India is a country full of romantic ruins, forts and abandoned cities, and often the most memorable moments of a trip to India are spent exploring one of these spots, absorbing the atmosphere of a bygone age. Of the several abandoned cities that I visited recently in India, the one that left the strongest impression on me was Mandu.
Located 100 km southwest of Indore in the state of Madhya Pradesh, Mandu was the capital city of a northern Indian Muslim state between 1401 and 1561. It has lain abandoned for over 400 years and is now the site of a tiny village and an expanse of farmers’ fields.
Coming in from Indore by bus, the first hints of what was to come were the occasional Muslim tombs, square structures with Taj Mahal-like onion domes, in the middle of wheat fields. Then we lurched down into a valley, lumbered up the other side and passed through a massive gate in the city walls. A few kilometres further on, the bus dropped me beside the immense Jama Masjid, and I slipped into a 500-year-old world.
The ancient city comprised a huge area, the top of a large plateau about 10 km north-to-south and 15 km from east to west. Still-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 metres 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.
Amidst the prosperous-looking countryside, perhaps the most picturesque non-mountainous scenery that I saw in India, are clustered several groups of ruins, all in typical northern Indian Muslim architecture. The Royal Enclave is the most complete and most romantic set of buildings, a cluster of palaces and attendant structures built around two artificial lakes.
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, 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, were the highlights of this area. In the summer, these must have been deliciously 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 included 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.
Further south, the modern village of Mandu huddles around the huge Jama Masjid, or Friday Mosque. Laid out around a vast courtyard, the rows of heavy red sandstone arches around the mihrab are tremendously photogenic. Behind it is the tomb of Hoshang Shah, the first ruler of Mandu, who died in 1435. The white marble mausoleum looks like a dry run for the Taj Mahal, albeit much squatter and less graceful. In fact, Shah Jahan’s architects reportedly came to Mandu to study the tomb before they designed the Taj.
Much of the charm of Mandu lies in its outlying buildings, and I spent much of a gloriously sunny day bicycling around the southern reaches of the plateau visiting the scattered ruins.
There are dozens of tombs, all square and onion dome-topped but with various architectural details to keep up my interest. Plenty of Hindu touches creep into the later buildings, such as window brackets and elaborate shaped columns that contrast with the stark elegance of the purely Islamic style.
The sight of the domes across the gold and green fields, framed by baobab trees, with the high white dome of Hoshang’s Tomb behind, was beautiful and redolent with the air of bygone centuries. Indeed, in the villages the mud-and-straw huts, and ox-drawn carts seemed little changed since Hoshang Shah’s time.
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 Moghuls, completed with 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 Rupamati’s Pavilion offers more great views, down to the distant Narmada as it meanders across the plains. Supposedly 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 traveller, 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.
Leaving Mandu after a couple of wonderful days of exploration, I was sad to leave behind the romance and palpable sense of history and superb views. Anyone with the slightest interest in ruins will leave Mandu with a similar reluctance.