The romantic fort city of Mandu in Madhya Pradesh offers a cheap ticket back in time and may soon become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. By Rashima Nagpal

I have often failed to understand why forts and other war monuments of the past evoke romanticism today. These are significant sites of heritage, indeed. But what about the cannons and the breached gates and the tombs of royal families is not morbid? The fact that these are all remnants of bloody battles cannot be separated from their existence, so you have to be completely objective to admire their beauty, which lies in their long-lost architecture styles and historic significance. And yet, I consider the historical city of Mandu in Madhya Pradesh to be truly romantic. So much so, that I wonder if the kings and queens who once ruled it walk out of their graves at nightfall just to relive their glory days in the palaces they built. This mental exception was born earlier this year.

Mandu

Two days before 2020 began, I was having a particularly mopey morning. It was terribly cold in Delhi, and too foggy for flights to take off on schedule. I don’t usually care for New Year celebrations, but for the first time, I found a chance to escape the monotony of sitting and watching a movie at home. I was slated to attend the five-day Mandu Festival 2019 (mandufestival.com) that would spill over onto New Year’s Day—if only the weather gods allowed it. After spending three hours at the boarding gate, I was confined within a stationary plane for another three hours, by which time I was beginning to question all of my life choices.

When I finally landed in Indore, six hours later than scheduled, I grabbed a bite and immediately set off for Mandu by road, to make it there before nightfall. With the window down, pastoral landscapes dressed in balmy weather quickly changed my mood. Golden light broke through the dark clouds and the gloomy day, putting my frazzled nerves at ease.

Jami Masjid of Mandu was built almost 200 years before Delhi’s Jama Masjid.

Suddenly, I was up on a hill, driving through mossy arched stonewalls. Perched at a height of 600 metres, part of the Vindhya Range, Mandu was built as a fort city. The Malwa Plateau to its north and the valley of River Narmada to its south served it well, both in terms of natural defences and resources. While mentions of Mandu can be traced all the way back to the sixth century, it is during the reign of the Malwa Sultanate that it saw its heyday, between the 14th and 16th centuries—until the Mughals took over in the 1560s. During this time in history, it was fondly called Shadiabad, which meant ‘city of joy’.

Enclosed by a 37-kilometre-long fortified wall, the territory of Mandu today is dotted with ageing mosques, palaces, and mausoleums, among other monuments. Most of the 12 original gateways to the destination, such as Delhi Darwaza, Jahangir Darwaza, and Tarapur Darwaza, still remain. You’ll find locals fervently cite Baz Bahadur’s Palace and Rani Roopmati’s Pavilion, two of Mandu’s most iconic landmarks, as living examples of their love. Walking through The Royal Complex, you witness the Jahaz Mahal (Ship Palace), which was built by Sultan Ghiyas-ud-din-Khalji for his harem; the water palace called Jal Mahal, which is surrounded by ponds and houses a royal hammam; a stepwell called Champa Baodi; and Hindola Mahal (Swinging Palace), which is a large meeting hall, or durbar. Jami Masjid, in the heart of the city, imprints itself onto your mind with its grand domes and courtyards. Interestingly, this one was constructed almost 200 years before its famous counterpart, Delhi’s Jama Masjid, which was built in the 1650s. Also within the masjid complex shines Hoshang Shah’s white-marble tomb. It is said that this tomb (completed in 1554) served as one of the primary sources of inspirations for the Taj Mahal (commissioned in 1632).

Situated between two artificial lakes, Jahaz Mahal looks like a ship.

But the experience that strangely stayed with me was a serendipitous visit to the Neelkanth Temple in the city. Unlike most Hindu temples, this Shiva temple sports quintessential Islamic architecture, the kind you see in mausoleums made out of sandstone. Said to be built by Akbar for his beloved wife Jodha, it is one of the simplest structures I’ve seen in the category. Taking from the classic Mughal technique of rainwater harvesting, a water source linked to River Narmada constantly drenches the Shiva linga inside and continues to flow into a square pond, ending up in a spiral water channel at the base, where visitors dip their hands. Also extraordinary here is the tranquillity, or so it was that afternoon.

Much more fascinating than trivia about who-built-what, however, is the overarching narrative of Mandu’s history, which I got from a bird’s-eye view of the region. In my first ever hot-air-balloon flight, I traversed the length and breadth of this rocky outcrop. At the crack of dawn, we glided over the region’s lost heritage and endless fields of cotton and fennel. This is when the land’s palimpsest of cultures dawned on me, bright as the day. Mandu saw the Paramara dynasty, which left behind its traces in the form of Shiva temples and the Lohani caves; then an Afghan ruler, Dilawar Khan, whose son Hoshang Shah expanded the kingdom; 100 glorious years of the Sultanate that ended with Baz Bahadur as the last Sultan; then a Turk who was eventually defeated by a Gujarati ruler; then an Uzbek who was subsequently taken over by a Mughal, who was later defeated by a Peshwa—Maratha Baji Rao I, who moved the capital back to Dhar. Time has seen Mandu shrink from one of the world’s most flourishing cities to a forgotten one centred around its abandoned citadel. With a population of fewer than 10,000 people and just the basic infrastructure in place, it looks no more than a sum of its ruins. But with initiatives like the Mandu Festival, there is hope in sight. Last year, a dossier was finally submitted to UNESCO, nominating Mandu for a place on the World Heritage List, a distinction that has eluded it since 1998, when it was first put on the tentative list.

Inside Hindola Mahal, also known as Swinging Palace.

Before the laurels and tourists come flooding in, savour a sunset at Mandu while it’s still stuck in a different time, while it’s still romantic. This citadel-turned-city is especially beautiful during the rains, I hear.

GETTING THERE

Mandu is around two hours by road from Indore’s Devi Ahilya Bai Holkar Airport.

STAY

Set up base at the riverfront Ahilya Fort (doubles from INR 8,000; ahilyafort.com), the only luxury resort in the region that is ideal for experiencing the heritage of Mandu as well as nearby Maheshwar.

Related: We Discovered A Forgotten Gem In Madhya Pradesh, Thanks To The Mandu Festival