Ancient-looking trees wearing colourful festoons like hundreds of sashes seemed like a great way to deck up Mandu for its much-awaited festival. Every time we drove up from our hotel to the venue of the festival through romantic ruined gates, waving greetings of the day to the rolling Malwa landscape, the fervour seemed to have grown on Mandu. Residents seemed sufficiently amazed by the bandwagon of officials, tourists and media delegates come to visit their town after the long winter of COVID-19—could spring ever have been far behind?
How else would one explain the craze for the light-and-sound show at Jahaz Mahal? On the first evening, locals from Mandu and its arounds—families and groups from towns all over district Dhar and even Indore, crowded at the entrance of the Hindola Mahal in pitch dark. The buzz and restlessness weren't without reason, as we discovered in the roughly half-hour-long audio-visual spectacle that followed. Projected on the face of the 15th-century palace, the show, narrated by the intense Ashutosh Rana, was a scintillating experience that brought alive the strategic importance of the Malwa region and that of Mandu as a historical hilltop outpost for both Hindu and Muslim rulers, not to forget the star-crossed legend of Rani Roopmati and Baz Bahadur, whose interfaith nature nobody seemed to mind.
Read: Mandu in 24 Hours
A Wealth of Ruins
While offerings such as the light and sound show are now regular fixtures in Mandu, which isn’t that far off the tourist map as it seems once you set foot here, it certainly is a great destination for an event like this. Both locals and tour operators vouch for its monsoon verdure and access to scenic Maheshwar. The interest for the Instagram tour and the heritage walk was palpable among the attendees all along, which was hardly surprising given that the area is said to have as many as 3,000 historical structures scattered over its 29 sq km.
The heritage walk, conducted by guide Deepak, a Mandu resident, and two members of Delhi-based tour company Indiehopper, took visitors on a fascinating history tour through the splendid, colonnaded Jami Masjid, which marries stark grandness with intricate architectural wealth and is said to be modelled after the Mosque of Damascus—and the sprawling Jahaz Mahal complex with its clutch of breath-taking mosques and palaces.
For the Instagram tour, we were whisked off to Rani Roopmati’s Palace that overlooks, quite dramatically, the serene complex of Baz Bahadur’s Palace. The cycling tour offered another dimension to discovering both the history and lore that becomes Mandu.
Usually held in December, the festival, a shortened version, was organized by Madhya Pradesh Tourism in mid-February this time. Mandu had apparently escaped the scourge of the coronavirus completely, and Sonia Meena, Additional Managing Director, MP Tourism, tried to allay fears of a spread caused by increased tourist activity by pointing out that life had to move on at a point and with stress on social distancing, potential local outbreaks could be avoided.
“Activities were conducted in small groups, venues had demarcation to allow social distancing. We moved more to the digital platform instead of physical maps and guides. At the end of it, I would certainly say that the locals, with their involvement, majorly contributed to the success of the festival,” shared Jai Thakore, COO, E Factor Entertainment.
Not Just Heritage
Mandu's shot at becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site may be a reality soon, but MP Tourism is intent on positing Mandu as a rural tourism and wellness hub as well, both of which have caught on as buzzwords for travel in a post-pandemic world. Meena, hinted at the soon-expected arrival of a major resort chain, stressing that the serene environs and unsullied natural landscape would make for a great setting for a model wellness destination in the making. The official also assured that local employment and involvement was central to the tourism department’s strategy.
That the population of the town had fallen to 15,000 from the medieval era figure of roughly nine hundred thousand thanks to pandemics and mass fleeing, did sound eerie, but it did add up considering that Mandu looked relatively uncrowded even by the standards its reputation afforded. Food fresh off the chulha, made from fresh produce grown on-location and the fishing experience, both formed part of the festival lineup, in addition to morning yoga sessions and horse trails, resulting in an organic, tableau of offerings specific to Malwa.
Saying Yes to Tourism
Despite the easily formed impression that Mandu is tucked quite far away from what we call civilization, the turnout was impressive, with visitors flocking to the art and crafts and food districts with much gusto. Just across the road, the nightly concert with a tomb for a backdrop, played host to a troupe of young dancers and Sufi rock bands Kabeer Café and Mukt, both of which provided fitting finales to both evenings and got a rousing reception from the crowd.
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“Organising a festival at any given point is a daunting task. The pandemic added another dimension to that task. I would say that holding the festival while adhering to all safety norms and compressing it in two days was certainly a herculean task,” said Thakore, adding that the support of local workers had been enlisted to create the festival framework.