The medieval city of Mandu is a tourist hotspot today, drawing visitors from all across India to marvel at its spell-binding monuments, unique architecture and natural beauty. But 1,500 years ago, when the Vindhya Mountains resounded to the hooves of galloping armies, safety was a primary concern. Mandu was an excellent choice for ambitious rulers, sultans and rajas, many of whom lorded over the Malwa region in Madhya Pradesh from this fortified city atop a rocky outcrop overlooking the Narmada Valley.
Home to more than 60 stunning monuments, Mandu is situated on a plateau that crowns a rocky outcrop at an elevation of over 2,000 feet. Located 100 km south-west of Indore, in Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh, it once thrived as an important medieval seat of power, first as the later capital of the Paramaras and then as the capital of the Sultans of Malwa.
Thanks to its excellent natural defences and strategic location, en route to the Deccan from North India, the hilltop citadel of Mandu was coveted and controlled by many different powers. The earliest known record of the town dates its existence to the 6th century CE, when it was known as ‘Mandapadurga’. The name is mentioned in an inscription on a Jain image in Talanpur, 100 km from Mandu. It refers to the town as ‘Mandapadurga’, with the date 555 CE.
Firishta (1560-1620 CE), a Persian historian and traveller, in his accounts writes that the fort of Mandu was built by Anand Deo Rajput of a tribe called Beis in the 6th-7th century CE. However, there is no evidence to support this and historians say that Firishta could have based this on the legends he had heard.
There are no concrete records to show when and how Mandu was established, and there is very little to shed light on its history between the 6th and 10th century CE. Fast-forward 200 years, to an inscription dated 946 CE in Pratapgarh in Rajasthan, and we learn that Mandu was probably a frontier outpost of the Gurjara-Pratiharas (mid-8th to 11th century CE). What we know for sure is that in the 10th century CE, the Paramaras of Malwa moved their capital to Mandu.
New Paramara Capital
The Paramaras ruled Malwa and its neighbouring region in Central India between the 9th and 14th centuries CE. Under this dynasty, Malwa evolved politically and culturally, especially under Raja Bhoja (r. 1010 – 1055 CE). Colonel James Tod, an officer of the British East India Company and an Oriental scholar in the 19th century, writes about the foundation of Mandu as an important town under the Paramaras.
He says that “Maheshwar (in Madhya Pradesh) appears to have been the first seat of the Paramaras. They subsequently founded Dhara Nagar (Dhar) and Mandu on the crest of the Vindhya Ranges.’ A copper plate grant of king Jayavarmadeva of the Paramaras, from 1261 CE, mentions that Mandapadurga was ‘one of the last strongholds of the Paramara Kings’.
The later Paramara rulers established their kingdom at Malwa with Dhar as the capital in the 9th century CE. It is believed that around the 10th century CE, their capital was moved to Mandu after Dhar was repeatedly attacked by neighbouring kingdoms like the Yadavas of Daulatabad (in Maharashtra) and the Vaghelas of Gujarat. While Dhar was located in the plains, Mandu’s location on a hill and its natural defences provided a much better defensive position.
Raja Bhoja, one of the most prominent rulers of the Paramara dynasty, is believed to have built a Saraswati temple at Mandu. One of the tanks here, called ‘Munja Talao’, is said to have been named after King Munja of the Paramaras, who ruled during the late 10th century CE. Two of the gates near the tank, Rampol Gate and Bhangi Gate, are also dated to this period.
Interestingly, there is a cluster of rock-cut caves known as ‘Lohani Caves', at Mandu. These caves, which might have been used by Shaivite yogis, are said to have been excavated in the 11th-12th century CE. Some Shiva temples are also said to have existed near the caves but were destroyed later. The Paramaras commissioned the building of many Shiva temples in their territory and these caves and temples are also probably a mark of their rule at Mandu.
In 1305, the armies of Alauddin Khilji, Sultan of Delhi, attacked Malwa, bringing an end to the Paramara sway over the region. Mahalakadeva or Mahlak Deo, the last known Paramara king, who was the ruler of Mandu then, was defeated and killed by the forces of Alauddin Khilji. Ayn al-Mulk Multani, who led the Khilji army, became the Governor of Malwa, and Mandu came under the Delhi Sultanate.
Seat of the Malwa Sultanate
The better-known history of Mandu begins in the 14th century. After the setback faced by the Delhi Sultanate when Timur and his army invaded the subcontinent in 1398, Dilawar Khan Ghori, Governor of Malwa for Sultan Feroz Shah Tughlaq proclaimed his independence over Malwa and established the Malwa Sultanate. He renamed Mandu as ‘Shadiabad’ or City of Joy. Though his capital was Dhar, he held frequent courts at Mandu. It is said that Dilawar Khan made many additions to the fortifications and the city of Mandu.
In 1405, he was succeeded by his son Alp Khan, who took the title of ‘Hoshang Shah’. He ruled Malwa for 27 years and shifted his capital to Mandu. During his reign, Mandu not only prospered as a city but also saw a boom in architecture. Hoshang Shah erected a number of stately structures such as the Great Mosque or the Jama Masjid, the Delhi Darwaza and his own tomb.
Hoshang Shah was succeeded by his son Ghazni Khan in 1432 but his reign was short-lived as he was killed by Mahmud Shah, a minister of Hoshang Shah. Mahmud Shah I, also known as Mahmud Khilji, seized the reins in 1436. He was a patron of learning and is said to have built quite a few educational buildings in his kingdom. One of them is Ashrafi Mahal, the madrasa.
Mahmud Khilji was also interested in architecture. Besides completing the Jama Masjid and Tomb of Hoshang, he built a number of lofty structures in Mandu. One of the most fascinating of these is the victory tower that he constructed to commemorate his victory over Raja Kumbha of Mewar. The tower was once seven-storey high, but only one storey of it remains now.
Interestingly, Mahmud Khilji also constructed a hospital in Mandu in 1445. He gave land grants for its maintenance, with his own physician being appointed to supervise the hospital. The hospital is said to have been so well planned that it included different wards and attendants for all the patients.
– After Mahmud Khilji’s death, Mandu was controlled by a series of rulers of the Malwa Sultanate, namely Ghiyat-ud-Din (r. 1469 – 1500), Nasir-ud-Din (r. 1500 – 1510), Mahmud Shah II (r. 1510 – 1531) and Baz Bahadur (r. 1551-1562). These rulers too continued to expand the city of Mandu.
A fascinating piece of history left behind from Ghiyat-ud-Din’s reign is a cookbook of the Malwa Sultans! The Nimatnama-i Nasir al-Din Shah, an illustrated manuscript on royal cookery and the preparation of sweetmeats, spices, etc, was written during the ruler’s time, between 1495 and 1505. It gives a rather interesting insight into the court, with its paintings and references to details like samosas and kheer being prepared in the royal kitchen. The manuscript is now in the British Library in London.
Gujarat Sultanate Takes Control
In 1526, Mahmud Shah II surrendered to Bahadur Shah, the Sultan of Gujarat. During 1531-37, the kingdom of Malwa including Mandu was under Bahadur Shah’s control, although Mughal Emperor Humayun captured it for a short period in 1535-36. However, in 1537, Qadir Shah, a former officer of the previous Khilji rulers, took control over a part of the Malwa kingdom. But in 1542, Sher Shah Suri conquered the kingdom, defeating him and appointed Shuja Khan as governor.
Shuja Khan’s son, Baz Bahadur, declared himself independent in 1555 and took the title of Sultan Baz Bahadur. Under Baz Bahadur, Mandu flourished once again. But in 1561, Mughal Emperor Akbar’s army led by his general Adham Khan and Pir Muhammad Khan attacked Malwa and defeated Baz Bahadur, culminating in the Mughal conquest of Malwa.
Malwa under The Mughals
In 1617, Mughal Emperor Jahangir visited Mandu and is said to have stayed there for seven months. He also repaired the old edifices and built some new structures. His son and successor Shah Jahan is also believed to have visited Mandu once, but there is no record of his son, Emperor Aurangzeb, visiting Mandu. Following Aurangzeb’s death in 1707 and the eventual decline of the Mughal Empire, little is heard of Mandu in the latter days of the Mughals.
– It was Mandu’s geographical location which made it such an important city. It prospered greatly under the Sultans of Malwa for around 200 years.
Mandu was located on the main route to the Deccan from Delhi, thus inviting Mughal attention for their Deccan conquest. It was not only a military outpost but also became a pleasure retreat for the Mughal rulers because of its peaceful surroundings and pleasant climate.
After the Mughals conquered Mandu, it lost its importance as an independent kingdom but remained a favourite among the Mughals. In his memoirs titled Jahangirnama, Mughal Emperor Jahangir has written extensively about Mandu. However, describing Mandu when it had started crumbling, he says the buildings had fallen into such disrepair that a heavy expenditure was necessary to render them habitable.
A Maratha Possession
From Shah Jahan’s reign onwards, much attention was focused on their new political centre in Burhanpur (also in Madhya Pradesh), which was also an important Mughal outpost. Later, in 1732, the Marathas made several incursions into Malwa, and in 1734 they succeeded and Peshwa Baji Rao was appointed as Governor of Malwa. Anand Rao Puar was appointed as a deputy to Peshwa Baji Rao and he shifted the capital to Dhar, diminishing the importance of an already fading Mandu. In time, some of the people who lived in the city of Mandu moved to Dewas, Ujjain and Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh.
In the following years, Mandu remained deserted except for a short time at the beginning of the 19th century, when it sheltered Maina Bai, the Rani of Dhar, against the attacks of Sindhia and Holkar. Sir John Malcolm, an East India Company administrator and soldier, in his book Memoirs of Central India, 1823, notes that Mandu was reduced to a resort of religious mendicants.
In 1827, Col John Briggs, who translated Firishta’s records, describes Mandu saying, ‘The capital, now deserted by man, is overgrown by forest, and from being the seat of luxury, elegance and wealth, it has become the abode of wild beasts.’ A last-ditch attempt to resuscitate the once beautiful city was made in 1902, when Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, visited Mandu and ordered extensive restoration work at the site.
Mandu changed hands many times and most of the rulers and sultans who held sway erected different structures here during their reign – to mark their glory, to commemorate their predecessors, or just to expand the town itself. This gave rise to a beautiful blend of Hindu and Islamic architectural features in the monuments of Mandu.
This enchanting medieval city is surrounded by a 37-km-long fortified wall punctuated by as many as 12 gateways. It encloses a number of stunning palaces, tombs, mosques and other monuments.
Read all about these magnificent monuments in The Marvels of Mandu.