“Shout out as loud as you can,” said our guide Tukaram, as we stood perched at one end of a broken wall that barely reached my waist. My sister and I were a bit unnerved with his enthusiasm, so our guide, visibly frustrated at our shyness but still undeterred, took the task upon himself.
“Will Mallika pass or fail?”
The echoes amazed me and filled the area around us, to my dismay, with the resonance of the latter. We laughed at the juvenile trickery and continued our journey around the city.
Mandu, erstwhile Mandava or Mandogarh, is a tottering city in the southwestern state of Madhya Pradesh, 60km from the city of Indore. Nothing could mark a greater difference than the towering buildings of Indore and this city of Mandu, which is closer to oblivion each passing day. Situated atop a plateau, lying close to the lazy course of the Narmada, the city was once fortified with walls stretching upto 50kms. The intricately carved walls, domes, pillars and entrances have endured centuries of dynastic wars and the harsh hands of Time.
Having been situated on the top of a plateau, mainly for strategic advancement, the city has been designed around water harvesting and conservation mechanisms, with innumerable wells, tanks and channels which direct water to the depositories, undergoing traditional means of purification through pebbles, sand and charcoal. Everywhere you look there is a beautifully carved structure that stands encased in history.
No less enchanting is the structure of Jahaz Mahal, the story of which is etched in my memory. The ‘floating palace’ as it was called when it was built, stood in the centre of man-made lakes, giving it the celestial vision of being afloat. Sultan Ghiyas-ud-din Khilji built it for his queens, concubines and the attending staff going upto thousands in number. It is one of the most elaborate extant structures of the ruined city. The royal palace complex at Mandu also includes the Hindola Mahal, or the Swinging Palace, a T-shaped structure which is a perfect specimen of the Malwa architecture.
As we negotiate the area, peppered with carved buildings encircled by broken battlement walls, Tukaram breaks into a song which is reverberated by the walls around us. A soft breeze saves us from the sultry sun that threatens to char my skin. Tukaram goes on the explain how the walls and columns were hollow structures with deep interconnected water ducts that ensured the service of water even in the most obscure corner of the palace and kept the palace cool in summers. He moves on to guide us to another area in the city and metaphorically into the past of Rani Roopmati.
We saunter into the area adjacent to the Rewa Kund, which makes up Baz Bahadur’s palace and Rani Roopmati’s pavilion. Baz Bahadur, the last independent King of Mandu fell in love with a beautiful shepherdess, Roopmati, who was also a marvelous singer. He convinced her to accompany him to the palace, agreeing to her condition that her palace must face the venerated river Narmada, which is how the foundation of the Rewa Kund was laid. The broad steps leading to the main gate of the palace are flanked on the sides by high arches, which probably served as aqueducts built into thick walls that supplied water to the palace. The love story was doomed for a premature end when Akbar invaded Mandu. The king fell in the battle and Rani Roopmati consumed poison to avoid capture at the hands of Adham Khan.
Tukaram, consumed in his tale of love and beauty, comically fell into a small hole in the ground, amidst peals of laughter from the children nearby. He got up, dusted himself and continued stoically like nothing had transpired. He reminded me of how the present, ignorant of the majestic past, gleams at the tottering palaces and empty tanks, shrugs and looks in the other direction while those that remain entrenched in the past, only hope for reparations, for regained glory. As our trip ended, we eschewed the mundane cobbled roads and climb to the terrace of the palace to see the sky change hues. The city which once was one of the richest and also one of the biggest in India during the reign of both the Ghuri and Khilji dynasties, now sits, a lonely guardian on the walls. Men, many old timers like our Tukaram, believe that on a clear starry night, Roopmati’s voice can be felt glimmering through the air, and rippling across the surface of Narmada nearby.
In the meanwhile, hues of orange burst upon the horizon and we look till the sun is gobbled up by the distant curve.