Fools are they who voluntarily venture out in the Indian summer. The harsh summer months of north India force people stay indoors. One ventures out only if one has to. Travel in June if you must, but start early in the morning to beat the heat.
We piled in our non AC (air conditioned cars were still a luxury then) Maruti Suzuki 800 at 5 AM on June 7,1995 and drove non-stop to reach the family farm, situated between Haridwar and Rishikesh, about 235 kilometers away from our house in New Delhi, at 10 am. The occasion was grih pravesh (house warming) ceremony of my brother Dr. N.S. Bhatnagar’s new house on the 8th and my sister Manorama’s birthday on the 9th. Both were celebrated with great fervor in company of kinsmen and friends.
Our planned holiday trip to Madhya Pradesh was discussed threadbare by all. Our elders admonished us and told us we were being foolish to undertake such a long driving trip in the extreme heat of June. We were too obstinate to fall in line and departed, as scheduled, early in the morning on June 10, reaching Delhi for a late breakfast with my sister Aruna, before starting on the next leg of our journey to Gwalior, 330 kilometers away.
To ward off the intense heat we knew we would face, we packed the car with gallons of water, quantities of fruits and syrups and a huge slab of ice to cool them. The temperature inside the car was only a shade cooler but not too uncomfortable, with my daughter Pramiti applying ice cool packs to our heads and her own too. Happily for us, saner people stayed indoors and we had the highway to ourselves. We appeared to be the only ones on the road. Not a single vehicle could be seen for kilometers ahead or behind us and we made good time, often doing 120 kilometer an hour. Lunchtime found us in Agra, a historical town. We had visited Agra often and decided to give it a miss. Instead, we stopped at a small Rajasthan Tourism restaurant at Dhaulpur for a late lunch at 3.30. We came to know later that Dhaulpur was burning at 50 degrees Celsius while we had lunch there. Never before had we endured such high temperature and were afraid of being berated by our elders, should we suffer a heatstroke or the like. Fortunately, we survived the two week excursion without any ill effect. Continuing our journey, we reached Gwalior at 5.30 the same evening. The receptionist at the hotel we checked in, surprised that we were holidaying in the grueling June month, seemed to accept my explanation that we were a little mad.
We had driven more than 550 kilometers and should have been tired. But, crazy as we were, we freshened up, fortified ourselves with some snacks and proceeded to watch ‘son et lumiere’ – the light and sound show at the fort. For nearly one hour, the duration of the soul touching show, we lived through centuries of history. Its effect on one cannot be described. It has to be experienced personally.
I will not comment on the historical or architectural aspect of the places and monuments we visited during our two week sojourn of Madhya Pradesh. Twenty one years is too long a span of time to recall the finer details. Moreover, I cannot add anything to what is now available on the net. I will, therefore, relive the time we spent on the road and narrate stories and anecdotes we gathered about the places we visited.
Gwalior and its fort are no strangers to me. My mamaji (mother’s brother) lived in Gwalior. Ma would visit him often, and we children tagged along. Mamaji lived in Lashkar, an old locality. Later he built a house in Kherapati, a newly developed colony at the foot of the hill on which the fort is built. We youngsters would run up to the fort at will.
It is a sprawling fort, spread over nearly 3 square kilometers, built on the flat top of a thin, long, nearly unclimbable hill rising about 350 feet from the ground around it. The imposing walls are visible from most parts of the city and beyond. There are many tales of how and when the fort was built. Some say that it has always been there and nobody knows who built it. Others claim that the fort was built before the sixth century. But most agree that it was built in the 8th century by King Suraj Sen and named after the sage Gwalipa who cured him of leprosy with water from a pond around which the fort now stands. The fort is one of the few in the country which were seldom, if ever, conquered. Yet it changed hands many times during its 1200 years old history. For most of its existence, the fort remained in possession of the Rajputs and the Marathas. Jivaji Rao Scindia, the last Maratha to rule Gwalior, acceded to India after the country attained independence from the British in 1947. It now forms a large part of Madhya Pradesh, India’s largest province in terms of area.
Of scores of historical structures built over centuries, the most important are – Saas-Bahu Ka Mandir, Man Mandir Palace and Gujari Mahal.
The local tale that the two Saas-Bahu ka Mandirs were built by a mother-in-law (saas) and her daughter-in-law (bahu) each competing with the other does not seem to be correct. Built in 1093, the temples were dedicated to Lord Vishnu, the God with a thousand arms (sahastrabahu). ‘Sahastrabahu’ corrupted to ‘Saas-Bahu, and the story of competing saas and bahu was born. According to an unconfirmed story, the two temples were covered by tons of soil to save them from being defiled when the mughals occupied the fort.
Of the two palaces Man Mandir and Gujari Mahal built by Maharaja Man Singh Gujari Mahal was constructed for Mrignayani, a Gujar princess whom the Maharaja married. Being of lower caste, she was ostracized by the other wives of the Maharaja. So he built a separate palace for her, away from the main palace.
Man Mandir, the other palace built by Maharaja Man Singh, is the main palace. The four story structure, of which two are underground, is also called the ‘Painted Palace’ because of the colorful blue, yellow and green intricate tile work.
Jai Vilas Palace, which houses Jivaji Rao Museum, was built on the fort’s foothills in 1874 by Maharaja Jayaji Rao Scindia. A part of the 400 room palace, is now converted into a museum and is open to public. The visitors get an insight to the opulent lifestyle of the kings. The Durbar Hall is beautifully decorated with, among many other valuable artifacts, a huge chandelier hanging over a large dining table atop which, along a track, ran a working silver train to serve the guests delectable delicacies from the royal kitchen. The museum has a collection of arms used by the warriors of old, the weapons and guns of the British, to say nothing of the priceless paintings and statues from around the world. Also on display are the carriages and cars of the Maharaja.
One must also visit the Samadhi of Tansen, the legendary vocalist and one of the nine nauratnas (gems) in the court of Emperor Akbar.