A two hour ride from the graceful city of Indore takes you to a land where layers of time seem to have compressed into graceful ruins. This is Mandu – the largest fortified city of medieval India in Madhya Pradesh. Mandu is one of the most romantic places I have ever seen. The loveliness of the weather-torn shades of the monuments of the Early Mughal era, set off against the brilliant natural green setting is doubled, as it gets reflected in the ubiquitous water-bodies that dot the area.
There are few places in central India that have such pleasant weather and can match the artistic appeal of Mandu’s natural beauty and architecture. It is certainly one of India’s most ‘romantic retreats’. The picture of a fort city shrouded in an indecisive monsoon mist is unforgettable. Even in low light the magical silhouettes of the age old monuments seem to speak of bygone ages. Mandu doesn’t boast of great tourist services.
The roads leading to the place are contrastingly painful to the beautiful scenery. But Mandu assures you that after pain comes the sweetest fruit. Perched on top of a pleasantly green, thinly forested 20-sq-km plateau, picturesque Mandu is home to some of India’s finest examples of Afghan architecture as well as impressive baobab trees, originally from Africa. The area is littered with palaces, tombs, monuments and mosques, all within easy cycling distance of each other. Some cling to the edge of ravines or sit beside lakes. Rupmati’s Pavilion, the most romantic of them all, sits majestically at the far end of the plateau, overlooking vast plains below.
Mandu has stories of varied colours in store. One of the weirdest of is about Ghiyas-ud-din Khilji. Ghiyasuddin became the king of Mandu at the age of 55 after murdering his father. He maintained an entire inner city of women — there were 15,000 in his harem. But this pleasure loving king should rather be remembered for the greatest monuments in Mandu – one of them being the Jahaz Mahal, the most famous building in Mandu, a palace sandwiched between two lakes, the Manao taal and the Kapur taal. It has a small upper storey like a ship’s bridge as Jahaz Mahal is far longer (120m) than it is wide (15m). Ghiyasuddin built it for his 15000 ladies, with lookouts, scalloped arches, airy rooms and beautiful pleasure pools and a Hammam – a royal sauna with sophisticated baths and massage rooms.
This four storeyed structured with two of the storeys underground, boasts of an efficient system of a Persian wheel for hot and cold water. The beautiful water filtration system shaped in a serpentine manner shows the sophisticated architecture of that time. The design was first used by a Hindu Parmar king – and evidence of Hindu styles in the architecture are quite evident. The amalgam of Hindu, Islamic and Jain styles is interesting as the ruins prove that Afghan invaders did not simply raze temples but rather incorporated elements from them. The use of Hindu beams merges artfully with the Islamic arches.
The synthesis is best expressed in the Hindola Palace, (Swing Palace), used as a conference hall by Ghiyasuddin. The sloping walls of the Hindola palace with a perceptible tilt to the walls gives an illusion that it is swaying. The Rajputana style of architecture in the palace, with protruding balustrades and intricately carved windows, and the air-conditioned walls of Champa-Baondi and the Jahaz Mahal, are all monumental efforts dedicated to the enjoyment of leisure.
Entered by a flight of steps leading to a 17m-high domed porch, the disused red-stone mosque of the Jama Masjid dominates the village of Mandu. Hoshang Shah began its construction around 1406, basing it on the great Omayyad Mosque of Damascus in Syria, and Mohammed Khalji completed it in 1454. Despite its plain design, it’s reckoned to be the finest and largest example of Afghan architecture in India. Its western wall contains 17 inches of lovely carvings.
There is a beautifully ornate marble pulpit next to the central niche. The perfectly proportioned domes of the mosque arrest you with their magnificence. The architectural style of this place reaches its pinnacle in Hoshang Shah’s tomb in the village. Showcasing the supreme elegance of Afghan architecture, it is so beautiful, it is said to have inspired the magnificent Taj Mahal. Reputed to be India’s oldest marble building, this imposing tomb is crowned with a crescent thought to have been imported from Persia or Mesopotamia. Inside, sunlight filters into the echoing dome through stone jalis (carved lattice screens), intended to cast an appropriately subdued light on the tombs. An inscription records Shah Jahan sending his architects here in 1659, including Ustad Hamid, who worked on the Taj Mahal, to pay their respects to the tomb’s builders.
A little halt is pertinent at the Sagar Talo group of monuments nearby. Set against the backdrop of the sagar taal, it is a set of far flung buildings set amidst water and greenery with a certain lack of grandeur but beautified by its setting. There is a Dai ka Mahal and the Dai ki Bahen ka Mahal, a very picturesque little eight-sided structure. The Malik Mughith Mosque, built in 1432, has an ingeniously made ‘porch’ in the front and many Hindu temple pillars inside, which give an impressive effect. A must-do at this place is calling out at Echo point – an amazing exhibition of acoustics in the 15th century, using just a lake and a set of pillars beside it.
The next group of monuments is the Rewa Kund, which is said to hold the sacred waters of River Narmada. A complete parikrama of the Narmada is said to take 3 years, 3 months and 3 days, culminating in a dip in Rewa Kund. Adjacent to the Rewa Kund tank is the palace of the last ruler of Mandu, Baz Bahadur. Constructed around 1509, it has a water lift at the northern end which supplied water to the palace. A curious mix of Rajasthani and Mughal styles, it was actually built decades before Baz Bahadur came to power. Move a short distance away from here towards Roopmati’s Palace, the crown jewel of Mandu. Standing at the top of a cliff plunging 366 mts to the plains, Rupmati’s Pavilion has a subtle beauty unmatched by the other monuments – and some of the craziest stone staircases you’ll ever climb.
According to Malwa legend, the music-loving king, Baz Bahadur, built it to persuade a beautiful Hindu singer, Roopmati, to move here from her home on the plains. The Pavilion offers a panoramic view of the entire Nirmar plains and you can spend hours here, feeling the same, soft breeze that caressed Rani Roopmati’s face. From the palace’s terrace and domed pavilions, Roopmati may have gazed down at the distant glint of the river and offered prayers to the sacred Narmada in her melodious voice. In truth, the pavilion was built in two or three phases and the style of its arches and pillars suggest it was completed 100 years before Rupmati’s time. Nonetheless, it still seems to carry the fragrances of the verses that the poet king used to compose, that Rani Roopmati transformed into song.
This love story of an extraordinarily beautiful village girl blessed with a divine voice and her Sultan — a handsome lover of music and poetry, content with his romance in his small fort kingdom up on a hill, is ingrained in the local psyche and subject of countless Malwa folk songs – not least because of its tragic ending. The place is gorgeous at sunset. Framed by dark, looming clouds, the monuments stands like an apparition in the distance, personifying this romantic story. The ruined walls still echo with the fierce war between Akbar’s army and Baz Bahadur’s. Lured by tales of Roopmati’s beauty, Akbar marched on the fort and Baz Bahadur fled, leaving Roopmati to poison herself. Baz Bahadur remained a fugitive at a number of courts until he surrendered to Akbar at Nagaur in 1597.
If you’re looking for a great reason to travel out into the countryside, consider visiting the unusual Nilkanth Palace, a former palace turned temple. It stands at the head of a ravine, on the site of an earlier Shiva shrine – its name means God with Blue Throat – and is now once again used as a place of worship. A stream built by one of Akbar’s governors trickles through a delightful spiral channel and is usually filled with scented water, giving the palace a sweet aroma. To get here go south along Main Rd for less than 1 km until you see a large white water tower. Turn right here and follow the road as it twists and turns past villages all the way to Nil Kanth (about 2km). You can continue from here, past more remote villages, for about another kilometre to reach the still-standing gateway of Songarh Fort’s ruins, from where you get more great views.
Make time to visit the Lohani caves. No one knows how old these sculpted caves are, but some insist that a now-blocked tunnel leads from the caves to Dhar, 35km away. They command a fabulous view of the ravine below, which you can hike down to.
Even after spending days in Mandu, one will always find stray jewels one has missed. The elegant contours of the caravan serai, the enormity of the Hathi Mahal, where hordes of elephants were kept, the Gada Mahal, and numerous others nameless tombs will capture your imagination. One example is Ashrafi Mahal. Mohammed Shah originally built his tomb as a madrasa (Islamic college), before converting and extending it. The overambitious design later collapsed – notably the seven-storey circular tower of victory. The building is an empty shell, but intricate Islamic pillarwork can be seen at the top of its great stairway. Then there is the House & Shop of Gada Shah.
The house is within the enclave, but the shop is outside on the road to Delhi Gate. As the buildings’ size and internal workmanship suggest, their owner was more than a shopkeeper. His name, which means ‘beggar master’, is thought to identify him as Rajput chief Medini Ray, a powerful minion of the sultans. The ‘shop’ was a warehouse for saffron and musk, imported and sold at a handsome profit, when there were enough wealthy people to shop here.
Entered by a turquoise doorway, the Jain Temples in Mandu are a splash of kitsch among the Islamic monuments. The richly decorated temples feature marble, silver and gold tirthankars with jade eyes, and behind them is a theme park–like museum with a walk-on replica of Shatrunjaya, the hilltop temple complex at Palitana in Gujarat. In the colourful murals, bears devour sinners’ arms, crocodiles chew their heads, and demons saw one evil character in half, lengthways.
How to Reach: Mandu is 100 kms from Indore. One can take a taxi or bus which takes three and a half hours. The MPTDC has also started a taxi service for Mandu from Indore. There are regular bus services from Indore, Dhar, Mhow and Ratlam. The nearest rail heads are at Indore (99Kms) and Ratlam (124 Kms). Indore enjoys good air connectivity with all major cities of India.