Gwalior: The hills are watching
The elation of driving into a heritage OD that is Gwalior is heralded by an eerie feeling: that you are being watched. The fort ramparts peering over boulder-strewn hills keep an eye over you, the way they were meant to. Blinking only at the bastions, measuring your every move, an arm inching gingerly towards the leather-clad quiver. Surrender the scelerate, announce you come in peace. That was what I did. I parked Red right by the Dakshinapatha, the ancient trading route, which connected the affluent kingdoms in the north to the coastline ones on the west, the highway today. Driving from Agra, after 130 kilometres in the clear sun, I had also earned a cool beer from a wine shop in suburbia. Retiring to the hood, I raised a toast to the scappled sheen of the ochreous cloak pulled over the ruins by the westward sun. The Gwalior Fort was one of the most-fought over forts in history for its sheer vantage – overlooking the city and the flourishing trade route.
Mornings in Gwalior are not just chaotic conundrums brought about by school and office-bound traffic but are inveterate traffic snarls caused by vehicles stopping right in the middle of the road for occupants to reverentially dole out yesterday’s leftover rotis to the gow – holy cow – squatting right on the road in thoughtful regurgitation. Respect for the cow is part of Hindu religion – Lord Krishna was a cowherd – and gowshalas or cow shelters – are maintained by almost every major temple in the country. But in Gwalior there is more than respect; the city owes its name itself to the animal.
Gwalipa was a hermit with magical powers who cured Suraj Sen, the Rajput chieftain who founded the city, of leprosy. Gwalipa lived on a hill called Gopachal or ‘the hill of the cowherd’ and when Suraj Sen had to find a name to call his new city, he didn’t look far. Though today there is nothing very saintly about amassing benign bovine benedictions giving two hoots essential civic sense. Not wanting to be left behind and neither desiring to create a hooting ruckus, I flung some orange peels at one when I passed it; it didn’t even blink but twitched its tail dismissively. I came to know later that for a full karmic score I had to feed it with my own hands. Then I suffer from indescribable spasms of violent shudder just imagining the rubbery tongue snaking out, tangle over my fingers, extricating the food with a slurping sigh. Pass.
Winding up towards the Urwahi Gate which leads to the Gwalior Fort I got that eerie feeling again – of being watched – like I did when I reached city outskirts yesterday. The 100-odd Tirthankars flanking the road were lidded, eyeless but still seeing. Must be the colossal dimensions of the Jain saint statues: Adinath, the first Tirthankar stands at 17 metres while that of Parswanath is the tallest at 19 metres! Well, you don’t tell one Tirthankar from another from their height but these ancient cyclopean masterpieces are differentiated by the use of different Jain religious motifs – like drums and flowers, trees and parasols. Thus Parswanath is not the tallest one really but the one with the cobra motif behind the head.
Before beginning a tour of the Gwalior Fort, a visit to the Archaeological Museum nearby is suggested to put histories in perspective. Sculptures from the first millennium, during the reigns of the Kushanas and Shungas and those commissioned by later rulers from the Gurjara Pratihara dynasty have been preserved reasonably well here.
Man Singh Palace
Raja Man Singh Tomar (1486 – 1516) a great patron of arts built the Man Singh Palace. Apparently no other conquest of his gave the Mughal patriarch Babur more pleasure than the Man Singh Palace; many elements of Rajput architecture which wound their way into Mughal styles were from here – like the elaborately foliated moline cornices, the lattice-work and ornamental chatris or cenotaphs. During the days of Man Singh musical and dance recitals used to be held in the colourful bailey with the women folk of the palace watching the nautch girls enthral their men from behind the jaalis, essentially latticed windows which ensured one-way views. The Man Singh Palace had subterranean levels with even a swimming pool for the ladies’ quarter or zenana which was later used as prisoner dungeons under the Mughals.
King Mahipala (around 1093AD) obviously was a rare guy; I mean he loved his mother-in-law with the same gusto and fervour he loved the wife. ‘Saas-bahu’ as anybody with television would know translates to ‘mother-in-law and daughter-in-law’. This is a pair of temples with the bigger one being the Saas Temple which has an elaborate stairwell and a mandapa, the space for holding religious rituals. The Bahu Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva outcrops the berm and gives hazy views of the city below.
Gurudwara Bandi Chor
The gurudwara Data Bandi Chor was built in memory of the imprisonment – and eventual release – of Guru Hargobind Singh for two years in the Fort during early 17th century. Though there are many versions regarding the circumstances leading to the Guru being incarcerated, the popular one goes that Murtaza Khan who was the Nawab of Lahore fed Emperor Jahangir false information that the Guru was strengthening his army and had even built a throne for his eventual coronation as the emperor. Essentially a tale of misunderstanding and egos, outwitting and eventual murder, the gurudwara doesn’t do much in terms of evoking the intrigue or the suffering. This is an elegant structure in white marble with wide open spaces. A steep flight of stairs leads to the main courtyard with the washing trough for the feet. A heavily ornamented sanctum sanctorum with a silver divan at the centre holds the Granth Sahib.
Jai Vilas Palace
The Jai Vilas Palace is in Lashkar, a modern part of Gwalior town, to the south of the Fort. Jiyaji Rao Scindia sided with the British in quelling the 1857 uprising by the sepoys and was rewarded handsomely. Since then the Scindias have played a big role in shaping the city of Gwalior and in its future. The Jai Vilas Palace was originally built in 1875 to welcome the Prince of Wales, Edward VII; while part of it is private residence there is also the museum which houses some opulent artefacts from the royal collection. With quirky, regal self indulgences like a silver train that runs on a miniature track distributing post-dinner cognac and cigar, historical gems like swords used by Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb and personal memorabilia like jewelled slippers, cricketing trophies and photographs, the museum is understandably a highlight. Tip: Slip the doorman to the royal dining chamber a ten-rupee note if you want to see the humungous chandelier in its fully-lit splendour. Otherwise ‘there is no power’ or ‘the bulbs don’t work’.
The Sun Temple is in Morar, the cantonment area of Gwalior. Set atop a freestone plinth in the midst of a neatly landscaped garden, it is built along the same lines as that of its more illustrious and famous ancestor, the Sun Temple of Konark, Odisha. Built during the 80s, the temple has been designed in such a manner that the first rays of the day touch the feet of Surya, or the Sun God, venerated inside. The carvings of Hindu deities, scenes from religious epics and those of other faith notables like Valmiki are a delight in their fine craftsmanship.
Tombs of Tansen and Ghaus
The only reason one would visit the old city Hazira, a cackling concoction of pedestrian, handcart, rickshaw and lorry, would be for the tombs of Mohammed Ghaus and Tansen next to each other. Earlier that day Vijay Singh, a descendant of an army commander who was in charge of the Fort security centuries ago, had asked me what I thought about Tansen resting in a smaller mausoleum than that built for Ghaus. Tansen being the greatest figure in Indian classical music scene and one of the Navaratnas or Nine Jewels in Akbar’s court. My possible explanation that maybe it was because Ghaus’ cunning which helped Babur take over Gwalior Fort – without bloodshed – didn’t cut ice. Frankly, I didn’t believe it either.
Ghaus’ tomb built by Akbar is a landmark in its amalgamation of different architectural styles – with hexagon towers in each corner, Gujarati embellishments and the gigantic dome made of stone shaped after the traditional wooden chatri over the tombs of Sufi saints. Tansen’s tomb, on the other hand, is a very simple structure open on all sides with a dozen outer and four inner pillars. Well, if you look at it, this would be exactly the way the singer would have wanted it: Megh Malhar, the miracle raga with the power to make it rain, composed by Tansen, was never intended to be rendered indoor. Whatever was overlooked in hindsight has been made up today with the Tansen Music Festival held near the tomb every year from November to December where the greatest names in Indian classical music get together for a five-day fiesta.
Next to the tomb is a tamarind tree, trussed into a wire mesh and called fondly ‘Tansen’s tamarind tree’. This is a much younger sapling which has replaced the original whose leaves Tansen used to chew before practice or performance. However this is not exactly a deterrent for wannabe singers – like me – from collecting a few painstakingly through the mesh and even trying out the Megh Malhar.
Maybe the tamarind or maybe the monsoon, it rained.