Gwalior: Sweet strains of music

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In Gwalior, the home and resting place of legendary Indian classical musician Tansen, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore the ancient city during Tansen Samaroh and find that art and culture continue to flourish here

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Not too far from the 16th century tomb of Tansen, Pandit Abhay Narayan Mallick’s dhrupad rendition filled the air on a clear December night. Unlike the black tie affair of an opera, Gwalior’s culture aficionados had turned up unabashedly wrapped in blankets, mufflers and monkey caps to brave the winter, yet, united in their love for classical music. Over the weeklong Tansen Samaroh, the country’s top classical singers and performers regaled audiences in a city that was home to medieval India’s most celebrated musician.

The elevated rectangular platform enshrining Tansen’s tomb rested under the shade of a tamarind tree. Its bitter leaves were considered miraculous and local singers often chewed it for a sweet voice. Tansen’s memorial dwarfed in front of the mausoleum of his spiritual mentor and Sufi mystic Sheikh Mohammad Ghaus Shattari. The large square tomb capped with a large dome, hexagonal towers in the corners and delicately latticed walls resounded with notes late into the night.

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Nearly 500 years ago, the voice of Tansen similarly echoed through the galleries of Man Mandir, the palace of Tomar Raja Man Singh (1486-1516), high up in the fort atop Gopachal Parvat. It is said the court poet could light lamps with Raga Deepak and his Raga Malhar could bring down the rains! Tansen later became one of the navratnas (nine jewels) of Akbar’s court. He sparkled, drawing gasps of awe, much like the brilliant azure, ochre and emerald green mosaic tiles on the façade of Man Mandir Palace adorned by whimsical bands of yellow ducks and blue elephants.

The rambling Gwalior Fort is dotted with several mahals (palaces), chhatris (domed pavilions) and shrines like Sas Bahu Temple and Teli ka Mandir, besides the exquisite Jain rock cut sculptures carved into the hillside. En route to the reputed Scindia School, Gurudwara Data Bandi Chhod celebrates the release of Guru Hargobind Singh from the fort, along with 52 other inmates. Gwalior is also associated with Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi who died fighting the British at the southern base of the very fort at Phool Bagh.

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At the hillock’s northern base, Man Singh built Gujari Mahal for his doe-eyed Gujar queen Mrignayani. Currently serving as an archaeological museum, its most prized exhibit is the 10th century statuette of Shalbhanjika, excavated at Gyaraspur. We retired to the royal comfort of Deo Bagh, Neemrana’s heritage hotel facing the nine-chequered garden Nau Bagh, located in a quiet campus with two 18th century Maratha temples, cenotaphs and arched pavilions.

For any visitor, Gwalior is worth exploring leisurely over a few days. There’s a lot to see – from the Vivaswan Surya Mandir to chhatris of the Scindias to Jai Vilas Mahal, still used a Scindia residence. Forty rooms of the 400-room European style mansion are open to public as the Jiwaji Rao Scindia Museum, with Belgian chandeliers, opulent dining sets and royal artefacts on display.

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And where art and culture flourished, can cuisine be far behind? Like music, Gwalior takes its food seriously too. Regulars line up in the wee hours at Bahadura, an 80-year-old sweet shop in Naya Bazaar for the local favourite bedai, a poori stuffed with moong and udad dal (lentils), besides laddus and gulab jamun. Locals love eating out – from samosa, kachori, jalebi and rabdi at SS Kachoriwala or a pure veg thali in Agrawal Puri Bhandar at Nayi Sadak or assorted parathas at Dilli Parathe Wala at Sarafa Bazar.

The city also nurses a sweet tooth with laddus of Shankerlal Halwai made famous by Atal Bihari Vajpayee to the legendary gajak (crispy sesame, sugar and ghee sweet) of Ratiram Gajak and Daulatram Gupta’s Morena Gajak Bhandar. Indeed, in the city of Tansen, sweetness is in the air…

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the December, 2015 issue of JetWings magazine. 

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