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Day out in Gwalior!

While places in Rajasthan, Himachal and Uttarakhand are seen as most viable for planning short excursions from Delhi, few realise that Madhya Pradesh too is just round-the-corner! One of the many options here is Gwalior — a mere 3.5 hrs from Delhi by the Bhopal Shatabdi. Here is an account of our day trip to Gwalior!

The train ride to Gwalior itself is a pleasure ..particularly for it cuts through the enchanting Chambal ravines. Formed due to erosion by rainfall and the fast flowing Chambal river, the sight of the rugged and barren hillocks stretching for miles is truly awesome! Moreover, its notoriety for sheltering inter-state dacoit gangs in the past, adds a huge sense of mystery to it..drawing images of dacoits running on horseback even in broad daylight! A sight i always forward to when travelling through this part of the country!

As the train pulled into Gwalior station well before 10 in the morning, we walked with hurried steps to make the most of the day we’d got to explore a new city.

Without doubt it had to begin with a visit to the much-acclaimed Gwalior Fort.

The scene of many a battles and conquests, the Fort was held to be the most impregnable fortress in all of north and central India.

A Hanna Motana pinup at the back of an auto caught my eye.

Driving up to the Urvahi Gate of the Fort. Presently the main entrance to the Fort by motorable road. For those who prefer trekking up, access is from the Hathi Gate.

While there are varying accounts of the construction of the Fort, it was under the Tomar dynasty, founded by Bir Singh Deo, that it was rebuilt to achieve its present scale and grandeur. The magnificent Man Singh Palace was built by Man Singh Tomar, the most celebrated scion of this dynasty.

Gigantic images of Jain tirthankaras flank the road leading up from the Urwahi Gate. These were sculpted in the 15th century during the reign of the Tomar kings who were great patrons of Jainism.

First glimpse of the Man Mandir Palace on entering the Fort complex.

Embellished with blue mosaic tiles, the Man Mandir Palace is the most identifiable image of the fortress.

Row of yellow ducks on the walls of Man Mandir Palace

The guide entertained us with colourful stories of the royal life its kings lived, which made the otherwise empty pavillions and corridors come alive. One particularly charming story was of how the dasis would wear ghungrus (anklets with bells) in the morning and lightly dance around the king’s chamber to politely indicate that it was time for him to wake up! Gosh, what pampering!

Goodearth guides on sale in the small cafe near the entrance to the Palace complex <glee!>

The built structures in the Fort stand far apart from each other, accessed by motorable roads. Thus having a car to yourself drastically reduces the walking required. Our next stop in the Fort was the Saas Bahu Mandir.

Literally meaning the temple of the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law, the pair of temples was built by king Mahipal around 1093, supposedly for his mother and wife. Built in nagara style, both the temples are richly decorated with carvings of deities, human and animal figures, and geometric patterns.

Saas Temple, with the Bahu Temple in the background. The larger of the two, the Saas Temple is dedicated to Vishnu, while the Bahu Temple is dedicated to Shiva.

Intricately carved panel above the sanctum doorway in the Saas Temple.

Peering in to see what the sanctum holds. Presently, nothing but bats!

Carvings on the ceiling

Base of the pillars. Most dieties, figurines carved in the temple stand defaced.

Fort walls enclosing the temple complex

Bahu Temple sitting pretty on a high platform.

Quiet musings sitting on the Fort walls

The fort complex also encloses the Data Bandi Chhod gurdwara, believed to have been built where Guru Hargobind Singh was imprisoned by Jahangir for over two years. The name ‘Bandi Chhod’ meaning ‘free the prisoners’ comes from the story of how with his own release, the Guru aided the release of his 52 royal companions as well.

Walking across the central courtyard in the gurdwara

Like most gurdwaras, Data Bandi Chhod is a modern marble white structure.

While our original plan included lunching in town after the Fort visit, the early morning start and the sun growing sharper made us stop for langar in the gurdwara, which, nevermind the soupy dal, was more than welcome.

Langar being prepared in the courtyard.

Teli ka Mandir, seen from across the sarovar in the gurdwara

Our last stop in the Fort, the Teli ka Mandir is the largest temple in the complex. A mix of north and south Indian temple architecture styles, its gopuram like shikhara is mounted on a nagara base.

Teli ka Mandir, seen through its arched entrance.

Striking a pose against the towering walls of the temple

We discovered rock art on its stone walls!

Peek-a-boo! Gurdwara Data Bandi Chhod seen from Teli ka Mandir

After good 2.5 hrs spent in the Fort, and the sun beginning to beat down, it was time for a refreshing lunch break in town. We headed straight to Usha Kiran Palace, a heritage hotel managed by Taj. The choice befitted our day’s iterinary of heritage visits.

Before lunch began, it was time to cut the cake!

Yes, part of the reason for the day out had been the birth-day!

Rejuvenated from good continental food, we head out for our post-lunch plan – of visiting Jai Vilas Palace, the opulent residence of the Scindias, the erstwhile royal family of Gwalior. In fact, it is part of the same complex as the heritage hotel, in Lashkar.

Jai Vilas Palace. Though it continues to serve as the Scindia residence, a part of it has been converted into the privately-owned Jiyaji Rao Scindia Museum.

Starting with a gallery displaying the Scindias family tree and old photographs, to their belongings (including Madho Rao Scindia’s royal golf set!), the museum has several of their rooms on display — the dining room, queen’s dressing, scent room (?) with vessels that carried fragrant oils and perfumes.. The locals seemed to take in every little detail with a lot of awe, reverence and delight.

Inside Scindia Palace

Of the many stories abounding its splendour, perhaps the most impressive is which recounts that two enormous Belgian chandeliers, weighing 3.5 tonnes each, had been bought to be hung in the Durbar Hall. And to make sure the ceiling could take the weight, ten elephants were made to parade on the roof of the Hall!

It is also in Gwalior that the legendary musician Mian Tansen rests, and thus the city plays host to the annual Tansen Music Festival. His grave rests in a small marble tomb in a gardened compound along with several others. The most striking here is the tomb of Mohammad Ghaus, a 16th century Sufi saint and Tansen’s spiritual Guru.

Mohammad Ghaus' tomb viewed from the side. The sandstone mausoleum is a specimen of delicate craftsmanship, with intricate stone screens on all sides.

Lounge and gossip

Stunning jaali screens around Mohammad Ghaus' tomb.

By this time we were sapped of energy, and after walking around, lounged on the lawns just like the umpteen locals there (it turned out to be a popular hangout place) ..and waited for it to be time to drive to the station to catch our train back to Delhi.

Arriving back around 11, we looked forward to our soft mattresses and deep sleep. Long day no doubt, but amazing that we managed to see a whole new city in just that long! Day well spent!

* For someone wanting to stay for longer in Gwalior, the city offers enough! Our Gwalior City Guide can help you plan your iterinary.*

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Sonar Kella, The Golden Fortress – I

(This is the first of a two-part series on Jaisalmer. While this part deals with the city and the fort, the forthcoming installment shall take you to some places around the city. Stay tuned…)

'Sonar Kella' DVD cover

'Sonar Kella' DVD cover

The valour and adventure of the Rajputs and the mighty castles and the endless deserts of Rajputana has always intrigued a different set of people in another distant part of the country. The Bengalis were first exposed to the romanticised tales of the great warriors by Abanindranath Tagore’s Raj Kahini, published in the dying years of the 19th century.

This fascination was given a tangible manifestation by Satyajit Ray through his famous detective novel, Sonar Kella in 1971. The sleepy little town of Jaisalmer, a speck in the vast desert, almost overnight became the toast of the Bengali tourist. The phenomenon of the Bengali mass migration to Jaisalmer during Durga Pujo was further encouraged by the release of the movie in 1974.

It was the night of Diwali! This photograph was taken from the balcony of my room

It was the night of Diwali! This photograph was taken from the balcony of my room

As a kid, growing up in a middle class household in a small town, I feasted on the works of Ray and dreamt that I was one of his protagonists – a little bit of Feluda and often, parts of Professor Shanku. When Ray passed away in May, 1992, the government of West Bengal ran a retrospective of his movies. On the last day, they telecast Sonar Kella. I was seven years old then, and looking back, I can still see myself sitting on the floor with a white vest and a pair of black shorts, staring google-eyed as Feluda, Topshe and the incredibly endearing Jatayu travelled from one Rajasthan town to another in search of the boy who could remember his past life.

Funny though, is the fact that before I visited the golden city in October 2008, my vision of the town was in flashes of the grainy black and white of our antiquated Sonodyne television set.

The sun rises over a sleepy Jaisalmer. Photograph taken from the fort ramparts.

The sun rises over a sleepy Jaisalmer. Photograph taken from the fort ramparts.

During the Durga Pujo, last year when I started planning the  annual family trip, I had no idea that we would end up in Jaisalmer. I was thinking on the lines of Kanha – Bandhavgarh – Jabalpur. Fortuitously, one night as I was up rearranging an extremely dirty bookshelf, I came across a battered early edition of Sonar Kella. I immediately knew where going for the vacation.

As the train chugged into what was the cleanest station I have ever set foot in, I realised that almost the entire city was built of the same golden sandstone. I had booked a nice hotel at the base of the hillock on top of which stood the famed fortress. What sets this fort apart from the hundreds of others across the country is the fact that it is still living.  More than 10,000 people still reside inside the walls as did their ancestors hundreds of years back.

The fort still houses people. The city though has spilled the walls and continues to grab bits of the desert to feed its grredy expansion plans.

The fort still houses people. The city though has spilled over the walls and continues to grab bits of the desert to feed its greedy expansion plans.

It was Diwali, the day we reached. The hotel we were staying at, had a beautiful rooftop restaurant and was set against the background of the fort, lit-up in all its festive glory. We spent the evening on the terrace, soaking in the folk music and dance show organised by the hotel staff. I was all keen to explore the markets but travelling with parents in their late fifties always has its disadvantages, it seems!

The next morning, we woke up while it was still dark. I was surprised to see mom dressed and ready before me! In fact,  she was so eager to see the sunrise from the fort walls that she got out and started walking to the fort, instructing us to catch up with her when we were done. Catch up, we did and by the time we settled ourselves on a canon atop a bastion, the eastern sky  showed a light shade of crimson.

Mom and dad at the bastion from where we saw the sun rise

Mom and dad at the bastion from where we saw the sun rise

The sun, all of a sudden, leapt out of the dark and stood suspended at what seemed like a foot above the horizon for some time.  In the magic light of the morning sun, I witnessed for myself why Ray called it Sonar Kella. The yellow sandstone glowed in the soft light like gold,  like it was giving off its own light. The phantasmic light and the light footfalls of the early rising residents transfixed us on our perch. It was a long time before we uttered a word and even longer before we headed to the nearest chai shop.

Diwali decorations in the fort

Diwali decorations in the fort

The chai,  sadly, was not made of camel’s milk, as i had encountered in the novel, but came out of a polythene pouch which promised that its contents were fresh and pasteurised. The tea-seller, an old man, with whom I struck up a conversation told me how he could vaguely remember the shooting of Sonar Kella in the fort. After a rather nice conversation, we left him in his stall, but not before we had taken the direction of the fort’s exquisite Jain temples.

The alleys of the fort were liked with stalls selling touristy knick-knacks. Bright postcards, even brighter ethnic clothing and the somewhat outdated Kodak film rolls dominated the list of exhibits. There were also stalls selling turbans, again in bright colours. If you did not want to buy one, you could always get photographed wearing one at the stall!

Pretty turbans, all in a row!

Pretty turbans, all in a row!

This little guy puts on a dance item for you in return for a tenner!

This little guy puts on a dance item for you in return for a tenner!

The narrow lanes wound through the fort to ultimately lead to the twin Jain temples. Built by the local rulers sometime in the 16th century, the shrines are in a remarkable state of preservation. Inside the temples one could witness what ‘pin-drop silence’ actually was. It was a strange world of narrow corridors, walls lined with exquisite sculptures and the all pervasive aroma of incense lingering in the air.

A priest walks past the central neve of the Jain temple in Jaisalmer fort

A priest walks past the central nave of the Jain temple in Jaisalmer fort

It was nearly 1400 hours by the time we decided that we were done roaming around the fort. We went back to our hotel and after a light lunch of the extremely tasty daal bati churma, allowed ourselves to drift off to a peaceful afternoon siesta. We woke up when it was already dark outside. A quick cup of tea later, the Sen Roy family was out walking the lanes of Jaisalmer’s main bazaar.

The streets of Jaisalmer

The streets of Jaisalmer

The shops had on display, a fascinating range of wares. The chief attraction here are the artefacts made of  Jaisalmer’s famed golden sandstone. From chess sets, to coffee tables and images of deities, these golden objects dominated the show windows. Also popular here are items made of camel bones. Rajasthan is known for its colourful dresses which are further embellished with exquisite embroidery. A number of shops in the market displayed an impressive collection of these traditional textiles, many of which now rest in my mother’s wardrobe.

My girlfriend is more beautiful now!

My girlfriend IS more beautiful now!

Another highlight of the day was definitely the dinner. At the end of our (what I actually mean is, my mother’s) shopping spree, we started asking around for a decent place to eat. Turns out that only a handful of restaurants in the city served non vegeterian food, and people who know me, are aware of the fact that I am a strict non vegeterian. We were finally directed to a rooftop restaurant at the entrance to the market called the Trio. Spread out on the vast terrace of an old haveli, it presented a breathtaking view of the illuminated fort. Part of the restaurant was made to look like a tent, complete with plush cushions, soft carpets and even a multicoloured glass hubble-bubble. What was even better than the ambiance was the food. Nothing could have ended the day better than the rogan josh I ordered.

The illuminated fort viewed through the window panels of a restaurant.

The illuminated fort viewed through the window panels of a restaurant.

The day had been rewarding, and that night as I went to bed, it was nice to know that I would be in this town for another two days.

(to be continuoued…)

 

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