Gwalior brings your school lessons alive. The memory of epic battles, musical geniuses, and brave dynasties is woven into the city’s fabric, presenting an opportunity to get acquainted with north India’s tumultous history. With its great shopping potential—Chanderi and Maheshwari saris, lacquerware, metalcraft, and hand-woven carpets—Gwalior has much to offer tourists. Of course, the roads are crowded and mostly narrow. Of course, the searing heat of summer can be hard to cope with, especially since most of its attractions—palaces, temples, the fort, tombs, and bazaars—are outdoors. But it is worth braving all that to see history come alive as you wander through Gwalior and its surroundings.
“This is no ordinary hilltop fortress. But a citadel that has directed the destinies of Hindustan,” Amitabh Bachchan’s baritone booms at the fabulous sound-and-light show at the Gwalior Fort every evening. It condenses a long and complicated history fairly successfully, so if possible, watch the show the night before visiting the fort (Shows daily; Hindi at 7.30 p.m.; English at 8.30 p.m.; duration 45 minutes; timings are advanced by an hour during winter; tickets ₹100 for adults and ₹50 for children aged 5-12 years; for foreigners, ₹250 for adults and ₹150 for children aged 5-12 years).
The magnificent Gwalior Fort, with soaring towers and jagged battlements, rises 300 feet above the ground on a hill in the centre of the city. It was considered one of the most invincible forts in India (Open daily, from sunrise to sunset; entry ₹5 per head; ₹100 for foreigners; free for those under 15) and dates back to the fifth century A.D., when it was called Gopagiri.
Dragons carved into the pillars in several parts of Gwalior Fort are believed to be a result of Chinese influence due to trade relations with the East. Photo: Exotica/Dinodia
A popular legend says that the city was founded in the eighth century by a chieftain named Suraj Sen. Beset with a terrible disease, he was cured by a saint called Gwalip. As a mark of gratitude, Sen named the city he built near Gopagiri after the saint.
Over the centuries, Gwalior Fort passed through the hands of several rulers—the Huns, princes of Kanauj, Kachwahas, Prathiharas, Qutub-ud-din Aibak, Akbar (who used the fort as a prison), the Tomars, Jats, and Marathas. There is some Sikh history too, as Guru Hargobind, the sixth guru, was imprisoned at Assi Khamba Bawri near the Man Singh Palace during Jahangir’s reign in the 17th century. Finally, in the early 19th century, the fort and city became the focus of a long tussle between the British and the Scindias.
The fort is accessible from two entrances. The Qila Gate, which is ideal for pedestrians, and the Urwahi Gate, which is accessible by vehicle along a long ramp.
The eastern wall of the Man Singh Palace is inlaid with blue, green, and yellow enamel tiles. Photo: Dinodia
Inside the fort are several palaces built by different dynasties. The most impressive is the Man Singh Palace built by Raja Man Singh Tomar during his reign from 1486 to 1516. The exterior of the palace is decorated with friezes of yellow and blue tiles, of which you can still see traces. There are also impressive jhimili or stone lattice-screens, cornices, pendants, and mosaics with floral and geometrical patterns. It is easy to lose your way in this maze of rooms, courtyards, corridors, and underground passages, so go with a guide or have a map handy.
On a lower level is Gujari Mahal built for Man Singh’s queen, Mriganayani. It has been converted into the Archaeological Museum (9 a.m.-5 p.m., except Fridays), and has a collection that includes coins, sculptures, pottery, and weapons. Among the most striking artefacts are a large, late ninth- to early tenth-century sculpture of Shalbhanjika and figures of Nataraja and Yama. Jahangir and Vikram Palaces are the other palaces worth visiting.
Local lore claims that Saas Bahu (a corruption of Sahasra Bahu, an avatar of Vishnu with 1,000 hands) is so called because the queen of King Mahipala worshipped at the Vishnu temple while her daughter-in-law prayed to Shiva. Photo: Dinodia
To the east of the fort is the Saas-Bahu temple complex from the 11th century. It is built in sandstone and dedicated to Vishnu and Shiva. According to Assistant Superintending Archaeologist of ASI, Gwalior, Manuel Joseph, it was possibly called Sahasra Bahu (or “thousand armed”, one of the names of Vishnu), which in time morphed into Saas Bahu. Nearby is the eighth-century Teli ka Mandir, which fuses architectural elements from north India (the decorative details are in the Nagara style) and south India (the shikhara is Dravidian). This 100-foot-high Vishnu temple was renovated for Shiva worship by later rulers.
Figures of Jain Tirthankaras were carved into both sides of the rock face of Urwahi road. There are also sculptures near Teli ka Mandir. Photo: Dinodia
On the slopes of the fort near the Urwahi gate are spectacular sculptures of Jain Tirthankaras, carved into the cliff face during the 15th century. These figures, in seated and upright positions, are sheltered within caves and niches. Visitors tend to congregate around the 57-foot-high statue of Bahubali.
Hidden in the by-lanes of Gwalior is Sarod Ghar, the ancestral home of sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan, which has been converted into a museum. It houses instruments used in Hindustani classical and north Indian folk music, besides old documents, books, and photographs. The items belong to Amjad Ali Khan’s ancestors and include gifts from other musicians. The street is named Haafiz Ali Khan Marg after Amjad Ali Khan’s father, an equally renowned musician (Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. all days except Monday; no entry fee).
Several wings of the Jai Vilas Palace, which was loosely modelled on the Palace of Versailles, now comprise the Jiwaji Rao Scindia Museum. Photo: Indiapicture
The Scindia family’s Jai Vilas Mahal—part of which is called the Scindia Museum—in Lashkar resembles an Italian palazzo and is filled with maharaja memorabilia. Built by the king Jayaji Rao in 1874 for the princely sum of one crore, part of this large royal residence has been converted into a museum. Highlights include numerous stuffed animals (especially tigers); and birds, and an exquisite hall carpet, which took 12 years to weave and is among the largest in Asia. The dining room houses the table with the famed silver train that moved on miniature rails and ferried after-dinner drinks and cigars around in crystal coaches to guests (Open 10 a.m.-4.30 p.m. except Mondays and national holidays; ticket sales stop at 4 p.m.; entry ₹100 for Indians, ₹600 for foreigners; camera ₹70; video ₹150).
The mausoleum of 16th-century prince-turned-Sufi saint Hazrat Mohammed Ghous in Hazira (2.5 km from Gwalior railway station), which is called the Old Town or Old Gwalior, has typical Mughal architecture: hexagonal towers capped at the corners by small domes, lattice work on the walls, and a large central dome. The complex is laid out in the style of a typical Mughal garden. To the right of the tomb is a small, simple samadhi of Tansen, the celebrated singer and composer of Akbar’s court. Ghous was Tansen’s spiritual mentor (Both mausoleum and samadhi open from sunrise to sunset, daily, free entry). These dusty grounds are the site of the annual Tansen Sangeet Samaroh music festival, held in December.
Sufi saint Hazrat Mohammed Ghous was so revered that even invading Mughal emperor Babar paid his respects at his tomb. Photo: Aruna Chandaraju
Tansen isn’t the only piece of Gwalior’s music history. The Gwalior gharana is one of the oldest khayal traditions, while the musical genre of dhrupad evolved here. Others who contributed to the city’s celebrated musical legacy include Raja Man Singh Tomar, who was a singer and author of the lost musical treatise Man Kutuhal. The great musician Baiju Bawra is said to have lived here for most of his life. Many famous performers from the Bangash family, including Amjad Ali Khan, were connected to Gwalior. All this has led to the folk saying that when a baby cries in Gwalior, it cries musically.
Next to the Tansen shrine is a tamarind tree that is believed to have miraculous powers: performers who eat its leaves are gifted the ability to sing like Tansen. A musician-friend had told me that the tree becomes denuded by the end of the Tansen Samaroh, after hordes of visiting musicians have helped themselves to the leaves. Checking that no one was in sight, I plucked two leaves, chewed on them and swallowed slowly. Back at the hotel, I switched on my digital tambura and tested my voice. There wasn’t any noticeable improvement. Perhaps I hadn’t eaten enough leaves. Reason enough for another visit.
The best-known local products are snacky namkeen and gajak, a crunchy sweet made with sesame seeds and jaggery or sugar. Patankar Bazaar,Maharaja Bada, and Sarafa Bazaar are noisy and chaotic but great places for getting well-known products from the state like Chanderi and Maheshwarisaris and stoles, mulberry fabric, handwoven carpets, metalcraft, and leatherware. Remember to bargain hard. The state government-run Mrignayanee emporium at Sarafa Bazaar is great for fixed-rate shopping.
Those tired of sightseeing can head to Tigra Dam (about 23 km/30 minutes away) for a dose of adventure sports. Besides boating (speed boat ₹250, seats 3; paddleboat ₹100, seats 4), there is a small cruise on the jalpari that costs ₹75 per head for at least 10 passengers. The dam area is a popular picnic spot, with a cafeteria. River rafting (during monsoons and winter only), parasailing, and rock climbing are occasionally offered here but make sure the organisers use proper gear and safety equipment.
Usha Kiran Palace Housed in a 120-year-old palace, this Taj heritage hotel transports guests to the royal era. The silver saloon restaurant serves signature Maratha and Nepali cuisine favoured by the kings of yesteryears, while Jiva Spa offers a long list of treatments (Jayendraganj Lashkar; 0751-2444000; www.taj.tajhotels.com/en-in/usha-kiran-palace-gwalior; doubles from ₹7,000).
Deo Bagh This 17th-century property was refurbished by the Neemrana Group of Heritage Hotels, and now has plush, spacious rooms offering an old-world experience with all mod-cons (Opposite Janaktal, Agra-Mumbai Highway, 0751-2820357; www.deo-bagh.neemranahotels.com; doubles from ₹4,500).
Tansen Residency The state government-run Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Development Corporation hotel offers clean, comfortable, no-frills, accommodation (Gandhi Road; 0751-2234557, 4056726; www.mptourism.com; doubles from ₹2,990).
Hotel Gwalior Regency Located near the railway station, the hotel offers contemporary style rooms and has the popular multi-cuisine Daawat restaurant (New Bus Stand; 0751-2340670/74; doubles from ₹3,700).
Appeared in the August 2013 issue as “Living History”.
Gwalior is located in northern Madhya Pradesh in central India. It is 420 km/9 hours north of the state capital, Bhopal, and about 330 km/6 hours southeast of Delhi.
Air The nearest airport is in Agra, about 118 km/2 hours north of Gwalior. From there, taxis charge about ₹1,500 for the one-way journey.Rail Gwalior Junction railway station has direct trains from Delhi that take about 5 hours. The most convenient option is the Bhopal Shatabdi, which leaves Delhi early in the morning and reaches in 3.5 hours. Road For the first 210 km of the road trip from Delhi, take the expressway until Agra. Roads are smooth and the drive takes about 3-4 hours. However, during the winter, early mornings and evenings on the route can be very foggy. The second leg of the trip, about 120 km, will take 2-3 hours. Take the Agra bypass to avoid getting caught in city traffic.
Auto rickshaws, three-wheeler tempos, tongas (horsedrawn carriages), private cabs, and metered taxis are easily available in the city.
Monsoon (July-Sep) and winter (Oct-Feb) are the most comfortable times to visit. Though the temperature can drop to 0°C on winter nights, the days are still quite warm. Summers (Mar-June) can be scorching hot with the mercury going up to 47°C.
is a freelance journalist, photographer and translator. She writes on travel, art and culture. She has been trained in classical dance and music.
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