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Rajasthan may be well known for its fortress cities. But, for the real ‘pearl in the necklace’ of Indian forts — as cited by the first Mughal emperor, Babur — you need to head a little farther south. About three hours’ drive south of Agra, Gwalior Fort sits in India’s central plains, in the often-ignored-by-visitors state of Madhya Pradesh.

Gwalior FortThere’s been a settlement here since the 2nd century, and Gwalior’s stronghold is surrounded by a sprawl of temples, palaces, tombs and lakes that have converged to create the modern city. This is the place to come if you’d like to admire an Indian cityscape from the battlements of India’s most impenetrable fort — and often as not, have it to yourself.

If you haven’t heard of Gwalior before, it’s probably because it doesn’t fit into any of the standard routes across India. Instead, it works well as a stop on a more off-beat trip across North India, from Delhi to Varanasi. Spend a couple of nights here and you’ll have time to take a guided tour of the city, starting with the fort which sits on an outcrop of sandstone high above the city. Local legend dictates that it’s named after Gwalipa, a sage who cured the 3rd-century king Suraj Sen from leprosy by offering water from a pond. The fort was built around the pond, which is now surrounded by grand stone pillars.

Inside the fort you’ll find grand mahals (palaces), shrines, an underground perfumed pool and an archaeological museum. Bring a torch and you can explore the lower levels (this is where a guide is vital). The highlight though, is on the outside.

Rock sculptures, GwaliorOn the towering sandstone cliffs underneath the fort, a series of Jain statues have been carved into the rock. There are more than 1,500 of them, ranging from 15 cm (6 inches) to 17 m (57 ft) tall, set in a series of temples. On first sight, there’s a startling similarity with the temples at Petra.

While the fort dominates, there’s more to see. The Jai Vilas Palace, built in 1809, is the historical seat of the Scindia family. They were once one of the most powerful dynasties in North India (and, as a family of prominent politicians, arguably still are).

A large part of the palace is open to visitors, including its showpiece, a hall painted with real gold and approached by a crystal staircase. With its red carpets, two of the world’s largest crystal chandeliers and European-influenced design, it wouldn’t have looked out of place alongside Buckingham Palace in its time (it’s a little run down now). There’s even a tiny silver toy train used to ferry cigars around the dining table.

The Tomb of Tansen, a renowned 16th-century classical musician, is to the east of the city, and the surrounding park hosts a music festival in his name every November. It’s also a peaceful place (though maybe not in November) to visit after clambering about the fort.

And, if you still feel you haven’t made the most of the fort, there’s the nightly, 45-minute sound and lights show (with separate English and Hindi showings ― check timings locally before turning up).

To really get to grips with Gwalior’s former grandeur, you can stay in Usha Kiran Palace, an Art Deco palace built for the Prince of Wales’s stay at the turn of the 19th century.

Best time to visit

Gwalior is at its best from October to March, when the weather is warm and dry with clear blue skies. January and December can be quite cool in the evenings, but tend to see fewer visitors.

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