“Would you like a guide?” The thin balding man stood near the giant entrance of the Fort. “I can tell you about the significance of the art and the stories of each of the halls.”
We had refused guides all along the way and saw no reason to hire one now. We listened to him politely, thanked him and ran up a small hillock to photograph the structure in front of us.
The avid shutterbugs that we are, we took our time to soak in the atmosphere. When we climbed down, we found that the man had waited for us patiently. Having completely ignored our refusal, he continued, “take these motifs on the outer walls, for example. It looks like a fish, doesn’t it? Look carefully—there are 8 animals there.”
He proceeded to point out the teeth of a crocodile, the paws of a tiger, the trunk of an elephant, the ears of a mouse…
“You can buy the ticket there,” he pointed to the ticket counter. “One ticket for the three main monuments—Maan Mandir, Saas-Bahu Mandir and Teli ka Mandir. You’ll have to take tickets for the eight other Palaces separately.”
“Eight?!” both of us asked at once.
“Yes. Most people skip them, though. These three are the most popular.”
We looked at each other and finally gave in to the guide’s persistence. We bought our tickets and followed him inside.
* * *
The halls were dimly lit, barren, cold and damp, almost hauntingly so.
“You’re lucky there are a few lights here. There was a time we couldn’t enter without a torch. Watch your step! It’s quite slippery around here.”
The steps were uneven and seemed to be leading to the same rooms. We wouldn’t have survived long without a guide.
“Now you see cold stone here. But it wasn’t always this way.” Even as we tried to make sense of the labyrinth we were in, our guide blended in effortlessly.
He described what it was like to live within these chambers, like the King and his 8 Queens. And as he began his tour, the Palace came alive—the walls glittering with hundreds of colourful tiles and mirrors, the floor shining brightly under the magnified sun-rays and the air brimming with stories.
“This hall is where musicians would perform for the King and his guests.” Our host pointed to the elaborately sculpted balcony. Yes, we could clearly see the King sitting there. The visiting dignitary sat on the opposite balcony in the VIP enclosure. And the Queens—condemned to the purdah—were peering through the latticed windows below them to get a glimpse of the artists.
We left the royal concert and stepped into a plain room. The stone wall in front of us had rectangular shelves. “This is where idols of Gods were kept. There is a narrow passage running outside the room for the pradakshina.”
We moved on to the outer walls of the Fort and peeped out of one of the many large windows to see what the Queens were seeing—a bird’s eye view of the Raja’s cavalcade as he returned from yet another successful expedition.
The King was a busy man. When not fighting he had to preside over the courtroom. We left him to his duties in his durbar and went to the royal swimming pool. Our host waited for us near a staircase as we bathed in the cool engineering marvel, filled with fresh water all those years ago.
We sneaked past the Queens’ dressing rooms and joined our host. Pointing to the circular hole in the wall, he said, “and these, my friends, is the telephone!”
* * *
“Aaaaahhhh! Help!! The Fort is under attack!”
The screams of the Queens reached a guard posted along the Fort’s intercom. The guard quickly alerted the other soldiers—the troops had managed to breach the walls.
With the hostile troops trying to make sense of the building’s plan, the guards had some time to prepare for the defense and escape strategy.
Standing atop one staircase, a guard pushed one of the intruders with all his might. The slippery uneven steps of the Fort did the rest, sending the villains down like a stack of dominoes.
The diversions of the troops in place, the royal family took the secret underground route to safety.
They were safe—for now.
There were many wars, and the Fort’s defense protected the residents faithfully.
But not all wars were fought under the safe armoury of the Fort. And it was during one such war, that the Queens saw the cavalcade enter without the King.
The Palace had lost its King. And we watched with horror, as the halls, which were once full of music and activity, turned into an execution chamber. As was the wretched custom, the Queens took their own lives. The first of many atrocities which were to follow in the years to come.
When the Maan mandir changed hands the prayer room was converted into a bedroom. The new King gave special instructions to maidens to walk along the pradakshina path wearing payal (anklets) to wake him up in the morning. Such was the vanity of the rulers at the time, and indeed throughout history and to this date—merely dethroning a King was never enough. A victory was complete only when the pillars of the vanquished and all that they cherished were thoroughly destroyed.
Our guide wove the entire story, no doubt having done so hundreds of times before. And just as quickly as we entered, we were teleported back from the Maan Mandir to the present day tourist-y ruckus.
We paid our guide his professional fees and thanked him for the wonderful tour. We parted ways and headed to the other monuments.
As we walked away, I looked back at those eight Palaces that we too were skipping—yes, the story-hungry travellers in us will need to come back for those some other time.
* * *
This is part 1 of a multi-part series on our trip to the Gwalior Fort.
As much as travel itineraries will have you believe, one ‘full-day sightseeing tour’ will never be enough to explore Gwalior. Give her at least two, if not three full days.
The guided tour of the Maan Mandir is highly recommended—for the stories, as well as for finding your way around. And yes, please ask the name of your guide—we forgot to ask our storyteller his name—and thank him/her on your way back.