As Madhya Pradesh lies in the heart of the Indian subcontinent, we have a heart in it that beats – as all hearts need – soft, gentle and peaceful. A heart without stress, without fear, without haste. There is a harmony and ease in the way space and time express themselves in the contemplative towns of Omkareshwar and Maheshwar, which absorb the beauty of the Narmada River as it flows by; in the forests of Kanha and Bandhavgarh; and in the petite hilly languor of Amarkantak and Mandu.
So we find it fitting that when we reach Ujjain on our way to Mandu – to explore why Mandu is called the most romantic places in the monsoons – the train stops at a platform decorated by a beautiful tree. The Indian Railways platform would have simply confirmed us as sleepy travel writers, but the unexpected boom, in the lazy morning, makes us readers of Kalidas. This is where the poet lived and worked, this is the Ujjain he loved, so eloquently in his lyric poem Meghdoot and here he described the rains in a way that still suffices, a millennium and a half later, for everyone from us lovers of this magical Indian phenomenon – the monsoon.
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We find it even more fitting when on the final stretch of our road journey, our senses becoming more alive in the heavy air as those little hill ranges of the Vindhyas come into view, we come to a fork that gives us two choices – on this way for Mumbai; that way for Mandu. And although the view, pregnant with the monsoon tocome, is blurred, we can see the choice with perfect clarity. It is not just the authority of Kalidas and his steeped descriptions of the Vindhya mountains that we have on our side.
There is also Emperor Jehangir, who said: “I know of no other place so pleasant in climate and with so attractive scenery as Mandu in the rainy season.” And then there is Mr Sharma, our hotel manager who described the Sagar Talao, by where his hotel is located, in the monsoon season: “The fog comes up to here (pointing his finger), up to here (he walks up and points his finger more precisely) pricks), here (I’m standing right on the spot), I’m telling you this tree becomes completely invisible in the fog…. “An orientation Thinking that,” this high mountain is our refuge when we are bowed down by the weight of water”, the clouds delight the Vindhya Mountains scorched by the bright summer sun, drenching them with showers… Mandu’s endearing beauty owes a lot to its location.
As we walked up the hill, unexpected lakes flashed around every turn, and tree-decked trees framed distant views of an ancient Darwaza fort, which stood with grave beauty. You must imagine a flat land called the Malwa Plateau, from which rise a number of hills that form the top of the plain Vindhya range . One of these, Mandu, is separated on three sides from the surrounding flat land by a ravine called the Kakra Khoh. On the south side, where the Khoh is absent, you can see the plain that they Nimar begin right under your nose, and after a steep slope of 1200 meters, stretch infinitely into the horizon. Successive kings greatly appreciated the enchantment as well as the possibilities of a fortification on such a site.
The last millennium saw the Parmar kings, the Sultans of Malwa and the Mughals transform into a palimpsest of distinctive fortifications and palaces. They seem to have built with an unerring eye, using the undulating heights and abundance of water bodies as the main architectural feature. And so – Mandu in the rain. The advantages of the hilly location radiate from their heart, the pastel tones of the ancient monuments are offset by the stunning natural green surroundings, and the beauty is doubled as it is reflected in voluptuous water bodies that claim the hillfort as their own. – talaos, baolis, kunds, streams, torrents, rivulets…. And then there are the clouds and the fog.
An Introduction And even in paths made by clouds of clouds…women go to meet their lovers in their passion, their path is shown by flashes of lightning…We come to have longing almost as much as that of the women who will meet their lovers. We have been to Mandu before, this lover is familiar and intimate; we have been waiting for this moment for a long time. Up we go, to Rupmati’s chhatris. Legend has it that Rupmati was a shepherdess from nearby Dharmapuri and that Sultan Baz Bahadur saw her hunting; they fell in love. Rupmati could not eat without worshiping her beloved River Rewa (Narmada), so Baz Bahadur built her chhatris (pavilions) on the southernmost edge of Mandu, from where the river would be visible as a streak of silver. When they went to the pavilions, “she could not withhold astonishment, at the breadth and loveliness of the stage.” That won’t be possible either. The hilltop Chhatris, with their delicately shaped arches, cling to the edge of the Mandu hill, above a steep slope of some 1000 feet, while the perfectly flat Nimar plains stretch to the horizon.
On clear days you might be able to see 30 km away. These plains lie to the southwest. And we know that the monsoon will roll over these plains from the southwest. According to the locals, any time now. As we walk up the winding road, the wind becomes stronger. Once we reach the top, we turn back and look at Mandu at our feet. It resembles a confection of windswept, vibrant green fields and forests, the ruins of Baz Bahadur’s palace in its entirety lapidarian to perfection. We climb up to look at the other side, at those endless plains. The sky is painted with muscular, silvery-gray-black clouds, pushed toward us with deft assurance by operating winds. I have to cling to a tree to feel safe. We clamber to the chhatris and find a perch, so our legs can dangle over the fields below. Then, with all the patience of a lover who can fully trust that her passion will be reciprocated, we come to the delightful wait.
At another time it would have been complicated to sit in this ethereal place, despite its beauty, for this was the place where that young girl had spent her lonely hours. Rupmati married (or cursed) her love at a young age, was abandoned by him then attacked by Akbar’s general Adham Khan, took a poison of powdered diamonds and died, all before she was 21. Here she sat, when Baz Bahadur neglected her for wine, or some new beauty, says a contemporary historian. I can never sit here with complete abandon, I always look sadly over her shoulder as she stares at her river and her land, but today the wind and clouds have overwhelmed all my senses. They are very close now. Even the few threads of weak silver sunlight that managed to jump through the grayness, have been defeated. When they come in, fast and cheerful, the moisture in the wind is happy, the rain is delicate, and the cloud mist is all-encompassing. We are soaked, everyone around us is thrilled, someone is crying out to see if this little room of clouds will return an echo. It almost does. “The downcast clouds of Sawan are dry,” says a love song of separation attributed to Rupmati. But we finally know what ‘the coming of the monsoon’ means. says a love song of separation attributed to Rupmati. But we finally know what ‘the coming of the monsoon’ means. says a love song of separation attributed to Rupmati. But we finally know what ‘the coming of the monsoon’ means.
The rivers flow… The clouds rain… The forests glisten… Devotees meditate on absent loved ones… Peacocks dance… All this happens in the small 6 km by 8 km area that Mandu covers. We walk away the days in Mandu – past vast forested areas, stray ruins, lakes and ponds and settlements of the local tribes – in a drugged haze. Literally haze, since the monsoon has come here in a dreamy miasma and visibility is often only a few meters. The Mandu monuments, not well preserved or freshly painted but usually abandoned to slowly absorb the passage of time, benefit from the fading of their edges and their pastel shades enriched by water. They can now not be seen as ‘buildings’ but as an architecture of stone with landscape, nature, atmosphere, feeling and taste.
The royal enclave
The famous Jahaz Mahalis an example of this harmony of nature and architecture. The unique playfulness of this structure corresponds well with the colorfulness of the builder Sultan Ghiyasuddin (1469-1500). The king, not content to keep a staggering 15,000 women in his seraglio, is said to have surrounded himself by “500 beautiful and young Turkish women in men’s clothes and an equal number of Abyssinian women, all in uniform and armed… as guards”. Ghiyasuddin did not wage wars. The tranquility of its time was formed in this extraordinarily long and narrow strip of a palace, situated between two large pools of water (the Munja and Kapur talaos), reflected in both. So, ‘Jahaz Mahal’, because the elongated palace resembles a ship in the midst of these waters. Rain is filling the talaos now, although they will fill in the rim later, in July. But it is a pleasure to sit here and simply fade away pleasantly in this light, if uncharitable, architecture of chhatris, domes, levels and spaciousness, wind and water. Jahaz Mahal received Jehangir one evening when, according to the emperor, “they lit lanterns all around the tanks and buildings….It seemed as if the entire surface of the tank was a field of fire.
As soon as the downpour becomes too strong, we have to rush to Gada Shah ki Dukaan, another small almost palette, where beautiful old mango trees smile kindly at our admittedly hysterical chatter. Sagar Talao group It is said that the Mughal Emperor Humayun developed his opium habit during a stay in Mandu . We spend many fresh mornings on the banks of the Sagar Talao, bathed in clouds, wondering why he needed the opiate in the first place. The Talao is the largest and most central water body in Mandu.
Damp white wool usually rolls over the lake in the evening and we can walk down the jetty that juts out into the lake, trying to distinguish the few inhabitants who wade in its waters to catch fish, or cranes who sing to the rhythm of their own tempo flying music. Near Sagar Talao is a cluster of far-flung buildings, amid water and greenery, attractive in their beauty and a certain lack of grandeur. There is a Dai ka Mahal (the moist nurse’s palace) and the endearingly named Dai ki Bahen ka Mahal (the sister’s sister’s palace), a very picturesque little octagonal structure.
The Malik Mugith Mosque , built in 1432, has an innovatively made ‘verandah’ at the front and abundant Hindu temple pillars inside, which give a beautiful effect. the beauty of the world may come begging at your doorstep, but there are times when rain just means hot pakodas. To tackle this noble urge, we walk to the bazaar, which with its STD shops, grocers, restaurants, large banyan tree and taxi stand, serves multiple functions as market, village square, city center and gossip points. The bazaar is dominated by a grand Jami Masjid and the tomb of Hoshang Shah, the second of the Mandu Sultans, a great king who ruled for 27 years. A ‘dharamshala’ has been attached to the completely white grave,