Moti Mahal of Mandla town in Madhya Pradesh stands rock solid on the banks of River Narmada, silently beckoning you to explore what lay forgotten and ignored for over a century now. The palace was the centre stage of the Raj Gond dynasty over the Gondwana Kingdom that spread across Central India during the medieval era, from the 14th to the 18th century.

Rajgonds ruled over the region for well over four centuries, yet there is hardly any mention of this significant period in history books. The guide here enlightened us on this chapter of Gond history.

Gond dynasty kings were independent rulers during Mughal times. In the 18th century the Gonds were conquered by the Maratha Kings and nizams of Hyderabad. During this time many Gonds took refuge in relatively inaccessible highlands, turning into tribal raiders. Next the British took over major chunks of the Gondwana state between 1818 and 1853. Only a few states could retain their control over smaller regions and continue to rule until Indian independence in 1947.

Records state that the Moti Mahal of Madhya Pradesh was constructed by the Gond King Hriday Shah, also known by the names Hridayasaahi Raja and Hirde Shah. The construction started in 1651 and was completed in 1667. Hriday Shah is believed to have been the last of the great Gond Kings who ruled over Northern Gondwana before the capital was shifted to Mandla, and this palace was where they resided.

King Hriday Shah played the most decisive role in moving the capital to Ramnagar in Mandla from Chouragarh, near present-day Jabalpur, which was the capital established by the great King Sangram Shah, one of his predecessors.

King Hriday Singh was influenced by Mughal ruler Shah Jeha, which reflects in the Islamic architectural designs adopted for designing Mantri Mahal for his minister, Dewan Rai Bhagat, and in Begum Mahal which was built for his queen, Chimni Devi, a Mughal princess.

Hriday Shah was a talented musician. He trained in music at the Mughal court and wrote two musical treatises named, Hriday Koutuk and Hriday Prakash.

With this insight on the history of Mandla and the might of King Hriday Singh, we entered Moti Mahal through a massive iron gate. We passed a row of elephant stables on our left and the banks of the mighty Narmada on our right.

Here we paused to have a good look at the long concrete bridge that went across the river banks. Many new structures have come up here, like a little shrine dedicated to Bhagwan Shiva, a memorial/plaque that gives information about King Hriday Shah and washrooms for tourists.

Walking in through the main entrance of the palace, the first thing I sighted was the stepped tank. This inner courtyard of the palace is stunningly beautiful when the stepwell is filled with water on a full moon night, we were told.

All around there was a series of rooms, all of them linked with a long passage. Moti Mahal translates to ‘Pearl Palace,’ and served as the living quarters of the royal family.

Within the Moti Mahal of Ramnagar Mandla, we explored a part of the maze of passages and secret tunnels which were designed to be the escape routes for the king and his men. To our amazement, the guide said one of the tunnels in Moti Mahal of Mandla leads all the way to the Madan Mahal near Jabalpur, which is more than 100 km away!

Dark dungeons, Kaal kothri, which held prisoners once, were a bit eerie. We walked through the different rooms that were the stage for hectic kingly duties: the Sabha Kaksh, where kings had strategic discussions with ministers; Shayan Kaksh, probably the royal bedroom facing River Narmada; the kitchen which unbelievably still has the aroma of basmati rice; and halls with bare walls that may have held grand portraits of mighty kings who once ruled the land.

A small passage connects this courtyard to another rectangular courtyard that seemed evidently neglected and overgrown with grass and wild shrubs. This was the royal horse stable, said the guide. The arched openings that went around added architectural elegance to this otherwise simple structure.

The palace has three levels. Narrow, near perpendicular flights of stairs connect the different levels. While the soldiers inside were well aware of the layout, it was difficult for intruders to easily sneak in. With all of this stirring my imagination, I felt as if I had transported myself to the Gond era.

As we took leave of the guide, he suggested nearby sights worth visiting: the Vishnu Mandir; a temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu, built by Sundari Devi (a queen of King Hriday Shah); and Dal Baadal Mahal, residence for his generals and other soldiers.


How to reach Ramnagar Mandla:
By air, the nearest airport to Mandla is in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh.
By train, the nearest railway station is Mandla Fort, 3 km away.
By road, hire a private vehicle and get dropped off at Mandla.
Distance from Mandla to Jabalpur is 53 km. Distance from Mandla Moti Mahal to Ramnagar is 17 km.

Places to stay:
Many luxury resorts are available near Kanha Tiger Reserve. Additionally there are good budget hotels in Mandla.
Hotel Shikhar Palace Mandla: moderate budget range, comfortable rooms with basic amenities, good food scene, worth the money spent.
Hotel Narmada Inn: mid-budget hotel, with basic neat amenities.