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The Romance of Gwalior Fort

By Usha John Email By Usha John
July 2009
The Romance of Gwalior Fort

Rich in historic associations and architectural beauty, the city of Gwalior, situated two hundred miles from Delhi, abounds in objects of absorbing interest. Many of its ancient and medieval edifices are reminiscent of the grandeur of legendary India—the India of magnificent palaces, pavilions and princely rulers.

These rulers luxuriated in fantastic palaces, some of them built to please their favorite queens or relatives or courtiers. Despite their whims and eccentricities, these rulers were pragmatic and passionately believed in a military monarchy, and they personally supervised the construction of lofty forts that contained, within their high walls, palaces, courtyards, temples, shrines, mosques, wells, tanks, gardens, fountains, and even underground dungeons where prisoners languished, and pits that were set on fire so that the queens and princesses could die honorably rather than be captured by the enemy.

Few forts have witnessed so many historical events and have had so many legends and romantic fables woven around them as the majestic Gwalior Fort.

It is evident from the structures in the Gwalior Fort that even in those remote bygone days, Indians were master craftsmen who excelled in decorative carving, delicate lattice work and glazed tiles adorned with representations of plants, flowers, animals and birds. There is also evidence that India was comparatively free of religious fanaticism in an age when religious intolerance and bigotry were prevalent in many countries. The fort has a small shrine of Lord Ganesh that had been built in 1660 by Motamid Khan, a Muslim governor, and it also contains many Hindu and Muslim structures that were not mutilated or destroyed by Muslim or Hindu invaders.

Towering three hundred feet above the old town, Gwalior’s massive fort stands on a strategic, isolated sandstone hill. Nearly two miles long and two thousand and eight hundred feet across at its widest and three hundred feet high, the lofty Gwalior Fort is one of the impressive strongholds of ancient India. Because of its strategic location in the very heart of India, the Gwalior Fort was associated with several dynasties. The construction of the fort dates back to antiquity and consequently, its history cannot be precisely traced.

According to legend, about fifteen hundred years ago, the ascetic Gwalipa was the sole occupant of the hill on which the Gwalior Fort was built. It was indeed a fortunate incident (that had far reaching consequences) when the Rajput chief, the leper Prince Suraj Sen, while in the midst of a hunting exercise, lost his way and found himself near the hill where Gwalipa lived. The ascetic quenched Sen’s thirst by giving him water that had been procured from a nearby tank. Legend has it that Suraj Sen was instantly cured of leprosy after drinking the water. Out of sheer joy and gratitude, Sen implored Gwalipa to tell him what he should do to please him. Gwalipa then advised him to build a fort on the hill and embellish the tank. Accordingly, Sen fulfilled Gwalipa’s wish. The fort was given a name that commemorated the boon granted by Gwalior and came to be known as Gwalior, Gopadri, Gopachala and Gwalawara.

The construction of the Gwalior Fort was commenced by Suraj Sen and there is much evidence that with the passage of time various rulers completed the work begun by him and added palaces, courtyards, balconies, underground chambers, temples rich with sculptures, mosques, gardens, fountains, wells and tanks. The complex architecture and sculptures of the fort have Hindu, Jain, Muslim and British components and they are strewn all over the fort, as the Fort passed from the Rajput, to the Mughals, to the British and finally to the Scindias who till recently were in charge of the fort. Of the many temples in the Gwalior Fort, the Teli ka Mandir is the most prominent of all the buildings in the fort. This ninth century temple, dedicated to Vishnu, has a Dravidian architectural structure and displays amorous sculptures that are distinctly north Indian in style. Perhaps the uniqueness of the temple lies in its architectural structure—the lower portion of the building is in the north Indian style while the roof has been designed so as to resemble the south Indian temple style at Mahabalipuram and Mysore.

The palaces at the Gwalior Fort were a fine example of Hindu architecture and became a model for the Mughal emperor Babur to turn to when he began building palaces for himself. Babur visited the Man Mandir in 1529, about twenty years after its completion, and was so impressed by it that he wrote in his memoirs, “The palaces (of Man Singh and his son) are singularly beautiful... The southeastern corner of the fort has a noble quadrangle full of fine sculptures and mouldings, and some fine windows. The total length of the galleries in both the palaces is about 1200 feet.” The Man Mandir which was perhaps built by Raja Man Singh in 1509 has marvelously withstood the ravages of time. It has been described by Fergusson “as the most remarkable and interesting example of a Hindu palace of an early age.”

[Usha John is a noted writer on art and culture. Reprinted with the permission of India Perspectives.]

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