KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
I have always been fascinated by forts and have visited several in Eastern Canada. On our previous trips to India, we have seen some of the more famous forts in Delhi, Agra and Rajasthan but I have always wanted to visit the fort in Gwalior. This time, we were not on a tight itinerary so we decided to make an overnight trip from Delhi to Gwalior on the train. The Shatabdi trains are special trains that provide high class chair-car service between some of India's larger centers. I have taken a photo of the interior of the train to show you what it is like. This is a second-class air-conditioned car and as you can see, it is very clean and comfortable. Full meals are served on the trains and they even provide bottled water upon departure. Except for the scenery whizzing past the large window, it seemed like we were on an airplane.
The big advantage of this kind of train travel is that you are taken from city center to city centre, not to the outskirts where most modern airports are located. The other advantage is that you do not have to arrive hours ahead of time for security checks, however I was a little disconcerted to find heavily armed policemen walking through the carriage every now and then. India has faced its fair share of terrorism over the past few years and I guess I should be thankful that precautions are being taken to ensure our safety.
The train departed the New Delhi station exactly on time and we arrived in Gwalior about three hours later after making only a couple of stops - one of them being Agra where the Taj Mahal is situated. There were several other foreign tourists in our coach, but most of them got off to see the wonderful sites at Agra. We have been there on almost every other trip to India, I was ready to see something new. I have taken the liberty to copy some information from the internet about Gwalior and the fort. Here is what I learned:
"The fort has a long history, which goes back to over a thousand years. According to a legend, on the hilltop where the fort stands, lived a hermit GWALIPA. He cured SURAJ SEN of leprosy, by giving him a drink of water from the Suraj kund, which is still there in the fort. He also renamed him SURAJ PAL and said that as long as he and his descendants kept the name PAL, they would remain in power. His 84th descendent however, changed his name and lost his kingdom.
The Mughal emperor Babar referred to the Gwalior Fort as "the pearl amongst fortresses in India" and although you may beg to differ, you will probably agree that this, the dominating feature of Gwalior's skyline, is definitely a citadel worth seeing. With a turbulent and pretty eventful past, the Gwalior Fort spreads out over an area of 3 square km, bounded by solid walls of sandstone, which enclose three temples, six palaces and a number of water tanks. Regarded as North and Central India's most impregnable fortress, the Gwalior Fort was built by Raja Man Singh Tomar in the 15th century.
In the five hundred years since then, the fort has changed hands many times- it has been held by the Tomars, Mughals, Marathas and British, who finally handed it over to the Scindias. Today it's a must-see sight on any Gwalior itinerary, and just the ride up to the fort gives you a taste of what's coming: the southern path is bounded by rock faces with intricate carvings of the Jain tirthankars. As you enter the fort, you'll see lots more to impress and interest you: palaces and temples, impressive gates and historic water tanks.
Among the fort's most prominent palaces is the amazingly ornate Man Singh Palace, built by Man Singh in the 15th century. Embellished with a vivid pattern in tile and paint, the palace spreads over four levels, and despite its picture-pretty appearance, has a somewhat gory history: Mughal emperor Aurangzeb imprisoned and later murdered his brother Murad here. Equally grisly is the Jauhar Kund, which marks the spot where the women of the harem burnt themselves to death after the defeat of the king of Gwalior in 1232.
Along the path leading to the fort from the Southern side are many Jain sculptures along the rock faces. These sculptures were originally cut in the mid-15th century but were defaced by the marauding armies of Babur in 1527. One image is a sculpture of the first JAIN THIRTHANKAR. The figure is 17 meters high. The most important group is the southeastern group in which there are nearly 20 images spread over a distance of 1km."
After freshening up at the hotel we found on the internet - The Landmark - we took an autorickshaw to the base of the escarpment and climbed the steep stone-paved road to the Elephant Gate. This road gave us a wonderful view of the city as it wraps itself around the huge outcropping of rock. I took a picture of our first view of the fortress as it came into view. Magnificent. After entering the gate, we paid our admission - five rupees for Indians and one hundred rupees for foreigners. This was not expensive by our standards - about two US dollars for me. There were few other tourists at this quiet time of year, but we were able to join in with a small group of Indians for Chennai (Madras) to listen to the English guide describe the events leading to the construction of the fort. He was very knowledgeable and pointed out all the unique details of the fort and its colourful history.
I was particularly fascinated with the beautiful inlaid tiles on the fort - something that I had not seen before. After the tour of the Man Singh Palace, we walked through the large open areas of the fort towards the southern gate and down the road back to the town. The road descended to the southern gate and on each side colourful bougainvillea trees were planted on both sides. There were bushes in almost every shade of bougainvillea - one of my favorite flowers in India. Indeed, anyone who has seen my travel photos over the years will remember many pictures of me standing beside these lovely flowering trees.
Once we left the fortress gate behind, we descended through a chasm whose rock faces were covered with Jain carvings. The standing figures were all carved with the male genitalia uncovered. Over the years, many of the private parts of the statues have been chiseled away, or in many cases, a stone arch supported by pillars is strategically placed to hide the 'offending' parts from view. It was a lovely day with a soft breeze blowing and we walked the full length of the road to the base of the plain where the city of Gwalior stands. We hopped into an autorickshaw and headed back to the hotel for lunch. It had been a very early morning and we wanted to catch a siesta before returning to the fort for the Sound and Light Show later that evening.
We returned in a car in the evening because we had been advised that the road to the fort was too steep for the autorickshaws (motorcycles with attached passengers’ compartments) to climb. The car would wait for us to return once the show finished. The Hindi show was just after dark at 6:30 and then the English show followed at 7:30. We were caught up in an unexpected gridlock in the narrow streets of the city when a politician held a rally on a major intersection. We were happy that we had an experienced driver because he knew the back lanes well and took a long detour around the mess of traffic. I was not sure we would reach the fort in time, but in the end, we were the only foreign tourists there that night and they probably would have screened the show when we arrived, had we not made the scheduled time.
It was very strange to walk out into the open area surrounding the Man Singh Palace and seat ourselves in the large stone amphitheater. The twinkling lights of the city encircled the towering cliffs and the full moon shone brightly above us. Suddenly, the loudspeakers brought the ancient world to life and the lights flooded the palace in shades of green, blue, red and yellow. We sat spellbound as the voice of the famous Indian movie actor, Amitabh Bacchan boomed in the darkness. Over the next forty minutes we learned of the long and bloody history of the fort, but also of the years in which laughter, music and song filled the many beautiful rooms of the palace. It was a moving experience made all the more special by the absence of others at the show.
We had a quiet morning and I worked on my journal at the hotel's business centre. After a lovely South Indian breakfast at the hotel, we set out with a car and driver to spend four hours seeing the other sights of Gwalior. While the city is best known for the fort, there are a couple of other places to see. We started by seeing the Sun Temple - a replica of the famous Sun Temple in Orissa. While we waited for the temple to open, I noticed a village woman seated near me with highly decorated feet.
I had seen mehndi on the feet of women before, but this woman's feet were coloured deep pink and she wore several silver rings on her toes and silver anklets on each leg. My curiosity could not be contained and I moved over to ask her if I could take a photo. She quickly covered her head with her sari when she saw my camera, but I spoke to her male companion and told him I would just like to take a picture of her lovely feet. This caused her and her women friends to giggle with amazement. She did agree to some photos and they all had a good laugh at my expense when I showed them the pictures on the digital display. Now I have a good story to tell and no doubt they have one to take back to the village about me. It's these types of experiences that are the most memorable in my travels around the world.
I did manage to snap one photo of the Sun Temple before I learned that photography was not allowed. I probably should delete the photo - the temple resembles a chariot being pulled by horses. The photo is of the horses at the front of the temple - the picture does give you a chance to see the color of the stone used and the intricate carving representative of the entire temple.
After leaving the Sun Temple and its immaculate surrounding gardens, we headed out into the congested, littered streets to see the Usha Kiran Palace Hotel. This former palace was the home of the Maharaja of Scindia but is now a five-star hotel and part of the Taj Group of India. We walked through the lovely entrance to the reception desk and asked if it was possible to see some of the guest rooms. We said we were on a scouting mission and that we might be planning on returning with a group of friends from Canada. There appeared to be absolutely no guests at the hotel in this pre-holiday period, and the receptionist was more than willing to allow us a tour. The rooms are large and sumptuous as one would expect from a former palace. Who knows, we have taken our friends to Vietnam in the past, we might return one day to the Palace Hotel.
The last place on our Gwalior trip was a visit to the Barra market. This market is situated in a large square with several ornate buildings facing into the square. The buildings are all well past their best before date and have been taken over as venues for the market. We walked up and down the narrow lanes of shops for over an hour and I took a few photos of some of the colorful things on display. These pictures don't begin to show the vast array of things for sale but it more the setting of the market that makes it an interesting place to visit. We had a quick lunch of pau bhaji (smashed vegetables cooked together on a hot griddle and served with toasted buns) before finishing up our tour.
The Landmark had kindly offered to give us a room to wait in after our hours out in the hot, dusky city. We rested in comfort for a couple of hours before it was time to head back to the railway station to catch the Shatabdi back to Delhi at 7:10 pm. The hotel even provided us with a car to the nearby station, but within mere meters of the hotel, the driver announced that the car had a punctured tire. He did not want to wait for it to be repaired so decided to change to an autorickshaw for the short ride. Much to our surprise, the driver insisted on paying the autorickshaw fee - and would not listen to our protests that we would pay. This was a first for us, and when we told our family in Delhi, even they could not believe that the driver would do this. I have to say that the Landmark took exceptional care of us for our entire stay and even during our departure.
The train trip to Delhi was uneventful. We enjoyed a delicious vegetarian meal served "airplane style" and listened to our iPod as we thought about what a wonderful time we had on this short getaway. It also struck us that this was the first time we had been on our own since our visit to Hong Kong over two months ago. Ajay picked us up near the ring road in Dhaula Kuan and we found ourselves very happy to return "home" to Delhi and our family.