantic creatures roamed free. It seems likely that I may be walking over some undiscovered ruins as well. History certainly isn’t done with Mandu yet.
Mandu visitor essentials
When to go: July to March is a good time, though November and December are the coolest months.
Getting there: Indore is the closest airport (97km) from where you can hire a cab. Travel time is about two hours.
Getting around: You can rent a bicycle for 25-50 rupees per day. The two taxi operators in Mandu charge about 200 rupees for a three-hour tour. Local guides are also easily available.
What to eat: Do try the baobab fruit called Mandu ki imli. Shivani Restaurant (Main Road) is a no-frills eatery offering thalis and local specialities like Mandu koftas (dumplings in a mild sauce).
Where to stay: Mandu has only budget and mid-range options like the Malwa Resort (Near Sagar Lake. +91-22-6150-6363.). The rooms are comfortable and simply furnished. You could also stay at the plush Ahilya Fort (+91-11-4155-1575. www.ahilyafort.com) in Maheshwar, which is a two-hour drive from Mandu. A heritage hotel restored by the Holkars, it offers 13 beautiful rooms that overlook open courtyards and the Narmada River. They’ll even pack a picnic lunch for when you visit the ruins of Mandu.
Tourist information: www.mptourism.com