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To Mandu, from Madagascar

Raul Dias | Updated on June 07, 2019 Published on June 07, 2019

Take root: A baobab tree near Mandu’s famed Jahaz Mahal complex, built in the second half of the 15th century by the Khalji dynasty   -  ISTOCK.COM

An impressive cache of baobab trees links the popular monsoon getaway to Africa

Myths and Mandu are made for each other — I discover this within hours of reaching the city for the 2019 edition of the 10-km Go Heritage Run. And I must thank the loquacious driver, who ferried me there from Indore, for the rather unique introduction to this Madhya Pradesh city of monuments and palaces.

I bear witness to the connection with myths and legends almost everywhere I go. It heightens the sense of mystery that Mandu — widely written about (by no less than Emperor Jehangir) and photographed for being one of the best monsoon getaways in India — inspires in the visitor.

The dark clouds were months away from the time of my visit, but it was fairly easy to imagine them hovering above scores of historic structures scattered across an emerald-green, rainwashed landscape.

Heads and tales

At Ashrafi Mahal in the city centre, my 14-year-old de facto ‘guide’ Khayyam sidles up to me to tell me how Mahmud Shah Khalji, one of Mandu’s earlier rulers, used the now-crumbling edifice as a gym in the 15th century for some of the portly concubines in his harem. Apparently, said concubines were rewarded with gold coins that Khalji would place on each of the steps they climbed as part of the exercise regimen — hence the name ashrafi which means “coin” in old Persian.

One is also regaled with tales of the epic love of Rani Roopmati, the poetess queen of Malwa, and Sultan Baz Bahadur — who built her the rather steep Roopmati’s Pavilion at his Rewa Kund Palace in the early 16th century, so that she could gaze at the Narmada river. All this, of course, before she killed herself upon hearing of Baz Bahadur’s death at the hands of an army sent by Emperor Akbar, and the ensuing fall of Mandu. Images of Roopmati, waiting for Baz Bahadur with an overcast sky in the background, haunt you long after a visit to the pavilion.

Next up is the famous myth of the headless soldier who till this day is said to guard the Tripolia Darwaza, one of the 12 gates along the city’s stone walls.

Trunk call

However, one Mandu phenomenon — the baobab — defies all logic and comprehension, leaving me both bewildered and fascinated as I sprint past a few of the trees, bereft of leaves and with bulbous trunks, en route the early-morning run. Native to Madagascar, some parts of mainland, sub-Saharan Africa and Australia, the baobab is known for not just its towering height (up to 98 ft), but also girth (up to 36 ft) and life span (3,000 years). The rather succulent trunk is said to hold as much as 100,000 litres of water — perfect to soak up Mandu’s generous monsoon bounty — while its flowers bloom only at night. Their otherwise mild fragrance intensifies when it mingles with the aroma of wet earth.

When cracked open, Mandu ki imli — the elongated baobab fruit — is a cluster of white pulp-coated seeds that resemble giant custard apple segments. The powdered seeds and the dried pulp are mixed with chilled water to make a tangy, vitamin C-rich drink that I relish at a hawker stall after a sweltering trek up Baz Bahadur’s palace.

Disputed origins?

Back to Mandu and its myths. This time with regards to the ubiquitous baobab tree’s origins. I grapple with three different explanations for their presence here — each more fascinating than the other.

A shopkeeper selling the fuzz-coated fruit outside the gates of Ashrafi Mahal calls it Khorasani imli. When I probe further, he tells me a group of Spice Route traders en route from Khorasan (what Central Asia was called earlier) to the Orient brought along baobab seeds from their earlier travels to Africa. They exchanged the seeds for food and shelter in Mandu.

Later in the day, as I admire the ship-like silhouette of the Jahaz Mahal complex built in the second half of the 15th century by Sultan Ghiyas-ud-din-Khalji, my attention is once again drawn to a row of baobab trees standing guard at the east side of the structure. My guide tells me that the Sultan had a great fascination for exotic, foreign visitors. And it was a visitor from Madagascar who gifted him a few baobab seeds that he had first planted at Jahaz Mahal and then at other spots in Mandu.

PS: Back home in Mumbai, my geologist friend Tanya shines some light on another baobab facet I had gravely ignored while busy romancing myths. Apparently, more than a 100 million years ago, India, Madagascar and Australia were all part of the mother continent called Gondwanaland and with the ensuing continental split, it created the three distinct paths taken by the baobab.

But that still begs the question; why Mandu and not Mumbai or Madurai?

Raul Dias is a food and travel writer based in Mumbai

Travel log

 

Getting there

Mandu can be reached from most Indian cities via Indore (2 hours) or Bhopal (5.5 hours) by road. The nearest railhead for Mandu is Ratlam on the Delhi-Mumbai main line, which is just under a three-hour drive away.

Stay

The super clean rooms, tasty food options and efficient service make the Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Department Corporation (MPSTDC)-run Malwa Retreat Mandu (₹1,900 approx. for two with breakfast; olrs.mpstdc.com) a good option. Another property worth checking out is the three-star Mandu Sarai Hotel (₹2,200 approx. for two with breakfast; sarai-mandu.booked.net).

BLink Tip

Plan a visit to the ancient Buddhist Bagh Caves and to the Bagh village famous for artisans who practise the art of block printing fabrics using herb-based dyes.

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Published on June 07, 2019
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