Landscape architecture, garden design, planting design and management - Rowland Byass

Mandu

05/07/2012




Mandu ticks lots of interest boxes for me: a dramatic landscape of hills, hollows and lakes, littered with medieval Islamic architecture, set atop a Lost World-like plateau 360 metres above the surrounding Narmada valley.



This is a place is of more than just aesthetic interest though. The onetime capital of the kingdom of Malwa is sited on a virtually impregnable table of volanic basalt, part of a vast range of ancient lava flows that forced themselves through fissures in the earth millions of years ago. Geology created a perfect fortress, ringed by steep slopes and ravines. But this city was only feasible on a high plateau because of ingenious rainwater harvesting systems, exploiting the topography to feed a network of lakes, cisterns and tanks to supply water during the long dry season.


 

Mandu also has one of the greatest romantic tales of medieval India attached to it. It’s not surprising: if a romantic legend about such a place did not exist, it would have to be invented. The story of Bayazid, known as Baz Bahadur, the Muslim ruler of Mandu, and his beautiful Hindu-born lover Rupmati, is part of local folklore, but it has a factual basis.

Geology, topography, architecture and (most crucial of all) water. All the elements which give Mandu its significance are, curiously reprised in the legend of Baz Bahadur and Rupmati.

The story is of a passionate romance across the religious divide, one that led ultimately to the downfall of the kingdom when it was invaded by the army of the Mughal emperor Akbar. What’s so interesting is how the plateau of Mandu and the presence of water figure in the tale. Rupmati and Bahadur meet by a pool in the forest where she is bathing with her ‘handmaidens.’ In L.M. Crump’s florid 1926 The Lady of the Lotus: Rupmati, Queen of Mandu: A Strange Tale of Faithfulness, a translation of a Mughal manuscript, the story is given a rather European medieval flavour. Upon seeing Rupmati, Bahadur

‘made protest of the love which had sprung into flame in his heart, vowing that, whether she would or no, she must with him to Mandu to be his bride and queen..’

It was one of those instantly magnetic attractions:

‘Rup Mati answered never a work but gazed enrapt, on the fact of the king, and thus for a while they stayed, the eyes of each feeding on the other’s face and form.’

Initially, Rupmati refuses Bahadur, saying that she will only give herself to him when the waters of the goddess Rewa (another name for the Narmada river) ‘flow through the royal city there on high.’ Later, the goddess visits Rupmati in a dream, indicating a place on the plateau of Mandu, under a Tamarind tree, where a spring would be found, whose waters would be of the Narmada.

The Rewa Kund, next to Baz Bahadur's palace.



‘The waters of the spring he held back to make a pool for his lady’s bathing, and from it he led the waters by a lofty aquaduct within the palace walls, so that even there his fair queen might lave her golden body in the waters of the spring, whose gushing marked the fruition of their love.’

Sure enough, at the southern end of the plateau is a spring-fed pool, today called the Rewa Kund. Close by is a palace topped with chhattris, known as Baz Bahadur’s palace. At the top of an outcrop above it is Rupmati’s pavilion.



Rupmati's pavilion sits right at the edge of the highest part of the Mandu plateau, with a drop of hundreds of metres down to the Narmada valley below to the south, and commanding views over the plateau to the north. The building consists of a massive basement of basalt masonry, which houses a large water cistern under a vaulted roof in the basement. On top it is crowned with two chhatris with the ribbed watermelon-like domes characteristic of Mandu.

‘Here she bade Baz Bahadur build her two chattris on the roof, that she might come at will to gaze and dream. Many a day they sat here and sang together.’



It’s more likely that Rupmati’s pavilion was in fact built as a look out tower, enabling the defenders of Mandu to keep an eye on movements in the plains below. Water from the flat topped hill is collected and directed into the basement cistern to provide a water supply. Like almost all the surviving monuments of Mandu, proximity to water and commanding views over the surrounding terrain determine its siting. The architecture here is superbly adapted to climate and landscape. Deep overhangs around roofs direct monsoon rains away from the building and shield it from the sun. Open-sided pavilions (chhattris) on roof provide a place to sit and catch cooling breezes. Jalis - carved latticed screens pierced with geometrical designs – in the windows  allow air to circulate and cast intricate shadows onto the floor. For the hottest time of the summer, there are underground basements, which stay several degrees cooler than above ground.



Today Mandu is a pretty sleepy place. There are two or three hotels, a small village centered on the vast mosque at the centre of the plateau, and scattered smaller settlements. You could spend more than a week wandering around on a bicycle, exploring the many buildings and monuments, and taking in spectacular sunsets from the edge of the steep ravines and precipices. Both times I’ve been here, the place has had a rather folorn but attractive feel, as if it’s been forgotten about by visitors. There were a handful of Indian families who’d driven up here for a night or two from Indore, but otherwise I had all 47 square kilometres to myself. A sign that the place doesn’t get all that many foreign tourists is the absence of any restaurants offering muesli, banana pancakes and other backpacker staples. The best bet for breakfast here is Pohar – steamed flaked rice with spices, topped with namkeen (Bombay mix) and coriander. Young children greet you with ‘byebye’, or sometimes, ‘byebye chocolate?’ as you cycle past. But unlike many other places in India that see more foreign tourists, you are not pursued.

In the folds of one ravine, a spring emerges from 7th century rock-cut caves into a small rock pool where you can swim.



Apparently it’s at its best during the monsoon, when streams fall off the hills, the tanks and pools fill and everything is verdant green. Eighteenth and nineteenth century desciptions of Mandu talk about the monuments poking out from dense jungle. Since then large areas have been cleared for farming, but the sides of the plateau are still thickly wooded.

Spiralling water channels that feed one of the sybaritic pools on the roof of the Jahaz Mahal, the 'Ship Palace'.



Water is still a critical issue here. In March, I saw water tankers supplying villagers with water – a sign that the reservoirs on the plateau were not enough for people’s needs. This October I expected to find the lakes and tanks full, but they were alarmingly low. The monsoon was patchy this year – despite the cataclysmic floods in Pakistan, it brought much less rain than usual to this part of the subcontinent.

I came here expecting to find some company with whom I could share a beer or two. I chatted with a family from Indore and a party of hard drinking Sikhs. But most of the evening I sat under the stars on the lawn of the hotel alone, with a book from the motley collection of paperbacks left behind by former travellers. Near my room, a nonedescript looking shrub opened its flowers at night to release an incredible sweet smell detecable from several metres away. Raatrani (literally ‘Queen of the Night’) or Cestrum Nocturnum, originally from the West Indies, but grows well here.

Mandu is such a unique and atmospheric place that the lack of company really didn’t bother me in the end. Not that much anyway – although Rupmati’s pavilion is one of those romantic places that really ought to be enjoyed with someone special. If you can bribe the caretakers to let you to spend the night there, as one guide told me he’d done, so much the better. He’d taken his girlfriend there as a surprise for her birthday, equipped with blankets, biscuits and a bottle of rum.

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