“Mandu was the petri-dish of experimentation in Islamic architecture. This is where Sultans experimented with all kinds of architectural elements on buildings. The Mughals took these ideas out of the city, refined them, and added decorative elements to create some of India’s most beautiful buildings.”
Jai Thakore, heritage lover, COO, and co-founder of E-Factor events management outfit, and the man managing the little details of the Mandu Festival, shared unknown details of the historic monuments and ruins scattered around the town. We had just walked past a stone gate, towards the serene tomb of Hoshang Shah, Sultan of the Malwa Sultanate (Mandu is part of the Malwa region). The tomb, incidentally, was built by his son's confidante-turned-murderer after he had taken over the throne.
There are 3,000 stunning monuments and ruins across Mandu. “There is no other city in India with so many ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) preserved heritage structures, all built in the pre-Mughal era,” Thakore said. The architectural experimentation carried out in the city reached its soulful fruition in Mughal India. A marble mosque, said to be India’s first marble structure, became the template for the Taj Mahal, for instance.
Also read: Unusual luxury journeys into India’s hinterland
I was there for the Mandu Festival, an annual event that was hosted till 2019, came back in 2021 and will be hosted again in 2022. The entire city was out on the roads, hosting guests, putting up food stalls, and generally partying. There were dining experiences, walks, evocative storytelling, great food, and lots of music, with an emphasis on modern bands such as Kabir Café who have revived the spiritual poetry of Kabir by setting it to contemporary music.
Road journey to caravan tourism
Mandu is Madhya Pradesh’s rarely explored gem. It could be due to the scarcity of good stay options, except for a decent hotel run by Madhya Pradesh tourism. But then, isn’t that part of the charm of slow travel?
Madhya Pradesh Tourism is set to change that. For one, several premium and luxury homestays are being built across Mandu backed by the government. Boutique hotel chain Evolv Back will open its property soon. On one of the days when we were dining under atmospheric banyan and baobab trees, I met Marie, a French lady married to a man from Mandu. She and her husband were working on setting up a homestay. “I came here after I got married and I find it a beautiful blend of nature, heritage, and a slow life.”
But don’t let that stop you from traveling to Mandu. Mandu is a lovely winter destination. You can drive in from Delhi or Indore, spend a day in Mandu and then drive on to Maheshwar, where you can stay at the Ahilya Fort Hotel that’s run by the scions of the former royal house of Maheshwar. Or you can hire a luxury caravan from MP tourism, and drive into Mandu, spend two to three days here exploring, and then head to Maheshwar and further on, to Indore and Gwalior.
There is a variety of caravan tours crafted by the tourism board to cater to different kinds of travellers, which take you through havens of heritage, trails of tribal hamlets, paths of pilgrims and territories of tigers. Mandu is one such trail. With two bedrooms, one of which doubles up as a lounge with a TV in it, a kitchenette with an oven, a cooking range and a fridge, air conditioning, hot and cold water, and a chair and table set up with a barbecue grill for impromptu picnics at scenic locations, the caravans offer the kind of luxury that makes your winter trips exciting.
Heritage city and architectural utopia
The fortress town, sited on a rocky outcrop about 100 km from Indore, is celebrated for its architecture. The city has as many atmospheric ruins with names that no one remembers, as there are those celebrated among India’s best-preserved architectural monuments.
Jahaz Mahal (Ship Palace) resembles a ship afloat on azure waters. Built by Sultan Ghiyas-ud-din-Khalji, this harem for the sultan has pointed arched gateways and a large swimming pool, shaped like a blooming flower, which shimmered in the mild winter sun.
Deepak had stories to tell about the 15,000 women, who were protected by armed women Turkish and Abyssinian guards.
There is evocative Roopmati's Pavilion and Baz Bahadur's Palace, redolent with romance and love stories. The rule of Baz Bahadur was the last that Mandu lived as an independent kingdom before it was annexed by Emperor Akbar’s army and merged into the powerful Mughal empire in 1561.
But more than the memories of his benevolent rule or his love for striking buildings and great design, you go to Mandu to hear an immortal tale of love that Baz Bahadur had for Roopmati—his associate, consort, and an accomplished poetess. On some evenings, a light and sound show brings alive this love story on the graceful stone façade of the palace.
A music love, Baz Bahadur, on one of his hunts, chanced upon Roopmati, a shepherdess. Attracted by her dulcet voice, he begged her to accompany him home, but she was unsure about leaving her riverside home beside the Narmada River. The Sultan built what is today known as Rani Roopmati Pavilion, at the highest point of the city, from where Narmada is visible, to entice her to move to Mandu. He also built the Rewa Kund (Rewa is another name for Narmada, kund means tank), which is fed by Narmada’s water from an underground natural fissure.
Their story ended in tragedy: Akbar’s army defeated the Sultan and Roopmati is said to have committed suicide.
The palace’s arches, nooks, and turrets perfectly frame a steep valley. From the pavilion, the river Narmada can still be seen, though fringed by overgrown villages. “Today, you'd call it a live-in relationship, in those days it was called Sacha prem," said Deepak.
Jami Masjid, modelled after the great mosque of Damascus, is a mosque where no one worships now. Its walls have been spectators to the reign of Islamic kings and sultans. “The mosque reflects the Pashtun style of architecture. The large courtyard and grand entrances have seen even the most powerful come and pray for even more success, more fame, more wealth.”
There are several such palaces and mosques with great lineage across the ancient territory. There is more than the heritage and the architecture to Mandu, however. At a secluded dinosaur museum, photographs of dinosaur eggs that were discovered in the region, massive sculptures of dinosaurs, stone remnants of the fossilized gymnosperm trees, seashells, star fish skeletons, narrate the tale of a time when parts of this land were under the sea.
About animated landscapes, rains, and food
Beyond the ramparts of the mighty citadel of the Hindola Mahal (Swing Palace) with sloping walls, the land looked lush and fecund. Across the landscape were old baobabs with their spreading branches reached for the sky. Native to Africa and Madagascar, the baobab was brought to Mandu by traders from Africa over 4,000 years ago and loved by the locals, who planted thousands across the land and named them Mandu ki imli (the tamarind of Mandu).
August to December, when rains give way to the mellow beauty of Mandu winters, the landscape is redolent with streams and ponds.
Blazing Flames of Forest trees line its avenues, roads and arches. Ask the tourism authorities and they may organize a delicious meal in a village situated next to the plateau. Dhurries will be spread out under huge baobabs, and a meal cooked on an open fire, fed with dry branches, by the local tribals will be served. They could even take you to a Bhil village where you can taste some salty crab curry.
Winding down Mandu’s hilly roads is a sensory delight: the road leads across large swathes of baobabs. Along the way are homes fringed by golden-green plateaus; historic palaces and ruins at every other corner; roads that run through majestic gates that were once gateways to the fort city; and fields of barley and wheat stretching right up to the various water bodies.
The locals insist Mandu is a monsoon beauty, but the winters aren’t bad either, with night temperatures dipping to 16 degrees and fog enveloping its fields, hills, ponds, and lakes.
The caravan is waiting for you to hit the road.