Mandu, India: Ancient Capital City and Beautiful People

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June 29th 2011
Published: July 27th 2011
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Indore to Mandu!

Aurangabad to Mandu

In order to get to scenic, relaxing Mandu, we first have to take a bus from Aurangabad to Indore, a 14 hour overnight journey. Once in Indore, we have to find the local bus to Dhar, a city near Mandu, then transfer once again to Mandu. Dhar is only 90km from Indore, so it shouldn't be too bad, right?

The bus to Indore is your standard 2+1 sleeper bus. Trung and I once again each get our own bunk on the +1 side of the bus. After a fitful night's sleep, we're driving into Indore, which is described as a dirty industrial town in our guidebook.

Indore Transfer

We're not let down by the guide. The bus lets people off at several stops on the way into town which appears to be simply grey roads scattered with garbage and poop, factories and houses. Once off the bus we're in the usual scrum of tuk tuk and taxi drivers asking where we want to go (and making their own suggestions) and trying to take our bags to their vehicles.

After a few drivers give us confused looks when we tell them we want to go to Mandu, one says 'ok, ok no problem, no problem' and we're whisked off for 70 rupees to who knows where. Trung is still 1/2 asleep so he just goes along with whatever is happening.

The bus to Dhar is just pulling out of it's stop when we arrive in the tuk tuk. A man yells after the bus which slows down enough for our bags to be thrown in the back and for us to run to the back door of the still-moving bus. Its a local bus and there's only room enough for us to sit in the very back row, along with 7 other guys, squished into the long bench. Everyone is on their way to work in the plethora of factories just outside of the city.

After a terribly long and extremely bumpy 4 hours, we've travelled the 90 km to Dhar, a tiny, bustling town, 30km outside of Mandu. We transfer buses at the crowded bus terminal to an even smaller bus. Our things are again thrown in with the cabbage under the bus.


The bus slowly trundles uphill on the only road that passes through the several medieval gates on the way into Mandu. The final push is switchbacks up the side of a steep drop into the valley below. Once at the top we're in a completely flat expanse on top of a large plateau, about 5km x 10km.

There's a state run hotel a few hundred metres from 'town'. Town consists of a restaurant and some shops and houses. The majority of Manduites live on farms on the plateau. The state run hotel offers modern ameneties including television and balconies overlooking the drop to the valley floor, 100's of metres down.

After a few hours of resting from our 20 hour travelling ordeal, we're ready to do some light exploration. There are 3 main groups of ruins on the plateau. The central group is supposedly the best preserved and includes the summer palace of a great king who kept quite a sizable harem in relative comfort. The other two groups include tombs, and a pavilion built for a princess by a musical king on the opposite side of the plateau from town. Apparently the view is quite spectacular. Not to be lazy, but here again is a short history of Mandu thanks to Wikipedia:

"Mandu was earlier known by the name of "Shadiabad" meaning the city of happiness (Anand Nagari), the name was given by then ruler Allauddin Khilji. Mandu city is situated at an elevation of 633 metres (2079 feet) and extends for 13 km (8 miles) along the crest of the Vindhya Range, overlooking the plateau of Malwa to the north and the valley of the Narmada River to the south. These acted as natural defences and Mandu was originally the fort-capital of Rajput Parmara rulers of Malwa. Towards the end of the 11th century, it came under the sway of the Taranga kingdom.

In the 10th century Mandu was founded as a fortress retreat by Raja Bhoj. It was conquered by the Muslim rulers of Delhi in 1304. When, in 1401, the Mughals captured Delhi, the Afghan Dilawar Khan, governor of Malwa, set up his own little kingdom and the Ghuri dynasty was established. And thus began Mandu's golden age.

His son, Hoshang Shah, shifted the capital from Dhar to Mandu and raised it to its greatest splendour. Hoshang's son, Mohammed, the third and last ruler of Ghuri dynasty ruled for just one year He was poisoned by the militaristic Mohammed Khalji, who established the Khilji dynasty and went on to rule for the next 33 years. He was succeeded by his son, Ghiyas-ud-din in 1469 and ruled for the next 31 years. Ghiyas-ud-din was a pleasure seeker and devoted himself to women and song. He had a large harem and built the Jahaz Mahal for housing the women, numbering thousands, of his harem. Ghiyas-ud-din was poisoned, aged 80, by Nasir-ud-din, his own son."

Mandu continued for several hundred years after this, but eventually the capital of the empire was moved to back to Delhi and Mandu was left alone until very recently.

Mandu is a very beautiful place. The local subsistence farming population is extremely friendly and helpful. We're in Mandu for four days and are able to take bicycles to explore the ruins on the plateau over that time. After the first day we quickly learn that whomever has been teaching the children English has only been teaching them "bye bye" as a universal greeting. We're chased by gangs of kids yelling "bye bye" constantly, and soon we're using it ourselves as hello, goodbye and thank you!

The kids have also learned how to ask for candy. Trung bought a bag of about 40 little candies form a store on our second day. Once one lonely looking kid gets their candy, they're off and yelling to the others, who come out of the woodwork, somehow, in groups of 20. Its hilarious, as soon as they see the bag come out of Trung's pocket, they're all smiling and yelling and jostling for their spot to recieve the tiny Cadbury carmels.

The people living in Mandu are intimately tied to the ruins around them. There are crumbing remains of tombs and palaces dotting the landscape and the homes and farms wind in and around the ruins. Several times Trung and I are exploring some deserted tomb when we come across a group of kids just hanging out. Once we spent the afternoon with some kids, doubling on our bicycles. They had some local berries they picked which we tried at their insistence. They sang and danced for Trung's camera so they could see video of themselves, it was a blast.

There are medieval wells made of stone that are still in use by the locals today. We haven't been anywhere on this trip where clean, fresh water hasn't been available, until now. We're lucky enough that the Monsoon appears to be about 2 weeks behind schedule, but the people of Mandu are hurting because of it. At one well, which is extrodinarily deep with an intricate staircase leading to the bottom, we come across a family getting water and washing their clothes in the deep green algae-filled water at the bottom of the well. You can tell by the high water mark that the well is at least 30 feet lower than at high water, and the water is filthy.

The palaces of the ancients are filled with fountains, man made lakes and bathing pools. During the height of monsoon these pleasure palaces still flow as they did several hundred years ago. Its amazing how the rooftops and public squares are all sloped to catch every available drop. There are tunnels, pipes and trenches everywhere to channel water to the correct pool or fountain. Again, the monsoon is late so these places are dry.

At the moment, everything is bone dry including the soil. People that don't live near to the ancient wells are forced to dig into the muddy soil at the bottom of the man-made lakes to compete with the water buffalo and gather water.

I'm concerned that places like these in central India will be the first areas where mass migration due to climate change will occur. If the monsoon were to fail for even one year, there would be no water to drink or to grow crops with. The people here have a meagre income and without water there would be no reason to stay. As it stands, the past monsoons could be counted on to arrive on the exact day year-after-year. The last 5 years have seen the monsoon move around by about a month. This year it hasn't arrived yet, two weeks late. Nobody can tell when it will arrive and if it will be strong enough to fill the lakes and wells on the plateau. There's a sense of uncertainty amongst the people.

Our hotel doens't escape the water shortage. Our bath water is slightly green coloured and has a funky smell. Its a difficult, stinky shower but the smell leaves once you're dry so its not terrible. I'm just thankful to be able to shower in a place where people are digging with pots and pans outside to get water to drink!

During our time in Mandu, Trung and I found ourselves at the bottom of a dry lake bed beside the large 'Boat Palace', the largest Harem in Mandu. To get out of the lake bed to walk along a wall leading to the main gate of the palace, we had to climb up a steep slope and past a small herd of water buffalo. As I walked in front of Trung up the slope, the bull of the group started stomping the ground and put his head down and took a few steps towards us. Now, these water buffalo are the largest I've ever seen. Indian water buffalo easily come up level to my shoulders. I backtracked a bit and went around a small mound of earth to skirt around the herd. Trung stayed on the bottom of the lake. I popped out behind the herd near to the wall, and accidentally spooked the herd, who immediately charged at me. With my heart pounding, I ran to the wall and climbed the 4 feet to the top and turned to face my death. The bull decided, aparently, that climbing the wall behind me wasn't worth it, and went back to grazing and looking at me out of the corner of his eye.

Trung, witnessing this little show, decides to walk along the lake bed to the palace and find a way to climb inside. Once we've walked 800 m across the lake, me on top of the 20ft wall, Trung at the bottom of the lake, we quickly realize there's no way for him to climb up. A kid selling postcards at the gate realizes Trung's predicament and quickly scales down the sheer face of the palace wall with Trung shouting to be careful. He escorts Trung back to a place where a tree had partially collapsed the wall. They're both able to climb out and come join me at the gate. The kid earned his tip that day!

After our time in beautiful Mandu, its time to hop on the terrible bus back to Indore. After our 5 hour bumpy ordeal, made slightly better by not sitting in the back of the bus, we're in crazy Indore looking for a hotel for the night. We're catching a train from Indore to Udaipur the following day. I'm excited for our first real train adventure in India to Rajasthan, arguably the most beautiful state in India!


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