The drive uphill builds just the right anticipation for what the brochures and travel portals promise – a grand fortified city that overlooks the Narmada Valley from a height of over 2,000 feet. But little can prepare you for the magic of Mandu.
Spread across a generous plateau on a rocky outcrop in the Vindhya Mountains, the city of Mandu is replete with majestic palaces, exquisite pavilions, royal courtyards, stunning colonnades, grand mosques and mausoleums, and scores of other astonishing monuments from a bygone era.
Located around 100 km south-west of Indore, in Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh, Mandu was a capital of the Paramaras, who ruled the Malwa region from the 9th to the 14th century CE. But the architectural splendour of the city is attributed to the Malwa Sultanate, which lorded over the region from this hilly citadel between the 14th and 16th centuries CE.
The earliest reference to Mandu dates back to the 6th century CE, when it was known as ‘Mandapadurga’. Not much is known about the city for the next two centuries. It was an important outpost of the Gurjar-Pratiharas, who ruled from the mid-8th to the 11th centuries. But in the 10th century, Mandu became the capital of the Paramara dynasty of Malwa. A copper plate grant from 1261 CE and a few structural remains tell us of the Paramara rule at Mandu.
In 1305, Mandu fell to the Sultanate of Delhi, when Alauddin Khilji’s army overthrew the last Paramara King, Mahlak Deo. In 1398, the central authority of the Delhi Sultanate collapsed when Delhi was sacked by Timur’s armies. Following this, Dilawar Khan, the Governor of Malwa under Sultan Feroz Shah Tughlaq, declared his independence and established the Malwa Sultanate. His son and successor, Hoshang Shah, shifted the capital of Malwa from Dhar to Mandu.
After this, a series of Malwa Sultans held the reins till Bahadur Shah, Sultan of Gujarat, captured the city in 1531. But Mandu’s tryst with history was far from over. After Bahadur Shah, Mandu was controlled by a succession of rulers, including Sher Shah Suri, the Mughals and the Marathas. And even though many of them tweaked and modified the grand monuments here, the beautiful Indo-Islamic architecture of the Malwa Sultans, the signature feature of this medieval city, is matchless.
Mandu has more than 60 monuments to explore but here are highlights of its most grand and significant ones:
Dilawar Khan’s Mosque
The earliest dated Islamic monument at Mandu is the mosque built by Dilawar Khan, founder of the Malwa Sultanate and former Governor of Malwa under Sultan Feroz Shah Tughlaq. Built in 1405, it was meant exclusively for the royal family. It consists of a central courtyard, enclosed by colonnades all around with a particularly beautiful mehrab (niche) in the west. The architecture exhibits the earliest features of Indo-Islamic architecture.
To the east of Dilawar Khan’s mosque is an interesting square piece of land. The people assembled here every morning for a glimpse of the king (probably Dilawar Khan). The ruins at the southern end of this square are called ‘Nahar Jharokha’ or Tiger Balcony, and the king showed himself to his devoted subjects from a balcony there. It was built in marble and rested on an effigy of a tiger, which is probably how it got its name.
The cluster of buildings at the back of this jharokha resembles a palace and is arranged in such a way that it encloses a compound. There is a series of rooms and halls. The decorations in the halls suggest that they were built during the Mughal period, probably when Emperor Jahangir held court at Mandu.
One of the grandest structures at Mandu is the Great Mosque or the Jama Masjid. An inscription on its doorway says the mosque was started by Hoshang Shah, son of Dilawar Khan, but was completed by Mahmud Khilji in 1454. The inscription also tells us that it was designed like the Grand Mosque of Damascus in Syria.
The mosque, which can be reached by a flight of 30 stairs, is known for its spectacular domes. There were originally as many as 162 domes, of which 96 survive. The domes were not meant merely for ornamental purposes but ensured that the imam’s voice during prayers could be heard all across the large mosque. The interiors were decorated with stones and tiles. The jali screens can still be seen inside the mosque.
Close to the Jama Masjid is the mausoleum of its builder – Hoshang Shah’s tomb. Since Hoshang Shah is known for taking Mandu to its architectural zenith, his tomb is one of the finest monuments here. The tomb, with its square plan, has well-proportioned and artistic arched openings on three sides supporting the marble dome above. The exterior of the dome is adorned with small domed turrets at the four corners. The finial of the dome is styled with a crescent. The blue tiles and decorations, a common feature of decoration in Mandu, can still be seen. Like the Jama Masjid, Mahmud Khilji completed the construction of Hoshang’s Tomb as well.
Facing the main gate of the Jama Masjid, on the other side of the road, is a group of buildings now known as ‘Ashrafi Mahal’. It was a madrasa (a school for religious instruction) built by Mahmud Khilji in the 15th century. The madrasa was probably built as an adjunct to the Jama Masjid.
The buildings comprising Ashrafi Mahal were built in two stages. The earlier set, representing a madrasa, is a large quadrangle enclosed on all sides by a number of small cells for students. At the corners of this quadrangle were round towers, three of which still exist. Among these, one tower stands out.
This is the north-eastern tower, to which Mahmud Khilji added seven storeys, making it a victory tower to commemorate his triumph over the Raja Kumbha of Mewar in Rajasthan. The tomb of Mahmud Khilji was later erected here on the western projection of the quadrangle. It was repaired during Mughal Emperor Akbar’s time.
The ‘ship palace’ or Jahaz Mahal is a large palace built during Ghiyath-ud-Din’s reign, from 1469 to 1500. It is located between two tanks, Munja Talao (named after a 10th century Paramara ruler) and Kapur Talao. With its open pavilions, balconies overhanging the water and open terrace, Jahaz Mahal is said to have been used as a harem by Ghiyath-ud-Din.
Adjacent to Jahaz Mahal is Jal Mahal, which is surrounded by water, a large stepwell called Champa Baoli, and the Shahi Hamams or royal baths. Near the hammam, the ruins of several other buildings with round pillars and round marble bands can be seen.
Another interesting monument is Hindola Mahal or the ‘Swing Palace’. It was used as the Durbar Hall of the Malwa Sultans. It gets its peculiar name from its slanting walls, which make it appear like a swing. This palace, which has a T-shaped plan, is dated to the end of the 15th century.
Baz Bahadur’s Palace
Although an inscription at the main entrance of this palace assigns its construction to Sultan Nassir-ud-Din Shah in 1508-09, it is associated with Baz Bahadur as he made many additions to it and was occupied by him when he came to power. Baz Bahadur was the son of the governor of Malwa under Sher Shah Suri. He declared himself independent in 1555 and took the title of Sultan. The main palace consists of a spacious open court with halls and rooms on all four sides and a cistern in its centre.
Adjacent to the palace is Rewa Kund, a reservoir built by Baz Bahadur to supply water to the palace and the pavilion. It is said to have held the sacred waters of the Narmada River and is revered even today.
The most famous monument of Mandu is Roopmati’s Pavilion. The pavilion is built above Baz Bahadur’s palace and has an interesting legend associated with it. According to this story, Baz Bahadur, while on a hunting expedition, was spellbound by the beauty and melodious voice of a shepherdess called Roopmati. The Sultan wanted to marry her and make her his queen.
Roopmati had one condition, that he build a palace for her from where she could see the Narmada River. Baz Bahadur did just that – he built a pavilion for her.
In 1561, Adham Khan, a general under Mughal Emperor Akbar, was sent to Malwa to capture the territory. But when Adham Khan invaded Mandu, he also sought to capture Roopmati. While Baz Bahadur was defeated and fled, Roopmati consumed poison and killed herself to save her honour.
Interestingly, historians are still divided over whether this tale is true. The pavilion acts as a military lookout, giving a bird’s eye view of the forest and the Narmada Valley. On the terrace, there are pavilions, square in plan and crowned with hemispherical domes.
Another palace in Mandu is Chappan Mahal. It was originally a tomb that was later converted into a hunting lodge by the Maharajas of Dhar. Today, Chappan Mahal houses an archaeological museum.
Other prominent monuments in Mandu include:
- Taveli Mahal – horse stables
- Dai Ki Chhoti Bahen-Ka-Mahal - a tomb, octagonal in plan, with arched openings on four sides, which was later used for dwelling
- Darya Khan’s tomb - dedicated to Darya Khan, an officer in Sultan Mahmud II’s court
- Malik Mughith’s mosque. He was the father of Mahmud Khilji
The city of Mandu is enclosed by a 37-km-long fortified wall that had 12 gateways. Most of these – like the Delhi Darwaza, Jahangir Darwaza and Tarapur Darwaza – exist today and give you an idea of just how secure this medieval city once was.
The monuments of Mandu have been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With the stories of the city’s past wrapped up in these historic structures, Mandu is truly an architectural wonder.