Mandu was founded as a fortress retreat in the 10th century by Raja Bhoj and conquered by the Muslim rulers of Delhi in 1304. When the Mughals captured Delhi in 1401, the Afghan Dilawar Khan, governor of Malwa, set up his own little kingdom and Mandu’s golden age began.

Although Dilawar Khan established Mandu as an independent kingdom, it was his son, Hoshang Shah, who shifted the capital from Dhar to Mandu and raised it to its greatest splendour. Hoshang’s son Mohammed ruled for just one year before being poisoned by the militaristic Mohammed Khalji, who then ruled for 33 years.

Ghiyas-ud-din succeeded Mohammed in 1469 and spent the following 31 years making his father turn in his grave, devoting himself to women and song (but not wine). He was poisoned, aged 80, by his son, Nasir-ud-din.

In 1526, Bahadur Shah of Gujarat conquered Mandu, only to be ousted in 1534 by the Mughal Humayun, who in turn lost the kingdom to Mallu Khan, an officer of the Khalji dynasty. Ten more years of feuds and invasions saw Baz Bahadur eventually emerge in the top spot, but in 1561 he fled Mandu rather than face Akbar’s advancing troops.

After Akbar added Mandu to the Mughal Empire, it kept a considerable degree of independence, until taken by the Marathas in 1732. The capital of Malwa was then shifted back to Dhar, and the slide in Mandu’s fortunes that had begun with the absconding of Baz Bahadur became a plummet. Mandu has so often been described a celebration in stone, so evocative is the ruined architecture of this half-forgotten town. They say the best way to experience Mandu is to come here on a moonlit night with your beloved and perhaps a bottle of wine, and linger over the pavilions where the poet-prince Baz Bahadur serenaded his beautiful wife, Rani Roopmati. The balladeers of Malwa still sing of the romance of these royal lovers, and high up on the crest of a hill, Roopmati’s Pavilion still through the centuries, gazes down at Baz Bahadur’s Palace, a magnificent expression of Afghan architecture.

Perched along the Vindhya ranges at an altitude of 2000 feet, Mandu, with its natural defenses, was originally the fort capital of the Parmar rulers of Malwa. Towards the end of the 13th century, it came under the sway of the Sultans of Malwa, the first of whom named it Shadiabad - 'city of joy'. And indeed the pervading spirit of Mandu was of gaiety; its rulers built exquisite palaces like the Jahaz and Hindola Mahals, ornamental canals, baths and pavilions, as graceful and refined as those times of peace and plenty. It is a celebration in stone of life and joy, of the love of the poet-prince Baz Bahadur for his beautiful consort Rani Roopmati.

Mandu today is a quiet village, save for the Italian and French tour groups that seem to have a special fascination for its romantic setting. There are a few in descript places to stay in and equally few restaurants. But while Mandu scores low on infrastructure, it more than makes up with ambience.

An important centre for lovers of architecture, it is rich with monuments. Built around water tanks, the palaces and buildings here are unique. While Mandu's fascination is enduring, in the monsoon its magic is spellbinding.

Each of Mandu's structures is an architectural gem; some are outstanding, like the massive Jami Masjid and Hoshang Shah's Tomb, which are said to have provided inspiration for the master builders of the Taj Mahal centuries later. Under Mughal rule Mandu was a pleasure resort, its lakes and palaces the scenes of splendid and extravagant festivities. And the glory of Mandu lives on, in its palaces and mosques, in legends and songs, chronicled for posterity.

Jahaz Mahal: Ghiyas-ud-din Khilji had a large harem of about 15,000 women. This ship like palace was built by him as a playground for the women of his harem. This is a beautiful palace with its lookouts, arches, pavilions and cool-rooms. It is flanked by the two lakes – Munj Talao and Kapur Talao, which complete the illusion of this palace being a ship.

Hindola Mahal: Built again by Ghiyas-ud-din, the walls of the palace have an inward slope, which gives the impression that the walls are swaying. Hence the name ‘Hindola Mahal’, Hindola meaning a swing.

Hoshang Shah’s Tomb: Along with being the oldest marble building of India, it is also one of the finest examples of Afgan architecture in India. It is said that Shah Jahan sent his architects to Mandu to study this tomb before embarking upon the design of Taj Mahal.

Jami Masjid: This huge mosque, again a very fine example of Afgan architecture, seems to dominate Mandu. The construction was started by Hoshang Shah, who patterned it on the great Omayyed Mosque in Damascus, Syria.

Ashrafi Mahal: This ‘Palace of Gold Coins’, which is opposite the Jami Masjid, was originally intended to be a ‘madrassa’, or an institution for boys. Its classrooms are still intact which might give one some idea about what a school liked in those days. It was later extended by its builder Mohammed Shah to become his tomb.

Baz Bahadur’s Palace: Built in 1509, there was a water lift at the northern end of the tank to supply water to the palace. A mix of Rajasthani and Mughal styles, it was actually built quite some time before Baz Bahadur came to power.

Roopmati’s Pavilion: Built by Baz Bahadur for his Hindu queen Rani Roopmati, the pavilion seems to be looking down below at the Narmada, which flows by. A feeling of romance seems to dance in the air, making a moonlight visit to this place a beautiful experience in itself. Nilkantha Palace: This shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva, is inside an Islamic palace, which fact is unique in itself. It is said to have been constructed by the Mughal governer for the Hindu wife of Emperor Akbar.

Though a popular resort in winters also, Mandu seems to come to life during the monsoons, when the area turns green, and the old and beautiful buildings seem to be reflected in the lake.