An August 2010 trip
to Gwalior by phileasfogg
Quote: This busy town in central India is home to one of the country’s most imposing fortresses. It has some fine baroque palaces. It also boasts of the tomb of medieval India’s greatest musician. And has a past that lies deeply embedded in legend. Gwalior.
Day 1: Delhi to Gwalior
321 km, 8 hours. We leave Delhi at 8.30 AM, and crawling through Faridabad, realise we should have started off earlier. The traffic is horrendous.
It takes us over 30 minutes to plough our way through Faridabad, and then we’re on our way. This is National Highway (NH) 2. A broad smooth tarred road, flanked by green fields, and the occasional interesting sign (A miniature mall named Pappan Plaza in Palwal; an Institute for Research in Goats near Agra). The towns—Ballabhgarh, Palwal, Kosi, Mathura, Agra itself—are where we have to slow, because the roads are narrower and there’s more chaotic, slow-moving traffic such as bicycles and rickshaws. Between towns, the road’s clean and clear enough for us to travel at 100kmph, which by Indian standards is very good.
Much of this is a toll road, and we pay up at the toll plazas (‘Ticket is printed on the backside’, reads the receipt. Hmm. Whose backside?) Shortly after Mathura, just opposite the Mathura Oil Refinery, we break for an early lunch at MacDonald’s. I’m not a fan of the golden arches, but this is about the only place for miles along NH2 where you can get a clean toilet.
Agra, with the awesome Sikandra (the tomb of the Mughal Emperor Akbar) comes about 50 km after Mathura, and at Agra, we turn onto NH3, which goes to Gwalior. We’ve already passed through three states: Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Now we go through Rajasthan and then enter Madhya Pradesh. The most (in)famous area here is the river valley of the Chambal River. The Chambal Ravines were, in the mid and late 1900’s, the home of gangs of very ferocious bandits (always called dacoits in India). They’ve been largely exterminated—my father was a cop in the Chambal area back in the 70’s and was part of the police’s anti-dacoity campaigns. Those dacoits that survived have taken to more lucrative professions, such as politics.
We go past Noorabad, with its decorative old stone bridge; and 30-odd kms past Morena, to Gwalior, where the road is appalling. There are potholes and towering ridges of mud and gravel. A terrifying 45 minutes of this, with our car spattered with red mud and both of us worn to a frazzle, and we finally arrive at the Usha Kiran Palace.
Day 2: Gwalior
We hire a car and driver at the Usha Kiran Palace, for which we’ll have to pay Rs 1,070 for a half day’s hire. It spares our car the terrors of Gwalior’s roads, and we don’t need to find our way around. If we were on a budget, flagging down an autorickshaw would be cheaper.
We get the driver to take us to the Tomb of Tansen and his mentor, Ghaus Mohammad. Both mausoleums are impressive: the mentor’s for its magnificence, the mentee’s for its historicity. Enjoyable 45 minutes here, and then we go up the hill to the Gwalior Fort. The fort, with a circumference of 10 km, is the second largest in India (the fort at Chittor has a circumference of 14 km and tops the chart). It’s bursting with palaces, temples, a gurudwara, and other buildings—including a boarding school, the elitist Scindia Boys’ School. Past a series of monolithic Jain statues, we arrive at the Man Mandir Palace, where we are approached by a tourist guide, whom we finally hire for Rs 190. Our guide takes us around the areas surrounding the Man Mandir Palace (this is where some of the most historic parts of the fort are located), then to two sets of temples—the exquisite Saas-Bahu Temples and the Teli ka Mandir. That done, and having pointed out other interesting buildings in the fort (the TV tower, the old toilets of the gurudwara, the school’s ugly blue-painted dining hall, etc), he leaves us.
We head back to Usha Kiran Palace, have lunch and rest a bit before walking to the nearby Jai Vilas Palace Museum. The lack of decent labelling and the shoddy maintenance here gets on my nerves (why put silver statues on display if you have to cover them with clear plastic to stop them tarnishing?). Gwalior and the Scindias need to hire someone qualified and experienced to take a good look at its tourist sights and do some rethinking. Serious rethinking.
Day 3: Gwalior to Khajuraho
280 km, 8 hours. Time to move on. From Gwalior, we take NH 75, and are soon out in the countryside. The abundant monsoon rain has turned the vegetation a million shades of green, dotted with large bell-shaped mauve flowers in places, flaming red lily-like blooms in others. There are fields of white-flowering crops (lentils?), and bushes of lantana, with orange and red flowers. The earth is a vivid, deep red. Lovely. The road, on the other hand, is frightful, unbelievably rough and potholed almost all through.
Past Datia (we can see the magnificent Veer Singh Palace atop a hill: we plan to visit that on our way back), we travel on to the large cantonment town of Jhansi. This is where we turn onto NH76, and suddenly, things are a lot better. The road is vastly smoother, and the countryside has more variety: we pass through patches of fairly dense forest, and then through a series of small, bustling towns that specialise in schools with the oddest of names: Daisy Moral Higher Secondary School is the highlight of one place; Daffodil Glorious Higher Secondary School is another. What will they think of next? Chrysanthemum Righteous?
We realise that we’ve made a major mistake by not bringing a packed lunch. The Gwalior-Khajuraho road does not cater to travellers. There are dhabas (the roadside eateries common throughout India), but their sense of hygiene is non-existent. We finally buy bananas and Pepsi, and lunch off that.
We’re tired by now, and the milestones don’t seem especially accurate. One shows Khajuraho as being 33 km away; the next sign, 50 m down the road, reads 32 km; the next sign, another 10 m on, goes back to 33 km. Milestones arbitrarily skip 6 or 7 km in what we know is only 1 km. All very wonky.
We reach Khajuraho at 6 PM, and are immediately stopped by a shabby policeman who wants to see the car’s papers—registration, insurance, etc—and Tarun’s driving license. This is a standard ploy to bully drivers whose papers aren’t in order: many people, in order to avoid having their cars confiscated and a legal matter resulting from that, simply bribe the cop. This cop ends up looking foolish, because our papers are in perfect shape, and he gets zilch!
Day 4: Khajuraho
Fortunately for us, Khajuraho is easily traversed by car—and the biggest attraction, the Western Group of Temples (a World Heritage Site) is only five minutes’ drive from the Radisson, where we’re staying. After a huge breakfast, we go to the Western Group. Car parking is opposite the entrance to the site. We’ve just alighted from when we’re accosted by a crowd of boys and men trying to sell us everything from guide services to shoddy Khajuraho guidebooks. (These, we realise as the day goes on, are a persistent lot. They Tarun, especially, gets to bear the brunt of their peskiness. One man, after Tarun refuses to buy, tries pushing ‘Kamasutra CDs’ [with a tantalising whisper about ‘naked ladies’]. When even that doesn’t attract Tarun, the man tries to sell him some erotic key chains).
We make our escape, and go to the ticket counter. We also hire a guide—an official, licensed guide, since that increases the chances of getting someone who knows what he’s talking about. We end up with Pankaj Jain, who seems knowledgeable, and is helpful and friendly. He takes us on a 3½ hour round of the Western Group, then suggests we break for lunch. He’ll meet us after an hour at the car parking, to take us to the Eastern and Southern Groups of Temples, which are smaller. We eat a unsatisfactory lunch at the Raja Café, then meet Pankaj at 2.30 and go on to the Eastern Group (three Jain temples surrounded by a gaggle of smaller shrines) and the Southern Group (not really a group, but two isolated temples). Pankaj also mentions that recent excavations by the Archaeological Survey of India have revealed another temple, only partly constructed, that would have been larger than the ones currently extant. He also recommends that we see the Sound and Light Show that’s held every evening in the Western Group of Temples: it’s a good way of getting to know the temples and their history, he says.
So, after a break to get back to the hotel, wash (travelling in Bundelkhand in the monsoon is an extremely humid proposition—we’ve sweated buckets), and drink a cup of tea—we return to the temples and watch the 7.30 Son et Lumiere show, in English.
Hotel | "First Guest: The Prince of Wales"
There’s so much to be said for this hotel, I’ll split my review up into sections.
First, the history. The Usha Kiran Palace was built 120 years ago (all the literature at the hotel uses that phrase, without mentioning what year it was built—so I’m assuming it was around 1890). At any rate, the palace was built by the reigning Scindia rulers of Gwalior in honour of the Prince of Wales, who was visiting India at the time. After the prince went back home, the Scindias retained the palace. Finally, the Taj Group of Hotels, having realised that this would be a good option as a heritage hotel, bought it and converted it into a 40-room hotel. It’s been around since 2004, and is quite a landmark in Gwalior. Among the relics that still remain as part of the hotel are an elevator (dicey? We were a bit wary of trying it) and a 100-year old snooker table that resides in the hotel bar.
Now, a bit about its appearance. Spreading lawns dotted with white-painted wrought iron benches; rose, jasmine and pink oleander bushes; towering trees of ashoka, tamarind, neem, bottle brush palms and sour red karaunda berries; and a small complex of bridges and waterways winding their way between shrubs and trees. There’s an old temple, too, and next to this two circular ‘tombstones’ made of white marble: one dedicated to ‘our faithful Sandy’, who died in 1943; the other to ‘our faithful Winny’, who’d passed on a year earlier. Royal canines, I assume. More interesting memorabilia—of the human inhabitants of this palace—are inside the spreading, white-painted, carved-sandstone decorated hotel. The lobby and most of the corridors have portraits of the Scindias. The lobby, especially, seems to have made a study of Sir George Jiwaji Rao Scindia, showing him graduating from chubby teenager to portly patriarch, across just about half a dozen photos.
Next, our room. Like the rest of the hotel, this has a definite old-world look about it, with old-fashioned wooden furniture, fancy glass lampshades, and some intriguing old photos of the Scindias. Here we get a quick lesson in changing fashions in maharanis: chubby and silk-clad in an earlier age; svelte and chiffon-clad in a later. One family portrait, in black and white, has the men’s breast pocket handkerchiefs and the little girls’ white socks clumsily coloured red. I’m thinking, by one of the little girls herself...?
The room is large, with a pale, dull orange tiled floor (with an attractive rust and cream mosaic border, and some unattractive stains of liquids that have been spilt sometime in the past). There’s a pretty peach-and-cream stencilled design on the wall behind the bed. There’s a TV, in room safe, mini bar, and tea and coffee fixings. The bathroom—plush, though tiled in somewhat flashy green, pink and bronze—has a basket full of useful amenities. Everything, in the room, the bathroom (and tiny vestibule-cum-dressing room) and the small private balcony—is clean and comfortable.
The Usha Kiran Palace’s facilities: it has a bar (the Bada Bar), one restaurant (the Silver Saloon), and in room dining (with the same menu as the restaurant). There’s a spa, and though use of the gym and swimming pool is complimentary for guests, charges for the spa are additional. The hotel also has a business centre, WiFi (at a charge), and can arrange for everything from currency exchange to a doctor to car hire.
The staff are generally polite and helpful. We are greeted with a traditional namaskar and a little dab of sandalwood paste on our foreheads, followed by cold towels, a glass of lemonade, and check-in at our room. Throughout our stay, we find staff—houseboys, receptionist, waiters, chefs who come strolling through the restaurant, etc—accommodating and helpful, sometimes embarrassingly deferential.
This is a nice, quiet place to stay, in close proximity to some of the main sights of the city (the Jai Vilas Palace is next door, and the fort isn’t too far). It’s clean, very green, and while not luxurious, comfortable enough. And you won’t get better in Gwalior.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on September 7, 2010
Usha Kiran Palace, Gwailor
Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh 474 009
91 751 2444 000
Restaurant | "Nothing to Write Home About"
The way to the restaurant is alluring: a broad corridor on the ground floor, leading past a display of fascinating old photographs of the Scindias: the celebrations of Jiwaji Rao Scindia’s wedding; a banquet hosted by the Scindias in honour of some visiting British dignitaries (big bosomed, very pasty English matrons, looking a bit daunted by all this Oriental exotica); Vijayraje Scindia playing hostess at a state banquet to Josip Broz Tito... very impressive. Then, past a small tulsi (holy basil) bush growing in a traditional cemented pot, the way it does as an auspicious plant in many Hindu households—and we’re in the restaurant.
The ceiling is white, with a pattern in gold and with mirrors at the corners. The tables have maroon table covers atop gauzy orange tablecoths, and on top of each table cover are two really tacky 6" broad gold-and-tinsel strips that look like something out of a very low budget Bollywood film from the 80’s. One side of the hall is occupied by a couple of musicians, strumming gently on sitars etc; the other side is glass and looks out on a pretty courtyard. The glass is etched with the crest of the Scindias; it also appears on the crockery.
The menu is a mix of Continental (mainly Italian, but some generic ‘Western’ fare like fish and chips and Caesar salad) and Indian food. The usual north Indian food—the tikkas, kababs, daals, paneer etc—are here too, but there are also a few Marathi and Nepali dishes, in a nod to the Scindia lineage.
Meal #1, dinner on day#1, we go for what we assume they’d do well. This is India, right? A daal makhani—lentils cooked with tomatoes, cream and butter, made by just about every eating joint that cooks Indian food—is de rigueur. With that, naan bread, and a Marathi special called lamb barbat.
As a complimentary starter, we’re given a very small vegetable roll, tasty enough but unidentifiable as to ingredients. Potato, we think, but dare not guess beyond that. This is followed by a complimentary basket of roasted poppadums, served with a spicy chutney bursting with green chillies. The lamb barbat is equally spicy. Chilly hot, of course, but also a too full of spice: cloves, definitely, and perhaps cardamom and mace. It makes my lips and gullet burn till an hour later. The daal, on the other hand, is too bland, with too much tomato and too little lentil. The naan is about the only thing that’s as it should be—crisp and soft in the right proportions. The lemonade I order, is, alas, too sweet—the bottom one-third of the glass seems to be syrup.
Service is laidback and slow. Finger bowls arrive well after the meal’s over, and the water is barely even tepid, let alone hot. Will meal #2 be any better?
Meal #2 is breakfast. There’s a buffet with fruit, muesli (already mixed with milk and cut fruit, so it’s soggy), flavoured yoghurt, ham, cheese, a salad of sprouts, breads and cakes, juices, and eggs made to order. Besides that, you can order hot Indian food—parathas, idlis, upma, etc—from the à la carte section of the menu. We have muesli (a bad choice, that), a ‘masala’ omelette (with chopped onions, tomatoes and green chillies) with toast, some flavoured yoghurt, and some banana bread. The omelette is good, the banana bread—old, dry and pretty decrepit—abysmal.
By meal #3, lunch on day #2, we’re ready to try something low on spices. We therefore order from the Continental part of the menu: Tarun orders a grilled sole with ratatouille and panfried veggies on the side. I order a Cajun grilled chicken, with garlic sauce, mashed green peas, and panfried veggies. Tarun says his dish is good; my chicken fillets are very tough and don’t taste much of Cajun spices. The mashed peas are good, though, and the panfried veg—zucchini, green beans, broccoli and carrots—are done just right. We haven’t hit pay dirt, but this, I think, is definitely better than the Indian fare these guys dish out.
For our final meal, we take another gamble and order Indian tandoori food: a chicken kabab marinated in yoghurt, called murg tikka mirza hasnu; a shikampuri kabab, a cake made of finely ground lamb, stuffed with hung yoghurt; yellow lentils; and naan. The lentils are lightly flavoured, earthy and tasty. The chicken tikkas don’t have much flavour to distinguish them, and have been overcooked till they’re stringy. The shikampuri kabab is silken, and spiced just right, though the spice mixture hasn’t blended well with the ground meat in places: Tarun finds his first mouthful overpoweringly dense with cardamom. But, generally tolerable meal—so much so that we top it off with a dessert: green tea crème brulée. It’s creamy, very slightly redolent of green tea, but not with much to recommend it other than the relative novelty of finding a dish like that here in Gwalior.
Would I go to the Silver Saloon if I had other options? Probably not. Too much of the food just isn’t good enough. There are lapses in service (did I mention the warm watermelon juice? Their ice cube machine had conked out, and no ice or cold juice was available). One of the staff members (a captain, I think) is very persistent in begging us to say nice things about him and the restaurant: he even forces his name, phone number, and e-mail address on us, and says we must say how much we liked the Silver Saloon. Huh? And the decor and ambience—which is nothing to write home about, anyway—just can’t compensate for all of this.
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on September 7, 2010
Silver Saloon at Usha Kiran Palace
Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, India 474 009
91 751 2444 000
Attraction | "The Mausoleums of a Musician and his Mentor"
The story goes that in the 1500’s, there was a much venerated Sufi saint in Gwalior named Ghaus Mohammad. A childless couple, Lakshmibai and Makrand Pandey, came to Ghaus Mohammad to seek his blessings, and subsequently became parents—of the baby who would grow up to be Tansen. Tansen’s parents copped it shortly after, and the neighbours decided that Ghaus Mohammad—since he was the one who’d (so to say) caused the birth of the child—should bring it up. Ghaus Mohammad did so, with the help of his friend Swami Haridas, who was a highly skilled singer and taught Tansen all he knew. And some more, obviously.
When Ghaus Mohammad died, Akbar took it upon himself to build a tomb for the saint. This was begun in 1562 and took 38 years to build. Tansen, when he died, was also buried in the vicinity, in a much smaller and less grand mausoleum, just behind Ghaus Mohammad’s tomb.
The main building—square-sided, with a large dome and heavily carved sandstone screens on all sides—sits in the middle of a large complex of lawns and gardens. This is the tomb of Ghaus Mohammad. Since there’s no entry fee, it’s popular with neighbourhood children, local cricketers, surreptitious lovers, beggars and loiterers. Or maybe we’re plain unlucky because it’s Sunday. Every now and then someone comes up to us and tries to coax us into giving them some money.
At the entrance to Ghaus Mohammad’s tomb, we’re instructed to take off our shoes and cover our heads. Tarun uses his handkerchief, but since I have nothing to cover my head with, I am lent a scarf from a bin outside. It looks clean, but has a nauseatingly strong smell of incense. Inside, under the central dome, is a large square hall in the centre of which stands a white marble pavilion that holds the grave of the saint. The pavilion’s four walls are of carved marble, and the screen on one side is almost completely covered with knotted votive threads and bits of cloth—you can even see long letters that people have written to the saint, begging for intercession.
The caretaker of the tomb tells us about Tansen and Ghaus Mohammad, then takes us on a circuit of the broad corridors that ring the central hall. The outside of each corridor is of carved sandstone screens, looking out onto the lawns. Very pretty, but fairly new too: only some of the screens are from Akbar’s time. On our circuit of the tomb, we also see other graves, which are of Ghaus Mohammad’s disciples. Just outside the entrance is some attractive paintwork on the ceiling: not as fancy as some other examples of Mughal painted plaster (e.g, Akbar’s tomb at Sikandra), but worth a look.
Behind Ghaus Mohammad’s tomb is a clutch of other tombs—more disciples of the saint’s, and of Tansen’s. Among the plainest is the tomb of Tansen himself. Interestingly, Tansen was born a Hindu—a Brahmin—so would have been cremated; but having adopted Akbar’s religion of Din-e-Ilahi, he ended up a Muslim and so was buried here. Till 2008, a tamarind that grew beside Tansen’s grave was believed to be the tree under which the singer used to practise while alive. Visitors, in the fond belief that it would impart some of Tansen’s skill to them, used to pluck a leaf from the tree and chew on that. Two years ago, the tree died, but since then, another tamarind sapling has sprung up at the same spot, and is carefully shielded with a high railing so stray goats and cows can’t get at the precious leaves. Under the watchful eye of the caretaker (who benevolently encourages us to "go on, pluck a leaf"), both Tarun and I break off a little bit of tamarind leaf and chew it. Now I’m going to start lighting lamps with my voice too! Hah!
At the western end of the complex (behind Tansen’s tomb) is a rather seedy mosque. This we skip because it’s occupied by sleeping men—and doesn’t look great, anyway. The other tombs in the complex are mainly sparingly carved square pavilions of sandstone: the only grand structure is Ghaus Mohammad’s tomb; the only really historic structure is Tansen’s tomb.
No entry fee is charged, though donations are not just welcomed but even solicited. Remember to carry a scarf so you don’t need to borrow one. Note that every year in December a very grand music festival known as the Tansen Festival is held here; if you’re in the vicinity around that time, a visit is recommended.
Tomb of Tansen
Attraction | "A Fort From Across the Ages"
The road up to the fort winds past a series of monolithic Jain statues cut into the hillside: fascinating gigantic figures of naked saints that stand in rock-cut niches, many of the faces and bodies defaced by ‘righteous’ Mughals in the later medieval period. We decide we’ll take photos of these on our way down from the fort; for now, we drive on up, past the hilltop Scindia Boys’ School (it lies within the fort precincts and is largely housed in barrack buildings constructed by the British), and finally stop at the Man Singh Palace. Here, a tourist guide convinces us to hire him—Rs 190, Hindi commentary, all public areas of the fort visited. We pay up Rs 5 each for tickets for the two of us, and join our guide as he begins his round.
He starts with a history of Gwalior and the fort. This, as is usual in much of India, is full of quaint old myths. The myth here is that in the 6th century, a leprous king, Suraj, was out hunting when he met a saint named Gwalab, who lived on a hill called Gopachal. King Suraj was thirsty; Gwalab gave him water, which—when the king took it in his hands to drink it—healed his leprosy. Suraj was so deeply grateful that he founded a city here (Gwalior, named after Gwalab), dug a tank (Suraj Kund, which still stands in the fort, covered with pink lotuses), and constructed the walls of what would later become the Gwalior fort. Suraj was of the Kachhwaha dynasty, the first of Gwalior’s rulers, followed by six dynasties, including the Tomars, Lodhis, Mughals, and Scindias.
The part of the fort we’re now standing in front of, says our guide, is the Man Singh Palace, which also contains the Man Mandir Palace. This was built by the ruler Man Singh Tomar in about 1508, and is the Gwalior fort of picture postcards: lovely golden sandstone walls and towers and carved turrets, decorated with fine tilework in yellow, green and shades of blue, depicting everything from elephants and ducks to parakeets, crocodiles and banana trees. It’s very vibrant and lovely, even though much of the tile, and all of the gilded copper domes, have vanished over the centuries. One tower was bombarded out of existence by the British in 1857, and was subsequently partly restored, down to the tiles. Inside are lovely little courtyards and chambers, all decorated with more of that gorgeous tilework and carving. It’s vaguely reminiscent of parts of the Agra Fort. Underground (though we never visit it), is a chamber where Man Singh’s queens supposedly used to amuse themselves by swinging on iron swings that hung from the roof. Later, Murad, one of the sons of the Emperor Shahjahan, was imprisoned in the same chamber by his brother Aurangzeb. Man Singh’s queens apparently had it easy: nearby is also a large pool that used to be filled with saffron-scented bathwater for them to use.
Opposite the Man Singh Palace is a temple of 82 pillars and an interesting (and unlikely) tale. The story goes that the Mughal Emperor Jahangir had imprisoned 32 kings in this temple, tying each king to one of the pillars. Around that time, a Sikh guru, Guru Hargobind, arrived in Gwalior, and seeing the plight of the imprisoned kings, he begged Jahangir to free them. Two years of stiff penance later, and Jahangir’s resistance broke down. "Take them with you," he told the Sikh guru, "but I will only let you take as many men as can hold onto your clothing at one time." The clever guru therefore turned wearing a many-panelled tunic: each king held on to one panel, and so the guru was able to rescue all of them. The place where the guru stayed during his sojourn in Gwalior—prior to the rescue of the 32 kings—is now a gurudwara (in the fort itself) called the Daata Baandi Chhod Gurudwara (daata = benefactor, giver; baandi = prisoner; chhod = leave, rescue).
Our guide takes us into the temple and shows one particular pillar that is supposed to grant wishes if hugged. Beyond it, and on the other side of the wall, is a circular baoli or stepwell where people would bathe before coming to this temple to offer prayers.
The wide path between the 82-pillared temple and the Man Singh Palace leads to a newer part of the fort. This includes the Resthouses of Shahjahan and Jahangir, rather like hunting lodges where the Mughal emperors would stay during their visits to Gwalior on hunting expeditions. Our guide points out round stone troughs where horses and camels were tethered to be fed. There are round holes in the floor for ventilation (wouldn’t that be risky? What if you fell down one in the dark?) and the overall appearance of the building is of functionality rather than the beauty one associates with Mughal buildings.
Near the resthouses is the Vikram Mahal, an old temple that pre-dates the Mughal buildings. We are told that the idol positioned outside the temple is a very rare south-facing one, supposed to have the power to be able to deflect death itself if a certain prayer is said before it.
After having seen the resthouses and the temple, we head back to the Man Singh Palace and climb into our car along with the guide (who knows the driver; they obviously ferry and guide the same tourists). Along the way, our guide points out the Scindia Boys’ School, and various guard posts, parapets, and battlements erected by the British to help guard the fort.
We are taken now to the Saas-Bahu Mandir (the ‘Temples of the Mother-in-law and Daughter-in-law’). These are two 11th century temples whose construction is attributed to the king Mahipal. The story goes that Mahipal’s mother was a devotee of the god Vishnu while his wife worshipped Shiva; the larger temple is therefore a Vishnu temple while the smaller one is a Shiva temple. Some believe that the name of the two temples is derived from one of Shiva’s names, ‘Sahastrabahu’ (‘thousand arms’), which has gotten corrupted into ‘Saas-bahu’.
Both temples are finely carved, and it’s said that the facade of the Vishnu temple was studded with diamonds that made it sparkle at night, when lamps hung on poles around the temple shone on its surface. The Mughals defaced many of the human figures carved here; what they couldn’t deface, they covered with limestone plaster—and converted the temples into a madarsa. In 1881, Major J B Keith, under the direction of H Coler (Curator of Ancient Monuments in India), cleaned the temples, stripped them of plaster, and erected supporting beams to shore up the roof.
After admiring the Saas-Bahu Temples, we drive on to the Teli ka Mandir. This is a single temple with a spire in the style common in southern India. Though the plaque outside tells us that it’s called the ‘Teli ka Mandir’ (the ‘Temple of the Dealer in Oil’, one of whom donated funds for the building), our guide says that’s blah. Someone from a prominent business community that deals in oils had recently come by and sponsored the erection of plaques such as this, glorifying the community. Bull. What really happened was that in the 8th or 9th centuries (when the temple was built), the king who built it was married to a queen from Telangana, down south. That accounts for the ‘Tel’ prefix of the name, and for the temple’s fairly southern look. The building’s very heavily carved, and that too largely with tiny human figures engaged in the oldest of pastimes. The temple’s carving, says our guide, acted as a sort of sex manual for young kings and queens, who would be married in those days while still in their teens and would—ahem—need instruction. A teacher would be assigned to teach them the ropes by indicating stuff on the temple’s walls.
Who knows how much of that is really true? Maybe whoever commissioned the Teli ka Mandir was just a sex maniac, nothing more. We admire the temple, step into the gloomy central hall, then step out hurriedly because it stinks really badly of bats. Our driver drops the guide off at the Man Singh Palace, we pay up, and then we head home. It’s been an interesting jaunt, full of fascinating stories and some beautiful buildings.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on September 7, 2010
Attraction | "Erstwhile Royal Residence, Modern Museum"
But: the Jai Vilas Palace. This, a large and impressive palace designed by an Italian architect, was built in 1874 and was occupied by the royal family for a long time. Today, certain sections of it are still retained by the Scindias—and a large part has been opened to the public as a museum that showcases the lives of the Scindias.
Past a large cannon, we buy our tickets at the ticket counter. Tickets for Indians cost Rs 40 per person; foreigners pay Rs 230 per person. For still cameras or mobile phones with cameras, a further charge of Rs 50 is levied; video cameras are charged Rs 100. From the ticket counter (which would’ve been part of the gatehouse way back then), we step through into the central square of the palace. This has dry fountains, lawns, and silvery lamp-posts; a cannon, presented to Gwalior for its troops’ service during World War II, stands in front of the gate. A short walk, and we enter the palace wing that’s devoted to the museum.
The museum’s first few galleries are its most unprepossessing ones. Here are boring portraits of the maharajas and maharanis of the Scindia dynasty (the earlier maharajas, till up to the late 19th century, are depicted in thoroughly unflattering paintings that generally show them as a corpulent, dissipated-looking lot with crooked noses and bug eyes). Beyond this, the indoor swimming pool area has been converted into a gallery of sculptures: poorly labelled stone torsos, heads, and other odds and ends dating back to as early as the 3rd and 4th centuries.
Upstairs, things start getting a little more interesting. One large gallery is devoted to the late Madhav Rao Scindia, father of the present ‘maharaja’. Madhav Rao Scindia was a very well-loved politician, and the care with which this gallery has been gotten together is evidence enough of this man’s popularity. There are here displays of his personal belongings—pens, ties, watches, cricket kit and trophies (he was a good amateur cricketer), plus hundreds of photographs of Madhav Rao, his parents, wife and children, and of his many interactions with international bigwigs, all the way from Fidel Castro to Pope John Paul II! Lots of fun photos here.
Beyond, the museum is a series of rooms decorated more or less as they were in the palace’s heyday. Bedrooms, sitting rooms, drawing rooms, bathrooms, a music room, a nursery, a little indoor temple with an ornate golden swing on which the idol is housed... and large covered verandahs decorated with statues, paintings, and prints of British India. These aren’t fantastic, but they’re quaint. ["So—um—it wasn’t a swan really?"; "No, it was a god, he took on the shape of a swan". Conversation overheard between a somewhat befuddled visitor and a tourist guide, in front of a fairly explicit white marble statue of Leda and the Swan.]
At this point in our wanderings, a woman in a red nylon sari suddenly begins to dog my footsteps. Tarun first notices her veering off her course onto a tangent just to see what I’m doing. I’m trying to focus my camera, so perhaps this woman has never seen a camera before. Or maybe she’s never seen a woman with short hair, wearing trousers. Whatever. We walk on, past the Scindias’ tatty collection of Chinese porcelain, downstairs to a courtyard with a dozen or so carriages, phaetons, sedan chairs—and one small dune buggy with regulation fat rubber tyres. Slightly out of place, that.
Opposite this courtyard is the entrance to a small two-storeyed section that contains the Jai Vilas Palace Museum’s greatest treasures. On the ground floor hangs a large and very true mirror of Belgian glass; hanging above it is a massive chandelier, weighing a tonne, made of crimson glass. Beautiful, and dusty. This is also of Belgian glass, as is the faanoos (a lampstand) in the hall. Upstairs are three large halls. On the right is the formal hall of reception, a baroque hall with a ceiling painted gold and white, two huge chandeliers hanging from it. On the left is a banquet hall set for a formal Indian dinner—on the floor, with sheets spread and large individual platters and bowls. In the centre is the banquet hall set for a formal European meal, with the quirkiest of the museum’s displays: a 24 kg miniature train made of silver, which used to run on a special track along the centre table. The train has nine wagons, seven of them glass decanters (labelled S-C-I-N-D-I-A) that used to be filled with liquor; the other two wagons carried cigarettes and cigars. The train would chug along on the tracks, and if a diner reached out and lifted any of the containers, the train would stop in front of him or her. Cute!
At this point, the red-sari-woman catches up and starts staring as if she couldn’t believe her eyes. So Tarun and I, having seen the entire museum (it’s taken us a little over an hour) decide to leave. She doesn’t follow us outside, thank heavens.
An interesting museum, in parts. Some galleries are woefully dusty and poorly maintained. The rooms of the Scindias are more attractive and better looked after. But—and this is where the museum really falls flat—the labelling is almost nil. Unless you hire a guide or happen to be with someone who knows (Tarun had been here before so knew some of it), the chances of figuring out what’s what are minimal. Oh, yes: the lighting is bad. Very bad.
Jai Vilas Palace Museum
New Delhi, India