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Mandu: India has thousands of romantic ruins, forts, deserted towns and cities. Many of these are quite impressive. Mandu is definitely a fortified deserted town that is not only remarkable for its imposing architecture but also for its immensely impressive history. Although the city was abandoned for almost 400 years like Fatehpur Sikri, the deserted capital of Emperor Akbar, the tale of love between Prince Baz Bahadur and Rani Rupmati has been immortalized by the ballads that are still sung all over northwestern India. Recently the government of Madhya Pradesh has improved the roads leading up to this fascinating site that is surrounded by undulating landscape. The area transforms into a lush green paradise during the monsoons when most Indian tourists visit the place.
Raja Bhoj is believed to have founded the town in the 10th century as a royal retreat. In 1304 it was conquered by the Islamic Sultanes. They called the town Shahibabad. In later years as Islamic dynasties rose and sunk in northern India, the rulers of this remote region became more or less autonomous. Dilawar Khan, the Afghan provincial governor established the kingdom of Mandu to start a prosperous era in the region. Under his son, Hoshang Shah the city rose to its splendid glory. He moved his capital from Dhar to Mandu. During the early years of the reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar, a poet-prince Baz Bahadur was ruling the Malwa region from his fort in Mandu. He fell in love with a Hindu lady who later became famous as Rani Rupmati. The romance between the poet-prince and beautiful Hindu damsel caught the imagination of Balladeers whose works are still popular all over northwestern India in 21st century.
Coming in either from the train station at Khandwa in the south or from Indore city that has quite good road, train and even flight connections, one passes through relatively flat farmlands interspersed with occasional villages until one is nearer to Mandu. The initial signs of approaching Mandu are the Islamic domed mausoleums in the midst of vast farmland.
Just a little distance from the road is the monument in Mandu that one encounters at first – the Jama Masjid or the Friday mosque. Suddenly one is transported into a 500 years old heritage site built with red sandstone. As one enters the arched gate a vast courtyard surrounded with pillared verandahs that are topped with elegant arches. The Mihrab arched structure in the main building of the mosque is very impressive. The architecture of this mosque was inspired by the great mosque of Damascus in Syria. Just behind the mosque is one of the oldest tombs – the tomb of Hoshang Shah who died in 1435. The mausoleum was built in white marble and it is said that Mughal Emperor Shahjahan sent his architectural advisors to view and study the design of this mausoleum before they started the plans for the world famous Taj Mahal. The tomb of Hoshang Shah is however much less impressive and graceful than the Taj Mahal. Its domes are nonetheless quite well proportioned and there is some delicate and intricate latticework in its screens. It is a fine example of Afghan architecture in India. It is also one of the earliest mausoleums made in white marble. The third monument in this group which is referred to as the central group of monuments in Mandu is the Ashrafi Mahal. The name is not very appropriate for this building because this was never a Mahal or palace. It was built to serve as a Madrasa for Islamic religious teaching and studying. Ashrafi literally means gold probably to signify the importance of the building. It was constructed during the reign of Muhammad Shah Khilji.
The second group of monuments in Mandu is called the royal enclave and this group is certainly the most romantic and interesting, and includes two palaces that are perhaps the most interesting architecturally - Jahaz Mahal and Hindola Mahal. The buildings in this section are relatively well preserved. Two artificial lakes add a romantic ambience to these palaces. The Jahaz Mahal, literally means Ship Palace is the one most popular with people from Indore city who wish to take a day-return outing especially in the monsoon and post-monsoon period. The Jahaz Mahal, or Ship Palace, attracts all the Indian day-trippers from Indore and justly so: it exudes an Arabian Nights atmosphere, a long, tall, narrow building topped by delicately-shaped kiosks where, legend has it, that the king's harem girls danced every evening. The view from the rooftop of the sun setting over one of the lakes, setting the reddish hues of the sandstone buildings aflame, provides one of the best sunsets to be seen in India. Around the Jahaz Mahal sprawls a vast expanse of more-or-less well-preserved palaces, mosques and wells that can provide hours of enjoyable exploration.
The three Baolis, or step-wells, elaborate underground Escher-like arrangements of steps and chambers and balconies leading downward to a pool of cool water, are the highlights of this area. In the summer, these must have been delightful cool retreats for the nobles, away from the stifling heat and dust. There is also an unmistakable Hammam, or Turkish bath house, and beautiful palaces perched on the lake shores. The rulers of Mandu, descendants of Afghan nobles, spent great efforts in creating a cool, water-filled landscape to remind them of their ancestral homelands.
Other highlights include the massive House and Shop of Gada Shah (a noble who seemed to wield more power than his weak royal overlord Mahmud), which resembles a bombed-out cathedral with its collapsed roof and towering arches, and the Hindola Mahal, which looks like a railway viaduct bridge with its disproportionately large buttresses supporting the walls. The Hindola Mahal was where the king would show himself every day to his subjects to prove that he was still alive.
The ancient city is spread on the top of a large plateau with an area of about 10 kilometers or 6 miles north-to-south and 15 kilometers or 9 miles from east to west. Impressive walls encircle the entire plateau, and extra fortifications guard the main approaches below. The views are stunning: the land drops away steeply from the flat tabletop to the plains of the Narmada River 300 meters or 984 feet below, giving the place one of the most perfect settings in India. Within the walls are golden wheat fields dotted with tiny villages and stands of Baobab trees, whose fat, stubby, bare branches give the entire scene a very African feel.
The southern edge of the plateau holds a couple of interesting structures. The Nil Kanth Palace, once the site of a shrine to Shiva, was converted into a pleasure pavilion by the Mughal Emperors and elaborate bathing pools. It has now been reclaimed as an important pilgrimage point for devotees of Shiva. The views, down to the plains below and across a ravine back to the Jama Masjid rising above the high cliffs, are the most spectacular in Mandu.
The south-facing Pavilion of Rani Rupmati offers more panoramic views, down to the distant Narmada as it meanders across the plains. It is believed that Baz Bahadur, the last independent ruler of Mandu, built two kiosks atop a defensive bastion so that his beloved singer and concubine Rupamati could look down towards her ancestral home on the Narmada every day. The setting inside the fairytale pavilion is incomparably romantic, but when the Moghul Emperor Akbar marched on Mandu in 1561, Baz Bahadur fled and Rupamati poisoned herself, lending an air of poignant tragedy to the site.
One of the nicest aspects of Mandu is the almost total absence of western tourists. There are plenty of Indian middle-class tourists, but they rarely stray far from the Jahaz Mahal. Most sites are left entirely to the individual and curious traveler, especially early in the morning or at sunset; thus you are able to conjure up the ghosts of a past entirely undisturbed by the modern world, an all-too-rare occurrence elsewhere in India.
FAIRS & FESTIVALS: The Malwa region is known for fun and colorful festival celebrations. The area was under Maratha influence for a long time and the Ganesh Chaturthi celebration here is one of the ways the culture of Maharashtra is popularly accepted in Malwa area. During the months of September / October the Ganesha Chaturthi Festival is celebrated with much pomp and fan fair. These celebrations are window to the rich and colorful cultural heritage, which this place inherits. During these festivals and fairs, tribal art and crafts are displayed. Excellent pieces of art & crafts made in clay, wood, metal, bamboo, cloth, leaves etc. are visual treats and a good purchase for decorations and gifts. The Malwa festival is organized in Indore, Ujjain and Mandu. A cultural program accompanies this festival, among other things. The traditional art and cultural heritage come to the fore ground. In fact, like the festivals in Khajuraho and Konark there has been an attempt to make this a national festival. The festival is an attempt to link regional art and culture with the national mainstream. And to the delight of the organizers Malwa festival has been receiving attention from the media and tourist inflow to this region has been on a rise.
Ahilya Bai Fort: This 18th. century fort was built by the Maratha Rani Ahilya Bai Holkar. Maheshwar was the capital of the Maratha rulers of Malwa until they moved it to Indore. It is located on a high plateau overlooking the Narmada River. There is a small section of the fort where artifacts from the royal period are preserved. On the stairs down to the river about mid-way is an entrance to a handloom textile factory that produces a unique cotton fabric for the local Maheshwari Saris. The weaving tradition goes back to 5th. century CE. The factory was established by the Rani Ahilya Bai Holkar and was the only place where women could work with equal status to men. The handloom factory is now run by co-operative society of the women and men weavers of the area. The Maheshwar town is located 13 kilometers or 8 miles east of National Highway # 3 connecting Agra to Mumbai and the Fort is about 91 kilometers or 57 miles from Indore.
Jheera Bagh Palace Hotel, Mandu Road, Dhar, Mandu 342001, India – 16 rooms
Rupmati Hotel, Mandu – 10 rooms (old hotel with poor maintenance)
Ahilya Bai Fort Heritage Hotel (18th. century) - 13 rooms in 6 buildings (tariff is inclusive of room, all meals, evening tea and drinks)
Distances from Mandu in kilometers and miles:
Bhopal: 285 kilometers or 177 miles
Indore: 99 kilometers or 62 miles
Ratlam Train Station: 124 kilometers or 77 miles
Khandwa Train Station: 163 kilometers or 101 miles
Maheshwar: 66 kilometers or 41 miles