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Photos: Mandu, India

July 23, 2009
Mandu, Madhya Pradesh, India

Mandu, Madhya Pradesh, India

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Mandu is home to India’s finest examples of Afghan architecture, clinging to the edges of a ravine-riddled 20-sq-km plateau overlooking the hazy plains. With monuments on every corner – from Rupmati’s Pavilion, scene of India’s Romeo and Juliet, to obscure ruins such as the wet nurse’s tomb, and of course the wet nurse’s sister’s tomb – the mountain village has a ‘lost world’ atmosphere.

Mandu was founded as a fortress retreat in the 10th century by Raja Bhoj and conquered by the Muslim rulers of Delhi in 1304. When the Mughals captured Delhi in 1401, the Afghan Dilawar Khan, governor of Malwa, set up his own little kingdom and Mandu’s golden age began.

Although Dilawar Khan established Mandu as an independent kingdom, it was his son, Hoshang Shah, who shifted the capital from Dhar to Mandu and raised it to its greatest splendour. Hoshang’s son Mohammed ruled for just one year before being poisoned by the militaristic Mohammed Khalji, who then ruled for 33 years. Ghiyas-ud-din succeeded Mohammed in 1469 and spent the following 31 years making his father turn in his grave, devoting himself to women and song (but not wine). He was poisoned, aged 80, by his son, Nasiruddin. In 1526, Bahadur Shah of Gujarat conquered Mandu, only to be ousted in 1534 by the Mughal Humayun, who in turn lost the kingdom to Mallu Khan, an officer of the Khalji dynasty. Ten more years of feuds and invasions saw Baz Bahadur eventually emerge in the top spot, but in 1561 he fled Mandu rather than face Akbar’s advancing troops.

After Akbar added Mandu to the Mughal empire, it kept a considerable degree of independence, until taken by the Marathas in 1732. The capital of Malwa was then shifted back to Dhar, and the slide in Mandu’s fortunes that had begun with the absconding of Baz Bahadur became a plummet.

Located 100 km southwest of Indore in the state of Madhya Pradesh, Mandu was the capital city of a northern Indian Muslim state between 1401 and 1561. It has lain abandoned for over 400 years and is now the site of a tiny village and an expanse of farmers’ fields.

Coming in from Indore by bus, the first hints of what is to come is the occasional Muslim tombs, square structures with Taj Mahal-like onion domes, in the middle of wheat fields. The ancient city comprised a huge area, the top of a large plateau about 10 km north-to-south and 15 km from east to west. Still-impressive walls encircle the entire plateau, and extra fortifications guard the main approaches below. The views are stunning: the land drops away steeply from the flat tabletop to the plains of the Narmada River 300 metres below, giving the place one of the most perfect settings in India. Within the walls are golden wheat fields dotted with tiny villages and stands of baobab trees, whose fat, stubby, bare branches give the entire scene a very African feel.

Amidst the prosperous-looking countryside, perhaps the most picturesque non-mountainous scenery are clustered several groups of ruins, all in typical northern Indian Muslim architecture. The Royal Enclave is the most complete and most romantic set of buildings, a cluster of palaces and attendant structures built around two artificial lakes.

The Jahaz Mahal, or Ship Palace, attracts all the Indian day-trippers from Indore and justly so: it exudes an Arabian Nights atmosphere, a long, tall, narrow building topped by delicately-shaped kiosks where, legend has it, the king’s harem girls danced every evening. The view from the rooftop of the sun setting over one of the lakes, setting the reddish hues of the sandstone buildings aflame, provides one of the best sunsets to be seen in India.

Around the Jahaz Mahal sprawls a vast expanse of more-or-less well-preserved palaces, mosques and wells that can provide hours of enjoyable exploration.

The three baolis, or step-wells, elaborate underground Escher-like arrangements of steps and chambers and balconies leading downward to a pool of cool water, were the highlights of this area. There is also an unmistakable hammam, or Turkish bath house, and beautiful palaces perched on the lake shores. The rulers of Mandu, descendants of Afghan nobles, spent great efforts in creating a cool, water-filled landscape to remind them of their ancestral homelands.

Other highlights include the massive House and Shop of Gada Shah (a noble who seemed to wield more power than his weak royal overlord Mahmud), which resembles a bombed-out cathedral with its collapsed roof and towering arches, and the Hindola Mahal, which looks like a railway viaduct bridge with its disproportionately large buttresses supporting the walls. The Hindola Mahal was where the king would show himself every day to his subjects to prove that he was still alive.

Further south, the modern village of Mandu huddles around the huge Jama Masjid, or Friday Mosque. Laid out around a vast courtyard, the rows of heavy red sandstone arches around the mihrab are tremendously photogenic. Behind it is the tomb of Hoshang Shah, the first ruler of Mandu, who died in 1435. The white marble mausoleum looks like a dry run for the Taj Mahal, albeit much squatter and less graceful. In fact, Shah Jahan’s architects reportedly came to Mandu to study the tomb before they designed the Taj.

There are dozens of tombs, all square and onion dome-topped but with various architectural details. Plenty of Hindu touches creep into the later buildings, such as window brackets and elaborate shaped columns that contrast with the stark elegance of the purely Islamic style.

The sight of the domes across the gold and green fields, framed by baobab trees, with the high white dome of Hoshang’s Tomb behind, are beautiful and redolent with the air of bygone centuries. Indeed, in the villages the mud-and-straw huts, and ox-drawn carts seemed little changed since Hoshang Shah’s time.

The southern edge of the plateau holds a couple of interesting structures. The Nil Kanth Palace, once the site of a shrine to Shiva, was converted into a pleasure pavilion by the Moghuls, completed with elaborate bathing pools. It has now been reclaimed as an important pilgrimage point for devotees of Shiva. The views, down to the plains below and across a ravine back to the Jama Masjid rising above the high cliffs, are the most spectacular in Mandu.

The south-facing Rupamati’s Pavilion offers more great views, down to the distant Narmada as it meanders across the plains. Supposedly Baz Bahadur, the last independent ruler of Mandu, built two kiosks atop a defensive bastion so that his beloved singer and concubine Rupamati could look down towards her ancestral home on the Narmada every day. The setting inside the fairytale pavilion is incomparably romantic, but when the Moghul emperor Akbar marched on Mandu in 1561, Baz Bahadur fled and Rupamati poisoned herself, lending an air of poignant tragedy to the site.

One of the nicest aspects of Mandu is the almost total absence of Western tourists. There are plenty of Indian tourists, but they rarely stray far from the Jahaz Mahal. Most sites are left entirely to the individual traveller, especially early in the morning or at sunset; thus you are able to conjure up the ghosts of a past entirely undisturbed by the modern world, an all-too-rare occurrence elsewhere in India.

Getting There
There are four buses to Indore (Rs 50, 3½ hours, 7am, 9am, 9.30am and 3.30pm), from where transport heads to Bhopal. Coming from Indore you must change at Dhar. Maheshwar is tricky by bus – take a taxi (Rs 500, 1¾ hours); for Rs 1200 you can continue to Omkareshwar, though bus is a reasonable option after Maheshwar. The alternative is hiring a car in Indore.

Getting Around
Cycling is best, as the terrain is flat, the air clear and the countryside beautiful. Shops on Main Rd hire out bikes from Rs 20 per day. You can tour the monuments in half a day using a taxi, autorickshaw or moped (from Rs 150)

Hotel Maharaja
Located at: Jahaz Mahal Rd
Rates: single/double Rs 200/300
This budget option is the only disappointment in Mandu’s otherwise good sleeping options.

Hotel Rupmati
Located at: Main Rd
Rates: double Rs 550, with air-cooler/AC Rs 650/1100
Sandwiched between a ruin and a cliff, these colourful bungalows are a little overpriced but you pay for the view – the best offered by any hotel in the state. The management is also open to negotiation.

Malwa Resort
Tel: +91 7292 263235
Located at: Main Rd
Rates: rooms with/without AC Rs 1790/1090
The 20 rooms, including 10 suitelike AC rooms, are in cottages with new furniture and verandas overlooking the lake. It’s the more pleasant of two MP Tourism hotels (the other is Malwa Retreat), and prices include breakfast.

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