‘You must visit Mandu. It’s a fantastic place,’ said my Bhopal aunt during my brief stay with her.
I look up my itinerary and pre-trip research notes. Yes, the place is on them. It would be one of my last stops in Madhya Pradesh before I begin my tour of Gujarat. I have spent quite a lot of time in Madhya Pradesh. Agreed, it is a large state but perhaps I should have tried harder to save a day here and a day there. I am glad that this large state has finally been covered but its seems like the tip of an iceberg when I think of what’s left of India.
I arrive into my destination my bus. Everywhere I look the signs talk of Mandav. Is this a Hindi alias of Mandu? I get a hint from history. Apparently Mandu is an old name and at some point it came to be called Mandavgarh. In the early 15th century, Mandu was taken by Dilawar Khan, the Afghan governor of Malwa. He renamed it as Shadiabad. Over the years, the original name of Mandu has stuck. Somehow the signs stamp down their preferences.
Entry into Mandu is spectacular. I hardly suspected it would be this way. Hence you can imagine the first impression which is more than favourable. Mandu is set on a high plateau surrounded by hills and high cliffs. In the lower plains, the Narmada gives life to farming settlements. The landscape is dry but not without specks of greenery. This time of the year, as in most of Central India, the weather is comfortable and never too hot. The drive into town is quite a long one. At some point the road enters the old fort gates, probably what is called the Delhi Gate. This is the road that runs to Dhar, the erstwhile capital of King Bhoj of the Parmaras.
Having got some idea of the wide area enclosed by the fort walls and having seen the spectacular scenery all around, I think this is capital country for long walks. I am tempted to stay here for more than a couple of nights but Gujarat seems to admonish me quietly from the west.
There is no bus stand to speak of in town. There is no proper town to speak of really. Where the bus stops, there is a line of shops on either side. The road continues alone to the other end of the fortified plateau. A few lanes branch off here and there from the main road. Ruins lie scattered around. There are so many of them and so plainly visible from the road that I find hard to focus. My admiration is divided and incomplete. I see no obvious choices for stay for the night. Here lies the great magic of Mandu. It is one of those towns that had its glorious days for a couple of centuries. Then it was laid to waste, abandoned and almost forgotten. Given its location, it has retained that medieval air. Its landscape hosts a train of buildings which are ruins by neglect of the past and preserved by neglect of the present.
Right opposite the bus stand is a government rest house. I find the caretaker in a small corner room. I ask for a room. He invites me in with a smile. He hands me the key. The rooms are large. Bathroom and toilet are clean. There is spacious verandah at the entrance. For what’s on offer, it is a cheap deal. I take it. There are just a handful of rooms in this rest house, a basic facility with no frills.
‘These were built during Nehru’s time,’ tells me the caretaker as I sign into his guest book. I dump my stuff in the room, have lunch at a restaurant across the road and start my visit of the ruins. My first stop is the Jami Masjid which stands right opposite my accommodation.
It is a spectacular building with three large domes and finials. The central courtyard is nicely maintained with stone walkways, green lawns and manicured shrubs. Corridors with bays of pointed arches are on all four sides of the couryard but not all are preserved. What makes the mosque majestic is a plethora of small domes, each of which top an arched bay. There must be over fifty of these domes. There isn’t much decoration in the mosque. Except for the central mihrab and the minibar, the pillars and the domes are all plain. This gives the building it austere look.
Two things interest me here. First is the interior of the east entrance gateway. The square space is arranged as an octogon with corner arches leading into triangular spaces. Above the high arches that frame smaller arches of jali screens, is a ring of sixteen arches and squinches squatting low below the base of the dome. The arrangement of these squiches and the triangular spaces beneath is quite unique. Secondly, the main prayer area to the west has at its northern end a low arched ceiling that makes room for women devotees to take their seat at a higher level. This too is quite unique.
Next door from the Jami Masjid is the white marble tomb of Hoshang Shah which was completed in mid-fifteen century by Mahmud Khilji. With a single dome and corner cupolas it is quite plain. Its jali screens are noteworthy. The pillars of the colonnade to the west suggest remains of an earlier temple, perhaps from the period of the Parmaras.
I come out from here and right across the road is the Ashrafi Mahal. With domeless structures, vertical arches framing the sky, quiet perspectives of arched bays, dark stone stairs and exposed stones of crumbling walls, the place is an ideal picture of a historic ruin. Its proximity to the main road and a constant bustle of tourists and school groups spoils its ambience.
When I step out, I am hassled by fellows looking for business. Apparently I would not be able to explore the vast ruins on foot. Would I care to hire a vehicle? No way. There is no better way to explore Mandu than on foot. Just walking from ruin to ruin is walking through a historic past.
I turn left from the main road into a dirt path. I pass a village. The poverty is striking. Children are playing games on the path. A baobab tree suddenly appears to my surprise. I had thought they exist only in Africa. One of the early explorers, perhaps the Portuguese or the Arabs, must have brought the seeds with them. A little later I find more of them. They have taken quite well to Mandu’s climate.
I pass ruin after ruin, enjoying everyone of them. Day trippers hardly ever come this way. None of these ruins are grand or spectacular but if you want to imagine history they are probably the best places to afford such imagination. I hardly know the names of these ruined buildings, some of which are being overtaken by creepers and weeds. An open arch of an octogonal mausoleum frames a stunted tree outside. A grassy path leads to a colonnaded hall of arched bays. Walls stand without their rooms. Brackets stick out without their eaves. Farms stretch as far as I can see with a few workers working the land. If anything, this is a pretty rural picture with a touch of history.
It is half three. I walk to the Jahaz Mahal, a palace on a piece of land between two lakes. The lakes lie largely dried. The old romance is gone but can be easily imagined for much of the palace remains. Many decorative pools are laid out around the buildings. They must have once contained cool clean waters as water channels connected one to another. The palace was probably built by the pleasure loving Ghiyas-ud-din during the late 15th century. The Hindola Mahal has sloping walls which in places resemble buttresses between arched openings. Projected balconies are ornate. The inner space is today roofless. I climb up to get a beautiful view of the arches in perspective. Near this mahal is a well called Champa Baodi. It seems to go deep. I try to see if there is an entrance but I am running out of time.
It is almost closing time. I have to give the museum next door a miss. I walk back to my room. The sun is setting. Almost by chance I pass what is marked on my map as the Ujala Baodi. It is a stepwell. I don’t think I have ever seen anything so unique. I might have seen pictures of such stepwells in Gujarat but seeing one for the first time…
A domed kiosk stands at ground level at one end. At the other end a broad flight of stairs goes down halfway to the water level. Narrow stairs and landings hug the walls that dig deep four levels below ground. Arches line the walls and frame niches that they define. It might be right to think that the facade of a stepwell as this is inside rather than outside. Looking at the whole architecture from water level, this well is a building whose essence is more on the inside. There is something else – one narrow pair of stairs zigzag their way to the bottom. From the opposite side they look beautiful and geometrically perfect.
As if this had not been enough to make my day, I come across its counterpart a few paces away – Andheri Baodi. Unlike the other stepwell, this one is dark and eerie. It is built in a sunken pit. Its arched bays stand under a flat roof on which a curious cylindral structure peeps a few feet high. I find my around to the entrance. The gate is locked but I can see a well at the center. I come outside and haul myself up to the roof. I peep into the well from the top. It is dark inside. Outside, the sun has already set. The well looks deep and secretive. There is no guessing how deep it is.
I look around. There are more ruined buildings than I can imagine or explore. It is time to call it a day. I need to find a restaurant for dinner. There is the Nandanvan restuarant on my way back to the bus stand. It looks an expensive place but I am okay with it. I am asked to come back later. It is still too early for dinner. However, there appears to be no streetlights around here. I doubt I’ll come back here for dinner.
It is an early start for the day. I have lots to see. In the early hours I head southwest to the edge of the plateau. The plateau drops steeply to the forests below. The air is misty and the landscape quietly spectacular. The countryside wakes up amidst a sweet cacophonic ring of bird calls. A couple of women collect water at a natural spring, balance the pots on their heads and return. A boy leads a cow before him through the undergrowth far below. A conical hill sticks its head above the level of the plateau in the distance.
I return to the main road and take the same going south. Among the ruins, I see pillars that could have once been the creations of Hindu patrons. At the Malik Mughith’s mosque, a colonnade of three unequal bays ends in a octogonal space of arches rising to a dome at the northern end. Elsewhere in the same building a similar octogonal space is defined by trabeate design rather than arches. The eastern entrance to this mosque is defined by a beautiful octogonal space whose dome is missing but its arches are standing reverentially to their designed intentions. This is one of the perfect and poetic ruins of Mandu. The mosque itself is austere much like the Jamia Masjid I had seen yesterday. Its three domes are quite simple and majestic.
Right opposite this mosque is a carvanserai, temporary resting places for royal entourage and travellers on the road. It is a vast open space with a simple gateway at the western end. I climb up and walk for a while on the flat terrace. Baobab trees decorate the ground outside the ruin. There is not a tourist in sight and I wonder why. Perhaps weekends will see more visitors. For now, I have this wonderful piece of historic ruin to myself. Two more palaces are within paces of the serai. I visit them quickly and move on.
The final visit for the day is a long walk from here. I walk past the Sagar Talao to my right until I arrive at the ruined palaces of Baz Bahadur and Queen Roopmati. The views from here are spectacular. This is about as far south as the fortification goes. Suddenly the clouds, which have been gathering for a couple of hours, burst. The downpour is quick and it is all over in a matter of minutes. The air has cooled nicely. I am back on a long return walk to my room.
‘Do you have Internet?’ I ask at a shop. It appears to be a house whose front room has been converted into an office with a computer. This seems to be the only place in town for getting online.
‘Eighty rupees per hour,’ he quotes.
‘Why so much?’
‘We do it through mobile, that’s why,’ he explains.
I’ll have to just write down the day’s adventures in my book and put it online later. I find a nice restaurant down the road towards Delhi Gate. I order a thali meal. Meal is served quickly. At fifty rupees a plate everything about it is wonderful.