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The Vaishnodevi Experience 2023

My first trip to Vaishnodevi was unimpressive. Climbing was hard, and it only served to highlight how badly out of shape I was, while my in-laws managed to cope so much better. Further, I hadn’t quite realized that the cave experience wouldn’t be the same as I had imagined, since the original cave was only opened at certain times a year, and that we only entered a newly created tunnel, one far easier to access, and hence more manageable with the crowds that thronged the mountain shrine. The resulting experience at the shrine, for barely a fraction of a second, hardly compared to what I had expected / imagined / heard about. So, for me, Vaishnodevi was like any other temple, nothing to write home about, something that was reflected (though not explicitly mentioned) in the blog post I wrote then.

Gwalior Part 5: The Gujari Mahal Museum

Man Singh Tomar was one of the greatest rulers of Gwalior. He was not just an excellent warrior, known for his prowess in the field, but he was also a great patron of the arts. His love for music is legendary, and his palace, the Man Mandir is an architectural triumph which stands tall even today. However, the story most often told and retold at Gwalior is that of his marriage to Mrignayani.

As was the custom in those days, Man Singh Tomar  had many queens, all of royal lineage. He was on a hunt, when a wild buffalo charged, and was stopped by a young girl, as beautiful as she was strong. The king was smitten and wanted to marry her. She was, however, from the Gurjar community, a pastoral community which was considered a lower caste, and thus unsuitable for the king. However, the king was adamant and determined to have his way. The girl finally agreed, on two conditions – first, that she would never be away from the king, whether at home or in battle, and second, that she would only bathe and drink from the water of the river which flowed next to her village. The king agreed to both conditions. He built an aqueduct to bring water from the river, all the way to Gwalior. The water however, couldn’t be carried up the hill. Hence, he built her a beautiful palace at the foothills, where he stayed with her. He named her Mrignayani – the doe-eyed one, and the palace came to be known as Gujari Mahal – the palace of the Gurjari queen!

Romantic as the story is, like almost all romances, it ends in tragedy. The other queens of Man Singh didn’t take as easily to the new queen, and their fathers felt humiliated that their son-in-law had married a woman of lower caste. They withdrew their support, and Gwalior was soon attacked by its enemies. Deprived of their armies, Man Singh succumbed in battle, as did his beautiful wife, who had accompanied him into battle, as promised. No one seems to know what happened to all his other wives. Most probably, as our guide suggested, they must have committed Sati. How could they live when their husband was no more? They have all but disappeared from memory as well, while Mrignayani herself lives on, in memory and songs, and through the palace her husband built for her.

Today, the Gujari Mahal is a Museum, a treasure of ancient heritage and sculptures. Rather apt, I think... A palace built for a beautiful woman, now housing beautiful sculptures! It is still an impressive palace, with priceless artefacts in every corner. Peacocks fly overhead, and perch on the walls, least bothered by our presence. It is a wonderful place, one that I can go back to, over and over again!

Entrance to the Gujari Mahal Museum

Yet, we could barely spend half an hour in this museum. We arrived just as the museum was about to close, and offered to return the next day. However, the caretaker informed us that there was a local holiday the next day, something we weren’t aware of. He offered to take us around himself, so we could see as much as possible in the shortest possible time. Here is a glimpse of what we saw….

A majestic lion at the entrance.
Notice the tiny figures on the base. While there are 14 figures in all, and I don't know what they represent, I can make out the figures of Varaha, Narasimha, a figure on a horse which might be Kalki, and a figure with a mace which might be Balarama. Could it be a version of the Dashavatar? 

The famous 5th century Palm Capital from Pawaya.
The palm capital was the symbol of Samkarshana or Balarama, and this once stood atop a high pillar of white sandstone. Part of it is broken, but it still impressive. Though I had seen photos of this before, it was still impressive, and I could imagine what a grand sight this must have been, when it stood atop the pillar! 
This 5th century capital, also from Pawaya has figures on both sides. It is labelled as Aditya-Upendra-Indra. 

However, there are many theories as to who it represents. While one school of thought considers this the Chakravartin Vishnu, another considers this Surya, and there are also suggestions that its a Bodhisattva. 

A gorgeous Late Gupta period Mother and child, with 5 attendants by her side, 4 on the left and 1 on the right. 

A 7th century Gajantaka from Kota... so impressive!
See the detailing... from the tiny fangs to the dynamic posture, Parvati cowering yet awed by his side, a tiny Ganesha, and even a Kartikeya looking on! 

A 7th century Kaumari, also from Kota.
Absolutely love her posture! and would have loved to see the other Matrikas who would  have originally been with her 

A 7th century Varaha, from Vidisha.
Again, the dynamic posture is stunning, as is his hair, flowing behind, and the coils of the Naga at his feet, and the dagger stuck into his belt!
A gorgeous Varaha, from Vidisha

The Lady of Gyaraspur, or the Gyaraspur Shalabhanjika.
She is probably the most famous possession of the Gujari Mahal museum, and the caretaker kept her for last, as he ushered me into his office and then opened a built in, walk-in safe. Then he unlocked another door, so we could see her through steel bars and strong glass. Apparently, she was insured for a huge sum when she was taken for an exhibition to Paris. Then, it was the most expensive insurance ever taken for a sculpture, and thus she came to be known as the most valuable sculpture in India! The tag still holds, despite the years of passing, and the irrelevance of the insurance, so many years later! 

The museum also has a small section devoted to weapons and coins found in the region, located in a circular basement structure at the centre. However, after all the stunning sculptures we had seen, we had no eyes for anything less impressive.... Even Samhith, for once, wasn't too interested in the weapons! 

However, we were even more impressed by the caretaker, who took me around, pointing out what to notice. He even gave me some extra time to linger, as he locked up the museum for the long weekend. As we left, I offered him some money, the same I would offer a guide, but he refused, saying that he was happy I had come, and brought my son along. Few people come here, he said, and it was his duty to show us around. It was such a surprise to hear that, and I would have loved to talk  more, but he was off on his cycle, leaving us behind, with the peacocks for company. 

This is one museum that I don't think I can ever have enough of, and hope I can someday visit again, to enjoy at my leisure! 

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  1. Romance, marvellous architecture, sculpture, kings and tragedies...a vibrant post with all the ingredients of a box office..great!

  2. sculptures are extremely beautiful only. yeah of course a romance with tragedy

  3. Thank you for an excellent posting. Great synopsis of the history and fine photographs.


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