Sunday, 22 February 2009

Jai Vilas Palace

Jai Vilas Palace, Gwalior

The fort is definitely the defining architectural feature of Gwalior, but it's not all there is to this town. In the 19th century, the centre of power in the town shifted from the massive hill fort to a location more geared towards providing the ruling classes with the modern-day comfortable life style they were expecting and knew from Europe. So they built and moved into the opulent Jai Vilas Palace.

The palace, which looks rather European in style, was built in 1874 by a Maharaja of the almost mythical, ruling Scindia family, which to this day holds great political clout. The previous Maharaja died in a plane crash in 2001 before he could pursue a likely bid to be the country's Prime Minister and the present Maharaja is a Union Minister for the Congress Party. And just in case power should shift, other branches of the family are actively involved in the main opposition party, the BJP.

As far as I understand the family still inhabits part of the palace, but another part has been opened as a museum, giving an insight into the fantastic (but also somewhat kitschy) surroundings in which the Scindias lived through the late 19th and the 20th century. Indoor swimming pool, fantastic European cars, Belgian furniture and a drinks-train (!) and fantastic dining and party halls were all part of everyday life. In the biggest hall of all, two massive crystal chandelier weigh 3.5 tonnes each. They were so heavy that it was decided to test whether the ceiling would be strong enough to bear the weight. So a ramp was built and eight adult elephants were paraded over the roof - luckily it all held, but unluckily no pictures were taken of this spectacular event.

It was - and still is - pretty grand to be a Scindia.

Women workers tending to the palace grounds

Colourful hallway with pictures of Maharajas past and present

The Scindia Crest

The indoor swimming pool complete with a diving board

One of the most kitchy rooms: The Scindias' room hunting trophies

A Napoleon table allegedly an original time piece from his days - one of very few left in the world

Napoleon is also present on the tapestry (along with other famous historical character) - they must have had some fascination with him

A swing in the Queen's old bedroom

A hand coloured photograph of the Queen - yes, she was a midget

The top of a crystal water fountain imported from Europe

Baby carriage... disguised as a swan

Very cool little BMW. This is the front of the car.

In a seperate wing you'll find the grandest part of the palace - here is a part of the grand dining hall, in which many of India's leading dignitaries have had many lavish meals. Notice the black track on the long table...

...on those tracks runs the drinks train! Whenever you take a bottle from the train it will stop and then take off again when you put it back down.

The grand staircase leading up to the grandest hall of all

This is where all the grand parties would ultimately end up: The Durbar Hall. It was on the roof of this hall the elephants were marching.

Unlike some of the other areas of the palace I actually think this hall is pretty classy.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Mighty Fort of Gwalior

The hill-fort of Gwalior overlooks the town at night

For Nitoli's birthday I decided to surprise her with a trip out of Delhi. In the week before we had a Thursday off, so I called her boss and got permission for her to miss work on Friday. So Wednesday afternoon when she came home I told her that it was time to pack, and then very early Thursday morning we left for our second trip to the state of Madhya Pradesh. First stop was the town of Gwalior, which is most famous for it's impressive hilltop fort and for being the home of the powerful Scindia family, which have a spectacular palace in town.

We started our time in Gwalior by walking up to the fort via a long winding road on the west-side leading past forest and cliffs, with huge, fantastic Jain sculptures in them. When we reached the fort we spend several hours walking around and exploring everything. Unlike the image some Westerners might have, the biggest Indian forts are not like old European castles, but rather a huge sprawling complex of palaces, parks, ordinary houses and even wild nature surrounded by the walls of the fort. We ended the night by watching a pretty cool light and sound show, before descending directly down to torn through the shorter and steeper eastern gate.

The long western road to the fort (Nitoli uses the umbrella to shield her from the sun, not because she is fearing rain)

Nitoli checks out the awesome Jain sculptures carved into the cliff beneath the fort

Sikh pilgrims, who were checking out another Jain sculpture (below the heads of the two middle guys)

A nice porch somewhere inside the fort

The most beautiful of the palaces inside the fort: The Man Mandir built between 1486 and 1517 for the Hindu ruler Man Singh, standing by the East gate of the fort

Segment of the highly ornate and - relatively - well preserved tilework of Man Mandir Palace. Notice the yellow duck tiles.

Courtyard inside Man Mandir

Man Mandir standing over the road leading to the eastern gate of the fort

A palace in a remote part of the enormous fort overlooks Gwalior town

A water tank in another remote part of the fort

Nitoli and a local boy who joined us (the two little dots in the middle) pass one of the huge abandoned, and partly ruined palaces of the fort to come join me on the outer ramparts

Nitoli on the ramparts overlooking the old town

View of the old town. The big square palace was allegedly built for a concubine of the local rules. He must have liked her a lot

Huge depleted tank in one of the old crumbling palaces

A local boy we met in the ruins

This looks like a dangerous occupation

A scene from the light & sound show with the towers of Man Mandir illuminated in different colours

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Ravana Returns to Kalkaji

Ravana and his allies await Dussehra destruction in Kalkaji, New Delhi

In 2007 we went to Kalkaji near our home for a huge celebration of the Indian holiday of Dussehra - but got there late and missed the main show. This year we were determined to make it on time, so we left a bit earlier from home, and managed to reach the venue on time. We were shocked to see extremely long lines to get in and started to worry we would miss it again - but with me being a foreigner and my wife good at sweet talking we managed to get in through a special entrance and secured ourselves seats in a nice VIP section close the action.

As I explained last year, Dussehra marks a great mythical battle in which the good guys led by Prince Ram defeated the evil armies of Ravana, the many-faced Demon King of Lanka. In Kalkaji this is marked by a mock battle between the Gods and the Demons, a lot of fireworks ens with the grand finale: Burning of huge effigies of Ravana and two of his cohorts.

This event draws huge crowds - it is after all free entertainment, with something for everyone in the family. And similar events all over town also draw huge numbers, so this is quite a big deal.

Arrival of the army of the monkey God, Hanuman - one of Ram's great allies

Crowds ready for Dussehra celebrations in Kalkaji, New Delhi

Fireworks set the stage for the destruction about to follow

Ravana was there in person

Ravana and his buddies feeling very confident before the battle

One of the good guys - I think. It may be Shiva, but I'm not sure. perhaps someone can enlighten me in the comments section?
The mock battle is underway. I believe this is Hanuman battling Ravana.

The huge crowds are getting ready for the grand finale: They want to see Ravana get burned and banished from this world - at least untill next Dussehra.

Ravana still spiteful. He was built move his mouth and through a great loudspeaker system, he would spread his demonic message. Notice the many people watching from the top of the Modi Tower in the background.

First one of the lesser demons got burned. A small collage showing the whole process (click to enlarge).

And finally the turn had come for Ravan himself

The demons are filled with powerful fireworks. In fact they don't so much burn - rather they explode, in a flash of intense heat and noise. A couple of guys here find themselves a little too close so they withdraw to a safer distance

Finally I bring a few other pictures from the festive season kicked off by Dussehra:

Two of my female colleagues decorating their hands with henna in the office
Our local temple in GK-1 decorated for Dussehra

Local kids enjoy a day off to play cricket in the backalley behind our house. Picture taken from our small bedroom terrace