Three major buildings make up the so-called Central Group, namely the Jami Masjid, Ashrafi Mahal, and the Tomb of Hoshang Shah. The group derives its name from its location; they are grouped together near the central village of Mandu. During Mandu’s prime, the three structures were right on the crossroads between two principle roads.
Jami Masjid’s main entrance was on the main thoroughfare which was more than ninety feet wide and faced Ashrafi Mahal on the opposite side. North of Jami Masjid the second thoroughfare passed the tomb of Hoshang Shah.
Hoshang Shah started construction on this magnificent building but it fell to Mahmud Khalji to complete it in 1454. Devised and accomplished on a grand scale, the structure covers 323 square feet (ca. 30 m²) in total. The structure in its entirety is placed on a base 15 feet (4.57 m) high with a set of steps leading to the impressive domed entrance patio on the eastern side.
Part of an inscription on the porch doorway says that this building followed the same design as the Damascus Mosque. Yazdani found a line to this effect in the Tuzuk-i-Afghani, Armaghani-i-Shahjahani. The side pieces and lintel of the door are made of marble and are beautifully embellished. However, the subject leans more to the Hindu architectural style.
The doorway leads the visitor into a large domed hall with delicate jaalis, and bands of beautiful blue stars right above the window openings. The western porch doorway opens to a truly breathtaking sight; a vast courtyard encircled on 3 sides by arched porticoes topped with domes. The wonderful prayer hall lies west and has three large domes towering over the fifty-eight minor ones.
Step into this unbelievable prayer hall and it feels as if you have entered an enthralling forest of pillars and arches, crowned by a huge umbrella of domes. Seventeen carved niches in the west wall contrast sharply with the unadorned, plain pillars. The mihrab or central niche takes the first position; its flanks are wonderfully decorated with calligraphy, citing passages from the Quran. Also sitting underneath the main dome is a raised podium with four arches supporting its own small marble dome. The Indian archeologist Yazdani is of the opinion that it ‘compares favorably with the elaborate carved wooden pulpits of North Africa or the tessellated marble pulpits of Egypt’. Royal visitors and ladies once stayed in the apartments on the upper level, on the far end of this hall. These apartments each have nine columns.
On the south and north ends are colonnades that carry 11 smaller arched openings. Chhajjas (the overhanging cover or protruding eaves of the roof) are supported by a row of beautifully carved brackets. The two entrances in the north wall leading to the courtyard and prayer hall respectively. The latter entrance was reserved for the ruler or king.
Hoshang Shah’s Tomb
So admired and loved was Hoshang Shah by his subordinates that his mausoleum was sanctified after his death in 1435 and it became the site of the annual Urs up until the nineteenth century.
The first impression of this building is one of austerity. The massive, almost otherworldly marble dome makes it a masterpiece of design. The domed turrets at the corners have conical shapes. The dome’s finial has a crescent, a component that has been introduced to Mandu straight from Persia or Mesopotamia, according to a leading Indian archeologist.
The entire tomb sits on a quadrangular platform of marble from where the 31.5 feet high walls raise up. The platform has a border delicately ornamented, which shows the influence of the Hindu craftsmen who helped to construct the tomb.
The architecture of the mausoleum is defined by plain, clean surfaces, as well as minimal decoration. An imitation of a parapet in relief carving is seen on the drum of the dome with a row of stars carved in the masonry underneath. The interior is as subtle as the exterior in its embellishments. Perforated screens let in a soft glow of sunlight to illuminate the delicate ornate moldings. Ornamental designs include blue stars in enamel placed in the stonework and carved lotuses.
Some say that the tomb of Hoshang Shah inspired the designers and constructors of Agra’s Taj Mahal. According to an inscription in the doorframe, four of Shah Jahan’s architects visited the mausoleum during 1659 to honor its builders. One of them was Ustad Hamid and he was later intimately involved in the construction of the Taj.
Although the Ashrafi Palace now lies in ruins, it is still evident that in earlier times it was a fine complex which, if it did survive, would have been a splendid example of the Muslim architecture if the time.
Construction took place in two phases. During Mahmud Khalji’s early years as ruler (1436 to 1469) construction started on a college or madrasa, together with the neighboring Jami Masjid. Similar to the mosque, the ruined remains indicate that it was designed as an expansive rectangle surrounded by small rooms for the students. Each corner had a tower; three of these are still traceable today.
Then a few years later the northeast turret was elevated 7 stories high to honor Mahmud Khalji’s defeat of Mewar’s Rana. The basement, itself 32 feet in height, is the only visible evidence of the existence of this tower that remains.
Still, later it was decided to fill up the courtyard and turn it into a huge plinth, measuring 26 feet. The center of this base was the location of Mahmud Khalji’s Tomb, maybe once the most remarkable building in all of Mandu. Percy Brown, famous historian, says that even from these ruins it is sure that ‘few buildings could have been more sumptuously embellished, as each wall was faced with white marble, and the doorways, windows and cornices were elegantly carved, while in certain places patterns in choice stones were inlaid, with friezes of blue and yellow glaze’. Unfortunately, it collapsed since the walls and foundation were not strong enough to sustain the dome. Luckily the sarcophagus, as well as the yellow marble plinth with its beautiful carvings survived.
It is interesting to observe that when one stands in the center of the tomb the great halls of Jami Masjid, Hoshang Shah’s Tomb and that of the Ashrafi Mahal are aligned.