This is one of those cities in India that has a bit of everything. Any visitor to Gwalior will not return disappointed as there will be at least one thing he or she would have enjoyed. During my stay of a day and a half, I have seen a fort, a palace, a Hindu temple, a Sikh Gurudwara, Islamic tombs and even attended a night of Hindustani classical music. I went in search of lost of lesser known antiquities of this wonderful city. Although accommodation here is more expensive than in Jhansi, it was still within my budget. Getting around places is quite easy and cheap. Food at the Indian Coffee House opposite the Railway Station has been quality stuff. I have thoroughly enjoyed my stay here and would recommend it to anyone planning on a weekend trip to these parts.
Supposed to be one of the most impregnable forts in India and it is easy to see why. The fort stands on a high steep cliff, its high walls at many levels heightening the natural defences. One of the enduring views of this fort is the side perspective of the palace towers that line up against each other above the cliffs. The palace has been built right behind the wall of the fort. In fact, it is difficult to say if these are projected round towers or proper fort bastions. It does appear to be palace influenced in architecture by the fort walls. The decorations, the chajjas and colourful tiles make it more a palace than a fort.
This is the Man Mandir built by Raja Man Singh Tomar of the Tomar Dynasty. Entry to all of the fort’s monuments are covered by a single five-rupee ticket. As usual, the universal problem of small change continued to haunt me. I opted to buy two tickets and used only one. The Man Mandir has two open courtyards used for royal entertainment. Perforated stone screens allowed the queens, ministers and others to view the performances in privacy while the king had the privilege of viewing them from the open balcony. The stone carvings in these courtyards are superb. A peacock chajja is noteworthy. An apsidal roof is unique here. A guide tells of women wearing anklets who would walk the galleries about the king’s bedroom in the mornings to wake him up – medieval wakeup alarm system.
Strewn about this mahal are many royal ruins offering farther views of Gwalior. At the foot of the cliffs is the Gujri Mahal, now housing a museum. The tomb of Mohammed Ghaus highlights the skyline. Gwalior is mostly of low buildings but even tall buildings would appear so from this height.
There is one more aspect of Man Mandir that is not to be missed. If you take one of those dark stairs leading out from the courtyards, you will be in a dark maze of passages, turns, landings and pillared halls. Holes drop dwon to a lower level where a medieval swimming pool lies in ruins. It is said that women used to jump down these holes to buring fires in their brave acts of sati. These are the poignant remains of old traditions. Sati was a necessary evil of those times, imposed by society and reinforced by tradition. What was brave then for those women, perhaps it is braver today to stand up against such evil traditions.
Lunch at the Gurudwara
It was half past one. I was hungry but I was not yet done with the temples within Gwalior Fort. I spotted the Gurudwara nearby and made my way towards it. Visitors are required to cover their heads before entering the temple. Orange triangular pieces of cloth are available for hire. I picked up one of these.
‘Have you washed your hands?’ asked the Sikh who was guarding the cloths. He had just seen me take off my boots.
‘No,’ I replied apologetically and proceeded to wash my hands.
I first got it wrong. It was a tangled mess but it doesn’t take long to learn the proper way to tie the cloth to cover the head fully. The temple is entirely in white marble. It brings with this a calming effect. Only the floors looked out of order with their irregular patterns and coloured tiles.
After a quick look at the temple, I walked to the food hall past heaps of wheat grain, some just raked around to dry in the sun. The hall can seat about 400 but I was only the third person to sit. Plates will not be given to you. You have to help yourself. I got up, picked up a plate, a bowl, a spoon and a tumbler. Clearly I was expecting a feast. I notices that others had picked up just a bowl and a tumbler.
A guy came up and served hot a dish of aloo palak. He came back with some rotis. I lifted up my plate to receive them.
‘Keep the plate on the floor,’ spoke the man kindly. I obeyed, a little bewildered.
‘Receive them with your hands,’ he said.
I brought up my right hand but even then I was wrong. The others showed me the proper way to receive food, with both palms cusped together as beggers who receive gifts from generous souls.
The rotis were good but just two weren’t enough for lunch. I wasn’t sure if it would be proper to ask for more when it is given free of personal cost.
‘Will you have more?’ I was asked, as I sat about looking here and there.
‘Yes. Two more rotis,’ I replied.
‘Why didn’t you ask before?’ he asked in rhetoric and came back with two more. While he offered them to my waiting palms he added, ‘We don’t call them roti. We call them prasada; and water is not pani but jal.’
You are expected to wash the vessels yourself. There was a line of wash basins but thankfully there was another helpful sardarji to help me out. I washed them in the first one with running water. The next one was for rinsing. The third one was filled with soap water. The fourth one was for the final rinse.
I left them to dry and took leave of these helpful Sikhs who expect nothing in return.
‘You have come from far. You can get a room here anytime. If you have any problem, you can always come and stay here. You don’t have to pay anything,’ added the Skih who had guided me with the washing.
Temples and Shrines
Next to the Gurudwara is Teli-ka-Mandir. It is a strange mix of North and South Indian styles. The shikara terminates in the manner of South Indian gopuras but without the horns. It is not a temple I like much.
There is a temple nearby that’s curiously called Saas-Bahu temple. I asked someone at the entrance about the name.
‘Yes. The name is something isn’t it?’ he replied without an answer. ‘You will have to take a guide.’
There are no free answers here. I was not going to hire a guide after having seen the twin temples on my own. One is a much smaller one on higher ground. It is just a pillared mandapa with mukha mandapas leading to it. There is not even a shrine. It is rich in carvings.
The bigger temple is more interesting and wrapped in carvings. It is interesting in that the mukha mandapas are in two storeys. The maha mandapa is impressive with a 12-sided base rising to a circular dome of concentric levels of carvings. The central part of this mandapa is square and rises to a smaller dome within the larger dome. This wonderful temples is badly defaced. Most of its beauty is lost due to the fact that only a few sculpted faces are intact. The rest are faceless forms.
Jai Vilas Palace
The palace belonging to the Scindias of Gwalior is from the 19th century as indicated by a date inscribed at the entrance. The white facade is strongly European in a classical style and has nothing Indian about it. On the other hand, a lot of carved wooden furniture on the inside are Indian including many Kashmiri ones. There is a puja room integrated within the main building. There is a lot of European furniture as well.
When I arrived at the palace there was still half an hour for opening. The guard at the entrance carrying an old rifle chatted up with me. He has been on this job for eight months now. He has studied only till eighth standard.
‘Why didn’t you study further?’ I asked.
‘I was weak in studies,’ he admitted frankly. I believe it had more to do with environment, social situation and parental support, though he may not have seen it that way.
I brought out my sketchbook and box of pencils to complete an old sketch. He leafed through my book and took immediate interest of an erotic couple from Khajuraho.
‘You must have taken some pictures as well?’ he suggestively asked.
‘Yes. I make a sketch if I really like something.’
‘Can you show me the Khajuraho pictures?’ he asked pleadingly. His eyes lit up at this opportunity early on in the day.
I showed him some of the digital pictures on my camera-phone, zooming into areas that interested him. He had never seen such erotic art before. His gun was straight. Had he been any more excited I am sure he would have fired.
The downside of this conversation was that I forgot my box of pencils amidst the distraction. I had to buy a new set later on when I realized the loss.
The rooms and their items in the palace are well presented. There is one room titled the Trophy Gallery. It displays tigers, leopards and other wild animals hunted by the maharajas of Gwalior. In modern India, hunting for pleasure is no longer legal. Environmental activists will be in an uproar if an illegal hunt takes place. Curiously, the gallery is also tagged as Natural History Gallery to reflect the change of public opinion.
The main dining hall is huge. The ceiling and walls are heavily gilded. Mirrors cover the walls at intervals. It is an attempt to recreate the magnificence of Versailles. With its two gigantic chandeliers, it is quite a rich and grand room. Another chandelier in red hangs in the stairway leading to the dining hall. This is similar to the Belgian chandelier I saw earlier at Rewa. I am told there is one more at Mysore Palace.
The main fault I have with the palace is that attendants clean and dust the rooms when it is already open for visitors. They should clean it before it opens for visitors. So a man will turn the edges of an old carpet, sweep the dust from under it until a haze of dust starts flying around within the Indian Sculpture Gallery and effectively throwing visitors out along with the dust.
I enquired about this place with some folks at the fort. None had heard of this place.
‘It’s an old building. I have read that it impressed Emperor Babur so much that he liked Gwalior,’ I added with the little I knew about this place.
One of the guides said it is in town and not at the fort.
‘Do you go to the Bardaari?’ I asked the driver of a shared tempo.
‘Baaraadari? Get in, get in,’ was the reply and we were on our way.
I always have the gift of adopting the wrong pronunciation and it takes a while for locals to recognize what it really means. When we reached the place, which was nothing more than a meeting point of four roads surrounded by buildings old and new, I had to make enquiries.
No one knew of a building from the 16th century. So I walked around purposefully along one of the main roads busy with traffic jams and loud hawkers. I turned to side lanes and narrow alleys. I knew what I was looking for – a dobule storeyed building with graceful arches on the outside but in fact it is a single storeyed large hall with two tiers of arched windows on the inside. The last I have seen of the Baradari is from a photograph from the 1980s.
Looking for something without name or address and just a vague incomplete description is finding needle in a haystack. After forty five minutes of walking in this part of town I headed back to India Coffee House for lunch.
Weeks later I realized that the baradari I had been looking for is actually in Meerut! I had got my facts mixed up.
The Mausoleum of Mohammed Ghaus
Gwalior is easy to navigate using shared tempos. There are plenty of these, clearly numbered and plying on different routes. You never need to wait long for one to your destination. I left the fort by the Gujri Mahal, took a tempo and arrived at this mausoleum in no time.
Mohammed Ghaus was a 16th century saint in whose memory this structure was built during the Mughal period. It is square in plan with hexagonal towers capped with domes at each corner. The central dome is also decorated with chattris around it. The entire building is austere as befitting a saint. It is also beautiful by its symmetry and balance of lines and forms.
The true magin of this mausoleum is appreciated in the ambulatory around the shrine. The stone trellis work is simply brilliant. Entire arches are fill with them in many exquisite designs. Pillars carry the weight of the roof beams. The weight of the central dome does not fall on these pillars. Thus the outer walls of the ambulatory need not be solid. They are largely made of stone trellis work.
The top curve of the arch is separated from the rest by a row of floral motif. The points of these flowers delicately connect the two and with each other. Looking at it from within in silhouette, it appears the arch is floating delicately over its base. It is of stone but it stands with this incredible lightness.
In Mughal India
Mian Tansen was a musician and composer in the court of Akbar. He has done much for Hindustani classical music including the discovery of raagas that even today bear his name. Mian-ki-Todi and Mian-ki-Malhar are examples. Close to the mausoleum of Mohammed Ghaus is the tomb of Tansen. The tomb is within a simple pillared hall. A tamarind tree grows nearby. It is said that credible singers would chew its leaves for a sweet voice.
Last night was the start of Tansen Samaroh 2009. A series of musical recitals are part of this event that goes on for a few days. Finishing an early dinner, I came back here to catch a few recitals.
First was a recital of Raag Bhupali on the Rudra Veena, a large instrument with double thumba. The next was vocals in the Dhrupad style. This was followed by vocals again in the style of the Gwalior gharana, one of the renowned schools of Hindustani classical music. While he sang beautifully, he also openly critized the Dhrupad style that had preceded his performance.
‘Sangeet to pyar ka mamla hai, mara mari ka nahi,’ he hinted. Dhrupad style is characterized by forceful sounds, jerky and unrefined. It is a difficult style for both performers and listeners. I found it difficult to appreciate but there were definite moments of brilliance in the Dhrupad performance. It has sparked in me a desire to get to know this style better.
The real magin of last evening was the ambience pervading the chill air. Tansen’s tomb was lit up in the background. The tamarind tree shook its leaves in a light breeze. The mausoleum of Mohammed Ghaus loomed in the darkness behind. A respectable gathering of music lovers of Gwalior sat on cotton-filled mattressed spread out under a colourful shamiana. The noise of modern world was lost in this scene of Mughal India.