The rain has slowed down to a mild drizzle. I peep out from under a small, carved chhatri on the terrace of the Jahaz Mahal, a kilometre northwest of Mandu’s town centre. Kapur Talao, the man-made lake beyond the front lawns, is almost completely full, reflecting the surrounding trees, lush green from the monsoon. I take a few quick steps across the terrace to look at Munj talao, the other lake that bookends this slim palace, where a herd of buffaloes has just settled in for a slow soak.
The “ship palace” is a resplendent ruin among a city full of such vestiges of glories past. One hundred and twenty metres long and just fifteen metres wide, it rises amidst the pools appearing like a vessel anchored in position, with domed pavilions that reach out to the sky like sails. It was built in the late 15th century during the reign of the Khiljis; more than a hundred years later, it became a favourite of Mughal emperor Jahangir and his bride, Noor Jehan. In his autobiography, Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri, the emperor describes these opulent celebrations in vivid detail: “As the evening began, they lit lanterns and lamps all around the tanks and building… The lamps cast their reflection on the water and it appeared as if the whole surface of the tank was a plain of fire. A grand entertainment took place and the inebriates indulged themselves to excess.”
As the walled-in capital of the Malwa Kingdom, Mandu witnessed terrible strife over the centuries: the Mughals, the Khiljis, and Bahadur Shah of Gujarat, all struggled for control over it. But the spirit of indulgence is still palpable among its relics, from the luxurious pools of Jal Mahal to the pillared dancing halls of Jahaz Mahal, which must have once resonated with song and dance.
All major sights in Mandu are within a five-kilometre radius of the heart of the town. While rickshaws are available, the best way to get around is on a cycle. Pack a picnic lunch and set out early for an easy unplanned day of stopping at places like the Sagar Talao or the upper level of Dai-ki-choti-behen-ka-mahal. The latter’s tomb is dedicated to the royal wet nurse, which still retains traces of the blue tiles that once covered its dome. Barring a few slopes, the terrain is easy and lined with trees and lush fields, making it ideal for laidback pedalling (cycles are available for rent at a small house three doors down from the popular Shivani Restaurant; ₹100-125 a day).
The 16th-century romance between Baz Bahadur, the last independent king of Mandu, and Rupmati, a beautiful shepherdess, is the favourite folktale of the Malwa region. Legend says that Rupmati agreed to be his consort only if she could live in a palace from where she could view her beloved Narmada River. An old army lookout point atop a hill was reappointed as the queen’s retreat, with a sheer drop to the river on one side and a view of Baz Bahadur’s Palace on the other. In contrast with some of the other monuments of Mandu, Rupmati’s Pavilion is not in a state of utter ruin. It offers a spectacular view of the valley as well as the twinkling Narmada in the distance. It comes alive at sunset silhouetted against the golden-red light (sunrise-sunset; entry ₹5).
With a bulbous trunk and scraggly branches fanning out into the sky, the peculiar baobab is rarely spotted in India. However, dozens of these ancient trees find a fitting home among Mandu’s regal residues. Dotting the sides of the main road that runs through the city’s northern entry gate, all the way to the southern end at Rupmati’s Pavilion, the trees vary in size and shape, from smaller shrubs to giant, imposing elders. With an ability to store huge reserves of water within its trunk and seeds full of antioxidants (chalky texture, acidic taste), baobabs are often called the Tree of Life. Try and find the oldest and largest one in the area. Hint: It’s on the way to Rupamati’s Pavilion.
Jal Mahal is a part of the Royal Enclosure that also contains Jahaz Mahal. Yet the pool-filled wonder often gets unfairly relegated to the shadows of its more popular neighbour. Located in Munj Talao, the palace was built as a private monsoon sanctuary for noble couples. Close to ten pools of varying shapes, sizes, and depths form the front courtyard. They range from floral-shaped step pools to narrow, deep tanks running along its length. It’s easy to imagine the many luxurious dips taken by stately residents and visitors over the centuries, surrounded by the verdant green gardens of the palace enclosure (sunrise-sunset. Entry for the entire Royal Enclosure ₹5).
Appeared in the December 2014 issue as “Ruins Of The Empires”
Mandu, in the Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh is 525 km/9 hrs northeast of Mumbai and 373 km/6.5 hrs east of Ahmedabad. The closest airport and railway station are at Indore, which is 95 km/3 hrs northeast (₹1,600-1,800 one-way by taxi). Frequent buses ply between Indore and Dhar (36 km/1.5 hrs), from where you can take a local bus to Mandu.