Madhya Pradesh, the ancient land of Malwa, is India’s largest state. Geographically it separates the desert areas of Rajasthan from the fertile Indo-Gangetic plain and the table-land of the Deccan. Located in the very centre of India, all trade routes across the country, and from north to south, had to pass through Madhya Pradesh.
However, the underlying sense of insecurity in the region fostered the construction of many formidable hill forts. The most outstanding of them being the fortress of Gwalior, perched on the great rock, which caused the Mughal Emperor Babar to refer to it as “the pearl in the necklace of the castles of Hind.”
Reaching Gwalior on the Shatabdi Express, despite having been told how impressive the Gwalior Fort was, I was 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 history of the great rock and how it came to be named Gwalior, is very colourful indeed. According to popular legend, Suraj Sen, a Rajput Chieftain from Kotwar was out hunting, and on the summit of the rock met Gwalipa, an ascetic who offered him a drink from the spring near his cave. After just one sip, Suraj Sen was miraculously cured of a skin disease that had bothered him for years. In gratitude, Suraj Sen enlarged the spring, built a tank around it (known as Suraj Kund) and decided to shift his base to the great rock. He named his fort Gwaliawar, or a boon from the Sage Gwalipa. A temple dedicated to the sun, stands next to the Suraj Kund, and an inscription in the inner walls dates it to 525 A.D., making it the earliest construction on the hill.
The great fortress of Gwalior, 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 untouched by the years.
There are three main entrances to the Fort. 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 by Sultan Iltutmish in the 13th Century that is commonly used. The first gate is the ‘Alamgiri Gate’ is a simply detailed entrance constructed by Mutamad Khan in 1660, and named after Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. The Badalgarh or Hindola Gate offers a fine example of Hindu architecture, and is named after Raja Man Singh Tomar’s uncle Raja Badal Singh Tomar.
Next to this gate is the Gujari Palace, built by Raja Man Singh for his favourite queen, the village maiden Mrignayani. The Palace has a central courtyard and small rooms around it, with carved brackets and blue tiled decoration. This fine building partly two-storeyed, now houses the Archeological Museum, that contains an outstanding collection of rare Brahmin and Jain sculptures, inscriptions and paintings. Among the most famous is the ‘Salab-hanjika’, an exquisite sandstone female figure— known as the ‘Mona Lisa’ of India, because of the provocative smile on the lips and the grace and beauty of the figure.
The ‘Bhairon Gate’, was demolished over a hundred years ago, and beyond this is the ‘Ganesh Gate’ built by Donger Singh in the 15th Century. Next to this stands a mosque and a shrine to Sage Gwalipa.
The ‘Lakshman Gate’ comes next, with the nearby Chatarbhuj Temple, built in 876 A.D., by Raja Mihir Bhoj. This small temple dedicated to Vishnu, is carved out of solid rock. Here, there is also the tomb of Taj Nizam, a noble of Ibrahim Lodi's court. Steps from here, lead to the rock-cut Jain images that cover the north-eastern side of the cliff. The Hathia Paur Gate is the final gate, before reaching Man Singh’s Palace. There was earlier, another gate, known as the ‘Hawa Gate’ which has now been removed.
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. Curved parapets link the towers, and the whole facade is covered with brilliant blue tiles. Even though some of the tiles have disappeared over the years, enough remain, to make visitors marvel at its beauty .
The southern facade is more diverse and picturesque, with the towers connected with lattice-work battlements. The entire face is enriched with tile work in unusual designs and motifs. Here there are friezes depicting animals and a most unusual banana tree motif in green, all set against brilliant blue tiles. The interior of the building is very ornate, and has two open courtyards, surrounded by suites of rooms, with elaborately decorated ceilings.
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.