Just a few hours from Agra by train or road, Gwalior is famous for its old and very large fort. Within the fort walls are several interesting temples and ruined palaces. The dramatic and colourful history of the great fort goes back over 1000 years. Gwalior is 110 kms from Agra and a 2 hrs drive by road or a one hour train ride on the Shatabdi Express. You can travel to Gwalior from Agra and return on the same day.
Gwalior is dominated by its fort, which tops the long hill to the north of Lashkar, the new town. The old town clings to the hill, north-east of the fort.
Described as 'the pearl in the necklace of the castles of Hind' by the Mughal Emperor Babur, the Gwalior Fort was mightier than any other fort in the medieval ages. Naturally every powerful ruler dreamt of possessing it. It has fascinated historians and poets alike down the ages, and continues to do so. It also tickles one's curiosity because its origin is shrouded in mystery.
The Gwalior Fort has changed hands many times, from the Tomaras in the 8th century, to the Scindhias who were its masters when India became independent. and each of these dynasties adorned and embellished the fort. One cannot help being impressed with the perfect blend of the Hindu and Muslim architecture that characterises the fort and finds its fullest expression in this brilliant monument.
A few kilometres to the south of the Gwalior Fort, is the new town of Lashkar. It was established in 1809, and houses the Jai Vilas Palace. Lashkar was founded by Daulat Rao Scindia and served as a military base. By 1829, Lashkar was already a full-fledged town with wide streets, stone houses and a proper sewage system.
The gleaming white Jai Vilas Palace built by Lt.Col. Sir Michael Filose resembles a quaint Mediterranean resort. The palace was designed to resemble an Italian palazzo and constructed in three years flat (1872-74), to welcome the ‘Prince of Wales’ on his visit here. Although the palace was executed in sandstone, it was painted a brilliant white to simulate marble.
Though the present Maharaja still lives in the palace, 35 of its rooms house the Scindia Museum, which displays royal memorabilia. The Museum boasts of a remarkable collection of artifacts, culled from all over the world. A crystal staircase winds its way up to the spectacular Durbar Hall. The arched ceiling, with stunning gold leaf work, carries two of the world’s largest and most magnificent chandeliers, each weighing over three tons and holding 248 candles. The roof was tested in advance by getting 10 elephants to climb upon it via a two-kilometre ramp. The chandeliers were gilded with 56 kilograms of gold. Spread out across this very hall is the largest carpet in Asia, made in the Gwalior Jail.
The hall is dotted with all kinds of curios such as Belgian cut glass and crystal furniture – including a rocking chair. Stuffed tiger hides speak of the hunting expeditions of the erstwhile royalty of Gwalior. You will even find a Rolls Royce on rails and a German bubble car. Elsewhere, is a room of erotica where an explicit life-sized marble statue of Leda having her way with a swan, occupies pride of place. It should be mentioned here that according to Greek mythology, Zeus visited Leda in the form of a swan, and together they begot the famous Helen of Troy.
However, the most enchanting curiosity is the famous model train that circulates brandy, dry fruit and cigars around the table after dinner. The lifting of a container or bottle would automatically reduce pressure on the track and thus stop the silver train.
There are other places of interest in Lashkar that can easily be covered within a day. The other prominent monument in the new town is the Moti Mahal, which now houses government offices. What is noteworthy about this palace, are suites with coloured glass and mural paintings of scenes from Hindu mythology.
These chhattris are dedicated to the Scindias of Gwalior. The place is locally referred to as the Chhattri Bazaar and is close to the Jayaji Chowk – the main market of Gwalior. The most elegant of the chhattris is dedicated to Jayaji Rao. It is a massive oblong structure of sandstone, carved with mythological figures and crowned by a cupola.
Southeast of the Fort, on the way to the railway station is aMemorial to the Rani of Jhansi, Lakshmi Bai, who fought the British in India’s First War of Independence. A platform marks the spot where her zealous followers cremated her.
Extensive excavations are presently being carried out in these places around Gwalior and many interesting monuments have already been discovered. The Ater Fort (an Archaeological Survey of India site about 110km from Gwalior) was built by Badan Singh Badoria in 1701. An all out effort is now being to restore it to its former glory. Do check out the other places nearby: Shankar Mandir (a State Archaeology site), Sati Mandir and Chamunda Mandir.
Kherat lies 6km from Ater along an uneven but motorable road - be prepared for a bumpy ride, another site of great excavations in Gwalior. The last half kilometre has to be done on foot as it goes through a ravine. You’ll have to put on your walking shoes and trudge it for half an hour.
This site too is under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India. of the two temples you’ll find here, the Durga Temple is recent while the other is a 10th century brick structure. The Navgraha Murti (representation of the nine planets) that was originally installed here has been missing since 1986.
Kakanmadh too has been declaired as an excavation site, it is handed over to the Archaeological Survey of India for the restoration of the 11th century temple which is presently in disrepair. It is roughly 100km from Ater. While visiting any of these sites go prepared for an uncomfortable ride and take bottles of mineral water and some snacks along.
Apart from the above-mentioned Gujari Mahal Archaeological Museum and the Jai Vilas Museum, there are two more museums worthy of a visit. The Municipal Corporation Museum, Moti Mahal Road, has quite a collection of armoury and natural history. Open 1000-1630; closed Monday. . The Kala Vithika, MP Kala Parishad, has a fantastic collection of modern art. Open 0900-1700; closed Sunday; no admission charge.