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India: Madhya Pradesh: Bandhavgarh & Kanha, Gwalior, Omkareshwar
Gwalior, India: One big work of art
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
It's very rare to see works of art all around a town. Gwalior is indeed one such. I was amazed to see fascinating carvings of stone in every street, every alley that I happen to cross. As I sank deeper, I realized Gwalior is not only rich in architecture but is equally brilliant in culture and Indian music too. Tansen (amongst Emperor Akbar's 9 Jewels) & Baiju Bawra (the master classical singer) hail from Gwalior. And so does sarod (Indian musical instrument) maestros Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan & his son Ustad Amzad Ali Khan.
Just an hours drive from Agra, Gwalior is a must do for people interested in history and period architecture. The city can be a good starting point to visit Orchha and Khajuraho temples. It's rather unfortunate that the Government of the State of Madhya Pradesh has fallen short of marketing Gwalior as a tourist destination. Even I would have missed the glory of this town had it not been for my sister Smita who lives there with her husband Sudarshan. The couple, especially Sudarshan is a die hard fan of Gwalior. He has studied the city inside out. Reason why, I am able to share some of the hidden gems with you.
Like most visitors who do land up in Gwalior, the tour starts with the Fort. And probably ends there save for a quick visit to the palace museum at the foothills. But for me it was a different story. The Fort was just one of the many captivating sights.
Rising 300 feet up, the Gwalior Fort with a perimeter of about 12 kms is the second largest of its kind in the country, the first being the Fort of Chittorgadh in the neighbouring State of Rajasthan. The Fort is home to fine architecture and has witnessed many historical upheavals right from the beginning of its inception. Bitter wars for power saw the reins change hands from the Prathihars to Kachhapghat to Lodhis to Tomars to Mughals to Rajputs to British - in treaty with Scindias - the rulers of Gwalior State before India became a Sovereign Nation in 1947.
Adoring the skyline atop are Teli Mandir (built by monies contributed by oil traders), Sahastra Bahu Mandir (temple of the lord with thousand arms) also known Saas Bahu Mandir (literally meaning the temples for a lady and her daughter-in-law), hunting lodges of Shaha Jahan and Akbar, Johar Kund (wherein the Rajput queens sacrificed their lives on a burning pyre to mourn the deaths of their warrior husbands); royal guest houses, ordinance structures built under the British rule and of course the famous Man Mandir Palace. Save for the Palace and the Sahastrabahu Mandir, which are under the control of Archeological Survey of India, the rest of the ruins have been badly neglected by the management under the control of the State Government. The Fort has a Gurudwara, the sanctum sanctorum of the Sikhs. It's here that their Guru Gobind Singh helped release 51 of his disciples held captive. Also atop is the Scindia Public School.
Man Mandir Palace was built by Raja Man Singh of the Tomar dynasty in 1516. It took 30 years to build the palace that has been carved down 4 levels from the top. The façade as well as the many rooms within display fine carvings in stone and ceramic inlay work. Precious stones were once abound, but were removed by the invaders in later years. The palace is an engineering marvel too. It has rooms that stay cool in summers and warm in winters. It has communication systems that allowed the queens to send and receive messages from their private quarters and indoor pools to members on other floors. Mirrors places strategically on the walls of the auditorium reflected lights on performers centre stage. In the 16th century, Man Mandir Palace functioned as prison during the Mogul reign. I certainly advise visitors to hire a guide to explore the finer nuances of Man Mandir Palace. There's a nightly sound and light show in Hindi and English that runs the visitors through the history of the Fort.
In the city below, Bada also known as Jiwajirao Square is Gwalior's most important and the busiest junction of roads. Surrounding the garden in the centre, the circus has 6 distinct structures each one built with different architecture. Greek, Gothic, Mughal, Indian, Victorian and Roman. I have never ever seen a place with such a variety of structures adjacent to each other. I only wish the local authorities do something about the upkeep of the area.
As we drove through congested road and alleys, the homes on either side of the road left a lasting impression with their fascinating stone work on the balconies. Richer the family more intricate the stone work. Sad though, that most of these homes have not taken due care to look after this rich legacy (and not necessarily wealth) that was handed down from centuries. I can't blame the folks. After all, winning the daily bread today is a priority. Not only homes, but even colleges, hospitals, libraries, temples, tombs have been elaborately constructed to mirror the magic of the bygone era.
Speaking of homes how can one forget the Palace of the Scindias. A potion of the palace is the royal residence and part has been converted into a museum. A must see at the museum is the durbar hall that has 2 of Asia's largest chandeliers, world's largest woven carpet and the intriguing state dining room that has a miniature silver railway carrying crystal bottles of liquor chugging on the dining table. The train stops when the guests lift the bottle and moves forward when the bottle is placed back. The train goes round and round, till, I believe, the guests are fully intoxicated. Oh! So were the days of the raj. The museum has works of art from all around the world. Ivory, furniture, chandeliers, paintings, carriages… et all.
For visitors, Gwalior does have many hotels albeit the city could do with more rooms. Taj group's Usha Kiran Palace hotel certainly ranks amongst the best in the region. Surprisingly, the price tag for the rooms and suites is not prohibitive especially if you compare with similar hotels from the Taj group. I recommend at least a night's stay in this beautiful place that has been refurbished. The courtyard, the fountains and the intricate stone work around the building is pure magic.
Now for a surprise. The next morning we drove just 30 kms. to reach 3 sites that to me were archeological wonders. Even most of the locals I met were not aware that Padhavali, Batesar and Mitavali had to offer. Excavation and restoration work is on. If it's so beautiful now, I would like to see when the restoration is complete a few years from now.
The temple of Garhi Padhavali originally consisted of an elaborate sanctum sanctorum. However what remain now is the mukhamandapam - the entrance of the temple. Built in the 10th century, the interior of the structure is richly carved with designs of various deities including Bramha, Vishnu, Mahesh, Ganesha, Surya and Chandi. The reliefs also narrate various mythological stories. The temple was later fortified by the rulers of Jat Ranas of Gohad in the 19th century.
At Batesar a group of ruined temples spread near the western slopes of an isolated hill, are made from stone masonry. The ruins are comprised of temples, pillars, architectural members, stepped water tanks, gateways which can be linked to post Gupta to early Pratihara period. One of the surviving temples dedicated to Lord Siva, known as Bhuteswara Temple shows all the features of Pratihara art.
A few kms. away, on a hill surrounded by lush green vegetation, stands the circular temple at Madhavali. About 200 steps take you to this fantastic structure that reminded me of the Indian Parliament building. The sanctum sanctorum has 71 Shiva lings, each in its own room. Inner circular structures are well coordinated with the main outer circular structure. Thankfully, the structures are quite intact as when it was built in the 10th century.
The destination next morning was Agra. Enroute, about 30 kms. away, in the middle of the Chambal ravines, I was delighted to see a Ghariyal & Crocodile sanctuary. Ghariyals are found only in India and most of them are found in the Chambal river. Eggs are collected from the shores of the Chambal and are hatched in the sanctuary. When the Ghariyal and Croc babies attain a length of 4 feet, they are released in the Chambal river. The numbers are getting healthier.
Few kms further up from the sanctuary there's a river safari. Motor boats are available to ride the Chambal to view river dolphins, a variety of local and migratory birds, Ghariyals & Crocodiles. We hired the boat for half an hour. Sadly we missed the dolphins but were indeed lucky to see some birds in action and the big reptiles basking on the banks.
Time to head towards the epitome of love - The Taj Mahal.
Gwalior Image Gallery Photo viewer
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