With an increasing number of people wanting to revenge travel in the times of coronavirus, I recommend slow travel. And the walled-city of Mandu in Madhya Pradesh, which can be explored within a day, is just the place to start.
There is a certain charm about ancient cities, and that charm grows on you. Stuck in a bittersweet marriage with city life, I often crave the undulating mountainscapes or the orchestra of the ocean to quench my thirst for a refreshing view. But I seldom appreciate the aesthetic and emotional pleasure that comes from a walk through a mall road of monuments that wraps you in a time wrap of stories from a bygone era. This was until I explored Mandu, which is every bit romantic as it is rustic.
Mandu, in the present-day Mandav area, is located in the Malwa region of western Madhya Pradesh. Its easy and convenient connect from Indore (98 kms) and Mhow (92 kms) makes Mandu an ideal one-day destination, best covered on foot or bicycles. As soon as you enter the region, deep ravines penetrating the heart of the hill welcome you with a cool breeze, courtesy of the many lakes that ornament this place. Mandu’s beauty lies not just in its architectural marvels but also on the ground they stand. Nature’s bewitching charm is best explored during monsoons (August, to be precise). Locked in lush vegetation and dotted with Africa’s famous baobab trees, monsoons spread an expansive duvet of green hues across the land, which even for Mughal emperor Jahangir was “no place so pleasant in climate and so pretty in the scenery as Mandu in the rainy season”.
And it is also during this season that Jahaz Mahal’s poetic beauty thrives. Jahaz Mahal or Ship Palace, built by Sultan Ghiyas-ud-din-Khalji as a harem, lies on a narrow strip of land between Munj and Kapur water tanks, which present the Mahal as a ship erected in the middle. The best view of the Mahal is from the terrace of the Taveli Mahal. Interestingly, Jahaz Mahal found its due international fame in an 1832 Victorian scrapbook called Fisher’s Drawing Room Scrap Book by Letitia Elizabeth Landon.
Here, architecture acts as a conduit to history that reached its fruition under the Mughal rule (AD 1401 – AD 1526). Similar to the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughals laid their firm power in Mandu by deconstructing Hindu temples. Malik Mughith showcases the initial phase of Indo-Islamic architecture, and Jami Masjid, inspired by the great mosque of Damascus, exemplifies its final look. On the other hand, Mandu also gave us India’s first marble structure in the form of fine Aghan architecture, which served as a template for the construction of Taj Mahal in Agra — Tomb of Hoshang Shah.
Despite the ferocious battle cries and bloody glory that led to the construction of a majority of monuments, Baz Bahadur’s Palace and Roopmati’s Pavilion stand tall and proud as remnants of love. Theirs was a love story destined to doom after taking a sly hit from Akbar’s general Adham Khan, who wanted Roopmati to join his repertoire of musicians due to her mellifluous singing, our local tour guide tells us.
Archaeologically speaking, Mandu’s intriguing ancient terrain had become a playground for palaeontologists, too. A Dinosaur Museum is undergoing renovation currently where dinosaur eggs were discovered, which is a sight to see. And strewn across the lawns among sculptures of dinosaurs and massive eggs are stone remnants of gymnosperm trees that have fossilised over a hundred million years.
On its way to being added to the UNESCO heritage site, Mandu has so much to offer. In another attempt to draw travellers, Madhya Pradesh Tourism inaugurated a five-day-long Mandu Festival two years ago. Last year, the festival was cancelled due to the pandemic, and this year, it was cut down to three days. Curated by E-Factor Entertainment, Mandu Festival opened conversations around vocal for local travel via rural homestays and cuisine. We enjoyed a delicious local meal prepared by the Bhil family that included bajra rotis, paniye rotis, daal and baingan bharta, crab soup, rose kheer, washed down with the potent brew, mahua. There was an immersive light and sound show at Hindola Mahal in the evening, followed by day activities galore such as horseback riding (while a few followed in a decorated poster-red truck with comfortable seating), heritage walks, fishing, and cycling in the picturesque village of Malipura. Music and Food District fuelled the evenings with performances by Nupur Kala Kendra, Kabir Cafe (Bombay-based Indie-folk band), and Mukt (Ahmedabad-based Indie band). And there was an Art District, supporting local artists and craft merchandise from Handmade in India Project, The New Era Shopper, Reva Hast Kala, Batik Print, and Rinoop Art Centre.
My walks in Mandu felt like running on a hedonic treadmill, with each architecture and rural setting for each mood. History, aesthetic, and nature hold the same influence as these imposing buildings that rule the heart of Mandu. And even though happiness may be fleeting here — as in any destination with ruins — it is worth the effort to slow travel and break the tiresome rut.
All images: Courtesy Mandu Festival and Harleen Kalsi