For a town bookmarked with imperial grandeur, Mandu has enjoyed a low profile. But Mandu Festival, a festival that kicked off last year, was billed as a potentially transformative event for local tourism. And to match that promise, a camp was set up right next to Sagar Talao, where travellers were treated to five days of delightful diversions, from twilight hot-air balloon rides to guided cycle tours and music concerts, all of it unfolding amidst Mandu’s heritage landmarks.
During my visit, I sauntered about one afternoon, gravitating towards a ruinous domed structure I had spotted on my way to the campsite. Tracing a trail of trampled grass through wheat fields, I stood before the ruins of Hathi Mahal, an Indo-Islamic architectural relic that was once a holiday home and later converted to a mausoleum. The domed roof stood on the shoulders of massive pillars, resembling an elephant’s legs, clarifying why the structure was named so. Even in the warm sun, a copse of banyan trees cast an eerie darkness over the ruin. It was difficult to imagine this was ever a holiday home. I tried to conjure a mise-en-scene from a few hundred years ago, when the chaotic sounds of a thriving fort-town rang across its courtyard. For the time being however, the silence was punctuated only by leaves crunching under my foot and the stray twang of a guitar from Indian Ocean’s sound check nearby; the band was one of the biggest draw of all the musical acts slated to perform during the fest.
I returned to campsite, where as dusk fell, the pair of baobabs leading up to the lake lit up. Shortly after which, Indian Ocean, inaugurated the festival’s first performance in front of Dai Ke Chhoti Behen ka Mahal, another tomb, this one dedicated to the sister of a royal midwife. The makeshift concert arena was packed–Mandu veterans sitting next to me told me that this was probably the largest crowd the town has seen in recent years. As the band launched into a long, improvised version of “Ma Rewa,” a paean to the mighty Narmada that nourishes the Malwa plateau, the crowd erupted.
The thumping percussion still reverberating in my ears, I made for the festival food court set up next to the lake, supping on a plate of humble daal bafla (doughy wheat balls, soaked in mildly-spiced daal) that was served with potato sabzi, mint chutney, rice and papad. After which, I had just enough appetite to accommodate another Malwa delicacy—garadu, or deep fried yam—guaranteed to get your blood flowing in biting winters.
The next morning, I accompanied our local guide, Yogendra, on a walking tour of Mandu’s many monuments, including Jami Masjid and Jahaz Mahal. He peppered his tour with spicy anecdotes (Ashrafi Mahal was a gym for the Sultan of Malwa’s begums; Jami Masjid bore witness to his several hundred marriages), most of which were best taken with a pinch of salt.
Adjacent to the mosque lay the marble tomb of Hoshang Shah, its whiteness stark among the reddish brown of the sandstone monuments around it. Famously, the tomb was the early blueprint that later inspired Shah Jahan to build Taj Mahal. If ancient lore portrays Mandu’s rulers as quirky characters, the Jahaz Mahal is a testament to their formidable ambition. The long, narrow palace straddles two artificial lakes, Kapur Talao and Munj Talao on either side. When the lakes filled to the brim during the monsoon, the palace, which housed the royal harem, appeared to float on the water, and hence the name.
Lost in fanciful fables, it took a visit to Chor-Kot for my mind to be brought back to the earth. The one-time prison is rubble now, and only parts of the thick stone walls and pillars have survived. From my seat atop a pile of debris just outside it, I watched children playing cricket, unfettered by the macabre history of their chosen stadium. A similarly mysterious gloom surrounded the Lohani Caves, angular chambers cut into a rock face along the side of a mountain.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to visit all the recommended historical spots, so I returned to base in anticipation of my hot-air balloon ride the next morning. We lifted off at dawn, the stolid balloon affording a view of the sun rising from the mountains to the east, and the green patchwork of fields below. Mandu now appeared like any other hill station. On closer inspection though, stories of love, warfare and ambitious kings tumbled out of its flagship monuments. I let my imagination borrow freely from the tales I had heard so far: did the banyans outside the supposedly haunted Hathi Mahal come alive at night? What must a prison break from Chor-Kot have been like 500 years ago? And as I readied for a rough landing in the middle of nowhere, I made a mental note to return to Mandu and pick up where my reveries had left off.