Written by Paridhi Sinha.
In the volcanic plateau of Malwa in central India, lies an ancient city named Mandu. Today, it is a sleepy small town of the Indian province of Madhya Pradesh but the very air of the place, even today, is reminiscent of the story it had witnessed some five centuries earlier. The people would tell you the story of their lady of lotus and her royal lover and how if you listen closely, you might still hear singing in her palace.
Queen Roopmati of Mandu, unlike most of the queens, was not born in a palace. She was a Hindu girl of humble origins, most of the sources refer to her as a shepherdess. Visualize this, a young lass blessed with magical voice leading away her grazing cattle on the banks of a river with chiming waters, and a young king comes across her who had been following the enchanting voice. His search ends, and he is ensnared by her beauty, she who was beautiful, she who was Roopmati. It sounds like a fairytale, but this was exactly what had happened. The young king was Baz Bahadur, the Sultan of Malwa and the young girl was his queen, Roopmati whose name itself meant “a beautiful lady.”
Baz Bahadur was a Muslim king whereas Roopmati was a Hindu girl with no aristocratic blood to boast of, yet what one would find surprising is that they married according to the rites of both the religions. And then, there is how Roopmati is referred to everywhere; she is always called Rani Roopmati, not a Begum or Sultana which are the titles of a Muslim ruler’s wife. Instead, she always remained a ‘Rani’, the Hindu title for a queen. Rani Roopmati adored the river Narmada on whose banks she had grown up, and to fulfil her wish of staying close to it, the Sultan constructed a reservoir in the palace that was built for her. Today, the reservoir is one of the most beautiful sites in the Roopmati palace. The river is visible from Rani Roopmati Palace even today.
Sultan Baz Bahadur was an artist, not a warrior and his tiny, beautiful kingdom reflected that. His love of music and his engineering experiments can still be seen in his palaces. According to the stories, the king would play the instruments while his queen would sing and the walls of Mandu palace would be silent witnesses to this union of love and music. All was well in their small world, and the two lovers couldn’t help but be happy. But soon enough, the outside world came knocking.
This was mid of the 16th century and the young Mughal Jalal-ud-din Muhammad, who had snatched back his father’s kingdom from the Afghans when in his teens, occupied the throne of Agra. This was the time when this young ruler, who would later on become one of the benevolent and beloved rulers and would be bestowed with the title of ‘Akbar’ (the great), was expanding his kingdom. It was Akbar’s foster brother and son of his highly influential wet nurse, Maham Anga, who was sent to Mandu. Adham Khan, the foster brother, as the general, led the Mughal army to battle. The army of Malwa, under Baz Bahadur, could barely face the much larger and powerful Mughal army. Soon enough, Mandu too was captured by Adham Khan. This was the year 1561, and Sultan Baz Bahadur barely escaped with his life and tried to seek allies in the neighbouring kingdoms to reconstitute his army.
Back in Mandu, Adham Khan had taken over the palace. It is said that he was so mesmerised by Rani Roopmati that he decided he wanted her at all costs. By all accounts, Adham Khan was barbaric to the people of Malwa and massacred many. But he actually tried to give it a semblance that Rani Roopmati should come to him by choice. He gave her a short time frame (a couple of days at most, the number of days varies in stories) to decide and obviously she was supposed to decide in his favour. Out of all options and too far away from her beloved to even ask for his help; she decided there was only one way out. She took her life by poisoning herself.
Back in Agra, Adham Khan received much displeasure for his actions, which also included keeping the war spoils for himself. On the other hand, Baz Bahadur did come back to Mandu with an army. And he was even successful in taking back his kingdom but he was destined to be the last Sultan, and he lost the kingdom pretty soon after. After spending years as a fugitive and long after Adham Khan had been killed on the royal orders of his own brother, Baz Bahadur joined Akbar’s service. Although some stories maintain that he died sometime around the second time he lost Mandu. His last wish was to be buried beside his love who had awaited him for years.
More than thirty years after her demise, a young man in the service of Akbar’s brother-in-law penned down her story in Persian and after passing through several hands, the story was finally translated into English in the 19th under the title ‘The lady of the lotus’. Even today, Mandu and its people talk of them and reminisce about their story as if it all happened yesterday; of the lady of lotus and her beloved Sultan.