Set against the rugged Vindhya hills, the medieval ghost-town of MANDU, 98km southwest of Indore, is one of central India’s most atmospheric monuments. Visit at the height of the monsoons, when the rocky plateau and its steeply shelving sides are carpeted with green vegetation, and you’ll understand why the Malwa sultans christened their capital Shadiabad – “City of Joy”.
Even during the relentless heat of the dry season, the ruins are an exotic spectacle. Elegant Islamic palaces, mosques and mausoleums crumble beside large medieval reservoirs and precipitous ravines, while below, an endless vista of scorched plains and tiny villages stretches off to the horizon. Mandu can be visited as a day-trip from Indore, but you’ll enjoy it more if you spend a night or two, giving you time not only to explore the ruins, but also to witness the memorable sunsets over the Narmada Valley.
Mandu’s monuments derive from a unique school of Islamic architecture that flourished here, and at Dhar, between 1400 and 1516. The elegantly simple buildings are believed to have exerted a considerable influence on the Mughal architects responsible for the Taj Mahal. Mandu’s platform, a 23-square-kilometre plateau, is separated from the body of hills to the north by the Kakra Khoh (“deep ravine”). A narrow causeway forms a natural bridge across the gorge, carrying the present road across and up via a series of subsidiary gates to the fort’s modern entrance, beside the original, Delhi Gate.
Archeological evidence suggests the remote hilltop was fortified around the sixth century AD, when it was known as Mandapa-Durga, or “Durga’s hall of worship” – later corrupted to “Mandu”. Four hundred years later, the site gained in strategic importance when the powerful Paramaras moved their capital from Ujjain to Dhar, 35km north. Yet the plateau’s natural defences proved unable to withstand persistent attacks by the Muslim invaders and the fort eventually fell to the sultans of Delhi in 1305.
While the Sultanate was busy fending off the Mongols on their northern borders a century or so later, Malwa’s Afghan governor, Dilawar Khan Ghuri, seized the chance to establish his own independent kingdom. He died after just four years on the throne, however, leaving his ambitious young son at the helm. During Hoshang Shah’s illustrious 27-year reign, Mandu was promoted from pleasure resort to royal capital, and acquired some of the finest Islamic monuments in Asia.
Mandu’s golden age continued under the Khaljis, who took over from the Ghuri dynasty in 1436. Another building boom and several protracted wars later, Mandu settled down to a lengthy period of peace and prosperity under Ghiyath Shah (1469–1500). He amassed a harem of 15,000 courtesans, and a bodyguard of 1000 women, whom he accommodated in the appropriately lavish Jahaz Mahal. The sybaritic sultan was poisoned by his son shortly after his eightieth birthday. His successor, Nasir Shah, died ten years later, and Mandu, dogged by feuds and the threat of rebellion, became an easy target for the militaristic sultan of Gujarat, who invaded in 1526. In the centuries that followed, control over the fort and its rapidly decaying monuments passed between a succession of independent rulers and the Mughals. By the time King James I’s ambassador, Sir Thomas Roe, followed the mobile court of Emperor Jahangir here in 1617, most of the city lay in ruins, its mansions and tombs occupied by Bhil villagers whose descendants continue to scratch a living from the surrounding fields. Mandu today is a tranquil backwater that sees far fewer visitors than it deserves, save for the busloads of exuberant Indian day-trippers on weekends.