Saturday, March 31, 2012

TWO Wackers in India Part Two: Singers, Scindias, and Sculptures

As soon as the clock struck 2:30 upon my dad’s visit to Navyug School Laxmi Bai Nagar, my dad and I sped back home to grab my bags, so we could reach Old Delhi train station in time to catch our 4:30 train to Gwalior.

Months before my dad arrived in India, we talked about taking a weekend trip outside of Delhi together.  Both of us had traveled fairly extensively around North India already, so we had already hit most of the Delhi weekend trip hotspots, like Agra and Jaipur.  While I was still thinking about what other feasible weekend trips from Delhi remained, my dad mentioned Gwalior, in Madhya Pradesh.  I immediately recognized the name, as it had figured in the Indian Government’s 6th Grade English textbook as the birthplace of Tansen, one of India’s most famous classical singers.  After reading up a little bit on the city, I discovered that it was also home to a rather impressive fort, and the palace of an opulent Maharaja.  Even better, it was only a short distance beyond Agra, and an easy weekend trip from Delhi.  My dad booked the tickets, and we were all set to go.

We arrived at the station in plenty of time to make our train.  After figuring out which track we were to leave from we ate a small meal, and then settled down on a bench on our platform.  All trains had been delayed, so we had ample time to sit.  We talked for quite a while, mostly about my dad’s visit to my school, what had surprised him, what had not surprised him, the problems that had become clear to him, and what he had enjoyed. 

When a pause came in our conversation, a man sitting beside my dad on the bench turned to him and asked, “From which country are you, sir?”  My dad answered that he was from America.  “Do you know,” said the man.  “Your country has over three times the land mass of my country.  Yet my country has over three times the population of your country.  Your country has one official language.  Ours has fourteen.  Yet we are still a democracy.  Do you know how we manage this?  Do you know?  ”  My dad and I had to admit that we did not know.  “It is our spirituality,” he proclaimed.  “We have such diversity of religion, but all are spiritual.”  This began a conversation about India, America, the differences between them, his work (an engineering job with the government), and various other related topics.  Throughout the conversation, it was clear that this man was fiercely proud of his country, and there were times when his son had to placate him and lighten the mood.   When it was time for his train to leave, he told us it had been a pleasure talking to us, and politely took his leave.  For a little while I was worried that he had been offended by my dad’s and my frank assessment of the Indian education system, but after a while I relaxed, and appreciated what I had learned during the exchange.  It did remind me to be mindful of my words though, especially in very public places.

Finally, our train came, and we boarded.  I was very excited, because, due to a shortage of seat options at the time of our booking, we were traveling AC first class!  Up until that point I had traveled in 2 tier AC class, 3 tier AC class, Sleeper Class, AC Chair Class, and 2nd Sitter class.  (Please see this site if my previous sentence meant nothing to you:  But not first class.  I had a good time admiring our (private!) compartment before we hunkered down into our respective bunks.  After a short period of semi-sleep, we arrived in Gwalior, where we went immediately to our hotel, and went to bed.  

First class!

Settling down into a first class berth

The next morning we ate a hearty breakfast of parantha, yogurt, pickle, and tea (my dad also had eggs) and we soon set off to see the sights of Gwalior.  First on the list was Gwalior fort. 

After a slight disagreement with our rickshaw-wala over the correct fare for our journey, we eventually found ourselves at the fort’s entrance.  We then began the ascent up to the main fort complex.  As we walked up the gently sloping hill and winding path, we stopped many times to admire the numerous rock sculptures which had been carved into the cliffs rising above the road.  The carvings represented various Jain religious leaders, and had mostly been carved in the mid 1400s.  Though many had sadly been defaced by Babur’s Muslim army in 1527, a good number had since been repaired.

Fort walls

Dad taking a picture of some Jain carvings
An image of a thirthankar (Jain saint)

More carvings

After finally passing through the entrance of the fort proper, and then shaking off the many young boys who wanted to be our tour guides, we spent an enjoyable few hours exploring the Gwalior fort complex.   Like nearly all Indian forts, there were a number of crumbling walls and ramparts onto which one could climb, scramble around, and view the surrounding landscape, and also a plethora of small nooks and crannies to explore.  This was my favorite part, naturally.

A view

Ready to explore

Another view

Many, many pillars
Perhaps the most interesting and imposing part of the fort was the Man Singh Palace, also known as the Chit Mandir, or “painted palace.”  The reasons for this nick-name were quite clear; though much of the paint had been stripped off over the years, playful friezes of yellow ducks, and tiles featuring elephants, tigers, crocodiles, and other animals remained, giving parts of the palace the air of a nursery school classroom.  The story behind the palace, however, was definitely not fit for children.  The inside of the palace was dark, at times pitch black, which made the navigation of its many descending, winding staircases difficult.  It was also full of bats, and quite spooky.  Adding to the haunted house effect was the fact that the ruthless and power-hungry Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb had used this palace as a prison for his brother Murad, who died a slow, painful death due to gradual, forced opium overdose.

The Palace

A closer view

Wall carvings

Taking pictures in the inner courtyard

The view from a palace window
Another stunning two-part display of architecture within the fort was the Sasbahu Temple (or temples, really).  (“Sas” is mother-in-law, and “Bahu” is daughter in law.)  The Sas temple was dedicated to Vishnu, and the Bahu temple to Shiva.  Both temples had been built between the 9th and 11th centuries; their nicknames had likely come much later.  Both temples were filled with beautifully intricate sculptures and carvings.
Daughter-in-law from the front

Daughter in law from a distance

The interior of one of the temples

Somehow, incredibly, I managed to neglect to take a picture of the Sas (mother-in-law) temple.  Photo credit her goes to

After viewing the Sasbahu temples, my dad and I began our descent down from the hill fort.  We were coming close to lunchtime, and I was starting to become crAbby, which is what happens when I get hungry.  After some confusion due to a relocated restaurant, we found a nice place to have lunch, and to relax for a little bit.

After we had finished eating, we set off for the famed Jai Vilas Palace and Scindia Museum.  The palace had been built in 1874 as a place of residence for the Scindia family, who were the Maharajas of Gwalior.  Only a small section of the palace has been opened up to the public (the rest of the palace still serves as a home to the current Scindia Maharaja and his family) but that small section was enough to demonstrate the enormous wealth and extravagance of India’s ruling families.  There were walls painted in pure gold, a 3.5 ton chandelier, an indoor swimming pool with multiple diving boards, a miniature train that carried food, beverages, and cigars around the dinner table, and much, much more that was so opulent as to be almost absurd, especially when contrasted with the abject poverty of so many Indians.  Once again, I was reminded of the paradoxes of India, and of the huge gap between the rich and the poor. 

Walking up to the palace

Inside the courtyard.

This is the section that the family lives in.

Why not collect old military knick-knacks?

A little dark, but here is the swimming pool and diving board.

A cradle decked out for the idol of the baby Lord Krishna for his birthday, Janmashtami,

A modest fountain

A buggy

The next day, my dad and I decided to go and see the tombs of Mohammed Gaus, a Muslim Saint, and Tansen, one of India’s most revered classical singers, who had been a favorite of the Mughal Emperor Akhbar.  The tombs were beautiful, but clearly not frequented by many tourists, at least judging by the small following we soon developed.  Nevertheless, we had an enjoyable time walking around, and admiring the monuments.  The tomb of Mohammed Gaus was certainly bigger and more showy than that of Tansen, but I was somehow more drawn to Tansen’s tomb, possibly due to Tansen’s role in the story I had read with my 6th graders.  Of particular interest was the Tamarind tree growing next to Tansen’s grave.  According to local superstition, chewing the leaves of this tree will greatly enhance ones singing voice.  I chewed on a few leaves, an act which left a very  bitter taste in my mouth, but if it brought me the blessings of the great Tansen, then who was I to complain.

The tomb of Mohammed Gaus

The Tomb of Mohammed Gaus, side view

Tansen's Tomb

Several hours later (also several hours after our train was supposed to leave!) we were on a train bound for Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin Railway station.  Our trip had been short, but productive, and very informative.  I think we were both very happy to have seen an Indian city that was somewhat off the tourist radar, and definitely outside of the tourist packed “Golden Triangle” (Delhi, Agra, Jaipur).  Before my dad had even arrived, many of the teachers at my school looked at me quizzically and said, “Gwalior?  Why would you take your dad to Gwalior?  There’s nothing there! Take him to see the Taj!”  Despite the skepticism we encountered, I think both my dad and I were very satisfied with the choice we had made, and would definitely recommend it to any other travelers looking to venture away from India’s main tourist circuits!

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