It is a humid day inside Gwalior Fort. Monsoon clouds loom grey over the horizon and throw into vivid relief the turquoise, green and yellow tiles of the Man Mandir Palace. Our guide has recounted to us the history of this, the second largest of India’s forts (Chittorgarh, with a circumference of 14km—4km more than Gwalior Fort—is the largest).
We’ve been told about the Kachhwahas, who founded it. About Raja Man Singh, who built the Man Mandir Palace in the early 16th century. About Jahangir and Shahjahan, who ruled from Agra but visited Gwalior on hunting trips, and always stayed at the now bat-infested hunting lodges within the fort. And we’ve heard about the British who, in 1857, shelled part of the Man Mandir Palace and then carried out restoration, and constructed a number of buildings, including what is today The Scindia School.
We’re heading towards the magnificently carved Saas Bahu temples when our guide says, “I will show you one last monument here, then we will go.” The building he leads us into is a many-pillared stone structure, flat-roofed and unornamented, diagonally opposite the flamboyant Man Mandir Palace. It has 82 pillars, we are told, and in the days of Jahangir, 52 princes were imprisoned here at the orders of the Mughal emperor. But the Sikh Guru Hargobind Singh interceded on behalf of the princes, and the Mughal emperor finally acceded to the guru’s request to release the princes. “But Jahangir set a condition,” our guide says. “Only as many of the princes as could touch the guru’s garments at one time could go with him.” So the guru, determined to save all the princes, wore a voluminous kurta with 52 kalis or panels in it. And all the princes, clutching the guru’s kurta, followed him to freedom.
Majestic: The Man Mandir Palace is the second largest fort in India.
Also See | Trip planner - Gwalior
Anything can happen in Gwalior. It can be something as bizarre as the miniature tabletop train, laden with decanters, cigars and cigarettes, that used to run on a special track on a banquet table in the Scindias’ Jai Vilas Palace. It can be a matter of faith as profound as the belief that praying to the south-facing idol at the Vikram Mahal Temple in Gwalior Fort will avert death itself.
As we walk past the the fort, our guide tells us how Gwalior was born, when a thirsty (and leprous) king asked a sage for water—and found his leprosy cured when he touched the water. The king founded a city, Gwalior, named after the sage, Gwalab; and built Suraj Kund, a tank to contain the miracle-working water. On our way to the Saas Bahu temples and the Teli ka Mandir—the latter strongly reminiscent of the vividly carved temples at Khajuraho—we stop by at the lotus-overlaid Suraj Kund. The water is green and scummy, and looks as if it might cause some virulent diseases rather than take them away.
More endearing is the story we’ve been told earlier that morning, at the tomb of Tansen. The 16th century singer and musician Tansen is Gwalior’s most beloved son. His tomb, a small square pavilion with a large chaadar of green silk spread over his grave and dotted with flowers, stands beside the ostentatious tomb of his foster father, the sufi saint Ghaus Mohammad.
An old caretaker wearing a white kurta-pyjama, skull cap in place, ushers us into the dimness of Ghaus Mohammad’s tomb. He hands me a scarf, sodden with incense, to cover my head, and tells us all about how Ghaus Mohammad’s prayers enabled Tansen’s mother to conceive long after she had given up hope. Near us, with his forehead touching the ground, is a young man, his lips moving in fervent prayer. Above him, the screen surrounding the cenotaph of the saint is knotted over with coloured threads, strips of polythene, bits of the sacred red-and-yellow thread known as mauli. Here and there too are letters, pencilled and inked, begging for the saint’s intercession.
Outside, beyond the gorgeously carved screens surrounding Ghaus Mohammad’s tomb, is Tansen’s tomb—and another miracle. Here, beside Tansen’s tomb, is supposed to be a tamarind tree under which the legend is said to have practised. Thousands of visitors believe that a leaf plucked from the tree, when chewed, will make the singer’s voice as sweet as that of Tansen’s.
But we can see no tamarind tree anywhere near Tansen’s tomb. Roses, yes. Bushes of jasmine, yes, studded with fragrant white flowers; but no tamarind. The caretaker shakes his head sorrowfully when we ask him where it is. “It fell down two years ago,” he explains. Then, his face lighting up, he takes us around to the side overlooking Ghaus Mohammad’s tomb. Surrounded by a sturdy iron railing is a sapling, its feathery green leaves unmistakably that of the tamarind. “Sometime after the old tree collapsed, this one came up,” the caretaker says. “Go on,” he adds, “have a leaf.” And, given permission, we each snip off one tiny fragment from a compound leaf. It’s too small to even allow us to really taste it, but that doesn’t matter. Perhaps there will be a miracle in store for us too.
As we walk back to Ghaus Mohammad’s tomb, the caretaker remarks, “That old tree never had any fruit. That was the strange thing about it. I’ve been here more than 30 years, and I never saw a single pod on it.”
But this is Gwalior. I’m not surprised.
Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint