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Cheng Chin Yuen

Friday, April 07, 2006

Gwalior (23rd – 25th March)

The most important thing that happened here were two consecutive mutton briyani dinners at India Coffee House. The culinary legend which has since established itself as the MB benchmark came in a delicious orange pile of steaming peppery long grains beneath which fragrant, succulent and generous chunks of black-red mutton were buried. After vegetarian-ruled Orchha, it’s high time we went back to our carnivorous ways. Indian Coffee House also happened to be the only ‘non-veg’ and air-conditioned place in the long row of eateries fronting the dusty Gwalior train station which emitted a ceaseless stream of autorickshaws, tempos and their bigger cousin – a black convertible autorickshaw which looked like a German WW2 by-product. The waiters with paper fans sprouting from their huge white turbans are the living décor. They looked a little 19th Century with their thick cummerbunds and white sneakers but provided the service we hadn’t had in a long long time. If you are ever in Gwalior, which is off-radar for most tourists, forget the fort, go for the mutton briyani first.

Chicken naturally came after mutton since chopped cow wasn’t available in most parts of India. The tandoori ‘half bird’ in Kwality Restaurant is to die for. In this dim 35 year old establishment, which was starting to fill up at 2.30pm, I had the good fortune to sample a true killer Kashmiri Nan, laced with lots of grated cheese, topped with peach slices and riddled with raisins. The waiter at our table spoke as if he would give up his life to Kwality…well, he has already spent 22 years of it around the tables here! Strangely, the floor manager looked much younger though his command of English is much poorer, not that it mattered.

Only when you have 4 months to spare, will Gwalior (for its fort) beep on your radar. Gwalior Fort and Fort Canning have quite a lot in common being elevated defence positions. But stretching the distance of Orchard Road and having (in places) a girth that would fit our National Stadium lengthwise, Gwalior is just a bit bigger. As Fort Canning is subdued beneath the surrounding jungle of skyscrapers, Gwalior is perched 100m on a plateau, a supreme overlord of the township on the flat plains below. I have never seen a fortress so massive and epic battle scenes (no aircraft, just elves and trolls) were already playing in my head as we walked up the road to meet the giant. As we got closer, the battlements got thicker, steeper and more formidable. It was hard to imagine anyone getting past them but throughout history Gwalior Fort did change hands several times. For some strange reason, the entrance fee was still frozen in time at 0.2 rupees per person!

Some naughty bees decided to beard a large god with their hives adding a little humour to the series of giant carvings into the cliff that led to the entrance of the fort.

Except for the surrounding wall, some ruins and the palace, little of the original stronghold remains today so coming with a healthy imagination would make up for the lack of excitement. Part of the ground are taken up by a prestigious school which charges more than RI does and a Sikh temple which offers free food and accommodation to pilgrims and travellers. A tall Sikh farmer doing his ‘temple time’ spoke to us for a while. He spoke well but too formally and at times he even went as far to speak on our behalf so the whole experience felt very odd. He singled out another burly man on a hand-powered bicycle designed specially for the handicapped. ‘He has been to Singapore. He was invited to the temple there to play religious music on the harmonium.’

The Golden Temple at Amritsar will be the place to experience Sikh culture, which adopts a ‘Love All Serve All’ motto. Most of the Sikhs we have met are gentle giants even though their trophy beards seem to send a default ‘You-won’t-want-to-piss-me-off’ signal. The thoughtful temple at Gwalior even does a free shuttle service between the Fort and the bus station and makes it a point not to ask visitors for donations. ‘It has to come from within’, says the sagely septuagenarian before his ‘And now the time has come for us to part…’ coda, so genuinely melancholic and yet so overdramatic that we could barely maintain respectful silence.

Ironically, more time at Gwalior Fort was spent admiring the cubic maze of rooftops below. The palace turreted walls are decorated with bands of blue and yellow tiles with the latter in the shape of a plump duck. The overall effect is a comical rubber duckie march around the otherwise majestic palace. In the early morning, the Fort becomes a lively local exercise ground for the health-conscious to play cricket, jog or do static workouts as the rest of Gwalior gradually wakes up. This is a great spot for fresh air and to watch the buildings transit from an icy blue to a fiery orange.

The Jai Villas was the palace-turned-museum of the ex-Maharajah of Gwalior. The obscene and largely unnecessary opulent spread ranged from an indoor swimming pool, a distasteful hodgepodge of adjacent ridiculously-themed rooms (e.g. marble room, textile room, carpet room, glass room, coin room, miniature painting room, English room, French room, Bhutanese room, etc), a carriage garage, a gross erotic sculpture of a swan and woman practicing karma sutra, a small silver electric train that went around the 50-seater dining table ‘serving’ drinks (there is another 50-seater table just next to it for vegetarian guests) and finally a ballroom gilded with 53kg of gold. Here, 8 elephants were suspended from the ceiling as a load test for two gigantic chandeliers. We spent about 2 hours just going through the museum, which occupied slightly more than a quarter of the palace. I found the old photos more interesting especially those of royal marriages where a huge elephant carried the groom. There was also one of the Maharajah shaking hands with Saddam Hussain.

The tiny Oasis Cyber Café in Gwalior also earned its place in our hall of fame. When all I could do in one hour was to read 5 emails and send one short message, the good folks here would need more than good service and rock bottom rates to get by. They will also need better ceiling insulation to keep their computers and customers alive.

Unable to get a reserved seat for the train to Agra, we were relegated to the ‘General’ carriage. This actually meant that we had to barge our way onboard. There were no yellow lines on the platform so we didn’t fare too well in this challenge. Stunned by the sheer aggression of aunties and uncles who looked so harmless just seconds before the train came to a standstill, we watched haplessly at the chaos trying to resolve itself between the 1.2 meters of train door. These railway warriors didn’t feel at all that they should wait for people to alight. Eventually, bodies did miraculously pop out and the fittest succeeded in their charge. Left outside were two shell-shocked Singaporeans and a nice family from Delhi. Being civil did add to our Karma and the 300 million Gods soon found places for all of us in the ‘Disabled’ carriage. There were only two disabled persons in it but an able-bodied man, who was in the carriage tried to stop us. Now we were not so civil and dismissed him with a resounding ‘it is not possible!’ I was torturing my poor butt on a thin railing for the 2.5 hour journey while Karen was offered a seat by a towering gentleman who had that signature ‘You-won’t-want-to-piss-me-off’ beard.

Towards the end of the ride, an old woman came on to sell her kachang. After a break in sales, she began to replenish her supply of chopped onions on the train floor. With a small sickle wedged between her toes, she peeled and diced my purple enemies on yesterdays Times of India. The growing pile of onions managed to touch her toes before finding their way to the basket via her dirty fingers. I found this quite ‘amazing’ and took a photo to remember the incident and how hardy the good folk are. Onion Amah found it amusing that her onion chopping should interest me and through the husband of the Dehli family, asked ‘So how do you chop onions in Singapore?’ I did a karate down stroke with the blade of my hand to answer her question and we burst out laughing. Her translator worked for the Ministry of Home Affairs and he (and his wife) ended up having a hearty conversation with the grade ‘D’ kachang seller. It was nice to see that two people from two ends of the economic spectrum so engaged in each other. When we reached Agra, after fighting our way out of the carriage, the friendly family invited us to join them at the Taj for the afternoon before they headed back to Delhi in the evening. We politely declined since we wanted to visit the tomb early in the morning to avoid the crowds and we couldn’t afford another 750 Rs (S$30) ticket.

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