I am visiting a senior forester friend based in Nimar region in South-Western part of Madhya Pradesh. This is West-Central India. He arranges an exposure of the region for me, which includes some unique places. One of them worth mentioning is Mandu. Mandu, a hill fort, is known for love and romance, and exotic natural beauty. Mughal called it ‘the city of joy’.
Overnight, we have stayed at home of a local host at Khargone. In the morning, breakfast starts with Halwa – a real sweet and heavily buttery stuff. I am taken aback when the host tells me that this delicacy is made of seeds of Afeem! Afeem is opium, a narcotic! Opium is also famous as ‘God’s Own Medicine’. The host assure that the seeds have been treated – no narcotics to be concerned about. All said and done, I am keen. This is a new dish for me. And it involves a kind of adventure. We eat a bowl full of halwa and drink a cup of masala tea. All is normal! I prepare to leave, when I am informed that this is starter only! The ladies are busy in the kitchen, we can smell the stuff. There is no way I can refuse. So another round of traditional north Indian meal – stuffed parantha (fried bread), spicy dry potato vegetable and curd.
Filled to brim, we start around 10.30. End-January weather is just pleasant. It’s sunny and cool. After two hours, we are driving in a hilly terrain. Good forest – though it’s dry. Hills look desolate. Forest does not make the impact at this point of time, being of dry deciduous nature with teak as dominant species, which is mostly in leaf fall.
As we ascend the plateau and drive around, three things strike conspicuously – monuments, poor people living is shacks around them and Khurasani.
Regarding monuments, there are 48 of them, including palaces and fort; tombs and memorials; mosques and temples… I rapidly go through pages of a book published by Archaeological Survey of India on Mandu to get some rooting of history and monuments.
Mandu is famous for the selfless and devoted love between Baz Bahadur, a defeated ruler who turned to music and Rupamati his main associate and consort in mid-16th century. The glory of Mandu is said to have subsequently faded, though, Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan have visited Mandu for brief periods.
It is reported that most of the standing monuments were built between 1401and 1526 AD, the age when the Muhammadan kings of Malwa ruled independently from Mandu. Jami Masjid, Hoshang Tomb, Jahaz Mahal & Hindola Mahal are some of the famous ones.
I am not a keen lover of monuments. But Mandu is different. I loved to have one round of exposure. I am surprised that I visit about a dozen of these monuments including Rani Rupamati Pavallion; Baz Bhadur Mahal, Jali Mahal, Chorkot Mosque, Malik Mughith’s mosque, Jahaz Mahal, Hindola Mahal, Jami Masjid, Hoshang ShahTomb and others.
These monuments have grandeur but are simple and austere. What confuses me about these Mahals (Palaces) created by Mughal rulers is virtual absence of rooms in them – where is the private space that too for kings and queens? Secondly, all these monuments lack any art and delicate carvings. Thirdly, for the sake of convenience some of the structures have used the stuff obtained by cruel demolition of old temples.
What attracts me most is Khurasani – the very first sight hooks. There is nothing like this in indigenous species of trees in India. I have not come across Khurasani in my far and wide travel in forests and otherwise in India.
My forester friend too has flagged the species to watch. He is right. It’s worth it.
First attraction is bulk of the trunk. We actually measure one, which at breast height turns out to be 7.3 m in circumference! By this scale, I am sure some bigger ones may very well be more than 10 m. Second attraction is the shape – it’s like a cone or bottle with big bottom. In comparison, the canopy is smaller, irregularly scattered. Presently, being leafless – looks like an art installation! Third attraction is the bark – somewhat shiny and copperish-creamish colour. Fourth attraction is, some of them may be 500 year old. It is just a guesstimate, can be more or less, but pretty old. Fifth attraction is the conspicuous fruit – about 8-12 inches long oval dull green big fruit. This is known as Khurasani Imli. Imli is tamarind. Sixth attraction is its capacity to store water. According to one source, ‘Old trees are known to have a capacity to store upwards of 120,000 litres of water. Aboriginal people in Australia and Africa have known this for long and have devised their own methods of tapping this water in times of scarcity.’
The local vendors all over Mandu, more so at the monuments, are selling, Khurasani Imli. They are selling the whole fruit, as well as seeds with dry pulp around. The pulp has mild sour taste.
There are several Khurasani scattered in the Mandu landscape. Local vendors point out that the tree was brought from Africa and planted here particularly for soldiers to carry with them, to meet shortage of drinking water, during wars. They point out that the most important property of the fruit is that it decreases thirst.
One article on internet indicates ‘The tree that we are talking about is the Baobab, also known as the Boab, Monkey Bread Tree, Boaboa, and Bottle Tree among others… The Baobab has nine species, six of which are native to Madagascar, two to Africa and one to Australia.’ It’s difficult to pin-point species, origin and its history of arrival in Mandu without going into research, which of course, has not been the objective of my visit.
All said and done, Khurasani fruit attracts us – let us feel and taste it. We stop at one vendor. It’s not very expensive. One cost us, Rs 50. He breaks it open – bangs it against a rock and the fruit split into two – pulls out the fresh interior stuff and removes seed with pulp from the fibre. Offers few to us to taste – yes it is sour, but mild, not as strong as Indian tamarind. There is just little pulp around seeds. He packs the stuff in a bag – A bit of history and souvenir to carry home.