Mandu Festival: Not just heritage

Horse-riding, cycle tours, concerts and much more... the three-day Mandu Festival showcased a slice of the best this ancient city offers. Throw in its rich architectural splendour and you know this is a don't miss holiday destination

nupur kala kendra

#manduaao,#mandumekhojao. These hashtags kept doing rounds in my mind as I stepped out of the airport into a waiting car to take me to the ancient city of Mandu in Madhya Pradesh, also known as the City of Joy. I was part of a group invited to experience the Mandu Festival, organised by the government of Madhya Pradesh.

A two hour drive from Indore and some sugary tea later at a roadside dhaba, the car finally entered the sleepy town of Mandu, about 29km in area with a single lane going through the town. After a bumpy ride and some confusion as to where exactly our experience of the festival would begin, we are all taken to a very rustic set up by the Sagar Talao or lake. 

Here, under a giant banyan tree, lunch had been organised of local delicacies — crab soup, green lentil curry, local pilaf, country chicken curry (karaknath chicken), maize flour cakes roasted on open fire of dried cowpat and paddy stalks, corn and spinach curry, millet flatbreads and some beer to beat the heat. 

food district

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Savitri Bai, a local farmer, was supervising the making of maize flour cakes called paniya and flatbreads on the chulha (firewood oven) in the makeshift kitchen as her other women relatives expertly kept stacking the freshly-roasted paniyas and flatbreads on a plate. “I have never been to Delhi. I was told people are coming from Delhi to see how we live in a village. I grow maize and millet here and during festivals when city folks come here, I get some money for preparing local food and hosting guests,” Savitri said breaking into a smile and pointing to her low roofed mud hut and adding that the walls of her home and the courtyard had been freshly plastered with cow dung as is the custom before a householder receives guests for an occasion. 

A few yards away, officials of Madhya Pradesh Ecotourism Board and Rural Tourism were engaged in a presentation and animated discussion on ecotourism.

Feeling tired after the journey, we wearily made our way to the hotel to rest a while before the evening function. At an official function set against the backdrop of an old ruin, Rajvardhan Singh Dattigaon, Minister of Industry Policy and Investment in Madhya Pradesh drew attention to the government’s plans to go big on eco tourism and sustainable tourism in Mandu and said that the potential of Mandu as a tourist hotspot needs to be developed and the Mandu festival in the middle of a pandemic is a step in that direction. 

Seconding his views, Usha Thakur, Minister of Tourism, Culture and Adhyatm said that local people will benefit if tourism picks up in Mandu and government is going ahead with plans to develop the town as a wellness destination, a destination for rural, eco friendly tourism and also a huge repository of culture and art from the ancient times. “We took the initiative to hold the second year of Mandu festival in the middle of the pandemic as Madhya Pradesh has had a recovery rate of 97 per cent from coronavirus infections and people are fatigued from a year of battle against the pandemic. This festival will help infuse energy into local businesses as tourism will boost the local economy. 

kabir cafe

The government is putting together a road map to develop tourism in a sustainable and eco friendly manner and much has to be done”, Thakur said. 

After a performance by a Mandu dance troupe of school children, it was time for the folk fusion band from Mumbai, Kabir Cafe to perform. It felt unreal to be sitting at a concert with masks on and people frequently disinfecting hands with sanitisers, but the brilliant base of Kabir Cafe’s guitarist eased all discomfort. 

jahaj mahal

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As the crowd swelled on the large concert venue, the band belted out one number after another based on saint Kabir’s dohas (lyrical verse format). I took a round of the food district across the concert venue but there was nothing to write home about so stuck to coffee and selfies with fellow journalists. Manoj, a college student in Dhar district who had put up the coffee stall told me that he made good money and welcomes the idea of festivals like the one in Mandu.

We woke up on 14th morning, Valentine’s Day, in the town made famous by Sultan Baz Bahadur and his consort, Roopmati’s love for each other and went for a sojourn on the road leading to a deep ravine not far from the hotel. The air was clear and the sun was steadily climbing up, clearly warning of a warm, hot day. 

Our first stop on the Mandu Heritage Walk accompanied by a local storyteller was Jami Masjid which is located in the town square. After a few glasses of lemon soda made by an enthusiastic old woman and some pics of Mandu ki Imli or tamarind, a variety of Baobab fruit that grows almost everywhere on the ruins of the town, we climb the steps to the mosque. 

The building was started by Hoshang Shah and completed by Mahmud Khalji in 1454. A.D. It is built on an area of 97.4 square meter with a huge dome on the porch and approached by a flight of thirty steps. The central hall is hexagonal in shape and is a fine example of Afghan architecture. Next stop was Hoshang Shah’s tomb. Constructed in the 15th century, this tomb is the first marble tomb in India and impressed by its beauty, Mughal emperor, Shah Jehan  sent four architects to study the structure before the construction of Taj Mahal. 

The architects’ signature etched on the marble wall, growing faint with time, can still be seen. Next we stopped to take in the beauty of Jahaz Mahal, an elongated building measuring 110m in length and only 15m in breadth and stands on a narrow stretch of land with two water bodies on either side, thus giving it a ship like appearance, hence the name Jahaz Mahal or Ship Palace. This was built during the reign of Ghiyathuddin Khalji (1469–1500) and served as a pleasure house for him and his 15,000 harem ladies. A century later Mughal emperor, Jahangir paid a visit to the Jahaz Mahal with his favourite queen, Nur Jahan and described its splendour in his memoir. We hop across to Hindola Mahal or the Swinging Palace, one of a set of buildings making up the royal palace complex at Mandu, which consists of the Jahaz Mahal, the Hindola Mahal, the Tawili Mahal, and the Nahar Jharokha. 

jama masjid

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The Hindola Mahal may have been used as an audience chamber and is built at a certain slant. The last on our heritage walk was Roopmati’s Pavilion-the legendary tragic love story of Roopmati, famed for her unparalleled beauty and talent for singing and Baz Bahadur, the mid-16th century Sultan of Mandu, unfolds. The sandstone structure is perched regally on the edge of a 365 meter precipice overlooking the Nimar Valley and to the south of the Baz Bahadur Palace. Legend has it that 

Baz Bahadur built the pavilion for his consort, Roopmati so as to enable a fervent worshipper of the Narmada, to see the river and perform religious rites without stepping out of the fort. 

It was originally built as an army watch tower and had undergone transformation in phases to turn it into a palace for Roopmati’s use. She is reputed to have poisoned herself to death when Baz Bahadur fled from an imminent defeat at the hands of the Mughal emperor, Akbar’s general, Adam Khan who announced his intention to marry her. 

After this we wrapped up a tiring but exhilarating day by visiting the sunset point not far away from Roopmati Pavilion. In the midst of a vast expanse of rocky terrain and ridges and wild custard apple trees, it was a peaceful time of meditative silence as the red fireball of a sun set on the historical town of Mandu. Later in the evening, we stopped by the art exhibition-an amalgamation of installations, traditional tribal art motifs and mixed media displays by various artists from the state. 

The shopping area had limited stalls selling Maheshwari sarees and traditional handicrafts and could have seen some improvement. The day was wrapped up by another concert by a band from Ahmedabad-Mukt whose soulful rendition of Ibn-e-Insha, Dharamveer Bharti, Kaifi Azmi. Kabir captivated the audience.

art and crafts district

With horse riding, cycle tours, fishing and yoga with morning raga, the festival had everything for everyone. The town is taking baby steps in the direction of becoming a hot spot for rural tourism with a rich history of architectural splendour. The government with private players are going back to the drawing board to draft plans to build tourism infrastructure so that stakeholders’ rights and interests are not harmed. “Come back during monsoons to see the full glory of Mandu,” said our tour guide and storyteller. 

“You cannot get Mandu off your mind,” quipped a gentleman nearby selling popcorn. 

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A romantic treasure trove waiting to be explored

* Mandu’s history dates back to 555AD and the town derives its name after an ironsmith named Mandan

* The town is colloquially called as Mandapachal, Mandapadurga, Mandapagiri, Mandavya and also the City of Joy

* Mandu is situated at an elevation of 634m above sea level

rural experience

* Hoshang Shah’s tomb in Mandu is the first marble monument in India

* Shahjahan took inspiration to build Taj Mahal from the tomb of Hoshang Shah

* Mandu ki Imli or Khorasan Imlis are African Baobab trees whose fruits are used to make sherbets and are local delicacies

* Paniya-maize cake roasted in fire and eaten with ghee is a popular local cuisine

* Mandu has a Romeo-Juliet kind of love story that revolves around Roopmati and the dashing Sultan, Baz Bahadur who committed suicide in the end

* Baz Bahadur built Roopmati Pavilion for his consort so she could worship Narmada without leaving the fort

* One of the best lime soda with a dash of Mandu ki Imli can be had outside Jami Masjid made by Amma Bai

* Apart from winters, the best time to visit Mandu is the monsoon season when all the ponds, lakes and water bodies are full to the brim and the place is covered in lush greenery

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* Apart from sightseeing, one can discover Mandu on cycles, horseback and also enjoy fishing and yoga

kabir cafe

* Mandu has over 40 monuments within the fort citadel stretching to 82 kilometres in perimeter considered to be the biggest in India

* Proper walking shoes are imperative for tour of Mandu fort and monuments as there are no footwear shops

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