From grand palaces and historic forts to scrumptious food and music celebrations, Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh has much to offer, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY
After winding up Urwahi Road past mammoth rock cut sculptures of Jain tirthankaras, we stood awestruck by the sight of bright blue mosaic tiles and bands of quirky yellow ducks and blue elephants on the stony façade of Man Mandir Palace atop Gwalior Fort. Babur described it as ‘the pearl in the necklace of forts of Hind’ while Warren Hastings, the first Governor General of India famously proclaimed “The Gwalior fortress is the key to Hindoostan”. Lying at the crossroads of North India, the historic city was a coveted prize and a strategic outpost on the trade routes that fanned from Delhi to Malwa, Gujarat and the Deccan.
The majestic fort crowns Gopachal Parvat, the solitary sandstone outcrop of the Vindhyas rising above the plains. Once a hill where cowherds lazed, it became a quiet nook for ascetics. Sometime in the 8th century Suraj Sen, a Kachhwaha Rajput chieftain, lost his way while on a hunt in the forest. Tired and thirsty, he encountered the sage Gwalipa on this secluded hill. The saint gave him water from a pond, which not only quenched his thirst but also cured his leprosy. In gratitude, the prince built a protective wall to prevent wild beasts from disturbing the sage’s yagnas and a palace for himself. While the miraculous pond was called Suraj Kund after the king, the city that grew around the fort was named Gwalher after Gwalipa the saint.
Over the years, smoothened by time and myriad tongues, Gwalher became Gwalior, in the same manner that the Sahastrabahu temple of the Kachhwahas got corrupted to Saas Bahu! But there was good reason for it. Built in 1092 by King Mahipala, the shrine was named after and dedicated to the ‘thousand-armed’ Vishnu, ardently worshiped by the queen. Since the prince’s wife was a Shiva devotee, a separate shrine was built for her beside the Vishnu temple. Collectively, they were called Saas-Bahu Mandir, referring to the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law’s temples.
In a similar vein, Teli ka Mandir, the loftiest and oldest surviving structure within the fort has little to do with oil-mongers but was originally called Telangana Mandir on account of its Dravidian spire. Gwalior Fort is a treasure trove of history. While it is common knowledge that the zero was invented in India, the earliest written record of the numeral is an inscription in the Chaturbhuj temple dating back to 876 CE.
The Pal dynasty of Kachhwahas and the Gurjar Pratiharas controlled Gwalior initially, but the fort changed hands with alarming rapidity, slipping from the grasp of Delhi’s first Turkic Sultan Qutubuddin Aibak to Iltutmish. After the Delhi Sultanate collapsed at the end of the 14th century, independent regional kingdoms sprouted, including the Tomars, under whose reign Gwalior soared to great heights.
Periods of war and bloodshed alternated with interludes of peace and stability, when the sound of music drowned battle cries and the clash of swords was forgotten in the rhythms of poetry. The credit for developing Gwaliori Dhrupad, considered one of the purest forms of Indian music, goes to Tomar Raja Man Singh (1486-1516). Musicians from across the country descended on Man Singh’s opulent palace Man Mandir.
Two of the most famous musicians in medieval India, Baiju Bawra and Tansen trace their roots to Gwalior. At one time, nearly half the musicians in the Mughal imperial court came from the city. Books preserved in Jai Vilas Mahal recount legends of how Baiju Bawra and Tansen could light oil lamps by singing Raga Deepak; cause rain by singing Megh Malhar; make flowers bloom by singing Raga Bahar; hypnotize deer with Raga Mrigaranjini or melt a stone slab with Raga Malkauns. Tansen, originally one of the nine jewels of Man Singh’s court, later became one of the navratnas (nine jewels) of Akbar’s court. When the maestro died, Akbar ordered all musicians in the country to join the funeral procession.
Thousands still flock to Gwalior every year in December for a weeklong music celebration in memory of Tansen not far from his 16th century tomb under the shade of a tamarind tree. As per local tradition, aspiring singers often chew the tamarind leaves for a sweet voice. Tansen’s raised rectangular memorial was humbled by the grand mausoleum of his spiritual mentor and Sufi mystic Sheikh Mohammad Ghaus Shattari. With lace-like screens, his massive square tomb was capped with a large dome.
Akbar borrowed more than the city’s prized poet laureate; he also found in Gwalior’s mahals (palaces) and chhatris (domed pavilions) the inspiration for Mughal architecture. While Man Mandir was a private pleasure palace, Man Singh built another palace for his doe-eyed Gujar queen Mrignayani at the base of the hillock. Gujari Mahal now houses an archaeological museum, with a rare 10th century statuette of Shalbhanjika the Tree Goddess, kept under lock and key in the curator’s office.
Sadly, after the death of Raja Man Singh, the Tomar dynasty was swept aside. Ibrahim Lodhi captured the fortress after a two-year long siege but Babur wrested Gwalior after defeating Lodhi at the Battle of Panipat in 1526. Not known for his appreciation of Indian architecture, the founder of the Mughal Empire was struck by the loveliness of Man Mandir. He noted, “Man Singh’s palace is a wonderful edifice. On every side are cupolas, each covered with sheets of gilded copper. The outer walls are decorated with glowing tiles.”
Under Humayun, the Mughals lost the fortress to Sher Shah Suri but Akbar reclaimed it. However, the palace that once resounded with song and laughter, echoed with the anguished cries of prisoners. The underground realms and pleasure pools where maharanis once gossiped turned into chambers of torture. French traveller Bernier noted horrific accounts of the prison. From Akbar to Aurangzeb, state prisoners were dulled with poppy and left to decay and die a slow painful death.
Among the few who left the prison alive was sixth Sikh Guru Hargobind Singh. Imprisoned unjustly, Emperor Jahangir was forced to order his release at the insistence of his beloved queen Nur Jahan. Seeing the plight of captive princes and fellow inmates, the Guru said he could not leave alone. The Mughal emperor decreed that as many prisoners who could hold on to the Guru’s robe would be released. Overnight, tassels were attached to the Guru’s tunic and thus 51 other people were set free. Not far from the celebrated Scindia School atop the fort, Gurudwara Data Bandi Chhod celebrates this incident.
After Aurangzeb’s death, anarchy prevailed until Mahadji Scindia, founder of the Maratha empire seized the fort in 1765. Always at odds with the expansionist British, the Marathas fought many battles eventually losing the fort in 1780 before they faced a complete rout in 1843.
Public sentiment had built up so much against the British that a handful of soldiers in Meerut sparked off a nationwide rebellion in 1857. Gwalior once again changed hands as Tatya Tope, Rao Saheb Peshwa and Rani Lakshmibai took hold of the fort. The Rani of Jhansi died fighting valiantly against the British at the fort’s southern base, Phool Bagh. Ironically, the Scindias sided with the British and received handsome rewards which fueled a construction frenzy of opulent palaces and mansions in Gwalior.
Jai Vilas Mahal, styled after a palace in Versailles stands in Lashkar (a Persian word meaning ‘camp’), an area once occupied by army battalions. Forty rooms of the 400-room European style mansion are maintained as the Jiwaji Rao Scindia Museum, with royal artefacts and opulent dining sets on display. The highlight is a gigantic pair of Belgian chandeliers in the Durbar Hall and a silver train in the dining room that ran on a miniature track dispensing post-dinner cognac, dry fruits and cigars!
Madha Rao Scindia I, founder of modern Gwalior built the Phool Bagh where a temple, mosque, gurudwara and Theosophical lodge stand testimony to the city’s secular ethos. The king also started the Gwalior trade fair in 1905, the biggest fair in Madhya Pradesh. Music aficionados will find it worth their while to visit Sarod Ghar or the Museum of Music, set up in the ancestral house of the legendary maestro Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan, father of Ustad Amjad Ali Khan.
Nearby, the place where the British Army Unit 34 encamped during Second World War is called ‘Thatipur’, its numerical reference lost on locals. In the syncretic air of Gwalior, Ramtanu Pandey becomes ‘Miyan’ Tansen and a fearless Gujar village belle Nanhi becomes Mrignayani the queen. Unperturbed by the burden of history, Gwalior juggles its various influences with panache and typical Bundelkhandi swagger.
Gwalior Airport is located at Maharajpur, 10 km north-east of the city and is connected by flights from several cities.
When to go
The month-long Gwalior Trade fair is held between the second week of January and February. Tansen Samaroh is a 5-day classical music festival held in December.
Where to Stay
The royal summer house of the Yadavs facing the nine-chequered garden Nau Bagh is run as a heritage hotel by Neemrana. The 25-acre property has lovely gardens, cenotaphs, pavilions and two 18th century Maratha temples.
Ph +91 751 2820357 www.deo-bagh.neemranahotels.com
Usha Kiran Palace
The 120-year-old colonial era palace with twin towers is run by the Taj Group as a heritage hotel and has hosted luminaries like the King of England.
Ph +91 751 244 4000 www.tajhotels.com
What to Eat
Try the local favourite bedai, a poori stuffed with spiced lentils, besides gajak (sesame, sugar and ghee sweet) from Ratiram Gajak and Morena Gajak Bhandar. Regulars queue up early morning for samosa, kachori and sweets at SS Kachoriwala and Bahadura, an 80-year-old sweet shop in Naya Bazaar. Also check out Dilli Parathe Wala at Sarafa Bazar, Agrawal Puri Bhandar at Nayi Sadak and laddus at Shankerlal Halwai.
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as the Cover Story in the April 2016 issue of JetWings International magazine.