Standing on a long, narrow, rocky hill of sandstone rising 100m above the surrounding countryside, the great fortress of Gwalior has imprinted itself indelibly on the imagination of generations of poets.
Seen from the north the view is impressive, with a long line of battlements punctuated by formidable bastions and fretted domes, enriched with brilliant blue, green and yellow tiles, it’s no surprise that Gwalior Fort is known as the ‘pearl in the necklace of the forts of Hind’.
The foundation of the Fort is shrouded in mystery. According to a local legend, the fort was constructed by Suraj Sen in 3 AD, who was cured of his leprosy by a sage called Gwalipa. The cure came by taking water from a sacred pond which now lies within the fort, and the thankful King constructed a fort and named it after the sage.
The archaeological evidence suggests that a fort may have existed here as early as the 6th century AD. In 1861 Alexander Cunningham discovered and recorded what has become known as the Gwalior Inscription of Mihirakula, which mentions the construction of a Sun Temple (now lost) in the 6th century on top of Gopa Hill. It is thought that this temple may have been somewhere near where Gwalior Fort stands today.
The first time Gwalior Fort is mentioned in the historical record is in the 10th century, by then the fort was controlled by the Kachchhapaghata dynasty who also built the nearby Sas Bahu Temple.
From the 11th century the fort was almost in constant threat by Muslim dynasties who attacked the fort on several occasions, but in 1398 the fort came under control of the Tomars.
The most distinguished of the Tomar rulers was Maan Singh, who is known to have commissioned several monuments within the fort. One of these monuments was the Man Singh Palace (or Man Mandir), which is open to the public to explore.
A ticket to see the interior of the Man Singh Palace is available from a small ticket office opposite the palace entrance. The ticket is also valid for entry to the Sas Bahu Temple and Teli Ka Mandir that are a little distance away. This is the only place where you can obtain tickets for all three monuments.
The Man Singh Palace was built between 1486 and 1516, and is often described as the most remarkable and interesting example of an early Hindu Palace anywhere in India.
It has two storeys above ground and two storeys below ground, with two open courtyards surrounded by suites of rooms with elaborately decorated ceilings.
Many of the small rooms in the Man Singh Palace were used as sleeping apartments. You can still see the iron rings attached to ceilings, doors and windows that were used for hanging cots, screens, and other ceremonial fabrics.
Man Singh died in 1516 during an attack on the fort by Ibrahim Lodi, son of the Delhi Sultan Sikandar Lodi. Just a decade later it was then captured by the Mughal emperor Barbur, assisted by Mohammad Ghaus whose tomb is not far from the fort.
By 1558 the fort was controlled by Akbar, and after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 the Rana chieftains of Gohad held the stronghold, before losing it to the Maratha general Mahadaji Shinde (Scindia) in 1768. Then on August 3, 1780, a Company force of the British East India Company under Captains Popham and Bruce captured the fort in a nighttime raid, scaling the walls with 12 grenadiers and 30 sepoys. Both sides suffered fewer than 20 wounded people.
There were frequent changes in control between the Scindias and the British, but by 1886 the British were in complete control of India, and the fort no longer had any strategic importance to them. Therefore, they handed over the fort to the Scindia family, who continued to rule Gwalior until the independence of India in 1947.
In many respects Gwalior Fort, and in particular the Man Singh Palace, is a building of immense contrast. With the wonderful external architecture of the palace with its turquoise, yellow and green tiling, to the magnificent courtyards and complex of rooms within, you would have little idea of the darker secrets this building possesses.
To unlock those darker secrets, you need to go below ground. A complex series of staircases leads down to a completely different world, and perhaps an unexpected one considering everything that is above, a dungeon.
This underground world consists of two large 16-sided rooms, one on top of the other. It is here that the Mughal emperor Jahangir held prisoners, many of whom were tortured and killed.
One of his most famous prisoners was the sixth Sikh guru, Hargobind. He was eventually set free along with 52 Rajas, you can read about that story in my post about his nearby shrine, Gurdwara Data Bandi Chor Sahib.
Other prisoners of course were far less fortunate. Jahangir’s grandson, Aurangzeb, imprisoned several of his own relatives in these dungeons in the 17th century, including one of his brothers, Murad Baksh, and Murad’s son Muhammad Sultan. Murad was eventually executed here in 1661 after being held in the prison for nearly three years. Suleman and Sepher Shikoh, Aurangzeb’s nephews, were also imprisoned and executed at the fort.
For all the darker days that the Man Singh Palace has endured over the centuries, it’s grandeur and splendour undoubtedly lives on. Alexander Cunningham said of the palace that it :
“…affords the noblest specimen of Hindu domestic architecture in Northern India”.
I think very few people would argue with that.
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