If Walls Could Speak: The Many Love Stories Of MP's Mandu

Poetically located in the heart of MP, Mandu is a city that tells the tales of many loves
Jahaz Mahal mesmerises visitors with its unique shape
Jahaz Mahal mesmerises visitors with its unique shapePhoto: Getty Images

There are cities that epitomise love, there are cities that inspire poets to write about love, and then there is Mandu. The small city, so steeped in its historical love story that it has now become its very identity. Mandavgarh, more popularly known as Mandu, lies poetically enough in the heart of Madhya Pradesh atop the Vindhya Range. This ancient city guards a trove of treasured stories in its walls, its stones and the memories of its people.

Mandu's historical roots trace back to the 6th century when it served as an outpost of the Gupta Empire. However, it rose to prominence during the 10th and 11th centuries under the Parmar rulers. The city's fate took a dramatic turn in the 14th century when it became the capital of the Malwa Sultanate, led by the illustrious Afghan ruler Dilawar Khan. Subsequently, Mandu became a melting pot of diverse cultures, weaving a rich legacy of Hindu and Afghan influences.

In Mandu, you don't get lost geographically; it's the history that takes you in. Entering the city through one of its seven gates, the gravel of the streets crunch beneath your feet as you make your way to the usual circuit of the famous monuments. Mandu is also a city of incredible acoustics with various structures and their many bricks carrying the past within. Each of them has their own story to tell, but one stands out above all the others.

The Monumental Love

Mandu is perhaps best known for the poignant love story of Baz Bahadur, the last independent ruler of Mandu, and his beloved consort, Rani Roopmati. Their romance is immortalised in the architectural wonders that dot the city.

A moment of pure serendipity led Sultan Baz Bahadur, the final sovereign ruler of Mandu, to chance upon the shepherdess Roopmati while he was on one of his hunting trips. But before her youthful beauty could arrest him, he was swept away by her song. Baz Bahadur, an ardent lover of music, instantly fell for her and implored her to accompany him back to Mandu.

"The story of Roopmati and Baz Bahadur has all the elements that make it a quintessential fairy tale. Star-crossed lovers. Music. Poetry. Invasions. And, of course, the tantalising contrasts between a prince and a peasant, a playboy and a chaste maiden, and a Muslim society and Hindu ethos. Little wonder, then, that their story became a legend over the centuries and has been passed down mainly in the oral form, as the ballads and folk tales of the Malwa region. Roopmati, even today, is described by the locals as beautiful, gifted and pure of character," said Malathi Ramachandran, historical fiction writer and author of "Mandu, The Romance of Roopmati and Baz Bahadur" and other books.

In Mandu, there isn't a child who doesn't know this love story that has become so central to the city's character; even the nooks and crannies speak of it. Step out into the streets and cross the giant Baobab trees or "Mandu ki Imli," you will find more than one vendor that capitalises on the story. Even the brilliant laser light and sound show you can witness in the city is strung in a way where the two lovers are the unwitting protagonists.

Rani Roopmati Pavilion overlooks the Nimar Valley
Rani Roopmati Pavilion overlooks the Nimar ValleyPhoto: Getty Images

Different Kinds Of Love

If Mandu were a film, it would definitely be a love story with Baz Bahadur and Rani Roopmati as the central romance. However, it doesn't just stop at one. You see a different kind of love etched in every monument. While the Hindola Mahal, or the swinging palace, sings a sonnet of beauty and man's architectural prowess ahead of time, the Jami Masjid, heavily inspired by the great mosque of Damascus, sings the hymns of spirituality and humanity, with its earlier role as a shelter for the poor and needy.

The Hindola Mahal, with superb techniques in its ornamental facade, is believed to have been used as an audience chamber, and through its fine craftsmanship, we see the love for beauty that thrived in Mandu. And then there is the Jahaz Mahal of Mandu. Aptly named the Ship Palace, it appears to be floating on water. Built between two artificial lakes, Munj Talao and Kapur Talao, this 120-metre-long, two-storeyed palace was made for the 15,000 consorts of Sultan Ghiyas-ud-din Khilji.

"Jahaz Mahal was built in the fifteenth century by the sultan to house his thousands of concubines. It was a pleasure house of music, dance and excesses. In Baz Bahadur's time, too, he and his peers indulged in the epicurean joys of this house until he met Roopmati," said Ramachandran. It is said that one of the two artificial lakes embracing the Jahaz Mahal was filled with camphor, hence the name Kapur Talao, for the consorts to bathe in. Khilji was a lover of women and advocated for their education and empowerment, with nearly 1,000 women serving as his bodyguards.

The entire complex of monuments has something that tells a story of love in its different forms. Where Khilji indulged in the pleasures of love, inviting his peers and city folk to join and share, Baz Bahadur's devotion to Roopmati signals the more singular, faithful kind of love, rare to find amongst the royals.

Hoshang Shah's Tomb, inspiration behind the 
Taj Mahal
Hoshang Shah's Tomb, inspiration behind the Taj MahalPhoto: Shutterstock

The Baz Bahadur Palace is where he lived, and on a nearby mound is Roopmati's Pavilion. When the king asked Roopmati to come away with him, Roopmati, with her own set of terms, consented to move to Mandu under one condition: she insisted on residing in a palace that afforded her an uninterrupted view of her cherished Narmada River.

"It is erroneously understood that this was built by Baz Bahadur for her and that she lived there. In truth, Roopmati lived some distance away in the Shahi Mahal near a lake. Baz had a soldiers' barracks converted into a pavilion for her to fulfil her condition of seeing her beloved Narmada every day. As it was on a mound and abutted the fort wall, she could go up on the terrace every day to see her river," said Ramachandran.

Another interesting facet of this very intriguing town is Hoshang Shah's tomb, the primary inspiration for the ultimate monument of love–the Taj Mahal. Legend has it that Shah Jahan sent four of his best architects to Mandu to study the beautiful structure as a template for the Taj Mahal.

Modern Love

Be it the sincere connection of Baz Bahadur and Roopmati, the stunning archways sieving in sunlight, the romantic acoustics, or the many stories lingering in the air, Mandu today has become the place where modern lovers choose to go.

"Mandu is perfect for a romantic pre-wedding shoot as it is not just an architectural marvel but an iconic structure presenting the epic love story of Baz Bahadur and Rani Roopmati," said Sapan Raghuwanshi, a local who had his pre-wedding shoot in Mandu, particularly Jahaz Mahal.

"Jahaz Mahal is lovely and incorporates intricate etching and carvings, ensuring natural shadows and light suitable for outstanding photo shoots, especially during sunrise and sunset. Being old-school romantics, we loved the idea of imitating royalty set against domes, beautiful arches and stone-carved heritage monuments, which made us pick this gem of a spot," he said.

As the sun sets over Mandu, casting a warm glow on its ancient stones, the city continues to whisper tales of love, valour, and artistic brilliance. In every crumbling fort wall and echoing courtyard, Mandu preserves its legacy, and if you listen closely, you might still be able to catch traces of many music contests between the two lovers who have lent the city their story. Mandu remains as timeless in its beauty as it is resilient in its role as the witness and guardian of the many facets of love throughout its volatile and vaporous history.

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