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Gwalior Fort: Constructed atop an isolated hill in the 8th century

by Nilutpal Gogoi
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GWALIOR FORT: Constructed atop an isolated hill in the 8th century, this conical shaped structure is one of the largest forts in India. The long, narrow, precipitous hill is called Gopachal. Moreover, the Gwalior Fort has lots of significance in from the history point of view. The utmost height of the hill is about104 m (342 feet) and its length is approximately 2.4 km (1.5 miles). The average width is almost 270 m (300 yards). Close to the palace flows the Swarnrekha, a small river. The rock formations constitute a perpendicular abyss. The horizontally placed strata of rock formations in the Gwalior hill ranges are made up of ochreous sandstone, overlaid by basalt. This hilltop fort is the awe-inspiring landmark of the metropolis. Reputed as one of the most invincible forts of India, this structure is almost 3km in length and rises 100 m over the city of Gwalior. The hill is steepened to make it virtually un-scalable. Owing to the uneven topography of the hilltop, the wall of the fort — though of the same height — appears irregular in appearance. The fortification of this fortress has been laid all around its outside edge. Altogether six bastions (towers) connect the fort rampart. The founder of the Mughal Dynasty, Emperor Babar (1484-1530), portrayed the Fort as “the pearl amongst the fortresses in Hind!”

Gwalior Fort Image Source Wikipedia

THE ROOTS: Though Gwalior is today identified with the awesome Gwalior Fort which was constructed only in the 15th century AD — the place known as Gwalior has its roots much earlier in the 6th century AD. In other words, Thus, the history of Gwalior can be divided into the following three periods, namely Early, Medieval and Modern. Let’s have a fast pick on each of those momentous phases so that you would really savor the still bubbling sensation of Gwalior that it leaves on the psyche of any person visiting it! Let’s have a quick preview of the two historical periods.

NOMENCLATURE: The term ‘Gwalior’ has its roots in the word Gwalipa — the name of a Jain seer. A fortress is the first insulation structure and sign of political glory for any regime. Hence, though the Gwalior Fort as of today was constructed only in the 15th century, its history is steeped in earlier days. During that long period, it has been the domain of several Rajput dynasties starting from the Tomar Rajputs. The other subsequent rulers were the Mughals, the Jats, the Marathas, and finally the British. The Scindias (one of the powerful Maratha ruling families) annexed the fort in the early part of the 19th century. Let’s check out those annals.

The Early Phase: There is still a debate as to the roots of the Gwalior Fort on one finer issue, viz., the date. Nonetheless, both legend and history converge on the issue of nomenclature ‘Gwalior’. A Government of India publication on Gwalior has the earliest dating of the citadel. The researcher traces it to an inscription (dated AD 525) in a temple dedicated to Surya — the Hindu Sun God. The dedication mentions that the massive fort was constructed by Hun Emperor Mihirakula during the reign of the Huns in India in AD 510. Taking this piece of information as a vital clue, it has been claimed that the history of Gwalior Fort dates back to 1,000 years.

Popular myth has it that it was first built by Surya Sena Pal — a local chief of the Kacchawaha dynasty from Sihonia, a neighboring hamlet located 12 kilometers away. There is a beautiful story connected with the incident. Once, while on a hunting expedition he came across a recluse by the name of Galava (also known as Gwalip in some legends). The chief paid obeisance to the hermit, and also asked for some respite from his ailment now identified as leprosy. The ascetic offered him water and also asked him to bathe in the pond located besides Gwalip’s ashram. That pond is now popular as Surajkund where a massive colorful mela (fair) is annually organized — where hundreds of tourists (Indian and foreigners) converge. Surya Sen Pal followed the instructions, and lo! He got cured! And, as a mark of gratitude, he built the fort and christened it ‘Gwalior’ after his benefactor Gwalip or Galava.

Altogether 84 rulers of this line starting from Surya Sen Pal to Budha Pal had their regime here. Thus, the ‘Pal’ patronymic definitely influenced the political as well as socio-economic and cultural firmaments till a period of almost 989 years of its existence. Here’s another twist to the popular tale: Gwalip had also prophesized that the Pal lineage would carry on till the time they use the title ‘Pal’. It so happened that the successor of Buddha Pal adopted the patronymic ‘Tej Karan’ throwing aside the traditional ‘Pal’ title. The then Amber ruler, Ran Mul, offered his dear daughter in marriage to Tej Karan. The bride’s dowry included a huge treasure: Valuables, horses, and elephants. Tej was also given on a platter the succession rights to the Amber throne on the exclusive clause that Tej Karan would have to make Amber his resident capital. Tej agreed. He might have toyed with the following single determinant factor in making this crucial decision then, feel researchers: The kingdom of his father-in-law, namely the Amber State, wielded far more influence and status as a political power than his patriarch-inherited Gwalior State.

Here’s the moot turning point: When he stayed in Amber, the political affairs of Gwalior were reposed on one of his confidant — Ram Deva Pratihar hailing from Kanauj. An expert administrator, he managed the affairs very well till two years. Realizing that Tej would never return Pratihar then assumed total control of the reins of control and became the actual ruler of Gwalior. He is the founder of the Gurjar Pratihar Rajput dynasty in Gwalior. The six rulers of the Pratihar lineage were Pramal Dev (also known as Salam Dev), Bikram Dev, Ratan Dev, Shobhang Dev, Narsinh Dev, and Pramal Dev. This regime held control of the fort till AD 923.

Mahmud of Ghazni attacked the fort in AD 1023. But his forces had to retreat.

THE TURKIC RULE: The first Islamic ruler of the Gwalior Fort was Qutubuddin Aibak — the founder of the Delhi Sultanate. He could capture the fort only after a protracted siege in AD 1196. However in AD 1121, the first Sultan of the Turkic lineage lost it. The second Islamic ruler of the Gwalior Fort was Sultan Iltumish — also from the Delhi Sultanate namely from the Slave dynasty (of Turkic background). He recaptured it in AD 1231, and handed over the hereditary charge of the fortress to the Sayyid family whose lineage was traced to the grandsons of Prophet Muhammad.

Mass Sati (a practice of self-immolation practiced by Hindu women — usually on the pyre of the husband) was committed by the women of the royal family in the ‘Jauhar Kund Palace’ located within the complex in AD 1232. (Details are given below).

Taking advantage of the chaos unleashed by Tamerlane after his invasion of North India in AD 1398, a Jain chieftain by the name of Narsingh Rao took over the Fort and had control over a part of it. In around AD 1432, Parmal Deva (also known as Vir Singh Deo) and his sibling Uddhharan Dev (also known as Adhar Dev) of the Tanwar Rajput clan captured the Fort from the Sayyids. The two Rajput brothers hailing from a zamindari background in the Isamamola village (within Dandrolee Pergana) worked as solders under Sikandar Khan, a general of the Delhi Sultan. Both earned the confidence of the Emperor who gifted them the Gwalior Fort as imam (award) for their dedication to him and bravery. However, when they showed the Emperor’s firman (mandate) to the Sayyids, the latter simply refused to go by it. The duo, however, continued to serve the Sayyids as diligently as before and was able to come close to the rulers. One day, they designed a blueprint to deal with the Sayyids. A grand dinner was arranged in the honor of the Sayyids at Ranipura village. They were respectfully served the dishes mixed with intoxicating drinks. Having partaken of the heavy meal, the Sayyid family members retired for the night to their tents. At an opportune moment, a group of sword-welding Rajput warriors killed them in their beds. The two Tanwar Rajput brothers thus got their rightful position as deemed by the Delhi Emperor. After Vir Singh Deo, his brother Adhar Dev ruled for some years. Adhar was succeeded by Lakshman Deo Tomar. In AD 1400, Vikram Deo, the son of Vir Singh Deo, ascended the throne of Gwalior. He was succeeded by Ganapati Deo Tomar in AD 1419.

After him came Dugarendra (Dungar) Singh in AD 1424. He secured Gwalior as a principal influence in Central and Northern India. He also constructed the Ganesha Pole in the Gwalior Fort premises. In AD 1454, Kirti Singh Tomar took over the reins of power. He joined hands with the Mewar King, Rana Kumbha, and jointly fought against Muhammad Khilji — a powerful Muslim ruler of Malwa. Kirti’s younger son, Mangal Deo, inherited an estate comprising 120 hamlets in Tomba and Dhodri of Tomargarh. He tried to recapture Gwalior Fort after the fall of the Tomars in AD 1516. Kirti Singh was succeeded by Kalyanmalla Tomar in AD 1479. The next ruler of Gwalior was Man Singh Tomar. He ascended the throne in AD 1486. Known as the greatest of the Tomar rulers of Gwalior, he built the fabulous Man Mandir Palace and several other structures within the Fort. An accomplished musician himself, Man Singh Tomar is deemed the father of the Dhrupad Gharana of Indian Classical music. His successor was Vikramaditya Tomar. He became the ruler in 1516 but could rule for only two years when he was defeated by Ibrahim Lodhi in AD 1518. Thus, Gwalior Fort came under the rule of the Lodhis of the Delhi Sultanate in AD 1519.

After the fall of the Tomar dynasty following their defeat at the hands of the Lodhis, the status of the Tomar ruling class got reduced to that of a local landowner or zamindar. One of their descendents, Ramshah Tomar, was ousted from the Fort in AD 1526. Then, he joined forces with the great Rajput ruler Maharana Pratap of Mewar and fought for their lost status against the Mughals in the Battle of Haldighat AD 1576. Another Tomar prince, Salivahan Tomar, also fought in the battle. However, the Rajputs were totally routed by the stronger forces of Mughal Emperor Akbar. Rana Pratap died in the forests where he rushed to by his famous horse Chetak (the protagonist of many Rajput fables) in AD 1597 — the same year when Akbar completed his conquests in India.

THE MEDIEVAL PERIOD: Ibrahim Lodhi was defeated by Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire, in the First Battle of Panipat in AD 1526. Babur then took control of the Gwalior Fort. Emperor Babar had ordered the demolition of the entire complex. The 12 m (40 feet) high rock-cut statue of the 23rd Tirthankara (Saint) — Parasvanath — escaped that destruction as Babur lost control of this citadel. The Gwalior Fort went into the hands of the Suri Dynasty during the reign of Babur’s successor, Humayun, who was defeated by Sher Shah Suri — the founder of the Suri Dynasty in North India — in AD 1539. The Fort remained one of the most prized possessions of Sher Shah Suri who died in AD 1540. His son and successor, Islam Shah, even shifted his capital from Delhi to Gwalior Fort for strategic reasons especially because he considered the Fort much more secure from the regular attacks by Afghans from the western frontier. Islam Shah’s successor Adil Shah Suri decided to shift his capital to “more insulated’ Chunar, and left the responsibility of running Gwalior Fort on the able shoulders of his confidante, an able Hindu warrior by the name of Hemu (his full name was Hem Chandra Vikramaditya). Adil Shah appointed Hemu not only the premier of his kingdom but also made him the Commander-in-Chief of his forces. In course of time, Hemu became the all-in-all in the Suri regime. Soon, he assumed the control of the strategically located capital of the kingdom, Delhi. Between AD 1553 and AD 1556, Hemu, initiated several onslaughts on the rebellious Afghans who were taking advantage of the weak Adil Shah reign and also the Mughals from the Gwalior Fort. Researchers have found that Hemu launched and was victorious in all the 22 attacks continuously. The fact is that he never a lost battle the blueprint of which was prepared in the Gwalior Fort. In AD 1556, Hemu twice defeated Mughal Emperor Akbar’s forces: first at Agra and then at Delhi on October 7, 1556. He then had his coronation (known as Rajyabhishake in Sanskrit and Hindi) done at Purana Quila in Delhi, and adopted the epithet of an emperor in Sanskrit: Samrat. He came to be known as Samrat Hem Chandra Vikramaditya. He proclaimed that he would establish a Hindu Raj (Kingdom) as ‘Vikramaditya’ (as strong as the Hindu Sun God, Surya). He transferred his capital from Gwalior to Delhi. He functioned from Purana Quila. He was defeated by Mughal Emperor Akbar at the Second Battle of Panipat in 1556. Hemu was killed in the skirmish.

Akbar (1542-1605) took control of Gwalior Fort but only to use it as a political prison especially for personalities who could pose threat to his status. He changed the ground floor of the Man Mandir Palace built by Raja Man Singh Tomar (in the earlier century) as the designated dungeon of the Mughals. It was in this dungeon that many royal prisoners of the Mughals were kept under lock and key to be finally killed. For instance, Mughal Emperor Akbar confined his first cousin, Kamran, there to later put him to death. Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (AD 1618-1707) imprisoned his brother Murad at this fort and subsequently killed him on treason charges. Aurangzeb also had his nephews, Suleman and Sepher Sheko — two sons of Dara Shikoh, executed there. The sixth Sikh Guru, Hargovind Sahib (popularly known as Guru Govind Singh), was tortured and executed here by Mughal Emperor Jahangir (1569-1627), the successor of Akbar. And, it is in his sacred memory that the Gurudwara Data Bandi was constructed within the Fort complex in the subsequent years by his followers. Thus we find that during the over four-century Mughal regime mainly during the regimes of four main rulers Babur (1484-1530), Humayun (1508-1556), Akbar (1542-1605), Jehangir (1569-1627), Shah Jahan (1592-1666), Aurangzeb (1618-1707) — i.e., from AD 1484 to 1707, Gwalior Fort witnessed lots of desecration.

THE JAT RULE: Before the Jat rule, the Gwalior Fort was under the control of the Marathas. With the decline of the Mughal Empire in the early and middle parts of the 18th century, the reins of power passed on to the Jats whose predominance is in the region now constituted by the States of Punjab, Haryana and also to a great extent in the autonomous region of present-day Indian national capital of greater Delhi. Maharaja Bhim Singh Rana (1707–1756) established the Gohad Jat Rana Dynasty by overrunning the entire Malwa province and also captured the Gwalior Fort from the Marathas in AD 1736. He held control of this prominent stronghold from a period of almost 16 years from AD 1740 to 1756. The Gwalior Fort was captured by one of his descendents, Maharaja Chattra Singh Rana who reigned from 1761 to 1767. He was repulsed several times, and he occupied it thrice. The last ruler of the Jat Rana Dynasty having influence on the Fort was Maharaja Chattra Singh Rana (1780 to 1783). The aforementioned statistics demonstrate that the Jat rulers had to wash off their hands from the Gwalior Fort off and on as they faced stiff opposition from the Rajputs holding sway on the Fort. In fact, no single dynasty could have a single-long domain over the Gwalior Fort at any period of time.

THE MARATHA REGIME: Maratha ruler Peshwa Baji Rao launched expeditions to expand the borders of his empire beyond the Vindhya mountain range into the North in the latter part of the 18th century. He appointed Ranoji Scindia (the anglicized version of title is written as ‘Shinde’) as the supreme commander of the onslaughts in the Malwa region (of which Gwalior is a significant portion). Over a period of time, the Peshwa’s powers got reduced as the different Maratha chieftains asserted their influences. The important Maratha chiefs even formed a confederacy and started acting on their own. It was at this juncture that Ranoji also set up his Maratha kingdom in Ujjain. Subsequently, he transferred his capital to Gwalior in August 1779 AD and established a garrison within the Fort. The Scindia family also conquered a major Rajput kingdom Ujjain besides several other petty Rajput kingdoms. In AD 1780, the tables were turned when Rana Chhatra Singh, ruler of Goud (also spelled Gohud by the British historians) took over the Gwalior Fort. The Maratha Commander-in-Chief, Mahadji Scindia, could regain the Fort after some time.

THE BRITISH ROLE: Enamored by the formidability and heritage of the Gwalior Fort, the Britishers decided to fish in the troubled waters to take control of this strategic state Gwalior. But it was not a cakewalk for them. For almost a period of 40 years from 1808 to 1844, they had to try the might of the Marathas (primarily the Scindhias) to make a dent on the Gwalior Fort. The matter was decided in the Battle of Maharajpur in January 1844. The Britishers adopted the policy of diplomacy, and gave full control of the Gwalior Fort to the Scindias, but basically as a British protectorate. The positive point of it was that at least an Indian royal family had the reins of power in this significant spot of Indian heritage. The Scindias finally accepted the suzerainty of the British after the Third Anglo-Maratha War (AD 1817-19).

Gwalior city was also witness to several momentous episodes of the Revolt of 1857. It was in this fort that Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi — one of the main protagonists of the First War of Indian Independence — died fighting the British forces in the course of their final assault on the citadel. The fort also remains a mute witness to some of the most spectacular and concluding events of the Second War of Indian Independence dubbed by some English historians as the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ in the mid-1858.

The modern period of Gwalior, of course, started after this princely state merged with Madhya Bharat when Maharaja Jivajirao Scindia acceded to India after 1947when India Became Independent.


The two principal entrances into the Gwalior Fort are from the South East and also from the North East. The main gate is known as Hathi Pul (the Elephant Gate or the entrance through elephants could enter) — the last one at the end of a series of altogether seven entrances. The name comes from a gigantic pachyderm that adorned its entrance once upon a time. It leads one to the Man Mandir Palace. Located on the south-eastern corner of the palace, the towers of this stone gate have cupola domes on its cylindrical towers. The domes are connected by carved bulwarks. It is the last gate at the end of a series of seven gates. It is named after a life-sized statue of an elephant (hathi) that once adorned the entrance to the gate. The gate built in stone on the south-east corner of the palace has cylindrical towers. The towers are crowned with cupola domes. Carved parapets link the domes.

The Man Mandir Palace is a double-storied structure was built by Raja Man Singh Tomar between 1486 and 1516. It is designed with exquisite latticework and excellent stone carving. Its walls are very colorful too. There are several other structures clustered within the four walls of the fort. Below the fort is the Gujari Mahal. It was built by Man Singh for his favorite queen, Mrignayani, in the 15th century. The gift followed the demand from the Gujar princess for a separate palace for herself. The palace gets regular water supply via an aqueduct linked to the nearby Rai River. The Mahal now houses the Archaeological Museum which has large collections of terracotta, imitations of the Bagh Caves’s frescoes as well as of the Hindu and Jain sculptures of the first and second centuries BC.

A few other palaces are located at the northern end of the Fort. The prominent ones are the Jahangir Palace and the Shah Jahan Palace. The most famous spot here is the Jauhar Kund Palace facing a very huge and deep pond. It was here that the Rajput women of the harem committed mass sati after their raja was defeated in a battle in 1232. There are several such reservoirs within the fort complex. Together, they could supply water to a 15,000-strong garrison – the estimated manpower required to protect the fort.

On the western side of the fort is the Kirti Mandir or Karan Palace. It is a long, narrow, two-storied palace.

Besides the palaces and the kund, several temples in the typical traditional Rajasthani style speak volumes about the architectural finesse of the artistes of those days. The Teli ka Mandir is dedicated to the presiding deity of the place – Pratihara Vishnu. Constructed in the 9th century, there are conflicting claims as to which Hindu deity it was initially dedicated to – Lord Shiva or Lord Vishnu. Devotees used to install bells (known as tali in Hindi) and pray for the fulfillment of their desires. In course of time, the term tali got transformed into teli. Another version is that it was dedicated to Lord Vishnu initially. The present temple is a towering edifice with the temple top rising up to 100 ft. It reflects the confluence of the Hindu and Muslim architectural styles. In fact, the highest memorial in the fort is that of Garuda – the huge majestic mythical bird on which Lord Vishnu travels – located beside the mandir. Going by the nomenclature, some archaeological researchers call the temple the ‘Oilman’s Temple’ or ‘Oil Pressers temple’. The archway (torana) of the temple’s main door is decorated with wonderfully sculpted images of a Garuda, floral settings, couples in romance, and river goddesses. The horizontal arch-top band has lotus and diamond models. It reflects the Buddhist architectural style.

The Chaturbhuj Mandir dedicated to Lord Vishnu is quite similar in architecture to the Teli ka Mandir. Built in AD 875, it is located on the way to the fort. An important point is that the earliest recording of number ‘zero’ has been traced to this temple.

Another set of significant monuments are the ruins of the two Sas Bahu ka Mandir dedicated to Vishnu is an architectural gem. The smaller one still stands elegant. The nomenclature is the shortened form of the compound term “Sahastra Bahu’ (thousand-hand forms) another name for Hindu God Vishnu. Constructed by the King Mahipala, of the regional ruling house known as Kachchwaha, in the 10th century it is considered to be the most ancient of the structures within the Fort. This dynasty built several monuments during their regime.

What is more, the sculptures adorning the temple walls are Indo-Aryan, the roof is characteristically Dravidian. The southern walls of the fort have exquisitely carved rocky statues of Jain thirthankaras. There are 21 exquisitely carved such temples dedicated to the 21 Jain seers. They are carved deep into the vertical rock faces on the approach route from the southern side.

Among some other popular tourist spots within the fort complex are the Chhatri (memorials) of Maharajas Bhim Singh and Bhimtal; the Gurudwara Data Bandi dedicated to the sixth Sikh Guru Har Gobind; and the famous Scindia School. In its initial phases, the school served as an exclusive educational institution for the sons of Indian princes as well as nobles. This prominent institution was founded in 1897 by Maratha Maharaja Madho Rao Scindia of Gwalior. One of the front-running pubic schools of the country — the Scindhia School — runs from the erstwhile barracks of the British Army within the Fort. Among the modern architectural marvels is the Sun Temple. Dedicated to the Hindu Sun God, it is a duplicate of the Sun Temple of Konark in the Eastern State of Odisha.

The Four Tourist Destination Spots in Gwalior

Let’s take a quick tour of those places:

The three principal tourist destination spots are the Gwalior Fort Story, the Old Town, the Jai Vilas Palace and Museum.

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