The Gwalior fort is considered to be one of the most awe-inspiring forts in India. It is perched atop an isolated hill on the Vindhya mountain ranges in the modern-day state of Madhya Pradesh. The city of Gwalior was prudently located on the rich trade route of Dakshinpatha, connecting Taxila in the North and Kanchipuram in the South. To its north-east were the vast Gangetic plains and to the north-west was Delhi. Further, the Malwa plateau rested in the south-west and Gondwana in the south-east.
Legend places the inception of this fort in the 6th century CE. At the time, a local ruler called Suraj Sen suffered from leprosy. A wandering sage called Gwalipa came to visit him and offered him water from a nearby sacred pond. This magically cured the king of his disease and in gratitude, the king built a fort here which he named after the saint. The saint also bestowed the title of “Pal'' or “protector'' of the fort on the king as well as his descendants. The pond from which the water was believed to be taken, now lies within the fort premises and is called the Suraj Kund.
The layered history of the Gwalior city has witnessed various political developments from ancient to modern times. This fort has passed through the hands of several dynasties each of which contributed to the construction of the fort. As mentioned earlier, the origin of Gwalior lies in the legend of Suraj Sen’s encounter with sage Gwalipa. Over the years, the fort was ruled by 83 descendants of Suraj Sen Pal, but the 84th successor, Tej Karan lost control of the fort. Historical records such as inscriptions and archaeological evidence show that the fort of Gwalior is at least as old as the 6th century CE. During the 10th century CE the region of Gwalior came under the supremacy of the rulers of the Kachchapghat dynasty (later known as the Kachwahas). They made significant contributions to the art and architecture of the period.
In the 10th and 11th centuries, the fort faced various attacks. Mahmud of Ghazni besieged the fort in 1022 CE for four days. Later the fort was captured after a long siege by Qutb-ud-Din Aibek, the first ruler of the Delhi Sultanate in 1196 CE, which ultimately culminated in its assimilation with the Delhi Sultanate. The Delhi Sultanate lost control of the fort for a brief period until it was reconquered by Iltutmish in 1232 CE. This was the first time that Jauhar took place at the Gwalior Fort. The women inside the fort committed suicide (Jauhar) to avoid capture by Iltutmish’s army. The area where they gave their lives is known as Jauhar Kund or Jauhar Tal and is situated towards the northern end of the fort. The fort remained under the Delhi Sultanate until 1398 CE when the Tomars came to power in Gwalior. Raja Man Singh is considered to be the most illustrious of the Tomar rulers. The Tomars lost the fort to the Lodhis in the beginning of the 16th century CE. After the defeat of the Lodhis in the First Battle of Panipat, Gwalior became a part of the Mughal dominions in India. In 1542 CE, the Mughals lost the fort to Sher Shah Suri. The fort was recaptured by Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1558 CE. Following the death of Aurangzeb, the fort was seized by the Jat chieftains of Gohad in the Battle of Gwalior. The Jat ruler of Gohad was defeated by the Marathas. The fort then came under the control of the Scindias who were Marathas.
Towards the end of the 18th century and during the first half of the 19th century, the control of the fort alternated between the Scindias and the British. After the Battle of Maharajpur, in 1844 CE, the Maratha Scindia family occupied the fort as a protectorate of the British government as per a treaty. During the uprising of 1857, the sepoys of the fort rebelled against the British despite the fact that the Scindia ruler remained loyal to the British. In fact, the fort became the arena of several significant events towards the concluding months of the Uprising. It was near the fort that one of its most prominent leaders, Tantia Tope, was captured. The fort is also remembered for its association with Rani Laxmi Bai and her heroic deeds. During the rebellion of 1857, she came from Jhansi to Gwalior and fought off the British from here.
By the end of the 19th century, British rule was firmly entrenched in India and the strategic value of the fort of Gwalior had declined. They thereby handed it over to the Scindias who continued to rule over Gwalior till India attained Independence in 1947.
The fort sits upon mustard-colored sandstone that is covered with a layer of basalt. Its rich and complex political history has resulted in the intermeshing of multiple architectural styles- a fact that can be clearly appreciated by having a look at the various buildings spread over its massive 3-square-kilometre premises.
The Gwalior fort is balanced upon a flat-topped hillock called Gopagiri or Gopachal and is surrounded by a rivulet. The structure stretches for an impressive length of 2 miles with ramparts built along the edge of the hill. The road leading up to the fort is lined with Jain sculptures carved into the rock. These were sculpted during the reign of the Tomar rulers, many of whom were patrons of Jainism. The Gwalior Fort has several gateways. These include the Alamgiri or Gwalior gate, Ganesha gate, Chaturbhuj gate, Urvai gate, Lakshman gate, Badal Mahal or Hindola gate, and the Hathi Pol. The Hathi Pol (or the Elephant gate), the principal entrance, is situated in the south-east part of the complex and constitutes a part of the eastern façade of the Man Singh Palace. It is believed that the elephant sculpture (mentioned by Ibn Batuta in his memoirs), which gave the gate its name, was removed under the orders of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. The water tanks present inside the fort could sustain an army of about 15,000 men for several months.
Besides being a formidable defensive bastion, the Gwalior fort also constituted a spiritual sanctuary. The fort complex houses a few exquisitely designed temples that are archetypes of early-medieval temple architecture. Gwalior, in fact, emerged as a major centre of Nagara-style architecture during this period. A Sanskrit inscription from Gwalior, from the 6th century CE, records the building of a Sun temple under the reign of the Huna emperor Mihirakula. The Teli ka Mandir, a temple dedicated to Vishnu, is the largest of all temples in the complex. Constructed in the 9th century CE by the Gujara-Pratihara rulers, the temple presents a beautiful amalgamation of Nagara and Dravida styles of architecture. The 11th century saw the construction of the famous Sahastrabaahu temple, more popularly known as the Saas-Bahu temple. It was built by king Mahipala of the Kachchapghat dynasty and is dedicated to God Vishnu. The name of the temple has fascinated many. Here Lord Vishnu is depicted with a thousand hands thus the name Sahastrabaahu. It is believed that Mahipala’s queen was an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu and her daughter-in-law worshiped Lord Shiva. Thus, a replica temple was made which was devoted to Lord Shiva where the daughter-in-law could offer her obeisance. This resulted in the construction of a twin temple, now commonly known as Saas-Bahu Temple.
The Garuda monument, dedicated to Lord Vishnu is the highest point in the fort which stands next to the Teli Ka Mandir. The fortress houses Siddhachal Caves depicting the 24 Tirthankaras in Kayotsarga posture of meditation. It is believed that the construction of these sculptures began in the 7th century CE. However, these were completed in the 15th century CE during the reign of Tomars.
The Chaturbhuj temple built in 875 CE by Gurjara-Pratihara rulers inside the fort, houses an inscription documenting the oldest record of the number ‘zero’ in the world. It is found on an inscription that is over 1500 years old and remains, to this day, a matter of pride for all Indians.
In terms of architectural development, Raja Man Singh Tomar’s reign is considered to be the Golden Age of Gwalior. He built the famous Man Mandir Palace in the 15th century as well as a separate palace for his wife Mrignayani called the Gujari Mahal. Gujari Mahal has now been converted into a state archaeological museum that houses rare artefacts including Hindu and Jain scriptures dated to the 1st and 2nd centuries BCE, miniature statue of Salabhanjika, terracotta items and replicas of frescos seen in the Bagh Caves. The Man Mandir Palace is an iconic building decorated with turquoise-blue ceramic tiles and is a fine example of the early Hindu palaces in India. It has four stories- two above and two below the ground, along with exquisite carvings on the walls.
Vikram Mahal, originally built as a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva was built by Vikramaditya Singh of the Tomar dynasty. Karan Mahal, another splendid palace situated inside the fort complex, was built by Kirti Singh of the Tomar dynasty (also known as Karan Singh). The Tomars were great patrons of art, architecture and culture. They restored the earlier Jain and Hindu temples in the fort and were great sponsors of music. Musical prodigies such as Tansen were associated with the Gwalior Gharana. In the court of Man Singh Tomar, a raag was dedicated to Queen Mrignayani- Gujari Todi Raag. Later Dhrupad style of classical music was born here and in this way the Gwalior Gharana carved a special niche for itself in Indian classical music.
The Mughal emperors added the Jahangir Mahal and the Shah-Jahan Mahal to this complex. This fort was also used by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir to imprison the 6th Sikh Guru, Guru Hargobind in 1609 CE. The day of his release is celebrated as the “day of liberation” or the Bandi Chhor Divas by Sikhs all over the world. A magnificent Gurdwara has been built in the fort in memory of Guru Hargobind.
Another notable structure inside the fort is the Chhatri of Bhim Singh Rana. It was built by Rana Chhatar Singh in honour of his predecessor, Bhim Singh Rana, a ruler of Gohad state who occupied the fort in 1740 CE. This is a unique cenotaph built on a raised platform. The fort complex today also contains the Scindia School established by Maharaja Madho Rao Scindia back in 1897.
The majesty of the Gwalior fort prompted the first Mughal emperor, Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur to call it “the pearl amongst the fortresses of Hind”. Its strong structure bears witness to the numerous wars and battles which the city of Gwalior has seen. This formidable fort has withstood the test of time and continues to stand as an integral part of the culture of the locals.