Gwalior Fort is situated on rocky hill called Gwalipa in Gwalior, the district of Madhya Pradesh in India. Gwalior Fort is a hill-fort has existed since the 10th century. The inscriptions and monuments found within the fort campus indicate that it may have existed as early as the beginning of the 6th century. The fort has been controlled by number of different rulers in its history; Mughal Emperor Babur once referred to it as the ‘pearl amongst fortresses in India’.
The history of Gwalior Fort is rich enough to make travellers go far back in time. The main attraction of this fort complex are the astounding palaces that are not only rich in architecture but also have a story to tell. These are the ones you absolutely shouldn’t miss.
The Man Mandir palace was built by Raja Man Singh between 1486 AD and 1517 AD. The architecture of this palace is extremely stunning because of the use of styled tiles in turquoise, green and yellow extensively put together beautifully in a geometric pattern. According to the historians, the rooms inside the Man Mandir Palace served as the music room for the women of royal family. The palace can be entered through the ‘Hathi Pol’ or the Elephant gate.
Karn Mahal was built by the second king of the Tomar dynasty. The palace has been named after its ruler, Karan Singh. This palace has its own architectural elegance; definitely worth all the time and effort.
Then there’s the Gujari Mahal which was constructed by Raja Man Singh for his queen Mrignayani, a gurjar queen, who demanded a separate palace of her own, so that she could have her own water supply. Currently, the palace serves as an archaeological museum, where a good collection of weapons, stone artefacts and statues that are put on display.
Vikram Mahal was built by Vikramaditya Singh, the elder son of Man Singh. There was a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva inside the palace, that was destroyed during the Mughal period. Later, it was again restored in the front space of the mahal.
Gwalior Fort also houses some exquisite temples and water reservoirs among other things. Some note-worthy ones are Hathi Pol, Chhatri of Bhim Singh Rana, Gurudwara Data Bandi Chor and Suraj Kund which is a pond inside the fort, where the Rajput women folk performed ‘jauhar’ during an invader attack.
Gwalior Fort: The fort with a view
Gwalior is known almost exclusively for its huge 1000-year-old fort, which rises on a massif near the Chambal ravines.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
Gwalior Fort was, I was literally struck dumb by my first view. No matter how you approach the city, by air, rail, or road, the first glimpse of the ‘Great Rock of Gwalior’ is an awe-inspiring sight. The rock, which is completely flat on top, is almost 3 kms in length and on this stands this magnificent Fort. Within its formidable walls, there are palaces, temples, water tanks and even a school. The great fortress stands 300 feet above the country-side. Seen from the northern end, the view is spectacular, with a long line of battlements rising in some places to 35 feet, above the rock. On the western side of the hill are a deep gorge and the Urwahi valley. On the eastern and western side midway up the hill, there are innumerable massive Jain statues carved deep into the rock, which appear to remain untouched by the years.
There are three main entrances to the Fort, one in the east and two in the west. The eastern entrance was the main approach in earlier times and had six gateways – an example of the elaborate security system, resorted to by the rulers of Gwalior, through the ages. Now, however, it is the Urwahi road with its two gates, built in the 13th Century that is commonly used.
Undoubtedly the most important palace at the Fort, is the ‘Man Mandir’, or the Palace of Raja Man Singh Tomar, built between 1486 and 1516 A.D. Restored in 1881, the Palace built on the northern side over- hanging the cliff, has two levels above and two below the ground level. It is considered the most remarkable example of an ancient Hindu Palace in existence. The gigantic rock face, comprises a sheer wall of sandstone rock, punctuated by six massive rounded towers, crowned by domed cupolas. Earlier these cupolas were covered with gilded copper sheets. The whole facade is covered with brilliant blue tiles. enriched with unusual designs and motifs. Here there are friezes depicting crocodiles holding flower stalks in their tails, rows of yellow ducks, elephants, tigers, peacocks and a most unusual banana tree motif in green, all set against brilliant blue tiles. The interior is very ornate, and has two open courtyards, surrounded by suites of rooms, with elaborately decorated ceilings. Even though many of the tiles have disappeared over the years, enough remain to make visitors marvel at the beauty of this palace – an indication of the magnificence that caused Emperor Babar to call it ‘The Pearl of Hind.’
The underground sleeping chambers are an engineering feat showing ingenious methods of ventilation and lighting. Embedded iron rings in the ceilings were used to hang drapes as room dividers. Particularly interesting is Raja Man Singh’s bedroom, where 8 alcoves, leading from his chamber, were said to have been the bed chambers of his eight wives. Mrignayani, the 9th wife had a separate palace of her own the Gurjari Mahal.
The Badalgarh Gate named after Raja Man Singh Tomar’s uncle Raja Badal Singh Tomar, leads to the Gurjari Palace, built by Raja Man Singh for his favourite queen, the village princess, Mrignayani. This Palace has a central courtyard and small rooms around it, with carved brackets and blue tiled decoration. Partly two-storeyed, it now houses the Archeological Museum, with its outstanding collection of rare Brahmin and Jain sculptures, inscriptions and paintings. Among the most famous is the ‘Salabhanjika’, an exquisite sandstone female figure – commonly known as the ‘Mona Lisa’ of India, because of the provocative smile on the lips and the grace and beauty of the sculpture.
Underground passages from the ‘Man Mandir’, lead to the Vikram Mandir’ built in 1516 for Man Singh’s son Raja Vikram, and the Karan Mandir’ dated 1454, the palace of Man Singh’s grandfather. Also located in the same area are two Palaces, with architecture that is distinctly Muslim in character. These are the’ Jahangiri Mahal’ and the ‘Shah Jahani Mahal’. Both Palaces are two storied, and consist of large audience chambers and smaller bed chambers. The Fort also contains innumerable water-tanks. The ‘Rani Tal’ and Chedi Tal’ were built by Raja Man Singh and were used as swimming pools by the ladies of the harem, with Rani Tal being exclusively for the Queens. In the same area there is the Jauhar Tal, a pond created to mark the spot where the ladies of the royal harem committed Jauhar’ before the Raja fought his last battle with Iltutmish, the Sultan of Delhi.
Among the temples inside the Fort, is the Teli Temple oldest in the area, dedicated to Lord Vishnu, built by Raja Mihir Bhoj in the mid-eigth century. The temple is oblong in shape with Ganga-Yamuna figures at the entrance. Inside there are over a hundred panels depicting the various incarnations of Vishnu.
Another popular set of temples in the fort are the Sas – Bahu temples. Built at the time of the Kachhwaha rulers, Kirtiraya and Mahipal, the larger temple is known as the Sas (mother-in-law ) and the smaller Bahu (daughter-in -law).
Madhya Pradesh, the ancient land of Malwa, located in the very centre of India, had trade routes from north to south crossing through the region. Among the many formidable hill forts in the area, the Gwalior Fort perched on the great rock, is considered the most spectacular. No wonder, Mughal Emperor Babar referred to it as “the pearl in the necklace of the castles of Hind”.