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A Whiff of the Past

Sanjay Singh Badnor

"I am Gwalipa the hermit and this hilltop is my home," booms the deeply sonorous voice of Amitabh Bachchan, its echo resonating against the walls of the Man-Mandir palace. He is referring to sage Gwalipa after whom the city of Gwalior takes its name. The hilltop of course is the city's impregnable fort. However, this is not a film shooting in progress but beginning of the pulsating Son est Lumeire show which I have decided to watch at the fort on my first evening on my first visit to this incredibly historical Gwalior city.

Only this morning I was in Delhi awaking at day-break and groggily heading for the New Delhi Railway Station to catch the Shatabdi Express to Gwalior. A most convenient train except for its rather early departure timing. Though by the time you have had a nap, a sumptuous breakfast is served which leaves you with just enough time for a browse through the morning papers and soon you can espy the imposing fort of Gwalior rising majestically over the horizon.

To my horror I suddenly realise that already a serpentine queue has formed at the carriage door. So terminating my fort-gazing I too join the other passengers as the train now rolls onto the platform demanding a somewhat hurried exit since the train's scheduled stop at Gwalior lasts only for a few brief minutes.

The hotel car and chauffeur receive me and avoiding the routine chore of haggling with cab drivers I head straight towards the Usha Kiran palace hotel.

One of the smaller palaces, it is part of the ostentatious Scindia palace complex which houses the splendid Jai Vilas as well as the older Moti Mahal palaces. A warm welcome awaits me (along with the usual Tikka and garlanding) at the porch from where twin marble stairways lead up to the reception area of the Usha Kiran palace.

Orignally built to house the important European guests of the Maharajah, this charming 30-room guest house was converted into a hotel and is now managed by the Welcomgroup chain of hotels. A leading member of the Heritage hotels of India, it was also the recipient of the 1993 Heritage Award for Excellence.

Usha Kiran palace has been named after the daughter of Late Maharajah Jiwaji Rao Scindia. Its architecture in keeping with the true Gwalior tradition has a rather interesting corridor enclosed on one side by exquisite stone filigree work screens. One thing in particular which strikes me are the rooms of the hotel. Unlike most hotels where it is common practice to standardise rooms, at the Usha Kiran, each room has its own separate identity. Strangely enough for some unknown reason I find myself being shifted to three different rooms during my short stay here. Though definitely a nuisance, at least I had the opportunity to stay in various rooms, each I must admit bore its own charm.

After unpacking and relaxing for a while I head for the dinning-hall for lunch after which I meet up with Rajeev Mehta (the enthusiastic GM of the hotel), who after briefing me on the hotel and the various sites of the city advises me to set off immediately for the fort. So in the afternoon begins my first assault on the 'great rock' or the spectacular hilltop fort of Gwalior.

"Situated on the northernmost tip of Vindhyachal, rising 300ft above ground level the Gwalior fort I feel is one of Asia's mightiest forts" voices Rajeev Mehta who has developed a fond attachment towards the city of Gwalior and its assortment of palaces, temples and other historically interesting sites. However the fort remains his favourite. Even Mughal Emperor Babur supposedly reffered to it as, "The pearl in the necklace of the castles of Hind".

The fort can be approached from two sides, the north-east route is the pedestrian path while the south-west entrance is the motorable way. I decide for the latter route. The fort rises 100 meters above the town and is about three kilometers in length and one kilometre at its widest. The fort wall which encircles almost the entire hill top is 10 meters high, beneath which is a sheer drop down to the plains. Although some of the inscriptions discovered on the fort indicate it was established as early as the 6th century, it was only around the 10th century when the Kachhwaha clan of Rajputs came into power that there is substantial documented data. It could be said that Gwalior's legendary beginning found its roots with the meeting of Suraj Sen and hermit Gwalipa.

A Kachhwaha Rajput prince, Suraj Sen was suffering from leprosy when he met the hermit at this hilltop who advised him to drink water from the nearby spring. Miraculously he was cured. In gratitude Suraj Sen enlarged the spring, built a tank around it (known as Suraj Kund) and decided to shift his kingdom to the hilltop. He christened it Gwalior or a boon from the sage Gwalipa.

Gwalior fort changed hands on several occasions. Suraj Sen's descendants held sway for almost 200 years and were succeeded by the Pratiharas who ruled till 1232 AD. When Iltutmish, the slave king of Delhi captured the fort it became part of the Sultanate and remained so till 1394. From 1398-1516 it was ruled by the Tomar dynasty when Ibrahim Lodhi besieged it. Subsequently it was passed on to the Mughal Emperor Babar till 1754. Then it were the Maratthas, the British and finally the Scindia's who retained control of the fort till independence.

The fort has had a chequered history. Several dynasties that ruled over it have added to the original structure resulting in a vast amalgamation of diverse styles of architecture, each bearing its own style.

Upon reaching the summit of the fort I go to the Northern end where the Jhangiri and Shah Jahan palaces are located. Distinctly muslim in their architectural styles, these two-storied each with large audience chambers.

In the same area is the Jauhar Tal or the tank dedicated to the Jauhar (mass immolation commited by the ladies of the Zennana) which took place when Iltutmish the slave king of Delhi besieged the fort and defeated the Parihar ruler. Another interesting cenotaph beside the tank is of Maharajah Bhim Singh Rana (1757-1785), the Jat chief of Gohad.

Next I visit the Man Mandir or the palace built by Raja Man Singh described by the historian Fergussen as "the most magnificent Hindu palace of India". The Man Mandir is a delightful building forming the central character of the fort when viewed from the city below. Aesthetically built, facing the eastern side overhanging a cliff it has six huge towers topped with cupolas. The entire facade is adorned with bright Indigo blue tiles in unusual designs and patterns. Particularly noteworthy is the widespread use of the duck motif in a striking yellow hue.

From the Man Mandir I proceed on to the three most interesting temples which date back to the 9th and11th century namely the Sas-Bahu and Teli temples. "The Sas-Bahu temple I feel was originally called the Shashtra Bahu (another name for Vishnu) temple," Rajeev Mehta. "The smaller one next to it was perhaps a Shiva temple, but over the years this pair of temples whose carvings can be compared to any of the great temples of India came to be known as the Sas-Bahu temples". Similarly he feels that the 70feet high Teli temple with a peculiar plan and the highest structure in the fort was probably known as the Telengana temple. It has a distinct southern Indian influence on its architecture especially the roof which is very Dravadian, although its decorative facade remains Indo-Ayran.