Going for holidays in the winter vacations never really happened before because of the simple reason that in school (and then in the first two years of college), the prestigious educational institutions believed that there should, without fail, be a series of examinations right after the vacations ended. Hence with the exception of Christmas Eve, Christmas day and New Year’s Eve, I (along with many other disconsolate classmates) would be studying diligently (sort of) and trying to turn a blind eye to what, at that moment, seemed to be the Best Days of Our Lives. Anyway. I shall let bygones be bygones.
This time however, thanks to the advent of the much-contested (and much-opposed) Semester system, exams began in late-November and hence ended in the beginning of December. Yay! Freedom in the second week of December itself! Brilliant! Let’s go celebrate in places with unknown names!
Actually, my family and I seem to have gotten this penchant for going down “roads less travelled”. No, we don’t go exploring places ‘untouched by human intervention’. But we like places which are slightly different. So we’d gone to Nawalgarh (pretty much unknown) and this time, we decided to go to Madhya Pradesh, The Heart of India. And it was beautiful!
Our first stop was Gwalior, the city with the mighty fort which the Mughal Emperor Babur called “the pearl in the necklace of the forts of India”. He wasn’t wrong. It’s a HUGE fort and supposedly, it takes 2-3 days to actually explore the whole fort. The view of Gwalior city from the fort ramparts is…breathtaking. You’ve got to be there to experience it.
We didn’t have 2-3 days to explore Gwalior. So without wasting any time, we started our exploration of the main Fort. The most important structure here is called the Man Mandir Palace or Man Singh Palace. It has 3 basement levels and climbing down centuries old stone staircases was no mean feat. But I love doing all this stuff. It makes me feel like an explorer or something. Kindly do not laugh. I alos love the feeling of having gone back in time. But the basements here are…scary. There are millions (or so my suddenly hyper-sensitive ears said) of rats squeaking and shrieking somewhere in the walls. And the feel-lost-in-time thing didn’t happen becasue there was this huge group of tourists who entered with us. Hmph! But the palace is really regal, isn’t it?
The upper levels were also nice, with beautiful coloured tiles adorning the walls. Our guide was a happy chap, as he explained how the Kings and Queens could enjoy “DJ parties” back then with a clever use of coloured glass tiles and candle light. He was extremely thrilled with the idea.
At the very lowest level is present the Jauhar pond. This little indoor swimming pool of sorts, had been just that – a place to bathe for the queens who had to live behind the palace walls in purdah. It was when the fort was attacked or their consorts were killed in battle, that the royal ladies would commit mass suicide by burning themselves. This was called ‘Jauhar’ (somewhat like Sati).
After having climbed extremely steep stone stairs put of the Man Singh palace, we moved onto the very interesting Saas Bahu temples. Now the guide explained that the reason for the very weird name of this temple (Saas meaning mother-in-law and Bahu meaning daughter-in-law in Hindi) was that one temple had been built by the king for his mother and one for his wife. Hence the local people started calling them Saas Bahu temples. But what I understood from my mini-research on the same, was slightly different. But whatever the story, the temple itself is simply beautiful!
On the way out of the fort, we also saw the Gopachal Parvat, a section of the hill on which the fort is built, on which are sculpted the 23 Jain Tirthankars all from a single piece of rock. The largest statue is 40 feet high. Jaw-dropping. To say the least.
We next visited the palace of the Scindias, Jai Vilas Palace. It’s a beautiful construction, supposedly based on the plan of the Versailles. On the inside, one half is a museum now, while the Royal family lives in the other half. The museum is okay. But what is worth seeing is the small wing which houses the banquet hall where guests are still entertained. There is the famous mini Silver Train, which runs on a track from one end of a gigantically long table to the other end. On the floor above this hall, is a room which took my breath away. Set up just like a room in Versailles, two ginormous Belgian chandeliers occupy a place of prominence. Once you are able to look away from them, you see the beautiful pieces of furniture and the frescoes of angels on the walls. Truly royal! I, unfortunately, did not take my camera in here.
We didn’t stay the night at Gwalior. Instead, we drove on to the summer capital of the Scindias, Shivpuri. It’s a quiet, peaceful place and the wide variety of flora and avifauna made me happy happy happy. And my new camera’s photographing capabilities were discovered.
Shivpuri is most famous for it’s cenotaph complex, which has two chhatris (cenotaphs) for an earlier queen (Maharani Sakhya Raje Scindia) and her son (Madhavrao Scindia). We visited the place when it was nearing sunset. And the fading rays of the sun made the cenotaphs look even more gorgeous.
The next day, we left Shivpuri. On our way to Orchha, we passed a place called Surwaiya Ghadi. Never EVER visit Madhya Pradesh and miss going to this place. It’s…lost in time. And takes you back in time with itself. I love such places. And here, there were no irritating others to spoil the magic. Only my parents and me, along with a quiet sort of local guy who offered to show us around. I roamed around, weaving stories about the people who would’ve lived here, learned here, talked here, walked on these same stone steps, pulled out water from the wells, walked down the step well. People lived here. Like we live today. And they were just as real as us. Isn’t history just beautiful? (My mom will cry tears of joy hearing this. She was a History student and a lifelong History-lover)
And this isn’t a really nice photograph, but I saw a turtle in the step well! How cool is that??! For a city girl, it’s quite cool, so stop guffawing.
Surwaiya Ghadi actually first only had a small ancient school where students lived with the Gurus (teachers) according to the age-old tradition of Gurukul learning. The ‘ghadi’ (fort) around the school, and the few small memorial shrines built for the saints who most probably taught at the school, was built later by some Mughal king, who discovered this place, destroyed a few of the shrines and built the tiny fort. It really is tiny. And all the more cute.
We reached Orchha that very evening. But that’s gotta be another post. Because Orchha has a lot to talk of.