Straddling the main Delhi-Mumbai train line, GWALIOR is northern Madhya Pradesh’s largest city and boasts one of India’s most magnificent hilltop forts. The sandstone citadel, with its temples and palaces, peers down from the edge of a sheer-sided plateau above a haze of exhaust fumes and busy streets. The city’s other unmissable attraction is the extraordinarily flamboyant Jai Vilas Palace, owned by the local ruling family, the Scindias. Their personalities and influence are everywhere, from the chhatris (cenotaphs) north of Jayaji Chowk to the excellent Sarod Ghar classical music museum. Despite its proximity to Agra, 119km north, Gwalior sees few foreign tourists and its drab modern centre lacks the charm of its nearby Rajasthani counterparts. That said, it is a worthwhile place to pause for a day, particularly around late November or early December, when the old Mughal tombs host one of India’s premier classical music events, the Tansen Festival.
An inscription unearthed in a now-defunct sun temple suggests that Gwalior was first occupied in the sixth century BC by Hun invaders from the north. Local legend, however, attributes the founding of the fort to the Kuchwaha prince Suraj Sen, said to have been cured of leprosy during the tenth century by the hermit Gwalipa after whom the city is named. The Kuchwahas’ successors, the Parihars, were brutally overthrown in 1232 by Iltutmish.
A third Rajput dynasty, the Tomars, retook Gwalior in 1398, ushering in the city’s golden age. Under Man Singh, who ascended to the Tomar gadi (throne) in 1486, the hilltop gained the magnificent palaces and fortifications that were to earn it the epithet “the pearl in the necklace of the castles of Hind”. Skirmishes with neighbouring powers dogged the Rajputs’ rule until 1517, when the Lodis from Delhi besieged the fort for a second time and Man Singh was slain. Thereafter, Gwalior was ruled by a succession of Muslim overlords before falling to Akbar.
With the decline of the Mughals, Gwalior became the base of the most powerful of the four Maratha clans, the Scindias, in 1754. Twenty-six years later, British troops conquered the fort and Gwalior became a British feudatory state ruled by a succession of puppet rajas. The most famous of these, Jayaji Rao Scindia, remained loyal to the British during the 1857 uprising, although 6500 of his troops joined the opposing forces led by Tantia Tope and Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi. Both rebel leaders were killed in the ensuing battle, and the maharaja quickly resumed his role as host of some of the grandest viceregal dinners, royal visits and tiger hunts ever witnessed by the Raj. The Scindias remained influential after Independence, and still live in Gwalior.