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Mandu: City of joy

This trip to Madhya Pradesh satisfied `soul and body'. RITA SALDANHA writes.

GEETHA VASUDEVAN

The Jahaz Mahal built between two artificial lakes.

A VISIT to Madhya Pradesh? This presupposes Khajuraho, Gwalior, a stopover at Orchha, and maybe Jhansi? But get off the beaten track, and see Mandu, the city of love and joy; include a day trip to Omkareshwar, follow onto Maheshwar and you have satisfied soul and body!

Omkareshwar is an Om shaped island which has drawn pilgrims for centuries. The setting of this temple on layers of volcanic rock, rising in neat slabs above the river, is arresting. The trip across the narrow strip of water was however, fraught with danger — slippery rocks, overloaded boat and numerous little boys playing dolphin beneath and alongside the boat. We jostled our way up, with pilgrims, calves, goats, beggars and more urchins, and the pious felt the thrill of accomplishment at the sight of the Jyotirlingam at the top. The view was also magnificent.

We went off to Maheswar of Rani Ahilyabai Holkar set exquisitely on the banks of the Narmada, with delicately sculpted arches, domes and turrets in its fort and temples, brilliantly mirrored in the waters below. The weaving school for women she started 250 years ago, still trains and employs women.

We reached Mandu at night — a velvety blackness prevailed. They have electricity maybe eight out of 24 hours! But it was an excellent opportunity for us city dwellers to note the night sky which hung an eyebrow of moon jutting out from behind a hilltop, and a carpet of stars, like gold dust carelessly sprinkled ... . The peace and quiet is a balm to the spirit; no buses, lorries, horns, and wonder of wonders no people! The Madhya Pradesh Tourist Hotel in Mandu is set on the edge of a lake, with an old bridge jutting out into the water — if it was there. Alas, the monsoon has played truant for three or four years, and the lake almost dry. Water birds do however, still visit, charming cottages line the bank, and bouganvillea flowers profusely in myriad colours — it usually does when starved of water, say the old timers. Maintenance however, is nil. The dust everywhere is grey and fine as ash, and many of the trees stark, except for the Palas which we saw continually as we drove, sporting a crown of brilliant orange flowers and never a leaf in sight!

Mandu was originally founded in the Sixth Century by a Rajput warrior prince, it passed in and out of several dynasties, but is best remembered for the romantic story of Rani Roopamati and Baz Bahadur, lovers of music and of each other. Roopamati's Pavilion atop a hill, with its exquisite arched cupolas, turrets and balconies looks down on the palace of Baz Bahadur. Imagine then that liquid voice pouring out melodies on a moonlit night! Our guide standing picturesquely on a balcony sang us a fragment of ghazal, which sent shivers up and down the spine! He also conducted a muted conversation with village children, down below and far away. Unbelievable! The sound systems, loudspeakers and mikes of modern technology are a sad regression from earlier ability. Baz Bahadur also built the Rewa Kund to hold the waters of the Narmada for Roopamati's pleasure. Madhya Pradesh was said to be a State filled with lakes and streams, now these are sadly depleted. Of course you are told "visit during the monsoon", but if you can't the imagination is quite useful.

Mandu is encircled by 45 miles of wall with 12 gates, from the Delhi to the Bhangi Dharwazas, which are in various stages of disrepair. Entering the fort complex we found the Jahaz Mahal or Ship Palace which stood between two artificial lakes. The one is quite dried up and the other struggles for survival with weeds, plants, animals and polluting man. It is an impressive structure, 360 feet long in two storeys, with a swimming pool on the terrace and a rain water saving scheme! It was built by a Sultan who had a 1,600 strong harem; while this speaks much for his sexual prowess, his aesthetic prowess should also be noted. The elegant Hindola Mahal with its sloping walls and moulded colums; the underground vaulted rooms with hot and cold water, and air conditioned effects, the baolis or wells bear ample testimony to this.

Hoshang Shah's Tomb is both magnificient and charming. The marble lattice work, the enormous domes, the numerous pillars, arches and bays are stupendous.

Everywhere you turn on the drive you see the ruins of old grandeur, buildings large and small, the crumbling hastened by village dwellers whose huts brazenly sport hewn slabs from the nearby chatri or memorial. The poverty and simplicity of these tribals defies description. We stopped at the Forest Officer's house for tea and conversation ... true village hospitality!

We stayed the weekend at the game reserve at Pench which is home to the tiger and bear. No. We didn't see either animal, but with the number of bison, sambhar, spotted deer, jackal, and black faced langur; who minded? The half eaten carcass of a deer abandoned on the path was excitement to spare. Just the trip was enough.

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