Centuries ago, a sage by the name of Gwalipa chose a small hill as a site to meditate; little did he know that the hill would later house a massive fort that would survive the test of time, whilst bearing witness to a city growing around it. Not surprisingly, this city is eponymously known today as Gwalior. Surprisingly though, Gwalior, inspite of its proximity to Agra and having many things to do, paradoxically remains off the regular traveller’s list. Where there is an age-old fort, other than the rich heritage and lots of places to visit, there also come age-old stories, myths and songs associated with the various dynasties that occupied the fort. This rich heritage of stories and myths is best embodied by Gwalior’s poets and bards across generations, the most notable of them being the famous Tansen, who is buried at Gwalior. And we too, hope to add to this ocean of art through our petite list of the top things to do at Gwalior.
Top things to do in Gwalior
1. Discover the history of Gwalior through the Sound and Light Show at the Man Mandir Palace:
Towering above the areas of Lashkar, Morar and Gwalior that it once ruled, the Man Mandir Palace, the most visible icon of Gwalior, exemplifies the grandeur of Indian royalty. The pièce de résistance amongst the structures atop the Gwalior Fort, the Man Mandir Palace, was built by the Tomar king, Man Singh Tomar, starting from 1490. At its finest time, the palace was covered in gold, gilt and studded with precious blue and green stones and mirrors. A smorgasbord for the visual senses, its beauty can now only be talked of and imagined. Its history is intertwined with that of the fort and this history is best heard during the legendary Sound and Light Show held here every evening. Listen to the voice take you through the ages from the beginning, when the hill was merely a mound of rock to its modern-day avatar with the Scindia school and Doordarshan broadcast station.
The pleasures of royalty here included rooms cooled by fragrant breeze, an age-old private intercom system through the walls, a discotheque room with mirrors and lights for dancers, bedrooms for pursuit of pleasures of the flesh, bathrooms with hot and cold running water amongst others. The blue colours on the outer walls astonishingly exist, to this day, goes to show the quality of work put into this amazing structure built centuries ago.
2. Indulge in the culinary pleasures of Central Indian Cuisine on a food-walk:
While some travel bloggers would blithely urge you to stick to a few of the chosen favourites such as Bahadura Sweets, we recommend you also go to the ones that are flocked by locals instead of tourists. And NO, Gajak is not the only fantastic food available at Gwalior, it is not a staple here either; hope that tore down some Gwalior stereotypes. If you thought that a seasoning of chopped onions and coriander was limited to a few delicacies, you are in for a surprise, a good one at that too; most dishes of the cuisine here use this seasoning and to good effect. Those looking for a sit-down type of restaurant, must visit one of the ‘Kwality’ restaurants spread across the city for some good quality food. Our favourite here is the Panneer Malmal, a dish utilising the tomato to impart flavour to gravy of cottage cheese and Indian spices.
Our top picks here would be the Boondi Laddoo at Bahadura Sweets and Cheela at Hemu Ka Cheela. The 80-year Bahadura Sweets is the go-to place for those with a sweet tooth and for those without one, go here at the risk of developing one. No wonder this shop has its share of celebrity customers including an ex-Prime Minister of India. Hemu Ka Cheela may not have such a fanbase, but students looking for a nutritious snack definitely flock here. Go here sometime in the evening to enjoy the delicious lentil-based pancake, Cheela, a protein-filled snack.
Other noteworthy picks include the Petha at Panchhiraj Petha Bhandar, savouries and a variety of Sev at M M Namkeen Wale, Poha at Agarwal Poha Bhandar (Near Kajal Talkies). Personally, we felt that the Poha at Indore is unrivalled, and the Gwalior one fades before it in comparison, but this is good, nevertheless. If you visit here during winters, be prepared for a dose of sweetness as you savour the sesame-seed delicacy, Gajak. For a food trail through Gwalior, check out this interesting link by a seasoned foodie that really helped us plan our binge here.
3. Stare at the gigantic chandeliers at the Jay Vilas Palace:
When the roof of the Jai Vilas Palace was built, the Scindian king had a dozen elephants climb upon and walk around the roof for days, to check its strength. When the structure was certified strong enough, he had 2 giant, specially-made Viennese chandeliers, each weighing 3.5 tonnes installed on the ceiling. Built in 1875 as a welcome attraction to the Prince of Wales, the massive Jay Vilas Palace is a cornucopia of European styles of architecture with Indian elements.
The Scindian rulers were huge fans of luxurious items and art and it was but obvious that their palace be the epitome of their luxurious collectibles, much like the Chowmahalla Palace of Hyderabad was. Talking of collectibles, be sure to check out an entire collection of furniture designed specially for a queen of small stature, with mini dressing-tables, mirrors and even a small bed. One of the carpets in this section took 12 years to weave and is a spectacle to look at.
Of special mention is the silver train that is designed to carry salt, wine and condiments around a majestic dining table. Yes, it is still in running condition, but to see a live demonstration, you must show your royal credentials. An entire gallery has been dedicated to Palanquins and Chariots, giving an insight into the modes of transport a couple of hundred years back.
4. Brush up on your history at the Gujari Mahal:
With more than one museum to choose from, it may be difficult to decide which one to visit; the obvious solution is to visit them all. The state-sponsored Gujari Mahal should be the first on your list. This museum was originally built by Man Singh Tomar as a palace for his Gurjar queen, Mruganyani as part of the promise that he gave her. She had agreed to be his wife only if she could have a palace of her own, with access to water from her hometown. Hence the name of the palace is Gujari Mahal.
The museum is spread out over a huge area with temples, a playground and many chambers inside. The museum boasts of sculptures and a vast platform of excavated and preserved statues in varying stages of degradation.
5. Help out at the community kitchen atop the Gwalior Fort:
When the Mughal emperor Jehangir rose to power, he sought to vanquish the most powerful leaders in his kingdom, lest one of them challenge his rule. One such powerful Sikh was Guru Hargobind. Under false pretences, Jehangir had him called to Delhi and imprisoned in the Assi Khambe Ki Baori in the Gwalior Fort. People expected that he would be tortured the same way his father was, but when the Sikh Guru cured Jehangir of an illness, Jehangir released him. The Guru very cleverly managed to secure the release of 52 kings as well. The day this happened is celebrated as Bandi Chhor Diwas by Sikhs and this Gurudwara, built in commemoration of this event is worth visiting on this day. The Langar or community kitchen here is a great spectacle of social engineering and comes alive everyday to serve the poor and rich alike by feeding them. Volunteer here if you wish to serve the community.
6. Hike to the temples on the Gwalior Fort:
While the Man Mandir Palace would clutch the award for the most majestic structure, the Sas Bahu Mandir would walk away with the most beautiful structure without a doubt. Sas Bahu, denoting the relationship between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, is actually a corrupted version of the Sahastrabahu, used to address Lord Vishnu in his 1000-armed form. Alternately, the name could have cropped up when a second temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva was built here. Talking of 1000 arms, it seems like the probable number of arms required to craft this masterpiece in architecture.
Each and every inch of the temple has been sculpted and it seems there is no pillar left that depicts a scene from the great epics or a narration from the Dashavathar. The roof is no exception either, with many layers of sculptures, each layer juxtaposed on the other. This structure had been desecrated with absolute philistinism by the Mughals who threw away the Murtis and plastered lime on the walls before converting it into a Madarassa. It took the British who discovered this place nearly 12 years to restore this temple to its present condition.
The other desecrated temple is the Teli Ka Mandir, this time not by the Mughals, but by the British army which turned this 30-metre tall temple into a soda factory. The temple is rather different than other temples of the region; it has been built in a Dravidian style, with a tall Gopuram and also the Nagara style, with decorative figurines on the outer walls. The name probably stems from the brahmans of Telangana who were brought here as priests, which probably explains the architectural style as well.
7. Observe the architectural finesse displayed in building the Tansen Tomb:
Hidden in one of the bylanes off the road when approaching Gwalior fort, you may probably miss this architectural gem and travel past it. But whatever difficulties you may face in reaching this place are definitely worth it. The complex containing the tombs of Mohammed Ghaus and Tansen is huge and contains many other smaller tombs.
The largest of the tombs is that of Mohammed Ghaus, the Sufi saint who assisted Babur in his conquest of the Gwalior Fort. The tomb is a good example of Mughal architecture with a dome in the centre, hexagonal minarets at the corners and windows replete with latticework. The patterns on each of the windows seem to be competing with each other in creating a dazzling effect when looked at from the inside verandahs. The slits present a screen-like effect and also cool the wind, which is a feature of Hindu architecture; a subtle reminder of the harmony enjoyed between both religions.
The musical genius Tansen lies buried nearby, in a separate tomb with the famous tamarind tree too nearby. It is said that Tansen chewed on the leaves of a tamarind tree and he proclaimed it to be the secret of his spectacular voice. Although it is forbidden to pluck leaves off this tree, you could always wait for the leaves to fall down. The Tansen tomb is comparatively smaller and at first glance, you may even mistake it for just another structure were it not for the board. Although Tansen passed away in Delhi, he was brought to his final resting place near his mentor, Ghaus.
8. Discover a hidden step-well atop the Gwalior fort:
Assi Khamba ki Baori is not your traditional open, rectangular or square step-well, but is nevertheless as meticulously constructed as the the traditional ones and draws huge crowds of tourists and historians. There are a lot many locals here too, who prefer to use the temple next to it as a place for their afternoon respite from the sun. They still are better than the ones who dive headfirst into the well to impress tourists.
Assi Khamba ki Baori is named so because of the 80 pillars (Assi Khamba) that support the entire structure, from the top to the bottom. This and a few other sources of water such as the Suraj Kund, Noor Tal, Gangola Tal, Dhobi Tal and Rani Tal provided enough water to sustain 15,000 troops for months at a stretch, in case of an attack. Note that the region is a very arid region and such structures proved vital to the army. There is a covered pathway that winds down to the bottom of the well. It is closed now for obvious reasons.
9. Hum a tune under the shade of trees at Sarod Ghar:
The Sarod maestro, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, is one of most celebrated legends of classical music worldwide. A recipient of numerous awards including the Padma Vibhushan and UNESCO award – International Music Forum (more info here), he hails from a long lineage of musicians, the Bangash lineage, which is responsible for the Senia Bangash School of Music. Sarod Ghar, the house that Amjad Ali Khan grew up in has been donated to a trust now which aims to preserve the house and also promote the heritage of Gwalior and East Indian styles of music including the Senia Bangash School of Music. The house contains musical instruments from various artists including the Sarods of his forefathers. This is a great place to go on a hot day to escape the heat and traffic that usually tends to form outside.
10. Soak in some Vitamin D at the Vivasan Sun Temple:
Built by the Birla family, as a replica of the Sun Temple at Konark, Vivasan Surya Mandir is a wonderful depiction of the usage of natural lighting to brighten up a place. It is built in the shape of a Chariot, the Vahan of the sun-god, Surya. The red sandstone gives it a fiery appearance, which again, is characteristic of the sun. The chariot is drawn by seven horses representing the seven days of the week and 24 wheels representing the number of fortnights in a year. It is said that as one delves into the deeper meaning of every statue, one realises the true nature of the cycle of life. If you are not visiting the original Konark Sun Temple any time soon, this is your best bet at seeing a grand Sun Temple. If you are visiting during summers, be advised that this is an open area and it would be best to get some protection from the sun.
11. Marvel at the rock-cut Jain statues of Gopachal Parvat:
Along the way to the Urvahi Gate of the Gwalior fort, you will come across many rock-cut statues of the Jain Tirthankaras. Some of these statues that adorn the walls are older than the fort itself; they have been chiselled some time around the seventh century. The most imposing of the statues is that of the first Jain Tirthankara, Adinatha, represented by a bull, which has also been inscribed below the statue.
12. Train-spot the elusive Narrow Gauge train of Gwalior Light Railway :
If you thought that 2-foot-wide tracks were a thing of the Victorian era, then you will be in a surprise when you visit Gwalior. The Gwalior-Sheopur Kalan Passenger starts chugging every morning from Gwalior along what is the World’s Longest Narrow Gauge Railway track. The locals here refer to it as the Floating Carpet because it appears to float on the tracks that zigzag through the roads of Gwalior till they head out into fields of yellow mustard and sunflower. Climbing on the roof of this 35 kilometre-an-hour train is an absolutely delightful experience, sometimes a necessary one as the train it tends to fill up pretty soon. Sadly though, this historical gem will soon be converted to make way for the safer and faster broad gauge tracks.
13. Pass through the magnificent and scary ravines of Chambal:
Clusters of Babool trees line the highway leading to Rajasthan, washed with dirt and wind, characteristic of a rocky surrounding. The once dacoit-infested ravines of the Chambal valley have been the backdrop of many of Bollywood’s movies. Once upon a time, passing through these ravines, filled with their Robin Hoodesque inhabitants was considered risky. Due to such a drought-ridden terrain favourable for guerilla warfare and the lack of better prospects such as farming, this region has endured a culture of banditry since ages. Thankfully, the dacoits of this region have now given up their ways and chosen more noble pursuits of life, although you may see still some locals sporting a locally-made gun. This region is now a perfect location for those wanting to get some alone-time. For those curious about the geological activity in this region that led to the formation of these ravines, read this.
14. Plan a one-day trip to the offbeat places of Morena:
Gwalior, being close to Agra, is probably the best way to start your Pan-Madhya Pradesh trip, covering many places of Central India. Before you head off to Orchha (click here for Orchha travel guide) or Khajuraho (click here for Khajuraho travel guide) , the lesser recognised temples of Morena should definitely impress you.
The first of them is Bateshwar, or rather the ruins of Bateshwar, built by the Gurjara-Pratihara dynasty in the 5th-6th centuries, at least 300 years before. Not easily approachable, Bateshwar temple complex is a group of nearly 200 temples, most of them miniature versions. Fascinatingly, the temples have each been arranged in neat rows, one behind the other, on raised platforms. Until a couple of decades back, the temples lay in ruins and the locals were not interested in maintaining them. It took convincing by an official of the ASI to get the locals and even the bandits to put together back the stones to form the temples that they once were. This complex has been restored mostly and is still in the process of restoration and is definitely worth a visit.
The next Morena wonder is the Garhi Padhavali temple, located close to the Bateshwar complex. While Bateshwar is in ruins due to mostly natural causes, probably an earthquake, Padhavali and its ruins are a case of wanton philistine destruction by the Mughals. What was once a ninth century temple lies now in ruins, after being torn down and its Murtis disfigured by the Mughals. It was only during the 19th century that the temple was turned into a Garhi or ‘fortification’ by the Jat rulers of Gohad using the remains of the torn-down temple. The temple insides have a plethora of erotic sculptures as well as sculptures from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and other Indian epics.
The last Morena wonder on this little field-trip is Mitawali with its Chausat Yogini Temple. Mitawali is somewhat away from the other places and located on a hill. The temple is circular in shape with a circular inner sanctum housing the main deity. It is rumoured that this design inspired the designer of the parliament to shape the building in the same manner. Other places of interest here are Naresar, Ater Fort and Kherat among others.
A visit to Gwalior takes you through time as you travel back to the golden age of Indian civilisation starting from the Pratihara dynasty when the Zero was inscribed; through the period of turmoil as various dynasties fought to control the fort; to the period when the freedom fighters used Gwalior as a base for their fight against the British; to modern-day Gwalior. Throughout its history, during war or peace, Gwalior has managed to retain a position in arts and music which is remarkable. If planning a visit, try to plan your visit during the Tansen Music Festival, usually held during December, or during the Gwalior Fair held in January to experience Gwalior in all its vigour.