The reason that Indian heritage is a tawdry sight is blamed on ministers and government officers who lack the aesthetics or knowledge, or sheer lack of imagination to translate it into reality. The ghosts of Mandu, an ancient mountain town on the Vindhya ranges which has seen the transgressions of conquerors and the imprint of royal builders will probably be appeased. The Madhya Pradesh government, under the aegis of its tourism department, has organised the first-ever Mandu Festival. There are storytelling sessions held under ancient baobabs—nobody really knows how these botanical natives of Madagascar found its way to a hill in Malwa—poetry reading sessions, photo walks, Instagram tours, horse-riding, hot air ballooning, nature trails, trekking, cycling, workshops on Gond art and pottery and what have you for five days.
Mandu or Mandav, an ancient city in Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh (MP), is a history-lover’s delight—a tiny envelope of time—roughly 88 km from Indore. The heritage-rich area offers a plethora of options for Instagram and Pinterest accounts. The famous Jahaz Mahal resembles a ship’s bridge. The clever architecture of Hindola Mahal, once a Mughal leisure palace, gives the impression it is swinging in the air. Baz Bahadur’s Palace built in the 16th-century is known for the jaw-dropping size of its courtyards which are surrounded by large halls and high terraces. Rani Roopmati’s Pavilion is right below—from where according to legend the love-struck queen would gaze at her beloved king as the Narmada river far below wound its primeval path through the mist.
It also boasts India’s first marble edifice which precedes even the Taj Mahal—Hoshang Shah’s Tomb, the oldest mausoleum in India—where the king is entombed after meeting death in battle. There is the Jami Masjid, whose construction was inspired by the Omayyed Mosque of Damascus with a Ram Temple close by which was built by Maharani Sakarwarbai Pawar in the 18th century. At the Jahaz Mahal there are two bathing pools shaped like a tortoise and a lotus flower respectively and whose ceiling is embellished with designs of the night sky because the ladies of the court wanted to bathe under the stars; salacious colonial historians mention that the king’s harem had 15,000 concubines.
There is the Kati Ghati gate which is cut out of rock—Mandu has 12 gates: tourist guides love to regale visitors about the headless soldier who guards the Tripolia Darwaza. The Caravan Sarai, an old tavern which resonates with the stories of travellers. Gada Shah’s Shop is a medieval shopping mall whose overreaching arches would have inspired shoppers and merchants alike. Mandu, like all ancient stops in India is haunted by doomed romance: the lovely Roopmati swallowed poison after her cowardly husband fled without her from Mughal armies.
The five-day Mandu festival is special because not many visitors to Mandu go beyond a few places. Combining heritage with music—bands such Indian Ocean and Prem Joshua, or atmospherics with daring such as paragliding, hot-air ballooning and cultural performances bring out the India of Mandu where Islamic influences and Hindu royal architecture blend to leave a singular legacy. The Fossil Park here is unfortunately poorly maintained. Pity, Maheshwar—just an hour’s drive from Mandu—is not included in the itinerary. The new event is in its baby steps stage: cuisine is an unignorable part of history but the food court does not have enough authentic ‘lost recipes’ as promised by the Tourism Minister. It is a mystery why the middle-class Indian traveller cannot escape the dubious grease of bargain-basement chowmein and poori bhaji. Two counters selling the traditional dal baafle and dal paniya were the saving grace.
Renaming cities and places is not just a BJP passion: when the Sultan of Delhi, Alauddin Khalji, conquered Mandu in 1305, he renamed it Shadiabad, the ‘City of Joy’. That’s the idea behind the festival. Joy by another name.
HOW TO GET THERE
Nearest airport and railway station: Mandu is well connected by road to Indore.
Next festival: December 25, 2020 to January 3, 2021