With a little rain, most hill stations become miserable apologies of themselves. Not so Mandu in Madhya Pradesh. Two thousand feet above sea level and 100km from Indore, the 10th century citadel constructed by Raja Bhoj and later ruled by the Mughals is best seen between July and September.
In this season, the centuries-old dark stone edifices wear a lovely moist sheen and highlights of grass and moss in brilliant green. Tendrils of mist encircle the monuments, adding an allure of mystery.
And mystery is what makes Mandu. One of the most exciting things about walking about the ruins is that interesting things can emerge from virtually anywhere. An innocuous rock in the midst of thick vegetation morphs into a full-fledged wall and then assumes the statuesque proportions of an ancient doorway leading into a crumbling mansion.
Inside, you could espy a lonely screech owl, its eyes shut tight against what could be a particularly ghoulish nightmare. Or a couple of snakes in mating delirium, shuffling about as if they were practising the tango.
You could ponder endlessly over a cosy niche, or a convenient shelf, envisaging how they were used aeons ago and what treasures the owners hoarded in these nooks. The possibilities are boundless, and the best part is there are no urchins, guides or even too many other humans to disturb you in your contemplations.
Mandu is a bundle of surprises. Take Gada Shah’s Shop, by way of example. When you first see the tiny signboard with an arrow, you wonder whether you should follow it, because it might lead to a tea stall and you do not particularly feel like a cup of tea. After some deliberation, for lack of any specific plans, you take the path indicated. You come to a decrepit stone structure that takes you back in time. And when you compare present-day kirane ki dukane with this grocery store from the past, you realize that some things, at least, have remained a constant over the centuries. The shelves, the low seat for the grocer, the small hollow for the weighing scale, the secure spot for hiding money...they are all there as though the vendor was here yesterday.
This shop is one of Mandu’s little hidden treasures. There are others that are more visible and much more accessible. The massive Jama Masjid, a finely wrought example of Afghan architecture. And behind it, Hoshang Shah’s Tomb, said to be the oldest marble structure in India and the inspiration for the master builders of the Taj Mahal centuries later.
Close by, and also part of the Village Group of monuments such as the first two, is the Ashrafi Mahal, built as a madrasa for young boys and later extended to house Mohammed Shah’s tomb. But you can still see some tiny study chambers if you explore enough.
As you approach a flight of stairs that leads nowhere these days, do not be surprised if you rouse a local lolling against a tree nearby. Ours made a desultory attempt at humour, saying Ashrafi Mahal was called thus because the erstwhile king tried to keep his many wives fit by rewarding each with a gold coin (ashrafi) every time they climbed up the stairway. Laughing at this bit of improvised folklore, we went on towards the Rewa Kund Group of monuments.
The romance of Mandu is pegged to the love story that unfolded here years ago between poet-prince Baz Bahadur and Rani Roopmati, his beautiful singing shepherdess-turned-consort. Signs of his affection still survive in the Rewa Kund reservoir and aqueduct, which he constructed to provide her palace with water.
The structure, now known as Roopmati’s Pavilion, was apparently a military observation post to begin with. Later, it became the point from where Roopmati would gaze wistfully across the Narmada at Baz’s palace, in the hope of catching a glimpse of her royal lover. They were married subsequently, but Emperor Akbar’s troops marched on Mandu soon after and the idyll died along with Baz’s defeat and Roopmati’s suicide by poison.
The memories swirl with the chilly wind that blows at this spot and the quiet is disturbing. Luckily, the starkness of the stone and the windswept gorge at our feet is softened by the bright spots of colour brought in by a few village women in their rainbow-hued saris and men in pristine white with flame-coloured turbans.
Another ramble, another day, and you could stumble onto the better maintained Royal Enclave of monuments. The Jahaz Mahal is a 120m-long palace that takes inspiration from a ship. It connects two artificial lakes—the Munj Talao and the Kapur Talao. Apparently, with summer temperatures soaring into the high 40s, the royals had to come up with innovative and effective ways to beat the heat. Sultan Ghiyas-ud-din Khilji built this two-storeyed palace for his harem’s summer hours. During the monsoon, it actually looks like a ship afloat on an emerald sea.
A little ahead, Hindola Mahal, with its almost fantastical sloping walls, adds to the surreal sensation. It is beautiful, of course, but in a perverse “are-your-glasses-intact?” sort of way. On closer inspection, you will find it was meant to be an audience hall, with easy access from innumerable archways that curve gracefully up to the almost flat ceiling. Delicate trelliswork on the ornamental facade and innovative techniques used for building this “swinging” palace (as its name means) enthrall architects even today.
Apart from these, there are innumerable other mahals and ruins dotting the landscape. The Archeological Survey of India has been active here for decades and is still coming up with new treasures. And with locals discovering 100 dinosaur eggs nearby in May, the Geological Survey of India wants to declare the region a protected area.
Excitement is always afoot at Mandu. If you are an Indiana Jones or a Tomb Raider at heart, there will be no stopping you. Even if you feel you have been everywhere, seen everything here, rest assured a new surprise will spring forth each time you visit.
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