The city of Gwalior, in a history spanning centuries, has fallen in the path of many empires from its early hindu kings to the Tomar Rajputs, the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughals and eventually the Scindias. All of these rulers left their mark on the city leaving it with a rich heritage of art, architecture, music and culture. Today Gwalior is short stop on the tourist trail, with most visitors staying a day or so before moving on; however for the person who spends time, Gwalior opens up its many wonders which deserve more than just a passing glance.
The Gwalior Fort Complex
Towering over the city, the exact date of the construction of the Gwalior Fort is unknown, but the fort as a defensive structure in its most basic form is said to have been constructed by a local king in the 3rd Century AD. Through its lifetime the Gwalior Fort has changed many hands, from the Delhi Sultanate to the Mughals, to Sher Shah Suri, the Tomar Rajputs, the Marathas, the Scindia Dynasty and the British (not necessarily in this order!) The fort was largely constructed by the Tomar King, Maan Singh Tomar and the most definitive image which is associated with the Gwalior Fort and indeed with Gwalior itself is that of Maan Mandir, the Palace of Maan Singh. The fort walls are quite different from those we had already seen in other parts of the country and are a mix of architecture, owing to its many owners.
The iconic walls, with the blue tiles greet you as you walk up the Eastern side to the Haathi Gate, a 20 min walk uphill that is not too difficult, but better done when it’s cooler, either in the early morning or late afternoon. You can also motor it up from the other end to the parking and perhaps walk down this side. At the base of the hill is the Gujari Mahal, now an archeological museum, fairly typical with statues, sculptures, friezes and an assortment of other artifacts dating back hundreds of years. While most of them tell you the date and origins, unless you are a history and archeological buff or have a really good guide, these type of museums can get a bit overwhelming and boring after a point. Some of the sculptures were from the Morena district which we had already visited, so those were interesting to place in context. There isn’t much left of the Mahal itself, except the beautiful entrance door, a few dome shaped pavilions, and walls with carvings. Built by Raja Maan Singh Tomar for his 9th wife, who wasn’t of royal blood, the palace is placed away from the main palace and fort. One version of the story says that she demanded a separate palace and perhaps she didn’t mind the distance, less social engagements and interactions would have been required of her.
The main fort complex with the Maan Singh Palace on one side and a host of other palaces through another entrance is sprawling and can take a few hours. Start early, especially if its not winter. Many palaces and structures are in ruins, with very little left to tell you what might have been, but A walk through the various palaces built by different kings at different times is interesting nonetheless. Gazing at a dome with remains of beautiful glazed tiles here, a stepped water tank there, gives you a sense of what the fort would have been like hundreds of years ago. While the structures are marked with some explanation by the ASI and MP Tourism department, it’s best to take a guide to really understand what each palace was for, the different architectural styles used and a little history about the Kings that built them.
A short walk from the main fort and its many palaces is the oddly named Saas-Bahu temple. The name translates to mother in law-daughter in law but has nothing to do with one of the oldest relationships in the world. Called the Sahastrabahu Temple, the name has been shortened to the easier version over time. The Vishnu temple was built in the late 11the century and is extremely beautiful, with carvings of Brahma, Vishnu and Saraswati at the entrance and other avatars of Vishnu throughout. Stepping into the temple doorway is a visual treat as you take in the sheer scale of the temple sanctum, every square inch of which is carved in staggering detail. The temple in its current state was restored by the British who painstakingly stripped the temple facade of the white ‘chuna’ it was covered in by Muslim rulers of the fort, to bring it back to its original sandstone glory. The pyramid shaped temple has no arches, similar to the Shiva temple next door, which has a large central area but isn’t quite as impressive as the bigger one. Perhaps there is some truth to the odd name, as the Shiva temple was built by the daughter in law of the King’s wife who built the original Vishnu temple. Before you head out of the fort also check out the Teli ka Mandir, which is an odd amalgamations of styles and quite different from the other temples around the region. Standing 35 meters tall on a fairly narrow base, the Mandir appears to almost rise out of the ground like a rocket waiting to lift off. The origins of the name are unclear but it is expected to either have been funded by oil merchants in the region (Tel is Oil in Hindi) or named as such after the Telangana region in South India due to its apparent Dravidian styling.
Walking down the western side you can’t miss the massive and imposing Jain statues as you walk past the Urvahi gate. The statues, carved out of the mountain side, are so commanding that you cant help but stand and stare. There are two sets of carvings, and the first set, closer to the gate are the most impressive of the lot, with the 58 foot high idol of the first Jain Tirthankara, the spiritual teacher of the religion. Many of the kingdoms in this region were followers of the Jain faith and built amazing temples dedicated to their spiritual gurus and idols. Gazing up at these immense structures, one can sort of imagine the sheer number of battles they have witnessed and the secrets they hold, as king after king launched endless assaults on the fort. Though we haven’t been to Afghanistan, the sheer size and grandeur of the rock statues that have survived centuries of war, man and the elements, gave us a sense of what the world lost when the Bamiyan statues were destroyed. The second set of statues a little further down the hill are not as tall, but equally amazing and intricate in their detailing.
Jai Vilas Palace Museum
Located a few kilometers away is the sprawling Jai Vilas Palace of the Scindia Dynasty. Much younger than the fort, the Tuscan and Corinthian style Palace built by Jayajirao Scindia in the late nineteenth century is nonetheless impressive. Most of the palace is now a museum, though the former royal family still resides in one section which is closed to visitors. A walk around the palace can take a few hours as you marvel at beautiful old furniture, seemingly endless rooms and over the top showpieces. The Durbar hall with its two 3.5-tonne chandeliers and gold arches and décor is like the rest of the palace, opulent, if a tad bit kitsch. Amongst the more out-there things you will find in the palace is a room full of crystal furniture, an old horse drawn buggy and the Silver Saloon, a model train made entirely of silver that chugged around the massive dining table, serving guests chilled glasses of Champagne and caviar. Marie Antoinette would have felt right at home, but for us regular folk the sheer scale of the palace and the thought that people actually lived here was simply mindboggling! What is rather different from many similar museums set up by erstwhile royalty is a chart which details the royal weddings between the Scindia dynasty and other royal families from across India and Nepal, as well as a brief history of the participation of the standing Scindia Army in various conflicts not only in India but in other parts of the world as well. The entire palace is designed in a big square format around central gardens, and looking out the window you will not be blamed for wondering if you’d suddenly landed up in a western European country.
The distinct European architecture however is not reflected in the nearby Usha Kiran Palace, now a Taj Hotel, which looks more ‘Indian’. We were in Gwalior on our anniversary and decided to splurge with a couple of nights stay at the hotel. The hotel embodies true Taj hospitality, but what is most interesting is the history of the Palace. It was apparently built in 1902 for King George VI, when he was the Prince of Wales, who was to stay there only for a night. A rather lavish gesture for a night, there are also others of similar nature in the region ruled by the Scindia’s and the Bundela rulers of Orchha.
The Tomb Complex of Tansen and Mohammed Ghaus
A prominent figure in Hindustani classical music, Tansen was one of the nine jewels of Akbars court, and it is said that a special pond was built in the court at Fatehpur Sikri with a platform in the middle for him to perform on. Much of Hindustani classical music is attributed to Tansen, whose tomb is rather simple and elegant, reflecting what has been written about his life. A few feet away is a more elaborate tomb made with red sandstone, with intricate lattice work all around and a few old men basking in the setting winter sun. Tansen was buried next to his Sufi mentor, Muhammad Ghaus, whose tomb was built by Akbar and has a large central dome and smaller domed pavilions all around. Dotted with lots of smaller tombs set in manicured gardens, the complex is a peaceful place complete with kids doing homework, families spending quality time together and older men playing cards.
Some Useful Information:
How to get there: The closest major metro to Gwalior is Delhi which is a 5 – 6 hour drive or a similar duration train journey. However other popular places on the tourist trail like Agra are just 2 and a half hours away so you could consider building a few days for Gwalior into your itinerary if you are planning Agra.
How much time do you need: Our recommendation is to spend 3 days in all, two days for Gwalior and one day for the temples in Morena which can be done as a day trip.
Where to Stay and Eat: Like other parts of MP, Gwalior has its share of great street food from the Kachori and Samosas on the roadside carts to the sweet shops in the old city around the fort, but besides these basic options there’s nothing much you would call inspiring. Stay options are unfortunately similar, and whilst there is the Taj Usha Kiran and the Neemrana Deobaug Palace at the top of the rung, both of which are excellent, they are followed by a string of regular small town hotels. If you looking for a well priced, no frills option though, we would recommend Gulmohar Guesthouse for its cheap, spacious rooms and hassle free service.