As you leave behind the crowded city of Indore, and drive further into of the heart of the country, rest your jaded eyes a bit and let them feast on the green fields that envelope the countryside. Do not linger however, as it is not long before you turn into a dusty winding road, approaching a once-important town, now comfortably folded into near-oblivion.
If déjà vu hits, do not fight it, for you may be a one-time prince or princess, returning to a kingdom you knew well. Multiple ancient gates herald you every few hundred metres, as if each takes you back a couple of centuries. And that is how best to visit Mandu. To imagine it in all its glory. Not the forgotten town it is today, but in its days of opulence and indulgence.
For indulgence is what best marks the structures here. A pleasure-resort, if you may, of yesteryears, Mandu is more than what catches the eye. But what catches the eye is in itself spellbinding enough to suck you into a trance, taking you back into a time when kingdoms were ruled from its gorgeous palaces.
The most striking structure in Mandu, and I may be biased here, is the Jahaz Mahal, named such as its shadow in the noon sun resembles a formidable ship, standing on a thin strip of land between two lakes. Sultan Ghiyas-ud-din-Khilji built it in the mid-15th century, to house his harem, rumoured to consist of 15,000 women from shores as far as Turkey.
The Jahaz Mahal is a sensory roller-coaster with pools shaped like a tortoise and one like a lotus flower. A guided tour is best to understand the intricacies of the palace, like the multi-layer water filtration system. The guided tour seems to be more of an improv performance, as we are told that the bathing area has star and moon cut outs in its dome because the ladies “wanted to bathe under the stars”.
The Jahaz Mahal is part of a larger compound that includes other buildings, such as a very interesting Hindola Mahal, a narrow hall with massive wide arches in a row and a ramp at the end, supposedly for the king’s elephant to help deposit him to the vantage point. The exterior sandstone walls of Hindola Mahal slope, giving it the illusion of swaying, thus the name.
The town’s existence can be traced as far back as the sixth century through Sanskrit inscriptions. But in the years that have passed, it changed hands multiple times. The Parmara rulers moved their capital from Dhar to Mandu in AD 1261, presumably to take advantage of its strategic location on top of a plateau.
But only 44 years later, Dilawar Khan Gori—the governor representing the sultan of Delhi, Alauddin Khilji—defeated the Parmara rulers, ending their dynasty and heralding Muslim rule in the region. With Khilji far away, Dilawar Khan and his son, Hoshang Shah, ruled Mandu for many years, and also beautified the town by building iconic structures like the imposing Jami Masjid, modelled after Umayyad Mosque in Damascus (Syria). The mosque is a beautiful structure with a sprawling courtyard and a very unique interplay of Hindu and Islamic architecture.
This secular architectural harmony finds its way into Hoshang Shah’s Tomb next door, which was the first marble tomb of that era, much before the famous one in Agra. In fact, an inscription on site suggests that Shah Jahan sent his architects to Mandu to study this tomb’s structure and gain inspiration for the Taj Mahal. But as most things in this town, the veracity of these stories is anyone’s guess.
After the Khilji rule, Mandu changed hands multiple times, from Bahadur Shah of Gujarat to Baz Bahadur and finally to the Mughals. Baz Bahadur’s era marked the last reigning age of this town before it slowly slipped back into anonymity. As a final touch, Baz Bahadur (who was not known for much except for his love of a stunning Hindu village beauty, Roopmati) left behind a viewing gallery named after his lady love, intended to allow her to look into his palace and to be able to view the Narmada River flowing far away.
Mandu is not your typical tourist destination. If tick marks are what you’re looking for, you may go back unsatisfied. But as I said before, if you let go of reality for a while and shroud yourself in the mystery of time travel, you may get a glimpse of a town that once was the shining jewel of empires. You may hear the tinkling anklets of dancing girls, the war cry of feuding armies or even feel the heartbreak of Baz Bahadur when Roopmati committed suicide.
If you, for a little while, allow yourself to walk down these dusty lanes of history, you may wonder like I do, why Mandu has not gained the iconic status of Hampi or Agra... and then as an afterthought, you may feel grateful for the same, for there is no greater joy than to discover something (relatively) untouched.
Mandu does that to you—its leave you feeling grateful and humbled. A secret that you are tempted to hold close, wondering if you should spill it out when you return home.
Photographs by Harnoor Channi-Tiwary.
Harnoor Channi-Tiwary is a marketing specialist who wandered into the world of writing and never left. She has been writing about food and travel for more than a decade. She blogs at TheThoughtExpress, tweets as @HCdines and now lives in Singapore with her husband and six-year-old daughter (whose first word reportedly was ‘yummy’ and not ‘mummy’).
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