Every fort, has its own share of interesting and intriguing stories too. And what stories may the old fort walls tell! Stories of princes and princesses; of warriors and traitors; and of Badshahs and Maharajas. Some are lost with time and some have been documented. One such fascinating story associated with the Gwalior fort is mentioned in the autobiography of M.M Kaye, author of the book “The Far Pavillions”. Her father Sir Cecil Kaye was a close confidante ofMaharaja Madhav Rao Scindia of Gwalior, father of Sir Jiwajirao Scindia and grandfather of Madhavrao Scindia , Vasundhara Raje Scindia and Yashodhara Raje Scindia. This story as described below was told to Sir Cecil Kayne by the Maharaja Madhav rao Scindia himself. The story of Gwalior fort and its Chambers of Secrets is as follows:
The Gwalior fort was a stronghold of the Scindias. In the latter part of 17th century, Scindias were virtual rulers of the entire north India and this fort was at the heart of this mighty empire. The Gwalior fort was used by the Scindias to as an armoury as well as a treasury. In those days, there were no banks or strong rooms to keep valuables or money. Hence to protect valuables and jewels, secret vaults deep beneath the fort were built to hold the Gwalior treasury. The Scindias had huge collection of wealth known as the “Gangajali”. It was said that this wealth was accumulated so that it could be used during emergencies such as wars and famines. When new ornaments were made, old ornaments were put in the Gangajali. Also, when a new land of conquered, its spoils too were added to this hoard. Then the vault or the treasure room was sealed with a secret code. Over time, this Gangajali wealth increased and newer vaults and secret chambers were created deep inside the fort. These chambers were concealed in a very clever manner and one had to unlock these chambers by a secret code called a “beejak”. Only the ruling Maharaja knew the “beejak” and this was passed on from father to son. No one else in the Gwalior durbar knew of the “beejak” or the Gangajali’s secret chambers.
In 1843, Maharaja Jayajirao Scindia became the Maharaja of Gwalior, the custodian of the Chambers of Secrets and its “beejak”. In 1857, the fort fell for a short time in hands of the rebels and was captured back by the British. When the rebels had approached Gwalior, Jayajirao Scindia was confident that his wealth in secret chambers beneath the Gwalior fort, was protected from falling into the hands of the rebels. And his estimate was true, the rebels could not find the treasure despite their strong attempts. When the fort was taken back into the British possession, there are several letters which indicate that Jayajirao Scindia was extremely worried that this treasure might accidently fall in the hands of the British.
Much to Maharaja’s relief, the Gwalior fort was handed back by the British to the Scindias in 1886. When happened later is most fascinating. To quote historian W. Forbes Mitchell:
“When the fortress was given back to the Maharaja and before British troops left the Gwalior territory, masons were brought from Benares sworn to secrecy in the “temple of the holy cow” before leaving and when they reached Gwalior station, they were put into carriages, blindfolded and driven to the place where they had to work. There they were kept, till they had opened the entrance to the secret vault and when the concealed vault was verified and the hole built up again; they were once more blindfolded, put into carriages and taken back to the railway station and re-booked for Benares under escort”.
Maharaja Jayajirao Scindia died soon after in the same year but was unable to pass on the “beejak” of these “chambers of secrets” hidden beneath the Gwalior fort as his son Madhav Rao was just a small child at the time. The royal court was now caught in a quandary. The whole wealth of the Scindias was now lost without any trace and no one in the court had any clue as to where it was hidden. As a way out of this dilemma, Colonel Bannerman, the British resident at Gwalior offered to help which the Scindia Court accepted or were forced to accept reluctantly. Colonel Bannerman carried out extensive searches of the Gwalior Fort. Rajmata Vijayaraje Scindia of Gwalior in her memoirs writes how the Colonel discovered several hidden chambers which had hidden the Scindia wealth. These hoards contained Rs 62 Million rupees in gold coins. In addition there were silver coins by millions, magnificent pearls, diamonds, rubies and other gems by thousands. Colonel Bannerman remarked that the whole treasure chamber resembled an “Aladdin’s Cave”.
But this was just one chamber of secrets of Gangajali. It was generally believed that there were several such chambers still undiscovered. But their discovery had to wait till Maharaja Madhav Rao Scindia reached his majority. Once Madhav Rao Scindia came of age and inherited the kingdom, he began attempts to find the wealth hidden by his father without success. Then one day, when the Maharaja was on a hunting expedition, an old astrologer came up to him and whispered that he knew where the Scindia wealth was hidden and that he would guide him there, provided he came there alone. Intrigued, Maharaja deliberated over the matter for some time and then agreed. As a precaution, he closed the fortress to all outsiders. Then the astrologer told him that he was to come unarmed and blindfolded. The Maharaja agreed but as precaution hid a long piece of lead in his coat.
The astrologer took the Maharaja Madhav Rao Scindia deep inside the fort. The astrologer opened a secret chamber and with aid of a kerosene lamp, led Scindia down the steps. The Maharaja could not make out exactly where they were deep inside the fortress. As they were walking down the treasure chamber, Maharaja felt that there was a third person walking behind him. Fearing an assassination attempt, the Maharaja panicked and took out the lead staff and swerved it hard. He could hear a skull cracking, the lamp falling down and the flame dying. Maharaja ran back as fast as he could back the way he thought was the correct one and reached the anxious soldiers who were waiting for him.
Recovering from the initial shock, Maharaja then realised that the footsteps he had heard were probably echoes of his own footstep and that in panic hit the astrologer by mistake. Now, the way to the treasure chamber was lost forever. Still he felt confident that he would be able to find the chamber if he searched hard. For a few years, Maharaja searched the fort extensively without any success. Despondent by failure, Maharaja thought of giving up his quest. As he made his way up from the desolate passageways for the fort, his foot slipped. To regain his balance, the Maharaja caught hold of the nearest stone pillar. And LOL! The pillar unexpectedly swung open thereby revealing a concealed chamber. The Maharaja called his soldiers for help. The chamber was extensively searched and the Maharaja came across treasure worth 20 million silver rupees or 2 million pounds sterling!
With the discovery of the treasure, Maharaja Madhav Rao Scindia’s financial position improved considerably. Having had a bad experience, Maharaja resolved never to hide his wealth in such a primitive way. He converted his treasure into liquid assets and despatched it to Bombay to be invested in various industries. In those days (1920s) , Tata Steel was a struggling company. The Tatas approached the Scindias for financial assistance. Maharaja readily agreed and soon emerged as one of the largest shareholders and financial investors of Tata Steel. It was the Scindia wealth which provided the much needed financial liquidity to the company in its initial years. It would be safe to assume that source of at least a part of the capital invested in one of India’s largest blue chip companies must have been the hoard found in one of the chambers of secrets of Gangajali. Are there other chambers still hidden, waiting to be discovered and reveal this contents? Perhaps only the ghost of the astrologer can reveal that. But the link between Tata Steel, India’s top corporate company and the treasure hidden deep inside an ancient fort is simply fascinating. Isn’t it?