If Madhya Pradesh lies at the heart of the Indian subcontinent, we have in it a heart that beats — as all hearts need to — mellow, gentle and peaceful. A heart without stress, without anxiety, without hurry. There is a harmony and ease in the way space and time express themselves in the contemplative towns of Omkareshwar and Maheshwar, which absorb the River Narmada’s beauty as she flows by; in the forests of Kanha and Bandhavgarh; and in the petite hilly languidness of Amarkantak and Mandu.
So we find it fitting that when we reach Ujjain on our way to Mandu — to investigate why Mandu is called the most romantic of places in the monsoons — the train stops at a platform that is graced by a beautiful tree. The Indian Railways platform would have simply reaffirmed us as sleepy travel writers, but the unexpected tree, in the lazy morning, turns us into readers of Kalidas. This is where the poet lived and worked, this is the Ujjain he loved, so eloquently in his lyric poem Meghdoot and this is where he described the rains in a way which still suffices, a millennium-and-a-half later, for all of us lovers of this magical Indian phenomenon — the monsoon.
We find it even more fitting when on the last stretch of our journey by road, our senses quickening in the heavy air as those little tabletop hills of the Vindhyas come into view, we come to a fork that gives us two choices — this way for Mumbai; that way for Mandu. And even though the view, pregnant with the monsoon-tocome, is hazy, we can see the choice with perfect clarity. It’s not just the authority of Kalidas and his drenched descriptions of the Vindhya mountains that we have on our side.
There’s also Emperor Jehangir, who said, “I know of no other place that is so pleasant in climate and with such attractive scenery as Mandu in the rainy season.” And then there’s Mr Sharma, our hotel manager who described the Sagar Talao, by which his hotel is located, in monsoon time: “The mist comes till here (pointing his finger), till here (walking up and jabbing his finger more precisely), here (standing on the very spot), I’m telling you this tree becomes completely invisible in the mist….” An orientation Thinking that, “this tall mountain is our refuge when we are bent down by the weight of water”, the clouds delight the Vindhya Mountains scorched by the fierce flames of summer, by drenching them with showers… Mandu’s endearing beauty owes much to its location.
As we went up the hill, unexpected lakes shimmered after every turn, and flower-decked trees framed distant views of some old fort darwaza, standing with grave beauty. You have to picture a flatland called the Malwa Plateau, from which rise a number of hills that form the crest of the Vindhya Range. One of these, Mandu, is separated on three sides from the surrounding flatland by a ravine called the Kakra Khoh. On the southern side, where the khoh is absent, you can see the plain they call Nimar begin right under your nose, and after a sheer drop of 1,200 ft, stretch infinitely into the horizon. Successive kings abundantly appreciated the enchantment as well as the possibilities of a fortification at such a site.
The last millennium saw the Parmar kings, the Sultans of Malwa and the Mughals turn it into a palimpsest of signature fortifications and palaces. They seem to have built with an unerring eye, using the undulating heights and plenitude of water bodies as the main architectural feature. And so — Mandu in the rains. The advantages of its hilly location sing their heart out, the pastel shades of its centuries-old monuments are offset by the brilliant natural green setting, and the loveliness is doubled because it’s reflected in voluptuous water bodies that claim the hill-fort as their own — talaos, baolis, kunds, streams, torrents, rivulets…. And then, there are the clouds and the mist.
An introduction And even in paths made dark by clouds… women proceed to meet their lovers in their passion, their path being shown by flashes of lightning… We’re proceeding with nearly as much longing as that of the women going to meet their lovers. We have been to Mandu before, this lover is familiar and intimate; we have awaited this moment for long. Uphill we go, to Rupmati’s chhatris. Legend has it that Rupmati was a shepherdess from nearby Dharmapuri and Sultan Baz Bahadur saw her when out on a hunt; they fell in love. Rupmati could not eat without worshipping her beloved River Rewa (Narmada), so Baz Bahadur built her chhatris (pavilions) at the southernmost edge of Mandu, from where the river would be visible as a silver strip. When they went up to the pavilions, “she could not withhold amazement, at the width and loveliness of the scene”. Nor will you be able to. The hilltop chhatris, with their delicately shaped arches, cling to the edge of the Mandu hillside, above a sheer drop of some 1,000 ft, as the utterly flat Nimar Plains stretch to the horizon.
On clear days, you can see perhaps 30 km away. These plains lie to the south-west. And we know that the monsoon will roll in across these plains from the south-west. According to the locals, any minute now. As we walk up the sinuous road, the wind increases in force. At the top, we turn back to look at Mandu spread out at our feet. It resembles a confection of windswept, vivid green fields and woods, the ruins of Baz Bahadur’s palace set in the whole with lapidarian perfection. We clamber up to look at the other side, at those infinite plains. The sky has been painted with muscular, silver-grey-black clouds, which are being pushed towards us with a deft sureness by operatic winds. I have to cling to a tree to feel secure. We clamber on to the chhatris and find a perch, such that our legs can dangle over the fields below. Then, with all the patience of a lover who has complete confidence that her passion is reciprocated, we settle down to the deliciousness of waiting.
At any other time, it would have been complicated to sit at this ethereal site, despite its beauty, because this is where that young girl was supposed to have spent her lonely hours. Rupmati married (or eloped with) her love at a young age, was abandoned by him when under attack by Akbar’s general Adham Khan, took a poison of powdered diamonds and died, all before she was 21. This is where she sat, when Baz Bahadur neglected her for wine, or some new beauty, says a contemporary historian. I can never sit here with complete abandon, I’m always peeping sadly over her shoulder as she gazed at her river and her land, but today the wind and clouds have overpowered all my senses. They are very close now. Even the few threads of weak silver sunlight that were managing to burst through the greyness are defeated. As they come in, fast and exhilarated, the moisture in the wind is joyous, the rain is delicate, and the cloud-mist is all-encompassing. We’re soaked, everyone around us is delighted, someone shouts out to see if this chamber of clouds will return an echo. It almost does. “Sawan’s lowering clouds are dry,” says a lovelorn verse of separation attributed to Rupmati. But we finally know what ‘advent of monsoon’ means.
The rivers flow… The clouds rain… The forests glisten… Lovers meditate on absent lovers… Peacocks dance… All of this manages to happen in the small 6 km by 8 km area that Mandu covers. We walk the days away at Mandu — past stretches of wooded lands, stray ruins, lakes and ponds, and settlements of the local tribals — in an intoxicated haze. Literally haze, since the monsoon has come here in a dreamy miasma and visibility is often just a few feet. The Mandu monuments, not wellpreserved or freshly painted but mostly left to languidly absorb the passing of time, benefit from having their edges blurred and their pastel shades enriched by water. They can now be seen not as ‘buildings’ but an architecture of stone with landscape, nature, atmosphere, feel and flavour.
The Royal Enclave
The famous Jahaz Mahal exemplifies this harmony of nature and architecture. The unique playfulness of this structure is well matched by the colourfulness of its builder Sultan Ghiyasuddin (1469-1500). The king, not content to keep a bewildering 15,000 women in his seraglio, is said to have kept himself surrounded by “500 beautiful and young Turkish females in men’s clothes and an equal number of Abyssinian females, all in uniform and armed… as guards”. Ghiyasuddin waged no wars. The peace of his times was shaped into this extraordinarily long and narrow strip of a palace, perched between two large pools of water (the Munja and Kapur talaos), reflected in both. So, ‘Jahaz Mahal’, because the elongated palace seems like a ship amidst these waters. The rain is filling the talaos now, though they’ll fill to the brim a little later, in July But it’s a delight to sit here and just pleasurably waste away in this lighthanded, if bare, architecture of chhatris, domes, levels and spaciousness, wind and water. Jahaz Mahal hosted Jehangir on an evening when, according to the emperor, “they lighted lanterns all round the tanks and buildings…. It appeared as if the whole surface of the tank was a plain of fire.
A grand entertainment took place and the drunkards indulged themselves to excess!” We simply feast on the clouds. We wander on to have a pleasant afternoon in the adjacent complex. Hindola Mahal, ‘swinging palace’, is named for the perceptible tilt of its walls, which make it seem that the monument is swaying. It’s a small, unique gem of a building. The rain is livening up the haunted misty palace. I can imagine it rocking to and fro in the enchantment of the monsoon. We roam behind Hindola Mahal, in a dream of ruined bat-visited palaces, tehkhanas (underground rooms), a ruined theatre, and a Jal Mahal, located on the Munja Talao. Then, we go to investigate the picturesque multiplicity of levels at Ujali Baoli. Local kids are jumping down the breathtaking heights of the stepwell. You can’t have too much of a good thing, so they are nude and swimming even as it pours fog and rain.
Once the downpour gets too strong, we have to rush to Gada Shah ki Dukaan, another tiny almostpalace, where gorgeous old mango trees smile benignly at our admittedly hysterical giggliness. Sagar Talao group It is said that the Mughal emperor Humayun developed his opium habit during a stay in Mandu. We spend many fresh mornings on the banks of the Sagar Talao, bathed in the clouds, and wonder why he needed the opiate at all. The Talao is Mandu’s biggest and most central water body.
Moist white wool usually rolls in over the lake in the evenings and we can walk down the jetty that protrudes into the lake, trying to discern the few locals who are wading in its waters catching fish, or cranes that fly to the rhythm of their own music. Near Sagar Talao is a cluster of farflung buildings, set amidst water and greenery, appealing in their prettiness and a certain lack of grandeur. There is a Dai ka Mahal (wet nurse’s palace) and the endearingly named Dai ki Bahen ka Mahal (wet nurse’s sister’s palace), a very picturesque little eightsided structure.
The Malik Mughith Mosque, built in 1432, has an innovatively made ‘porch’ in the front and copious Hindu temple pillars inside, which give a beautiful effect. the beauty in the world can come begging at your doorstep but there are times when rain simply means hot pakodas. To address this noble urge we stroll over to the bazaar, which, with its STD shops, grocers, restaurants, big banyan tree and taxi stand, does multiple duty as market, village square, town centre and gossip point. The bazaar is dominated by a grand Jami Masjid and Tomb of Hoshang Shah, the second of the Mandu sultans, a major king who ruled for 27 years. The all white tomb has a ‘dharamshala’ attached to it, where a spectacular tunnel of symmetrical pillars floors the visitor.
By Juhi Saklani