Sometimes referred to as the Hampi of Central India because of its treasure trove of ruins, Mandu is one of the top tourist places in Madhya Pradesh, yet is still delightfully off the beaten path. This abandoned city from the Mughal era is spread over a 2,000 foot-high hilltop, and enclosed by a 45 kilometer (mile) stretch of wall. Its spectacular main entrance, located to the north, faces Delhi and is called Dilli Darwaza (Delhi Gate).
Mandu was founded in the 10th century as the fort capital of the Parmar rulers of Malwa. It was subsequently occupied by a succession of Mughal rulers in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Mughals set up their indulgent kingdom there, resplendent with exquisite lakes and palaces. Mandu was invaded and captured by Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1561, and then taken over by the Marathas in 1732. The capital of Malwa was moved to nearby Dhar, and the decline of Mandu's fortunes began.
Mandu is perhaps most famous for the tragic tale of its last independent ruler, Mughal Sultan Baz Bahadur. He fell in love with a beautiful Rajput Hindu singer called Roopmati and persuaded her to marry him. She agreed on the condition that he would build her a magnficent palace (now known as Roopmati's Pavilion) from where she'd be able to see and offer prayers to the holy Narmada River. The sultan spent so much time with Roopmati that he neglected his kingdom and fled when Mandu was attacked by Emperor Akbar. Legend has it that he left Roopmati behind, and she choose to kill herself instead of being taken by the enemy.
The importance of Mandu's heritage and the consistent efforts being made to preserve it have been acknowledged. In September 2018, the Indian government jointly named Mandu as Best Heritage City in India (along with Ahmedabad in Gujarat) at its 2016-17 National Tourism Awards.
Mandu is about two hours southwest of Indore, in Madhya Pradesh.
How to Get There
The road from Indore to Mandu is greatly improved. The easiest way of reaching Mandu is to hire a car and driver from Indore (arrange for one to meet you at the airport, as Indore isn't a must-see city for tourists and there's no need to spend much time there). If you're traveling on a budget, it's also possible to take a bus to Dhar and then another bus to Mandu. Indore is easily reachable by domestic flight in India and Indian Railways train.
When to Visit
The cool and dry winter months from November to February are the best time to visit Mandu. The weather starts heating up by March, and gets very hot during the summer months of April and May, before the monsoon arrives in June.
The 11-day Ganesh Chaturthi festival, which commemorates the beloved elephant god's birthday, is the biggest celebration in Mandu. It takes place in March, and is an interesting blend of Hindu and tribal culture.
In addition, Madhya Pradesh Tourism holds an annual Mandu Festival featuring cultural programs and adventure sports.
What to Do There
Mandu is a peaceful place to relax. Its sites are best explored by bicycle, which can easily be rented. Take three or four days to leisurely ride around and see everything.
Mandu's palaces, tombs, mosques and monuments are divided into three main groups -- the Royal Enclave, the Village Group, and Rewa Kund Group. Tickets for each group cost 300 rupees for foreigners and 25 rupees for Indians. There are other smaller, free, ruins scattered across the area as well.
By far the most impressive and extensive is the Royal Enclave Group, a collection of palaces built by various rulers around three tanks. The highlight is the multi-level Jahaz Mahal (Ship Palace), which apparently used to house Sultan Ghiyas-ud-din-Khilji's substanital harem women. It appears evocatively illuminated on moonlit nights.
The Rewa Kund Group lies a few miles to the south, and is made up of Baz Bahadur's Palace and Roopmati's Pavilion. This spectacular sunset spot overlooks the valley and river below.
The Village Group is most centrally-located, in the heart of Mandu's marketplace. It's comprised of a mosque that's considered to be the finest example of Afghan architecture in India, and Hoshang Shah's tomb (both of which provided inspiration for the construction of the Taj Mahal centuries later). Plus, Ashrafi Mahal with its detailed Islamic pillar work.
Where to Stay
Accommodations in Mandu are limited. Mandu Sarai and Madhya Pradesh Tourism's Malwa Resort are the best options. Mandu Sarai is a new hotel in the village, with comfortable rooms from 2,500 rupees per night. The peaceful upstairs rooms at the rear of the property face the Ship Palace.
The Malwa Resort has newly renovated cottages and luxury tents in lush green surroundings, starting from 3,290 rupees per night for a double. Alternatively, Madhya Pradesh Tourism's Malwa Retreat is a cheaper and more centrally located option. It has air-conditioned rooms and luxury tents from 2,990 rupees per night, and beds in a dorm room for 300 rupees per night. Both are bookable on the Madhya Pradesh Tourism website.
What Else to Do Nearby
The Bagh Caves, about three hours west of Mandu alongside the Baghini River, are a series of seven Buddhist rock-cut caves dating back to between the 5th and 6th centuries. They were recently restored, and are recommended for their exquisite sculptures and murals. Tickets cost 300 rupees for foreigners and 25 rupees for Indians. Bagh village is also renowned for its traditional block-printing on textiles using herb-based dyes.