Mandu - the celebration of love

Mandu is a celebration in stone of life and joy, of the love of the poet-prince Baz Bahadur for his beautiful wife, Rani Roopmati. An ancient town of the medieval age, it is one of India's most historical monuments set against the backdrop of the Vindhyas. Elegant Islamic palaces, mosques and onion-domed mausolea stand beside large medieval reservoirs and precipitous ravines.

Down below the hills, lies a vista of scorched plains and tiny villages that stretch off to the horizon. Archaeological evidence suggests that the remote hill-top was first fortified around the sixth century AD, when it was known as Mandapa-Durga, or "Durga's hall of worship". Four hundred years later, the site became of strategic importance when the powerful Parmaras moved their capital from Ujjain to Dhar, 35 km north. The fort eventually fell to the Sultans of Delhi in 1305. While the Sultans were busy fending off the Mongols on their northern borders a century or so later, Malwa's Afghan governor, Dilawar Khan Ghuri, seized the chance to establish his own independent kingdom. He died after only four years on the throne, however, leaving his ambitious young son as the heir. During his son Hoshang Shah's illustrious 27-year reign, Mandu was promoted from pleasure resort to royal capital, and acquired some of the finest Islamic monuments in Asia, including the Jama Masjid, Delhi Gate, and the Sultan's own tomb.

Mandu's monuments derive from a unique school of Islamic architecture. Much admired for their elegant simplicity, the buildings are believed to have considerably influenced the Mughal architects responsible for building the famous Taj Mahal.

The Royal Enclave
Reached via the lane that leads west off the village square, the Royal Enclave is dominated by Mandu's most photographed monument, Ghiyath Shah's majestic Jahaz Mahal, or "Ship Palace". The name derives from its unusual shape, and elevated situation on a narrow strip of land between two large water tanks.A breezy rooftop terrace, crowned with four domed pavilions, looks over Munja Talao lake to the west, and the square, stone-lined Kapur Sagar in the other direction.

The next building along the lane is the Hindola Mahal, or "Swing Palace" - so-called because its distinctive sloping walls supposedly look as though they are swaying from side to side. The design was, in fact, purely functional, intended to buttress the graceful but heavy stone arches that support the ceiling inside.

Sprawling over the northern shores of Munja Talao lake are the dilapidated remains of a second royal pleasure palace. The Champa Baodi boasts an ingeniously complex ventilation and water-supply system which kept its dozens of subterranean chambers, or tehkhanas, cool during the long summers.

The Hathi Pol, or "Elephant Gate", was the main entrance to the Royal Enclave. Once past its pair of colossal, elephant guardians, a track heads north to the edge of the plateau and the grand Delhi Gate. Built around the same time as Dilawara Khan's mosque, this great bastion, towering over the cobbled road in five sculpted arches, is the most imposing of the twelve that mark the battlements along the fort's 45-kilometre perimeter.

The village group
Some of the fort's best-preserved buildings are clustered around the village. Work on the magnificent pink sandstone mosque on the west side of the main square, the Jama Masjid, commenced during the reign of Hoshang Shah and took three generations to complete. Said to be modelled on the Great Mosque at Damascus, it rests on a huge raised plinth pierced by rows of tiny arched chambers - once used as cells for visiting priests.

A flight of steps leads up from the square to the large domed entrance porch. Beyond the ornate jali screens and bands of blue-glaze tiles that decorate the main doorway, you arrive in the Great Courtyard, enclosed by rows of pillars and small domes. The prayer hall, or Qibla, at the far end, is surmounted by three larger domes, and houses a small pulpit and some finely carved Koranic inscriptions.

Hoshang Shah's tomb (c. 1440), directly behind the Jama Masjid, is this group's real highlight. It stands on a low plinth at the centre of a square-walled enclosure, and is crowned by a squat central dome and four small corner cupolas. The tomb is made entirely from milky white marble - the first of its kind in the subcontinent. An inscription on the right door jamb records the visit, in 1659, of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who brought four of his architects to admire the building before they began work on the Taj Mahal.

On the opposite side of the square to the Great Mosque, the Ashrafi Mahal, or "Palace of Coins", was a theological college (madarasa) that the ruler Muhammad Shah later converted into a tomb. The complex included a giant marble mausoleum and seven-storey minar, or victory tower, of which only the base survives.

Around the Sagar Talao

En route to the Rewa Kund, some more monuments are scattered around the fields east of Sagar Talao. Dating from the early fifteenth century, the Mosque of Malik Mughis is the oldest of the bunch. The main doorway has turquoise tiles with fine fine Islamic calligraphy on them.

A short way south of the mosque, is the octagonal tomb known as the Dai-ki-Chhoti Bahan-ka-Mahal. It is built on a raised plinth, still retains large strips of the blue ceramic tiles that plastered most of Mandu's beautiful Afghan domes.

The Rewa Kund group

The Kund nestles behind a rise further up the hill. Noted for its curative powers, the old stone-lined reservoir is popular with bus parties of locals. Water from the tank used to be pumped into the cistern in the nearby Baz Bahadur Palace.

Baz Bahadur, the last independent ruler of Malwa, retreated to Mandu to study music after being trounced in battle by Rani Durgavati. Legend has it that he fell in love with a Hindu singer named Roopmati, whom he enticed to his hilltop home with an exquisite palace that she could admire from the window of her father's house on the Nirmar Plains below. The couple eventually married, but did not live happily ever after. When Akbar heard of Roopmati's beauty, he dispatched an army to Mandu to capture her and the long-coveted fort. Bahadur managed to slip away from the ensuing battle, but his bride, left behind in the palace, poisoned herself rather than fall into the clutches of the attackers.

The romantic Roopmati Pavilion, built by Bahadur for his bride-to-be, still rests on a ridge high above the Rewa Kund. Beneath its lofty terrace, the plateau plunges a 300m to the Narmada Valley. On a clear day the view is breathtaking.

Mandu can be visited as a day trip from Indore (a distance of 98 kms), but it is much more enjoyable to spend a couple of nights there. It gives you time enough to explore the ruins and at the same time gives you the opportunity to witness the sunset over the Narmada valley. An idyllic spot for watching the sun set over the plains is the Nil Kanth Palace. This was an old Shiva temple that was converted by the Mughals into a water pavilion. Mandu is best visited just after the monsoons, in August.

Although there are direct buses to Mandu from Indore, it's quicker to travel to Dhar and pick up a local service to the fort from there . It is a 35 kilometre journey that takes over one hour. Direct services back to Indore run twice a day. Taxis charge around Rs.800 for the round trip from Indore, and Rs.250 waiting charge if you stay overnight. A couple of private companies also run day-long guided tours of Mandu from Indore on weekends and some weekdays during the tourist season. You can also get to Mandu by state bus from Bhopal, Ujjain and Maheshwar.

To be able to reside inside the fort visitors need to make the reservations a couple of days in advance. The cheapest hotel, the Travellers' Lodge (Rs350-500), at the north end of the plateau near the Sada barrier, has scenic views, clean rooms with attached bath and hot water, and very welcoming staff. It's a one-kilometre hike from the main square where the buses pull in. The Tourist Cottages Rs350-750), 2km south of the square, is Mandu's most comfortable but an expensive hotel.

The Tourist Cottages' pleasant semi-open-air restaurant is the best place to eat in the fort. Unlike the cafeteria in the Tourist Lodge, you don't have to order your evening meal in advance, and they serve beer in addition to the standard MPTDC menu of moderately priced Indian, Chinese and Western food. Otherwise, the best cheap meals are the vegetarian thalis, subzi and chappatis in the Shivani Hotel, halfway between the square and the Sada barrier.
New Delhi, India

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