Gob-smacked (gob-smakd’) adj. To be astonished; to be overwhelmed greatly; to be affected with wonder; to be stunned.Synonyms: amazed, stupefied, flabbergasted, dazed, bowled over, blown clean away and a whole lot of other stuff. You get the idea. Actually, you won’t. Unless you’re physically standing in front of the Taj Mahal, jaw grazing the ground in awe, what I’ve written will be so much typeface on paper. Funnily enough, most punters would probably say ‘The Taj Mahal? Big whoopee. Next item, please,’ and to be fair to them, the dear old building has been done almost to last gasp. You can’t fling a stone ten feet in our country without hitting something connected with the Taj – books, posters, matchboxes, public toilets, tea-bags, shops...heck, someone even went and built a fairly horrendous scaled-down replica and lives in it.
On my own part, I’d be lying if I said I was all agog at the prospect of seeing it again. I had first set eyes on it during a school trip, while still a hormonal 13 year old. Displaying some dazzling common sense, the school had dialled in the trip in the middle of summer, a time when the business end of 42° celcius hits you in the face and grown men drop dead at bus stops. You will therefore appreciate why I felt a tad malevolent when, after a four-hour journey from Delhi in a stinky bus, we were all made to disembark in Agra under an afternoon sun and frog-marched to the Taj Mahal, under strict orders to enjoy ourselves or else. All right, maybe it wasn’t as Nazi-like as that, but the point is that as I stood before one of the world’s Hall of Fame monuments, I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed with delight.
What a difference thirteen years makes. Without wanting to sound like a pompous git, I think you have to be older and wiser to appreciate things like art and architecture. Just as importantly, the weather was pleasant and I was on my own, so I could take all the time I wanted, for if ever there was something worth spending a long time over, it’s the Taj Mahal. Everyone knows the tragi-romantic story behind it, so I shan’t bother you with those details. You don’t need any, frankly, not when you’re in front of something so monumental. You simply gape at it. It is perfect, in every possible way and from every conceivable angle. It boggles the mind to think about how such symmetry was achieved. Its white marble takes on different hues as the light changes, and the intricacy of the work on the walls is just incredible The trick is to avoid the tourist mobs in front, who are perfectly happy to saunter in, have pictures taken against the monument and buzz off. Few people venture around to the sides, where the view is just as good and where there are a couple of lovely red-sandstone mosques as well. I sat there until closing time and not once did I feel like time was dragging on.
It scarcely seems possible, but it was even more stunning a few hundred years ago. Looting, vandalisation and sheer callousness by a succession of idiots (including the Brits, who once came as close as dammit to auctioning it for the marble) have meant that its sheen has been considerably reduced over the years. Compared to what the erstwhile UP government did, however, all this seems almost inconsequential. Clearly ardent fans of the ‘How To Ruin Heritage Monuments For Fun And Profit’ series, they came up with the Taj Heritage Corridor project. This essentially comprised building a hideous corridor connecting the Agra Fort and the Taj, the whole to be filled to capacity with malls (yes, malls!) and suchlike. To that end, construction activity began full-swing and, among other things, the course of the Yamuna river running alongside the Taj was diverted. This caused the base of the monument (something that has endured for close to 400 years) to be weakened, with the result that the stability of the main structure is now at risk. Trust a bunch of cretinous bureaucrats to achieve something in a few months what the ravages of time couldn’t for four centuries. I urge anyone who hasn’t seen the Taj yet (if you have, go see it again) to do so post haste, before it sinks into the ground or someone decides that a Ferris wheel on the dome would be just the thing to liven it up. It is arguably the greatest building ever made, and the way it has been treated sometimes makes me feel that we don’t deserve such sublimity. The Taj was so out of this world that it completely overshadowed the rest of my trip, which was actually to Gwalior (I had nipped down to Agra on an impulse). To be scrupulously fair, Gwalior is a great little town when viewed with an unbiased eye. Its chief attraction is the fort, which dominates the town below. Set up on a steep hill, it is a wonderful place principally because of the sheer variety of buildings within it. From rock-cut Jain sculptures to Hindu temples to Islamic palaces and even a gurdwara, the fort has them all. The ones I liked best were those from the Mughal period, with their intricate designs and wonderful silhouettes. The biggest building of the lot, the Man Singh Palace, is quite superb in its use of glazed blue tiles as decoration. It still looks stunning, so when it was first built it must have been a real eyeful. The fort is massive, so you need a stout pair of walking shoes and a fair amount of energy to cover it in its entirety. The thing to do here is to huff and puff up to a pavilion, where you can catch the breeze, and seat yourself so you can see the entire fort complex and Gwalior town down below. You’ll also be able to see the spires of the gurdwara, the twin Sasbahu temples (can’t you just see Ekta Kapoor looking at them and thinking ‘Hey, wait a minute...’) and the Teli Ka Mandir temple. The refreshing thing about the fort is that there are very few sections (if any) that are closed off (unlike, say, the Agra fort where the authorities delight in cordoning off entire areas), so you’re welcome to go clambering up any part you can, or dare to.
Superb as the fort is, for sheer all-out value for moolah you just cannot beat the Jai Vilas Palace and Museum. By dint of its depiction of all that was splendid and decadent about the Maharajas, it is simultaneously the most incredible and most disgusting place I have ever been to. As soon as you enter the joint you’re struck by an immediate air of the Raj. A sign saying (get this) His Highness Maharaja Mukhtar-ul-Mulk, Azim-ul-Iqtidar, Rafi-ush-Shan, Wala Shikoh, Mohtasham-i-Dauran, Umdat-ul-Umara, Maharajadhiraja Alijah Hisam-us-Saltanat, Honorary Lieutenant General Sir George Jiwaji Rao Scindia Bahadur Shrinath Mansur-i-Zaman, Fidwi-i-Hazrat Malik-i-Muazzam-i-Rafi-ud-Darjat-i-Inglistan GCIS Maharaja of Gwalior is the first thing you see. That happens to be the official title of the gent who was the Maharaja. He was known as George to his buddies, which is just as well, since they would have all given up the ghost by the time they had a fling at the full Monty.
The museum is divvied up into a number of areas, each pertaining to a particular subject. The optimistically named ‘Natural History Museum’, which is crammed with generous numbers of birds and animals killed by old George, his ancestors and his progeny, takes pride of place on the ground floor. Massive rooms full of the most godawful furniture assault your sensibilites on another floor. There’s the Arms gallery, full of guns and swords; the Archaeological Gallery, with myriad stone carvings; a room with some rather good Mughal miniatures; a clothing section; a collection of old Urdu and Hindu manuscripts; some wonderful ivory carvings; a Chinese gallery; a well-hidden collection of erotica, the centrepiece being a lady being rather overly intimate with a swan; and various other odds and ends. I tell you, the term ‘eclectic’ was coined after someone clapped eyes on this collection. All of this fairly loony stuff is, however, blown into the weeds when you take a look at the Banquet Hall and Durbar Hall. The former has three long dining tables, with a silver toy train on the middle one. The train goes around the entire table on tracks, and lugs cut-glass bowls of brandy and cigars with it, thereby managing to be incredibly cool and completely ludicrous at the same time. The Durbar hall, all white walls with real gold paint (58 kg of the stuff, to be exact) has two giant chandeliers, allegedly the largest in the world. Each of these is 12.5 meters high, holds 248 candles and weighs 3.5 tonnes – they had to suspend elephants from the ceiling before they installed them, just to make sure that the roof wouldn’t cave in on the populace below.
There you are, then. By all means, take the effort to visit this quaint town. There’s a lot to see and do, and short trips can be made to several other places (see Travel Log). Above all else, however, is the highway leading up to Agra and the Taj. If you happen to feel like getting on it, succumb to the urge. No matter how ‘stale’ the Taj might seem at first thought, it is anything but when you’re up close. Somebody once said ‘the Mughals began like titans and finished like jewellers.’ They sure knew what they were on about.
Apart from Gwalior’s magnificent fort and the... um... interesting Jai Vilas museum, there’s another fairly good museum within the fort. Housed within the dilapidated Gujri Mahal, the State Archaeological Museum has a large collection of Hindu and Jain sculptures and copies of some impressive frescoes. To the north of the fort hill lies the old town of Gwalior, which is a fascinating (if chaotic) place to walk around in. The Jama Masjid, built in 1661 of sandstone, is a fine old building and worth a look. Mohammed Ghaus’ tomb, in the eastern part of town, is a rather austere monument, but interesting to visit to see how the Islamic style of architecture evolved over the years. Next to it lies the tomb of Tansen, said to be a hot favourite with Akbar. He reportedly brought about a torrential downpour with a rendition of the Malhar raag, a fact that would have made him much in demand with match-fixers if he were still alive. There’s a tamarind tree next to the tomb, and chewing on the leaves of the tree apparently does wonders for your voice. An annual Indian Classical music festival is held here around October/November, so that might be a good time to visit if you’re an enthusiast. 37 km from Gwalior is Morena, where the famous Chambal ravines are located. They’re an amazing sight, and MP Tourism conducts a cruise on the Asan tributary of the Chambal river. If you’re lucky, you’ll see river dolphins and gharials too.
Hotel Gwalior Regency (Ph: 0751-2340670) is a good place to stay, at Rs 800 onwards. It has a decent restaurant, a health club and a small swimming pool. The Usha Kiran Palace Hotel (Ph: 0751-2329934) is a great place if you want to splurge, with large rooms and opulent furnishings at Rs 1600 onwards. The restaurant here is superb and is worth the money you pay.
MP Tourism’s Hotel Tansen Gwalior (Ph: 0751-240370) is very near the railway station, with fairly basic but clean rooms going from Rs 400 onwards. Rooms on the first floor overlook a pleasant lawn. Agra has a huge number of hotels, of course, and if you want to stay the night you won’t be short of options. Hotel Atithi (Ph: 0562-2330879) is a good bet, with rooms from Rs 1100 onwards.