Mandu: Historic ruins, balloon rides, baobab trees, and luxury caravan tours

Mandu’s tryst with royalty has left behind an atmospheric town with the highest number of heritage ruins and palaces in India, where tourism authorities are promoting luxury caravan tourism and hot air ballooning.  

The best way to get an idea of Mandu’s expanse is through the air. That assertion by a balloonist had me intrigued, for while Mandu is relatively well known in its neighbourhood — to Indoris, for example, it’s a hill station at a couple of hours drive from their city, few from further afield have the ancient town on their to-do list. Perhaps undeservingly.

Jahaz mahal, or mandu's 'ship' palace, appears moored on a floating island.
Jahaz Mahal, or Mandu’s ‘Ship’ palace, appears moored on a floating island. Image: Shutterstock

Yes, Mandu is best known for Jahaz and Hindola Mahals — literally ‘Ship’ and ‘Swing palaces’, and the palaces of star-crossed Baz Bahadur and Rupmati, but there are 3,000 monuments spread over about 10 square kilometres atop the Malwa Plateau, itself one of the oldest landforms on the planet.

Mandu Festival, which concluded its third edition recently, aims to put this tiny hamlet on India’s tourism map. For Jai Thakore, heritage lover, COO, and co-founder of E-Factor events management outfit, it’s also personal as he has roots in the area. “There is no other city in India with so many ASI-preserved heritage structures, all built in the pre-Mughal era,” Thakore said. “The architectural experimentation carried out in the city reached its soulful fruition in Mughal India. Hoshang Shah’s marble mosque, said to be India’s first marble structure, became the template for the Taj Mahal, for instance.” 

The white marble mausoleum of hoshang shah, built in 14th century, was india's first marble structure and became the template for taj mahal in agra.
The white marble mausoleum of Hoshang Shah, built in 14th century, was India’s first marble structure and became the template for Taj Mahal in Agra. Image: Shutterstock

“Mandu was the petri-dish of experimentation in Islamic architecture. This is where Sultans experimented with all kinds of architectural elements on buildings. Mughals took these ideas out of the city, refined them, and added decorative elements to create some of India’s most beautiful buildings.”

The annual Mandu Festival was hosted two years in a row — 2021 and 2022 — after a break in 2020 due to Covid. Colourfully decked up luxury tents hosted visitors, local guides put in extra hours to offer up the best, if considerably embellished, recounting of the past while cab drivers ferried tourists between various venues of the festival and local sights.

Even children, largely from local tribes who are long-time settlers of the area, pitched in, helping visitors find their way to food courts, temporary art galleries, craft bazaars, music, and other live performance stages, besides the monuments. And yes, they chased the hot air balloons that were easily the highlight of the festival, even helping in the landing of the balloons, filled with wonder at these mega airships that suddenly sprouted in their fields.

Sheo Shekhar Shukla, Principal Secretary, Tourism & Managing Director, Madhya Pradesh Tourism Board, said, “Mandu is a historic town, which is fast becoming prominent in the heritage tourist map of India. While during the Festival, one can have curated trips of the town, Mandu Festival is one of the aspects of familiarising people about the history and culture of rural Madhya Pradesh.”

Indeed, the gentle, still unspoilt charm of Mandu could well be the reinvigorating tonic that many a jaded traveller could benefit from as they discover a slice of the past that combines heritage, aesthetics, and romance in a unique way.  

Road journey to caravan tourism

Mandu is Madhya Pradesh’s rarely explored gem. It could be due to the scarcity of good stay options, except for a decent hotel run by Madhya Pradesh tourism. But then, isn’t that the charm of slow travel? Unless you try and figure what are you going to do for accommodation? 

Madhya Pradesh Tourism is set to change that. For one, several premium and luxury homestays are being built across Mandu backed by the government. Boutique hotel chain Evolv Back will open its property soon. On one of the days when we were dining under atmospheric banyan and baobab trees, I met Marie, a French lady married to a man from Mandu. She and her husband were working on setting up a homestay. “I came here after I got married and I find it a beautiful blend of nature, heritage, and a slow life.” 

But don’t let that stop you from traveling to Mandu. Mandu is a lovely monsoon and winter destination. You can drive in from Delhi or Indore, spend a day in Mandu and then drive on to Maheshwar, where you can stay at the Ahilya Fort Hotel that’s run by the scions of the former royal house of Maheshwar. Or you can hire a luxury caravan from MP tourism, and drive into Mandu, spend two to three days here exploring, and then head to Maheshwar and further on, to Indore and Gwalior. 

There is a variety of caravan tours crafted by the tourism board to cater to different kinds of travellers, which take you through havens of heritage, trails of tribal hamlets, paths of pilgrims and territories of tigers. Mandu is one such trail. With two bedrooms, one of which doubles up as a lounge with a TV in it, a kitchenette with an oven, a cooking range and a fridge, air conditioning, hot and cold water, and a chair and table set up with a barbecue grill for impromptu picnics at scenic locations, the caravans offer the kind of luxury that makes your winter trips exciting.

Heritage city and architectural utopia

Many monuments are either built on the banks of river narmada or fringed by water bodies, a visual delight that speaks volumes of the natural beauty of the region.
Many monuments are either built on the banks of river Narmada or fringed by water bodies, a visual delight that speaks volumes of the natural beauty of the region. Image: Shutterstock

The city has as many atmospheric ruins with names that no one remembers, as there are those celebrated among India’s best-preserved architectural monuments.

Jahaz Mahal (Ship Palace) resembles a ship afloat on azure waters. Built by Sultan Ghiyas-ud-din-Khilji, this harem for the sultan has pointed arched gateways and a large swimming pool, shaped like a blooming flower, which shimmered in the mild winter sun. 

Deepak had stories to tell about the 15,000 women, who were protected by armed Turkish and Abyssinian female guards. 

There is the evocative Roopmati’s Pavilion and Baz Bahadur’s Palace, redolent with romance and their love story. The rule of Baz Bahadur was the last that Mandu lived as an independent kingdom before it was annexed by Emperor Akbar’s army and merged into the powerful Mughal empire in 1561. 

But more than the memories of his benevolent rule or his love for striking buildings and great design, you go to Mandu to hear an immortal tale of love that Baz Bahadur had for Rupmati — his associate, consort, and an accomplished poetess. On some evenings, a light and sound show brings alive this love story on the graceful stone façade of the palace. 

A music lover, Baz Bahadur, on one of his hunts, chanced upon Rupmati, a shepherdess. Attracted by her dulcet voice, he begged her to accompany him home, but she was unsure about leaving her riverside dwelling beside the Narmada River. The Sultan built what is today known as Rani Roopmati Pavilion, at the highest point of the city, from where Narmada is visible, to entice her to move to Mandu. He also built the Rewa Kund (Rewa is another name for Narmada while kund means tank), which is fed by Narmada’s water from an underground natural fissure. 

Their story ended in tragedy: Akbar’s army defeated the Sultan and Rupmati is said to have committed suicide.

From the pavilion, the river Narmada can still be seen, though fringed by overgrown villages. “Today, you’d call it a live-in relationship, in those days it was called Sacha prem,” said Deepak.

Jami Masjid, modelled after the great mosque of Damascus, is a mosque where no one worships now. Its walls have been spectators to the reign of Islamic kings and sultans. “The mosque reflects the Pashtun style of architecture. The large courtyard and grand entrances have seen even the most powerful come and pray for even more success, more fame, more wealth.”  

A view of the jami masjid from within the ashrafi mahal (palace of gold coins)
A view of the Jami Masjid from within the Ashrafi Mahal (Palace of Gold Coins). Image: Shutterstock

There are several such palaces and mosques with great lineage across the ancient territory.

Ashrafi mahal was built facing the jami masjid at mandu, its approach of a noble flight of stairs aligning with and mirroring that of the mosque.
Ashrafi Mahal was built facing the Jami Masjid at Mandu, its approach of a noble flight of stairs aligning with and mirroring that of the mosque. Image: Shutterstock

There is more than the heritage and the architecture to Mandu, however. At a secluded dinosaur museum, photographs of dinosaur eggs that were discovered in the region, massive sculptures of dinosaurs, stone remnants of the fossilized gymnosperm trees, seashells, star fish skeletons, narrate the tale of a time when parts of this land were under the sea.  

About animated landscapes, rains, and food 

Beyond the ramparts of the mighty citadel of the Hindola Mahal (Swing Palace) with sloping walls, the land looks lush and fecund. Across the landscape were old baobabs with their spreading branches reached for the sky. Native to Africa and Madagascar, the baobab was brought to Mandu by traders from Africa over 4,000 years ago and were loved by the locals, who planted thousands across the land and named them Mandu ki imli (the tamarind of Mandu). 

Baobab trees, or the imli of mandu, was madagascar's gift to the former rulers of malwa.
Baobab trees, or the imli of Mandu, was Madagascar’s gift to the former rulers of Malwa. Image: Shutterstock

August to December, when rains give way to the mellow beauty of Mandu winters, the landscape is redolent with streams and ponds.

Blazing Flames of Forest trees line its avenues, roads, and arches. Ask the tourism authorities and they may organize a delicious meal in a village situated next to the plateau. Dhurries will be spread out under huge baobabs, and a meal cooked on an open fire, fed with dry branches, by the local tribals will be served. They could even take you to a Bhil village where you can taste some salty crab curry.

Winding down Mandu’s hilly roads is a sensory delight: the road leads across large swathes of baobabs. Along the way are homes fringed by golden-green plateaus; historic palaces and ruins at every other corner; roads that run through majestic gates that were once gateways to the fort city; and fields of barley and wheat stretching right up to the various water bodies. 

The locals insist Mandu is a monsoon beauty, but the winters aren’t bad either, with night temperatures dipping to 16 degree C and fog enveloping its fields, hills, ponds, and lakes. The caravan is waiting for you to hit the road. 

A peek into caves

The caves, on the southern edge of the ancient malwa plateau, date back to the 11th or 12th century.
The caves, on the southern edge of the ancient Malwa plateau, date back to the 11th or 12th century. Image: Shutterstock

When you have had your fill of Mandu’s multitude of monuments, there’s a rather unexpected highlight that you can explore. Right in the middle of Mandu’s spread of historic structures, in fact quite close to the Jahaz Mahal complex, are rock cut dwellings. The caves, on the southern edge of the ancient Malwa plateau, are amongst the oldest parts of the subcontinent. Estimated to date back to the 11th and 12th centuries, these caves once contained statues and carvings of deities such as Shiva, Parvati, Vishnu, and Lakshmi, now long eroded.

The area itself is strikingly picturesque, overlooking a valley. Densely forested even in winters, the region is at its sylvan best during monsoons. A waterfall overhangs the rock cut caves, which, the local guides claim, have internal passages that link to other cavernous spaces, though no openings are currently visible. Go a little before sunset, and on a clear day you are assured some droolworthy snaps. Take a companion if you are one of those who like to be photographed against a variety of backdrops. Otherwise, this is an experience best combined with solitude, and hopefully some reflection. The wild charm of the place will naturally lead you there!

Floating over Mandu

Three balloons by skywaltz took to the skies from the windy malwa plateau during the third edition of the mandu festival.
Three balloons by SkyWaltz took to the skies from the windy Malwa Plateau during the third edition of the Mandu festival. Image: MP Tourism

This is a privilege even the magnificent monument builders of Mandu did not have — a chance to see their beloved city from above. Mandu Festival brought back its much sought-after hot air balloons for the third edition of the festival. Three balloons by SkyWaltz took to the skies from the windy Malwa Plateau during the third edition of the festival — with their capacities ranging from two to eight passengers. Take off for this ride was particularly challenging, and the ride was at the point of being cancelled due to the strong winds when a half a dozen men had to hold to a basket containing nine adults – more than a few generously proportioned in the middle, heavy gas cylinders and a flame – from toppling over.

Anyway, those lucky enough to be on the rides floated over not just the vast expanse of historic Mandu, but over the craggy landscape surrounding the city. The Malwa Plateau is just north of the Narmada Valley and is the oldest part of the subcontinent — where sun, rain, and wind have played over billions of years to create a landscape that is unique in its topography. The balloon ride allowed us to see these parts of undulating hills and gentle tree-laden valleys crisscrossed by rivulets and lakes from angles that possibly no one has before, as humbling a moment as any as one marvelled at nature’s power and majesty.

Modern settlements and agriculture meant a significant part of this rural area is now farmed. Tiny plots of land – some green with ripening rabi crops — maize, mustard, sorghum, chickpea, cotton, pulses, oilseeds, even plots of flowers and vegetables for domestic use, some left fallow – made for a natural patchwork whose intricacy surely inspires crafts folk of the region.

What do you spot in a 45 minute to over an hour ride (the duration, as in the direction of the flight depends entirely on the wind movement at the time)?  Verdant valleys, gentle, rounded hills, shimmering lakes, ponds, and streams, a ribbony strip of the road here and there, colourful fields — even amongst hilltops, children and even adults shouting, gesticulating excitedly from fields and rooftops, a stray cow or goat grazing contentedly – one hopes. Add the first sunrise of the year — even amidst a slightly cloudy stretch of the sky – and it’s a perfect, once-in-a-lifetime moment that you wouldn’t want to miss.

River gods

The third edition of Mandu Festival organised a Narmada aarti at Rewa Kund, which is located right next to Baz Bahadur’s palace. Rewa is another name for Narmada, and the fable of Rupmati and Baz Bahadur (see above) has historical truth behind it is at best conjectural, the evening aarti resonated in the surrounding monuments. The aarti, specially organised by the festival, was an invocation to Ma Narmada, the reigning deity in these parts, and lasted for about 45 minutes each evening during the duration of the festival.

In the evenings, priests venerate ma narmada, as the river is known, to the sound of chants and the rhythm of dhol.
In the evenings, priests venerate Ma Narmada, as the river is known, to the sound of chants and the rhythm of dhol.

As with other notable aartis around the country, while the devout enthusiastically chant along with the priests, the ‘insta’ crowd usually awaits the ‘lamp’ moment, when a group of priests —always male — rotate and swing lighted metal – usually brass – lamps, creating a visual spectacle. This one was no different, though the surrounding pond was a rather small one, no water transport was visible, disappointing the latter crowd. For the more introspective-minded, this is a great spot though — as it’s not a regular aarti, the audience numbers are minimal, ensuring a quieter atmosphere. The surrounding melange of monuments, water, and dense forests combines to create a feeling of quiet reflection that few such events can match.

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