The breathtakingly beautiful ruins of Mandu, a fortress town on a rocky outcrop located in the state of Madhya Pradesh in India, are flavoured with the legendary love story between Sultan Baz Bahadur of Malwa and a singing village belle, Roopmati. Even today, the story is sung in local folk ballads and has acquired many versions with the progress of time, told and retold from memory, which makes it difficult to separate fact from fiction.
Whatever it may be, despite everything, the ruined and desolate Mandu still resonates with the heartbreaking love story between a man and a woman belonging to different communities.
History says that Babur, born Zahir ud-Din Muhammad, a descendant of Timur and Genghis Khan through his father and mother respectively, had founded the Mughal Empire in the Indian Subcontinent by defeating and dethroning the Afghan Lodi Dynasty. However, in the initial stage, their rule was constantly disturbed by the sudden attacks of the Afghans and Humayun, the son of Babur and the second Mughal Emperor, was eventually evicted from the throne by the Afghans led by Sher Shah Suri. During that time, Shujat Khan, father of Baz Bahadur, was serving as the Governor of Malwa under Sher Shah Suri. After he died in 1555 AD, his son, Baz Bahadur, inherited the sultanate of Malwa and in the same year, Humayun returned from his exile to win back his empire from the descendants of Suri. However, Baz Bahadur, the last independent ruler of Mandu, defied the Mughal sovereignty, declaring independence.
Legend says, one day, while he was on a hunting expedition, Baz Bahadur was mesmerised by a haunting melody in an enchanting voice emanating amidst the wild trees and shrubs. The sweet melody compelled the Sultan to forget about hunting and follow the tune, as if in a trance, to discover a stunning beauty, who was none other than Roopmati, a village shepherdess.
According to a version of the story, she was the daughter of the River Narmada, born in the house of the chief of Dharmapuri. In any way, the sultan instantly and helplessly fell for her, transfixed by her striking beauty and enchanting voice, prayed for her hands and begged her to accompany him to the capital. Roopmati did not say a no in her reply and agreed to wed him on the condition that he build her a palace within sight of the river Narmada, which she loves, adulates and cannot think to live without having a look at it. The sultan did not force her, agreed to her condition and built the Rewa Kund reservoir for her, equipped with an aqueduct to supply water to the palace of his lady love. Apart from that, the Pavilion of Rani Roopmati was constructed on the ridge of a cliff, from where Roopmati could keep on gazing at the flowing river down the valley to her heart’s content.
Roopmati and Baz Bahadur were married according to Hindu and Muslim rites and became inseparable. Rani Roopmati, gifted with an inborn melodious voice, was also a great poetess and a composer, while Baz Bahadur was a gifted lyricist and passionately devoted to art and music. Madly in love with Roopmati, the Sultan soon lost interest in his kingdom and soon transformed into a musician and a devoted lover. However, their idyllic bliss did not last long, as the news of the sultan’s laxity towards his kingdom for six long years had reached Akbar. Finally, the Mughal army headed by Akbar’s General and foster-brother Adham Khan attacked Malwa on 29 March 1561. According to historical accounts, Adham Khan had an added interest in attacking Malwa, as he was informed about the unearthly beauty of Rani Roopmati and had the burning desire to possess her at all cost. In the battle of Sarangpur, the small army of Baz Bahadur was no match for the huge Mughal army, in which the sultan lost most of his men.
Sensing imminent defeat and death, Baz Bahadur ran away to save his life, leaving his kingdom, his people and Roopmati, the love of his life, at the mercy of Adham Khan, signalling the coldest end of the hottest love of the century. Roopmati knew that soon she would be forced to join the harem of Adham Khan, as was the practice in those days. But she was determined to her honour and committed suicide by consuming the poisonous diamond powder, choosing death over Adham Khan.
The love story of Roopmati and Baz Bahadur was first recorded in poetry by Ahmad-ul-Umari in 1559 AD during the last years of Emperor Akbar’s reign, twenty-eight years later of the fatal day when Baz Bahadur left Roopmati unprotected. It was translated from the original Persian to English by LC Crump under the title ‘The Lady of the Lotus; Roopmati, Queen of Mandu: A strange Tale of Faithfulness’. The book also contained 26 poems reportedly written by Roopmati herself.