About 550km from Mumbai lies the beautiful town of Mandu. Occupied by Hindu, Afghan and Mughal rulers across the centuries, the place is steeped in beauty, art, architecture and history.
Mandu is fantastic to visit during the monsoons. The hills and countryside are carpeted in fragrant green interspersed with slivers of silver water twinkling and gushing down the hills. It is a rather popular weekend spot, so unless you fancy jostling for space with tourist buses, cars and gangs of bikers, visit sometime during the work week.
It’s an enjoyable drive to Mandu and should take you around nine to 11 hours. Leave as early as possible, not later than five in the morning, or you will spend the better part of your time trying to wriggle out of Mumbai. You need to take the NH3 that will take you past Thane, Nashik and Dhule. The road is a two-laner one-way all the way through and the surface is excellent. But be prepared to shell out Rs 500-700 in tolls. There’s lots of petrol pumps and places to stop and eat, so no worries on that front.
The excellently tarred road tempts you to be heavy on the throttle, but be careful of motorcyclists swerving into your path without checking their rear-view mirrors. Also, keep an eye out for vehicles coming down the wrong side. It is especially dangerous on the Kasara Ghat stretch with its blind corners, and supposedly, a one-way. You will definitely encounter at least one vehicle heading the wrong way on this ghat. Another major irritant on this road is the heavily loaded trucks trying to crawl past each other on the inclines and blocking the whole road. No amount of honking or yelling will get through to them, so just grin and bear it. The traffic thins a bit after Nashik and at about 496km from Mulund toll, you will find a small road on your left pointing to Mandu. This is where you get off NH3 and drive the final 25km to Mandu. The road is narrow, meandering through small villages till you come up to the ghat that will take you up to Mandu.
Perched along the Vindhya ranges at about 2,000 feet, Mandu, with its natural defenses, was originally the fort capital of the Parmar rulers of Malwa. Towards the end of the 13th century, it came under the sway of the Sultans of Malwa, the first of whom named it Shadiabad — ‘city of joy’. A majority of the standing monuments at Mandu were raised in the period of hardly 125 years, between AD 1401 and AD 1526. In this period, Mandu was under the Muslim rulers. This fortress town has 61 structures that have been declared as monuments of national importance by the Archaeological Survey of India.
You might not have the time, inclination or energy to explore each and every one of them, but here are a few that you must visit.
Understand that the monuments have been divided into three groups: the Royal Enclave, the Central group and the Rewa Kund group. They do not encompass all the monuments in Mandu, but only the most important ones. Indians have to pay an entrance fee of Rs 5 for each of these groups.
Remember that you will be doing a lot of walking, so wear comfortable shoes and carry a bottle of water. We would suggest that you start your introduction to Mandu with the spectacular Royal Enclave that houses the flamboyant Jahaz Mahal and the quirky Hindola Mahal, apart from various other monuments and royal abodes.
The first thing that will hit you between the eyes when you walk in is the Jahaz Mahal. It is built on a narrow strip of land between the Munj tank on its west and Kapur tank on its east. When the tanks fill up in the rains, the 120-metre long two-storied palace looks like a ship in the water, hence the name. The exact date of construction is not known but it is believed to have been built by Sultan Ghiyasud-din Khilji who reigned for 31 years from 1469. This place was built by the pleasure-loving king for his harem of 15,000 concubines. He also had female bodyguards that consisted of about 500 beautiful young Turkish and Abyssinian women dressed in men’s clothing.
This palace was immensely appreciated by Emperor Jahangir, who in his memoirs wrote about the times spent here with his beloved wife, Noor Jahan, during a visit to Mandu. In fact, the staircase on the southern end of the eastern facade was built by the Mughal emperor. The empress would organise banquets, taking advantage of the waterfront location by having lanterns lit to reflect light off the water, making it appear as if the lake surface was on fire.
Next to Jahaz Mahal is Hindola Mahal. This too dates back to Ghiyasud-din’s reign and is supposed to be an audience hall for the king. It derives its name of ‘swinging palace’ from its sloping sidewalls inclined at 77 degrees. On both sides of the hall, there are six arched openings above which there are windows filled with beautiful tracery work for admitting light and air inside. Architecturally, this palace marks itself out from the other monuments of Mandu due to its simplicity, but there is no denying its aesthetic appeal.
Beyond this lie the royal palaces. Most of them are just broken shells but the crumbling remnants have a mystical allure. And what is really fascinating about these old buildings is the way they harvested rainwater. Every monument in Mandu has channels that would carry the rainwater to holding tanks. Also fascinating is the elaborate cooling system constructed to keep the royals comfortable in the summer heat. Check out the Champa Baodi inside the Royal Palace building. Baodi means ‘well’. There are inner compartments in the lower storey of this well.
A subterranean path goes down the well and connects itself with a labyrinth of vaulted rooms, known as tahkhana, which are almost on level with the water of the Munj Talao. The tahkhana was thus so ingeniously constructed and connected with the well and pavilion on the bank of the talao (lake) that even in the worst parts of summer, the rooms were constantly kept cool and comfortable with a gentle breeze flowing from the pavilion to the rooms through the gallery, and then finally passing out of the top of the well.
There are many more monuments of interest, including Dilawar Khan’s mosque and the Jal Mahal in this complex. Give yourself two to three hours if you want to explore it properly.
Next, you can visit the central group of monuments. Your first stop is the Jami Masjid, the most imposing building in Mandu. It is said to have been modelled after the great mosque at Damascus. The construction of this majestic building was started by Hoshang Shah and completed by Mahmud Khilji in AD 1454. While the enormity of its proportions is overwhelming, the stern simplicity of its construction gives it an austere beauty.
But the best part of the central group lies behind the Jami Masjid, Hoshang Shah’s tomb. It is India’s first marble edifice and one of the most refined examples of Afghan architecture. It is said that Shah Jahan sent four of his great architects to study the design of and draw inspiration from this tomb for the construction of the Taj Mahal.
Facing the Jami Masjid, you will find the Ashrafi Mahal and the Victory Tower. Ashrafi Mahal was once a madrasa built by Hoshang Shah. Later, this was converted into a tomb of Mahmud Khilji, who also built a seven-storey high tower to commemorate his victory over the Rana of Mewar. Not much remains of this complex though.
Next stop is the Rewa Kund complex. This is the place associated with the story of Baz Bahadur and Roopmati. A quick recap: The King is out hunting when he sees the beautiful Roopmati frolicking and singing with her friends. The enchanted king begs her to come and live with him in his capital. Roopmati lays the condition that she’ll only live in sight of her favourite river, the Narmada. So the besotted king gets a reservoir made that channels in the water from the Narmada. And that is the history of Rewa Kund. Rewa is another name for the Narmada river.
Also of interest is the Roopmati Mandap. No, it wasn’t built for Roopmati. It was originally a watchtower, built on the highest ground in Mandu for the military to keep watch over any possible enemy movement. But it is here that Rani Roopmati would come every day to see the Narmada flowing through the Nimar plains far below. Even today, the Roopmati Mandap offers you a breathtaking view of the surroundings, including Baz Bahadur’s palace. And it can get windy here, so hold on to your hats.
Speaking of Baz Bahadur’s palace, it wasn’t built by Baz Bahadur. Situated on the east of Rewa Kund, on the entrance arch, is an inscription in Persian: “This beautifully designed palace was built by Nasir Shah Khilji, the Sultan of Malwa, AD 1508-1509. This was later repaired by Baz Bahadur.” The king took a fancy for the palace on account of its close proximity to the Rewa Kund, which was frequented by Rani Roopmati.
These are just few of the more important monuments in Mandu. There are many more to visit and explore, and you would do well to hire a guide.
Here’s another suggestion. Keep your car parked at the hotel and hire a bicycle to explore this place. And when you work up an appetite, go to a restaurant and order a plate of dal paniyaa — it’s a Mandu speciality.
The paniyaa is made of corn flour and baked over cowdung in leaves. It looks like a roasted idli, but is obviously much harder. The paniyaa is traditionally served with dal. You break up little pieces of the paniyaa, mix it with the dal and eat it like you would eat dal and rice. Forget that spoon — use your hands. It is simply delicious.
There are not too many hotels in Mandu. MP Tourism runs two hotels — Malwa Resort and Malwa Retreat. Malwa Resort, the one we stayed in, is clean and comfortable. There is also a private hotel, Roopmati, which has been recommended by some travellers. But it’s best to book your rooms in advance since there aren’t as many hotel options in Mandu as in other popular tourist places.
The rains are nearly gone. Go and discover Mandu at its most beautiful.