Abandoned nearly 300 years ago after the dissolution of the Mogul empire, Mandu is now a medieval ghost town. The grand Islamic palaces, mosques and onion-domed mausoleums have crumbled into the fertile soil of an isolated outcrop high above the Narmada Valley in central India's Madhya Pradesh state. The 23-hectare plateau, shaped like a Rorschach inkblot and rent by precipitous ravines, attracts Indian day-trippers on weekends, but during the week one can roam the ramparts of the walled city in tranquility and dream of the days when Mandu was celebrated by the Afghan Malwa Sultans as the City of Joy.
First settled by Hindus in the 6th century as both a fortress and a retreat, Mandu fell to the Sultans of Delhi in 1305, then to the Afghans a century later. Under their prosperous reign, Mandu experienced a golden age, prompting the construction of a number of elegant mausoleums, palaces and monuments, including the elaborate Delhi Gate— a massive entryway of five sculpted arches—and India's first marble tomb, said to be the inspiration for the Taj Mahal. These historic monuments are best visited by bicycle—you can hire one from the Mandu village market for less than $1 a day. No major site is more than a 3-km trip.
The town's architecture is elegant, simple and largely unadorned. By far the most majestic building is the 15th century Mosque of Dilawara Khan, a collection of colonnades topped by scores of small domes around a grand, central courtyard. Only a few minutes away by bike is the house of pleasure, the Jahaz Mahal, or ship palace. The thrusting monument on the edge of a precipice is moored between two artificial lakes, its reflection shimmering in the gentle wind. The series of vast halls, decorative baths and breezy pavilions was built by a sybaritic Sultan to house his harem of 15,000 courtesans and 1,000 women guards. From the Jahaz Mahal, head to the nearby remains of the Champa Baodi. An ingenious set of ventilation shafts, pipes and tanks are cut into the rock to collect rainwater in subterranean chambers in order to cool the palace air during the blistering hot dry season.
During monsoon season (June to July), Mandu is a verdant spectacle, infused with an eerie emerald glow from the moss reflected in its many pools. When the rains have gone and the water level drops, Mandu takes on a different guise. It settles into an overheated indolence, a dry, small Muslim version of Buddhist Pagan in Burma. The views, unhindered by low-lying clouds, seem to stretch beyond the plains to the Arabian Sea.
If you want to stay in the heart of Mandu, try the Madhya Pradesh State Tourist Cottages. The pakoras, or batter-covered vegetables, are good, the water is fine, the staff is friendly and a cottage costs a reasonable $18 per night; call (91-7292) 63270 for reservations. And if you can't face the thought of a 22-hour return trip to Delhi, order a taxi to Indore, where you can board a direct two-hour flight.