Though located just 120 km from Agra, Gwalior only sees a minuscule share of tourists. The city rarely turns up in the itinerary of first-time visitors; many have never even heard of its name. However, those who travel to Gwalior will be astonished by the grandeur of its fort and palace.
“Are you here for business?” That’s the question I often get asked when visiting Gwalior, from my chauffeur, the local guide to even a passerby. It seems that this city is an unchartered territory for first-time visitors, so people are surprised to see one wandering around their city. At first, their questions made me doubtful about my trip. But when I reached Gwalior Fort which stands majestically above the city, I knew my decision was correct.
According to local lore, the fort was built to honor Gwalipa – a hermit saint living in the 8th century who cured the local chieftain of leprosy. Over the years, it grew into a prosperous city, connecting the northern and central parts of India. Ironically, due to its prime location, various rulers wrestled for control of Gwalior Fort, including Rajput kings, Delhi sultans, Mughal emperors, and the Maratha Scindia.
1. Gwalior Fort
Dominating an isolated plateau of red sandstone, Gwalior Fort is a sight to behold. It was reputed as one of India’s most impregnable fortresses, with a 3-kilometer-long rampart built around towering cliffs. Dotted along this structure is a series of bastions. It makes Gwalior Fort so formidable that even Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire, referred to it as “the pearl in the necklace of the forts of Hind”.
Behind the massive walls are buildings from different periods. There are palaces, temples, water tanks, and a prestigious private school established in the late 19th century. All are well-maintained and of great historical importance. They display the glorious past of ancient Indian royalty, as well as the skill of people in those times. And there is no better place to witness this than the beautiful Man Mandir Palace.
1.1 Man Mandir Palace
Dating back to the 15th century, Man Mandir Palace is the star attraction within the fort complex. It was built during Gwalior’s golden age by the King of the Tomar Dynasty – Maharaja Man Singh, a great patron of architecture and music. The palace has four stories, with two below the ground and two above. The upper floors were inhabited during the cool season, featuring courtyards, balconies, and lattice works. Meanwhile, on the lower floors, the thick stone wall and an effective ventilator system allowed residents to live under the extreme summer heat. The four levels are linked by numerous passages, staircases, and apertures, making the whole palace looks like a labyrinth.
In terms of decoration, Man Mandir Palace is a true embodiment of exceptional craftsmanship. Mosaics of turquoise, green and yellow glazed tiles adorn the outer walls, while elaborate pillars, intricate brackets, and magnificent fretworks embellish the interior. Unlike in Mughal architecture, animal motifs are widely used here, ranging from ducks, crocodiles, and peacocks to mythical creatures such as the Chinese dragons. These figures clearly reveal the influence of other cultures on ancient Indian architecture, as the result of a boom in trade with China at the time. The only parts that lack decoration are circular underground chambers which were turned into a prison under the Mughal regime.
1.2 Sas-Bahu Temples
A short walking distance from Man Mandir Palace is the ancient temples of Sas-Bahu. Constructed in the 11th century, this group of two pyramidal structures showcases the grandeur of the Rajput dynasty, Kachchhapaghata. They are made of rosy sandstone and consist of one big and one small temple. Despite what its name suggests, these temples are not the worship place of Sas (mother-in-law) and Bahu (daughter-in-law). Instead, they are dedicated to Lord Vishnu and his Padmanabha form. The name Sas-Bahu is thought to be derived from Sahastra Bahu, another name for Vishnu, meaning a thousand arms.
The two temples are placed adjacent to each other and are similar in appearance. The larger one has a central hall and is flanked by porches on three sides. The other, however, possesses only a vestibule and a small central hall. Like most Hindu and Jain temples in this region, the Sas-Bahu Temples suffered severe damage due to Hindu-Muslim conflicts. Their main sanctums were gone yet visitors can still appreciate the artistic value through the richly carved pillars and ceilings. A wide range of designs is applied here, such as elephants, dancers, and musicians, as well as floral and geometric patterns.
Even older than the Sas-Bahu Temples is Teli-ka-Mandir – a lofty Hindu temple that was built between the early 8th and early 9th centuries. This temple distinguishes itself from other buildings within Gwalior Fort by blending northern and southern Indian architectural styles. It features a rectangular masonry tower surmounted by a barrel-vault roof; somewhat similar to the Champa temples that I have seen along Vietnam’s coastline. The interior, which is approached by a short flight of stairs, contains a small antechamber and a proper sanctum.
Originally dedicated to Lord Vishnu, Teli-ka-Mandir is filled with symbols of the deity, such as coiled serpents, romantic couples, water nymphs, and the flying Garuda – the signature mount of the god. They are intricately carved on the archway of the main entrance. Other parts of the temple are more simply decorated with floral patterns and human figures. Unfortunately, most of these reliefs were defaced as a result of Muslim raids. Teli-ka-Mandir underwent restoration by the late 19th century. Yet a linga – an icon of Shiva – was installed inside the temple.
1.4 Siddhachal Caves
On the way down, I made a brief stop at Siddhachal – a group of Jain monuments that were hewn into the rock. It is the most visited among the five sites of Jain stone carvings on the hills of Gwalior Fort, built between the 7th century till the early 15th century. The statues depict 24 Tirthankaras in the typical naked form of Jain iconography. They are represented either seated in the lotus position or standing in kayotsarga posture.
Sharing a similar fate with Hindu temples, these Jain monuments were defaced and desecrated. But they are still considered lucky because they are not entirely destroyed like the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. Only the reliefs beneath the statues were left intact, which allowed archaeologists to identify the Tirthankaras. Today, the Jain community is still carrying out the restoration, with the damaged idols meticulously repaired with stuccos.
2. Jai Vilas Palace
After the decline of the Mughals by the 17th century, the Marathas seized control of a large part of the Indian subcontinent. But instead of consolidating all power, the Maratha rulers gave semi-autonomy to some of his commanders, resulting in a confederacy of Maratha states. In the case of Gwalior, the Scindia dynasty was at the helm and they resided in the opulent Jai Vila Palace. While descendants of the royal family are still living here, some part is now transformed into a museum.
Designed by the Italian architect Michael Filose, Jai Vila Palace is a beautiful combination of the Tuscan and Corinthian architectural styles. It contains about 400 rooms; 25 of which have been open to the public since 1964. Each room is lavishly furnished with antique furniture, exquisite handicrafts, and some bizarre items. For example, a model silver train that carries after-dinner brandy and cigars around the table, or a Persian rug that depicts personalities from across the world. Even Jesus Christ can be found on that peculiar carpet.
A fine example of European architecture in Central India.
Nevertherless, the pièce de résistance of Jai Vilas Palace is the grand Darbar Hall where the Maharaja and his court hold formal and informal talks. In this regal-styled space, the glorious past of the Scindia dynasty truly comes to life. The hall takes a page from the palace of Versailles, featuring a gilded interior, thick and intricate tapestries, as well as two spectacular crystal chandeliers. Each weighs 3.5 tons and it was said that eight elephants were suspended from the ceiling to test the stability of the roof.
Tips for visiting Gwalior
- Gwalior Fort is approachable by either foot or car. The first option is physically demanding because the hills are steep. But you can fully admire the scale of the rampart. By car is certainly more comfortable. Yet you must take into account the waiting time. There is only one road leading to the fort. So cars have to queue to go up and down.
- To fully enjoy the fort, it’s recommended to get a local guide. He or she will help you navigate around this massive fortress (and its labyrinth).
- Again, it’s possible to get the ticket online at the website of the Archaeological Survey of India (select Bhopal). The ticket costs ₹250 for foreigners (₹50 less than buying at the ticket office). The admission fee to the Jai Vilas Palace is ₹800. Mobile or still camera costs an extra ₹100.
- Please note that Gwalior is still off the radar for international visitors. Thus, the language barrier here will be greater than in other destinations.