The Eternal Smile

Open air archaeological museum within Gujari Mahal
Open air archaeological museum within Gujari Mahal

We walked past the stony gaze of the lions guarding the giant entrance. Fresh monsoon grass peered from beneath the sandstone tiles. The wings of the Fort kept a keen watch from above. The ninth Queen of Raja Maan Singh surely must have been special to get this much attention.

We walked on what was the front porch of the Gujari Mahal and trekked up a steep path leading to the Palace. To our right was a well-manicured lawn. And to the left, a steep rocky path that seemed to lead nowhere.

The Palace had a short and narrow flight of stairs that led to a beautiful courtyard. Intricately carved stone statues of Gods and Goddesses here, pieces of floral patterned pillars and walls there.

Devnagri inscriptions
Devanagiri script on a stone wall

The word museum was, perhaps, not very appealing to most tourists. Even those who strolled in didn’t stay long. The cool breeze only enhanced the peaceful ambiance of the courtyard.

“Do you have a ticket for your camera?” A portly man asked as we began freezing moments for our album.

We showed our ticket.

“Well, then please use only one—either your phone or the camera. Please!” Beneath his small smile, the request was firm.

I put away my phone and smiled sheepishly. Half expecting the man to run back into his administrative chamber after we had complied with his request, we turned to continue our exploration.

“Oh but first you must come and see the Salabhanjika!”

The Salabhanjika is the museum’s prized possession—a miniature statue that epitomizes femininity. We had read about the sculpture being guarded closely and were under the impression that we’d need special permissions to see her. So when the gentleman invited us to take a look, we happily accepted.

We followed him to his office. A small room furnished with a simple desk and a few plastic chairs. The walls were covered with photographs and newspaper clippings about the sculpture. Behind the desk was a cell. And deep inside it stood the small, smiling Salabhanjika.

“She’s called the Indian Monalisa!” His voice was filled with pride at being the guardian of a rare sculpture.

“When she was first found, she looked like this,” he said, pointing towards a grainy print stuck on the wall. “Her head was found later and was fully intact, so we could piece her together. We were lucky.”

“Look at her carefully. The more you look at her, the more she’ll smile back at you! Look at her from any direction and she’ll look towards you.”

We looked again. And she did, indeed, appear to be smiling more than before.

“Please take a picture. Go on, go closer. Make sure you switch off the flash!”

We leaned in, the lens of our camera wedged between the steel bars. Click!

“She’s been insured for five crores!” our host could hardly contain his excitement.

Five crore rupees. The Monalisa is insured for a hundred million dollars.

Salabhanjika’s smile grew wider.

I wondered, if she had been discovered before the Monalisa, would Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting be called the Italian Salabhanjika?

She stood there silently. Still smiling, and letting the question remain unanswered.

The smiling damsel – Salabhanjika of Gujari Mahal

The Gujari Mahal is an outdoor museum, that’s best visited during pleasant weather. It is the first pit stop in the trek to the main Fort, just after the Hathi Pol (elephant gate). Although relatively small, we spent close to two hours gazing at the ancient and medieval art.

Salabhanjika is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘breaking a branch of a sala tree’. There are many intricate sculptures of Salabhanjika in Hoysala and Bednur in Karnataka. But the one in Gwalior is reportedly the only one that smiles.

This is part 2 of a multi-part series on our trip to the Gwalior Fort.
Read Part 1: Lights, Camera, Imagination

Photographs of Devanagiri Script & Salabhanjika by Atul Srivastava, images used with permission.

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