Gwalior Fort: The fort with a view

Gwalior Fort: The fort with a view
Photo Credit: Nagarjunkandukuru

Gwalior is known almost exclusively for its huge 1000-year-old fort, which rises on a massif near the Chambal ravines

Mitali Saran
December 21 , 2015
09 Min Read

I pause before a huge Jain statue to catch my breath. Its face is dignified despite the beehive hanging off its chin like a goatee. At least it still has a face—many of the other statues carved into the hillside have had theirs gouged out. Eyeing the rest of the road, I hope it’s worth the climb.

I’m walking up to Gwalior Fort from the southeastern Urwahi Gate. “Gwalior is a horrible town,” the autorickshaw driver informed me bluntly on the way. “I’m a B.Com graduate but there aren’t any jobs. There’s bad electricity, diesel pollution, no traffic rules, and nothing to do. I want to go back to Meerut.” Our hotel waiter was grinning from ear to ear at the thought of leaving. “My uncle is ill so I’m going back to Simla!”. Tom, toiling up behind me, is a German student who has driven to India alone, in a Fiat he rescued from the scrapyard. He crossed Iran, the Afghan border, and Pakistan, without so much as a flat tire—until some jerk smashed his windscreen in Gwalior. Now looks grumpy.

Karoki and I have turned up to find out why anyone might come to Gwalior. The feedback so far suggests that nobody should. It’s a sleepy little town, dirtyish, dustyish, drearyish. I see a traffic island created by a mass of pigs cuddled up mid-road, and snoring. A tempo-taxi knocks over a vegetable cart and goes on its way—as does the ancient vegetable seller, who simply creaks to his knees and slowly gathers his aloos. Gwalior is known almost exclusively for its huge 1000-year-old fort, which rises on a massif near the Chambal ravines.

Inside the fort we fend off small toothy boys who want to be our guides and explore the ruined palaces and temples—the Shah Jahan Mahal, the Jehangir Mahal, and the Jauhar Kund. I catch a few winks in the ‘Sasbahu’ temples (built in the 9th century for a mother and daughter-in-law who couldn’t agree on whether to worship Vishnu or Shiva). The Teli ka Mandir is a strange 100-foot tall 9th century structure which, in cross-section, looks uncannily like a dowdy handbag. Nearby is a Gurdwara built for Guru Hargobind Singh.

The Raja Mansingh Palace, the glory of the fort, is a pretty vision of blue, green, yellow and red tiles in the shape of peacocks, parrots, crocodiles, elephants and tigers, and some of the most delicate stone carving I’ve ever seen. The Archeological Survey of India guide leads us through labyrinthine underground passages. The room where the queens took their afternoon siesta was used as a dungeon by Aurangzeb, who also executed his brother Murad there. Even further down, the royal ladies’ baths receive daylight thanks to an ingenious ventilation system.

Karoki proclaims ownership of the fort; we pick a nice gallows tree and make a list of royal edicts starting with a hefty tax on the citizenry and a list of all crimes punishable by death, such as sedition, and interrupting a siesta. A cloud of ragged children escort us around their favourite playgrounds, including a balcony overlooking the 15th century Gujri Mahal. This palace, built for Raja Mansingh’s favorite wife Mrignayani, is now a museum whose greatest treasure is an exquisite statuette of Shalbhanjika, the tree goddess. The curator slowly reaches into a dusty cupboard, and extracts a dusty pouch containing a dusty key. We wait, swatting off flies, for the electricity to return. When it does, he unlocks a dusty door fronting a steel gate dubiously sealed with a Harrison lock (the keyhole of which is cunningly covered with scotchtape). The curator keeps up a low philosophical rumble about the ills of government budgeting and how they can’t even get decent security for a piece of art worth a couple of crores of rupees.

Prettiness apart, Gwalior Fort is a military masterpiece. We stare out over the western ramparts, gilded by the setting sun, at the town, the plain, and a speck on the horizon which I imagine must be Iran. The 35-foot high walls are sheer rock towering almost 100 feet over the town. The fort is horribly romantic at dawn and dusk, but don’t be fooled by that: you’d have to have balls of steel to get bolshy with it.

It’s said that in 8 AD the chieftain Suraj Sen established a town here named after the hermit Gwalipa, who cured him of leprosy. Gwalipa apparently renamed Suraj Sen ‘Suhan Pal’ and warned that his family would remain in power as long as they retained that name. Things chugged along until some upstart unbeliever in the 84th generation decided to call himself Tej Karan, and immediately lost the fort. In the 14th century Raja Mansingh Tomar was challenged by Ibrahim Lodi, who after two years of siege lost patience and dynamited his way in. Then Babur took what he called the “pearl in the fortresses of Hind”. The fort then fell to the Marathas, the British, and finally came to the present Scindia royal family. (Madhavrao Scindia is the local god; his son will now follow in his footsteps.)

All this I learn at the sound and light show—narrated, every Gwalior resident will tell you with pride, by Amitabh Bachchan. It is held before a bank of stone steps overlooking a platform, and is currently running to a rapt audience of about six. Blue, red and golden lights illuminate the fort; the clash of hooves and battle rings out into the night. A crisp evening breeze ruffles my hair. Gwalior town glitters mistily below like a fairyland; Cassiopeia, Taurus and Orion swirl overhead; I’m slightly weak in the knees, and resentful about not being one of the queens who spent their time swinging idly on jewelled swings in cool underground chambers, and bathing in ittar-scented tanks.

We head for the Regal Hotel for a cold beer. The tiny bar is lit with 20-watt bulbs and I’m the only woman. We retire to the ‘family section’ and order sikh kebab and a Hunter. Krishna and the Gopis frolic next to a whisky ad on the wall. “No sikh kebab,” says the waiter presently. Tangri kebab, then. The family section suddenly fills up, especially after I light a cigarette. The waiter returns apologetically. “No tangri kebab.” Right, tandoori chicken then. Someone informs us that the two tiny booths with heart-shaped chairs are for those who need to hide and drink—not me, though, he adds hurriedly, there’s no problem with me. The waiter returns. “No tandoori chicken,” he says sadly.

At dawn we’re at Gwalior Gate, at the northeastern edge of the fort in the heart of Hazira, the old town. Mr Gupta, an advocate who happens to be brushing his teeth on his balcony, lets us take pictures from his terrace. Like many Gwaliorites he often shins up to the fort for a constitutional. The bazaar is in full swing. From 6 am to 9 pm it’s a riot of noise, at the moment mostly comprised of loud comments about us (Pictures of subzi! These tourists are crazy).

We potter around the Muslim mohalla and the Jama Masjid (1661). There are about thirty barber shops side by side, and lots of gajak on sale. A child grabs our sleeves and pulls us into a house. Ducking inside, I see 30-odd people on the stone floor of the courtyard, roasting sesame seeds in huge pots, heating sugar and jaggery and then cooling the gluey mixture by stretching it repeatedly (it changes from dark brown to gold to a shining silver mass), mixing it with sesame and beating it into thin slabs to be cut up and packed.

I have a brief, unsuccessful go at wielding the heavy mallet. The men who work at this have superbly muscled shoulders. They dare me to handle the sticky mass of warm sugar, and I flinch at first touch. They hoot with delight and show me their hardened palms, lumpy with permanent blisters. “We sell the gajak to baniyas at Rs 27.00,” someone tells me. “They sell it on the market at Rs 60.” Why don’t they sell directly? “It’s just that when it comes to business, there’s a little”—delicate pause—“problem between Hindus and Muslims. Not in any other way,” he adds emphatically.

We make our way to the towering dome of Ghaus Mohammad’s tomb as the light fades. Warm yellow lights turn the incredible screenwork into a gauzy stone veil, and strains of Shujat Hussain Khan’s sitar music are drifting upon the air. The musician Miyan Tansen, one of the “nine jewels” of the Mughal court, is buried at the foot of Ghaus’s tomb among a host of other devotees. His maqbara, with a tamarind tree at the corner, is the backdrop of an annual music festival which we have fortuitously stumbled into.

We return here the next afternoonto do something important. A troop of female NCC cadets have gotten there ahead of us, the commanding officer barking orders: “Eat the leaves of the imli tree!! It will sweeten your voice!!” When they’ve marched off to appreciate other things in an orderly manner, I pluck a few leaves for myself—the lower-lying branches are bare. Tasting the tart juice, I hope against hope that it will do for me what it reputedly did for Tansen. (It doesn’t.)

The Surya Mandir in Morar, billed as one of the sights of Gwalior, is the Birlas’ rip-off of the Sun Temple at Konark. It’s a pink sandstone structure set in an Eden-esque glory of flowers and lawn, but entirely fails to move the spirit. And we can’t leave Gwalior without visiting the Tuscan-Corinthian design Jai Vilas Palace, 35 rooms of which are devoted to a suitably eccentric royal museum. There are the expected collections of gifts, armaments, manuscripts, furniture, and some truly abominably painted rooms. A silver train that ran along the long banquet table ferrying various eatables is worth looking at, but the highlight of the palace is the great Durbar Hall, gilded with 58 kilos of gold and lit by two chandeliers so immense that they first hung elephants on the ceiling hooks to see if they would take the 3.5 tons of weight each.

Rattling back to Delhi on the Taj Express, I find myself reluctant to leave. This little town has quietly grown on me in ways I couldn’t have imagined; it seems a shame that so many people see it only as a stop on the way to elsewhere.

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