The New Year dawned with an adrenaline rush as we embarked on a hot air balloon ride over the quaint city of Mandu in Madhya Pradesh. As we stood there breathing in the bracing air, the morning mist lifted lethargically, unfolding the fort cresting the hill and the massive gates leading to the fort. A platter of pastoral delights – grassy slopes, lush meadows, mist-covered valleys and a cluster of hamlets loomed into view. We could catch the sparkle of a river curving lazily along the plains and village kids waving out to us in the distance.
Before we set out to explore the town with a past, our guide regaled us with Mandu’s stories of romance and battle, courage and betrayal. The word Mandu is derived from Mandapa-durg (literally, fortified pillared hall), the name for a fort, dating back to the 6th century. Each monument in Mandu seems to tell a story, adding to its elegance. The beauty of its architecture lies in its minimalism. But it is the tales of the legendary poet-prince Baz Bahadur and his beautiful consort, Roopmati, which lend an aura of agelessness to the place.
The monuments have been divided into three groups. The first is a group of buildings referred to as the Royal Enclave, then there is the Village Group, and the third is the Rewa Kund Group at the south of the fort.
Jami Masjid, patterned on the great Omayyed Mosque in Damascus
Our monument-hopping spree started with the Village Group, which is dominated by the grand Jami Masjid and Hoshang Shah’s tomb. Modelled on the great Omayyed Mosque in Damascus, the Jami Masjid overlooks the village of Mandu. Acclaimed as the largest and the finest model of Afghan architecture in India, its construction was started by Hoshang Shah and completed in 1454.
I stood gazing in admiration at the beautiful courtyard enclosed by huge colonnades with a variety of arches, pillars, bays and domes, all aesthetically laid out. The vast masjid can seat 5,000 people. There is an ornate pulpit next to the central niche, showing Hindu influences. I learnt from my guide that its variety of domes are sound-amplifying and echo-absorbing devices so that the frailest voice, speaking from the pulpit, could be heard miles away.
Hoshang's marble mausoleum is said to have inspired the Taj Mahal
Hoshang’s Tomb, located behind the mosque, is one of the first marble edifices of its kind constructed in India. The interior of the tomb, with a well-proportioned central dome, surrounded by four smaller domes, the beautiful lattice-work and its porticos and towers, is overwhelming. Light enters the interior through stone jallis and falls on the six tombs within. It is no wonder Shah Jahan sent his architects on a recce to Mandu before they designed the Taj Mahal. But few are aware that it inspired none other than the Taj Mahal. From there, it was a hop, skip and jump to Ashrafi Mahal, another monument in the same group. Originally built as a madrasa (religious college) by Mahmud Shah, it was later extended to become his tomb.
From there we headed to the sprawling Royal Enclave, which flaunts the Jahaz Mahal or Ship Palace, the star attraction of Mandu. The eminent palace was built by Ghias-ud-din, son of Mahmud Shah, for his harem of more than 10,000 women. A beautiful two-storied palace with scalloped arches, airy rooms and beautiful pools, it is flanked on either side by two lakes, adding to its ship-like look. When viewed from afar, its open pavilions, balconies overhanging the water and open terraces are unforgettable on a moonlit night.
Next to this palace is the Hindola Mahal. Known as the Swing Palace, it has a wide, sloping ramp enabling the ruler to be ferried upstairs on elephant back. The Hindola Mahal, an audience hall, derives its name of ‘swinging palace’ from its perceptible sloping side walls which give an illusion that is always swinging. It is valued for its trellis-worked sandstone and elegant façade. To the west of this palace is the famous Champa Baoli (well) with underground chambers for hot and cold water. Adjacent is a hammam with chambers equipped with channels supplying hot and cold water and a steam sauna.
A large courtyard with a stunning cistern in Baz Bahadur's Palace
The Rewa Kund Group is located about three km south of the Village Group. The palace of Baz Bahadur, the last independent ruler of Mandu who ruled from 1555 to 1562, is located beside Rewa Kund, an artificial water tank with a ‘lift’ that supplied water to the palace. The palace is a medley of Rajasthani and Mughal styles of architecture. While strolling through the long corridors, amidst the numerous pillars and arched entrance, we could sense the echoes of a resplendent past.
Rewa Kund, a tank of sacred water from the river Rewa
Roopmati’s Pavilion, located high on the crest of a hill, gazes down at Baz Bahadur’s palace, a magnificent expression of Afghan architecture. Originally conceived as an army observatory, it became a look-out point for the lovely queen as Baz Bahadur’s palace was visible from here. Roopmati is said to have been a very beautiful Hindu singer, who Baz Bahadur persuaded to move to the fort, by building this pavilion far from where she could have sweeping views of the fertile Nimar plains and the sliver of Narmada river flowing across it.
Roopmati's Pavilion, a perfect setting for fairy tale romance
When Emperor Akbar’s forces marched to Mandu fort in 1561, Baz Bahadur fled, leaving Roopmati no choice but to kill herself. Mandu’s ruins still narrate the tragic end of the love story and the suicide of Rani Roopmati to save herself from the intruders. Hearing the sad and heartbreaking end of this romantic saga, we left with a heavy heart. But the glory of Mandu lives on, in its palaces and mosques, in legends and songs, chronicled for posterity, and the balladeers of Mandu still sing of the romance of these lovers.
All photographs by Susheela Nair
Susheela Nair is an independent food, travel and lifestyle writer, and photographer based in Bangalore. She has contributed content, articles and images on food, travel, lifestyle, photography, environment and ecotourism to several reputed national publications. Her writings constitute a wide spectrum, including guide books, brochures and coffee table books.