Every year, Mandu, a small town in Madhya Pradesh, plays host to the Mandu Festival — a five-day celebration of art, craft, music, food, and adventure. Held from January 7 to 11 this year, Travel+Leisure India & South Asia joined in for the festivities to uncover the hidden gems lingering in the beautiful landscape.
Did you know that apart from Kolkata, there is another destination located in the Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh that is also nicknamed the City of Joy? After a gruelling new year, I head to Mandu to immerse in a week-long celebration of art, craft, and culture to find my moments of happiness amid picturesque terrains.
Visiting The Mandu Festival
Nearly 100 kilometres southwest of Indore and perched at 2,000 feet along the Vindhya ranges, Mandu is an ancient fort city home to immense history buried deep beneath baobab trees and forgotten ruins. Bringing this rich history and cultural vibrancy to life is the annual Mandu Festival — and this year, at its fourth edition, I stop by to witness it first-hand.
Mandu Festival is a five-day mega event where one can see the celebration of the land’s rich history mingling with the contemporary spirit of city culture. I land at Indore airport and head straight to Tent City, a temporary accommodation set up in front of Chhappan Mahal, a 16th century tomb. At once, I’m charmed by indigenous folk tunes lingering in the air. A camel decked in poms-poms and tassels from head to toe greets at the entrance. A make-shift art district highlighting local talents and native art forms segue me to the rooms. The festivities are in full swing!
My initiation to Mandu begins with a heritage walk starting at Jami Masjid, located at a short 10-minute walk from Tent City. Inspired by the mosques of Damascus, Jami Masjid is crafted on a massive scale! Picture a high plinth and a sizeable domed porch complete with arches, pillars, and bays. Large arcades on all sides add to the mesmerising architecture. Another noteworthy mention here is the Ashrafi Mahal facing the Jami Masjid. Translating to Palace of the Gold Coin, this ancient structure was constructed by Mahmud Khilji, a 15th-century Sultan of the Malwa Sultanate, as an academic institution for young boys.
As I delve deeper into the architecture of Mandu, I learn about the sweet stories of love that linger through its streets. The Mausoleum of Hoshung Shah Ghori is one such symbol of love.
Built by poet Baz Bahadur, the last Sultan of Malwa Sultanate, for his consort Rani Roopmati, the Mausoleum of Hoshung Shah Ghori—or simply Hoshang Shah’s Tomb—is touted as India’s first marble edifice. This grand structure comes complete with a dome, marble lattice work, porticoed courtyards, and towers at each of the four corners. The Afghan architecture of the building blends seamlessly with the history of the Turkish people who found refuge in Mandu. I, however, am most amazed to learn that this 6th-century fort complex inspired emperor Shah Jahan when he built the iconic Taj Mahal in Agra for his wife Mumtaz Mahal!
It is said that Baz Bahadur was a skilled archer (and thus the name, Baz Bahadur or the brave falcon) who never missed a shot—except once when he got distracted by Rani Roopmati’s melodious voice. Smitten, he asked the shepherdess for her hand in marriage and eloped to Mandu. Fast forward to many years later when Mandu fell to the Mughal army, and Baz Bahadur couldn’t continue his reign over the fortress. During this time, Adham Khan, a general of emperor Akbar, started to lust over Roopmati. This one-sided longing, however, left Roopmati devastated, compelling her to poison herself. And thus, the tragic tale came to an end — no less than the works of Shakespeare’s tragedies, I think to myself.
Lost in the love story, I don’t realise when the sun has gone into hiding and paved the way for a balmy winter evening. Kulhad chai by the Jami Masjid helps me keep warm and instils me with renewed zeal to continue my crash-course of Mandu. The Maa Narmada aarti at Rewa Kund piques curiosity. Within minutes, I’m transfixed by the several pandits’ and devotees’ hymns echoing by river Narmada. The intense aromas and flickering flames render the spectacle magical; the glistening water under the full moonlit night sky elevates the visual to surreal levels.
Day two of the Mandu Festival begins with a tour of Jahaj Mahal, Hindola Mahal, and Baz Bahadur’s Palace. The history lessons at each spot leave me wiser; but it’s the snippet of learning at Roopmati’s Pavilion that leaves me most amused. Originally, the pavilion served as an army observation point. For the queen, though, it was a more serene—almost peaceful—space. This beautiful palace, with its two pavilions, was once an abode for Rani Roopmati to gaze at Baz Bahadur’s palace and river Narmada flowing through the Nimar plains from her hilltop perch. Today, towering Baobab trees from Africa—the seeds of which were given to the Sultans of Mandu by the Caliphs of Egypt in the 14th century—cocoon the area. In fact, khorasani imli (a fruit borne by the trees) is native to the region and is famed for lending a tangy zest to locally-made lentils and curries.
After sampling local ber and baobab fruits, I continue to devour more local delights. Think methi saag and mutton curry, or missi and bajre ki roti. All this is made better with a calming flute background score by Amar Singh Ganer Bansuri Vadak Dhar, and a beautiful storytelling session by Bharti Dixit.
With a full stomach, it’s time to hit the movies! Equipped with a new traditional Bagh handprinted notebook purchased at the crafts bazaar, I head to Hindola Mahal for a visual treat. Projected against the exquisite 15th century meeting hall, the light and sound show unfolds Mandu’s vibrant history. The 30-minutes-long spectacle culminates with the climactic voice of renowned actor Ashutosh Rana. Despite sundown, the celebrations at the Mandu festival are far from over!
Not long after, I am at the Music District ready to be mesmerised by soulful beats by Swati Minaxi of The Tapi Project. The global music juxtaposes beautifully with the rugged landscape of Mandu. The star-studded night sky with occasional cameos by constellations is icing on the cake!
As my trip nears its end, I get ready to bid adieu to Mandu. One bucket list item, however, remains to be checked: hot air ballooning! I wake up at six in the morning, eager to chase the first rays of sunshine. Down below, the Jahaz Mahal and Kapoor Talao dot the lofty plateaus, ruins, and steep ravines. As I eye the horizon and enjoy the quiet ride, I’ve found my moments of joy.
Related: Explore The Mystical Patalkot Valley In Madhya Pradesh’s Chhindwara