Ruins of Gaur: Empires over Empires

I had always thought that Gaur was a mythical city. May be my impression was imported from excessive exposure to the words ‘Ruins of Gaur’, without ever hearing anyone, or reading anyone, who had been there. The ignorance was dispelled when I was reading about the historic St John’s Church of Calcutta. After the land grant by Raja Nabo Krishna Deb, Warren Hastings began work on the church. The stones that built the strong church were sourced from the ruins of Gaur, transported on bullock cart trains to Calcutta. I was sad to read the reference, because I read ‘plunder’ of our heritage. Those were still barbaric times, though in the garb of civility. During the sack of Delhi's Red Fort by the redcoats (aided by the Sikhs) in 1857, the commanding officer demolished the world's most gorgeous palaces to make way for stables for the horses. Today's red fort is merely a skeleton. On revisiting the giant sea-castle of Janjira, I was not so sure if I should be sad. There, people had carried off building material by ripping off old structures. And then it all vanished into private homes, forever. At least, the Gaur stones rest near BBD Bag in Kolkata (at St John’s Church) - a mixed sentiment that would come back to me on visiting Gaur.

It was dark outside and I was monitoring the progress of my train on my phone-based GPS system. I was enjoying the journey along the eastern banks of the Hooghly, travelling upwards on this giant delta of West Bengal, formed by the bifurcation of Ganga into the Hooghly to the west and Padma (also referred to as Ganga in continuation) to the east. The river was getting narrower as we were fast approaching the point of bifurcation. Then we suddenly moved eastwards, crossing the great Ganga just before it broadens to upto 10 km. The sheer width of the river was at once fascinating and intimidating. Its width could swallow whole towns on its banks and so it has done with periodic regularity in history. After crossing Ganga near the Farakka station, we moved further east and Malda was now just around 30 km away. Rather innocently, I had expected to see a town with overgrown mango trees when I was headed to Malda this February. This is what I had heard from elders. I arrived at midnight on a chilly night and waited until the morning to look outside. It turned out to be another Indian town crumbling under population and erratic road traffic. So I concentrated on my sister-in-law’s wedding that had brought me here.

When my hosts offered to make arrangements to visit Gaur, I just lapped it. I hadn't known that it was actually quite close. We were there in 30 minutes. As we branched off from the highway into a smaller road, my earlier impressions began to find reality. Water bodies covered any area that trees had left unoccupied and vegetation squeezed in even at the impossible of places --- in all, making the whole place a canvas in shades of green. When the English rediscovered Gaur towards the end of 18th century, it was hard to tell where vegetation ended and crumbs of erstwhile glorious edifices began. Englishmen reported that this jungle was the abode of tigers and wild boars.

We saw few people amid the greenery of this vast garden. The contrast with the town we had left behind could not have been more stark. Next, we saw walls of gigantic proportions. It seemed that walls of a great fort had strayed into a garden, standing all alone, and lost. Our entourage was enjoying the cool weather and the solitude. It was hard to imagine that we were moving within what was for centuries a giant walled city of a population of over 1.2 million inhabitants. Going by the reports of its size (7.5 miles x 2 miles), it must have been a crowded city. Bengal was ruled from these confines for over 1500 years. Until the middle of the 16th century, it was reputed to be India's "most magnificent city" and very rich. Gaur was probably also the busiest port. Ships carried freight to and from between Gaur and the sea. Great Hindu dynasties ruled from Gaur from the time immemorial until beginning of 13th century. In 1202, a Muslim General (Bhatiyar Khalji) dispatched from Delhi, defeated the Hindu King Ballal Sen. A lot has been made out of the fact that this army consisted of only 17 cavalry men. The claim appears rubbish as Bengal was infested with swamps and deadly forests, and possibly by the time Khalji reached Gaur, nature claimed most of his horses and he had only his infantry with him. Gaur passed into the hands of Muslim invaders in the beginning of 13th century and there started a series of Islamic Sultanates. The Muslim invaders shifted the capital to Pandua, some kilometers to the east.

My mind was looking for the pre-Islamic structures. The quest for the times of Hindu kings had fascinated me. But anything about that era was elusive. We visited an excavation site. Nothing has been said about it yet, with slow research working in. What lay in front of us was only the base of a big building, with unique cylindrical structures, at regular intervals. The people guarding it said it was very old, very-very old, but could not put any date to it. Could it belong to the pre-Islamic period? May be this was the palace of Ballal Sen that Khalji destroyed. I was in for disappointment because this structure was much younger than that. We didn’t understand the significance of these short height cylinders. It would take the combined knowledge of architecture and archeology to understand why these cylindrical structures were employed, preferred over solid bases. Over these structures, once stood the palace of Barbak Shah, who ruled for 15 years, from 1459. Early analysis suggests the palace housed a Court Hall, Sultan's quarter and Harem. I recently came across a report on this exciting excavation, published in an english daily and contained a color photograph. It briefed that Archeological Survey of India (ASI) found glazed floor on the site. The photograph showed a small, 100 square feet area containing blue glazed tiles. Obviously, very little of the tiles have survived the time, and ASI must have carried these off because we saw none on the site. I have no idea where do these stuffs go after excavation. You can't even find a publication or website which lists the museums/safes where Harappan relics are scattered over. For the commoners, I guess this will just disappear forever. Then I remembered having seen a portion of that tile somewhere. It was at a tea stall at Gaur. The tea stall guy stored a lot of these things in a hut behind his stall. When I asked whether they were available at a price, he answered firmly in the negative. He said he found these and will hold it until proper agencies recover it from him. Well, that's what he said. We entered the hut and had a look at things that lay all over. We were attracted to what was the partial remain of a blue tile. White designs on the blue background made it look pleasing. Similar blue glazed tiles (older than this) at the Mumbai museum dazzles your eyes with its restored looks and some good lighting, prompting you to imagine what the floor that adorned it was like. Better than any contemporary floor I've seen. Barbak Shah surely lived in great style. After all, he was Sultan of a rich empire. We got a photograph of this tile (see below). Barbak's father Nasiruddin Shah had risen to become the Sultan in 1442, restoring power to their family. Their family had ruled Bengal from Pandua nearly half a century earlier, the then capital. The capital was shifted back to Gaur after the family lost throne towards the end of 14th century. Barbark relied heavily on black slaves to retain power. His palace was a place of distrust and conspiracies, with a vast number of black eunuchs. In all, he employed 8000 Africans as part of his elite guard force, eunuchs (mostly harem guards) and armed forces. Africans brought from Ethiopia and elsewhere, were physically superior to the Afghans and other Muslims in India, and we (Hindus) feared them a lot. They were seen as completely alien on this land, with their look, physique, ways, fighting abilities and diet. Because they were slaves, their masters often used them to subdue/murder opponents, without caring if the black slave lost his life in the process. That created a fear about them, generally associated with suicide bombers in today's world. You have to fear someone who fights with no regard to his life. Tactics were employed to create more intrigue and fear of them. For example, one such black slave ruler of Jaunpur, Bakr, regularly ate a whole goat in public view, to the sheer astonishment of viewers who assumed he was an avatar of demon and stayed away. Barbak also built some gateways and in general kept up the work of capital rebuilding and accretion activity at gaur, started by sultan Jalaluddin many years ago. We will come back to Jalaluddin later.

Chika or Chamkan Mosque was interesting. It looked less sophisticated in comparison to some of the other structures at Gaur, but is a large stout structure, resembling more the blunt structures of Tughlaqs of Delhi that preceded it, than the beauties that were produced by combining Rajput styles with Mughal tastes later in India. It nevertheless stands firmly in its place (albeit, with ASI help) and we could walk in. May be I am being harsh. It could have looked beautiful, had its minarets been still standing, and its exterior surface of painted tiles survived. It was dark inside. Historians don’t seem to think it was really meant to be a mosque. May be it was so originally, when Shamsuddin Yusuf Shah built it. He had inherited the sultanate from his father Barbak. I would come back to Chika mosque later, on two occasions.

Next we visited a tower that lay by the side of a little lake. I was taken by the tower, unable to connect such engineering with a place remote as this. An ASI board read that the tower was built by Firoz Shah -- an Abyssinian, 1486-89. The tower was erected in the late 15th century (1486) by Firoz Shah, a black King of Bengal, Muslim and from Africa. I was at once intrigued and wanted to know more about the times in which it was built. At 26 meters height, this tower was an engineering marvel of its times. The tower never lost its bottom half and restoration had to resurrect only its top portions. The physically endowed blacks of Barbak's employment had grown very powerful by the time his childless son, who built the Painted and Tantipara mosques, passed away. Fath Khan who took over as Sultan, tried hard to bring the increasingly defiant Africans under control. The forces unleashed by Barbak had grown quite powerful by then, subduing the Afghan, Arab and Persian nobles and soldiers alike, at will. It was already too late. The capital was taken over from within, toppling the nobles and Fath Khan being murdered by the Africans, led by a man who was ironically, known as Barbak himself. This Barbak was a eunuch (indeed, the chief of eunuchs) at the capital city. He assumed the throne under the title of Sultan Shahzada and began a period of rule of Bengal, from Gaur, by Africans. The African slaves were to prove to be the most barbaric rulers of Bengal. For every problem, they fell on their tested strength --- repression though torture, killing, rapes and ripping people off. Bengal entered a period of unrivalled State terror, for the common Hindu Bengalis, as well as for the erstwhile noblemen of foreign origin. Shahzada was murdered by another black African called Jallaluddin (again, a repeat name of earlier sultan), who had served earlier as commander-in-chief and now became the Sultan under the name Firoz Shah. He commenced work to build the tower we were now looking at, in 1486 and probably had finished it by the time he was murdered by another person of his community, 3 years later. Murders after murders followed and Gaur saw a succession of black Africans, as sultans of Gaur -- each one more tyrannical than the previous.

The tyranny was not to last forever though. In 1493, Muzaffar Shah was the black African Sultan at Gaur. The oppressed nobles and subjects of Bengal grouped under Alauddin Hussain Shah – the Sultan's Vizier, to lay siege of Gaur's Fort from outside, with supporters and troops sourced from elsewhere in the kingdom. Hussain was of Arabic descent, and was a person of refined tastes and qualities in comparison to the sultan he was fighting. The blacks were not giving up easily. A lot of Hussain's people were captured, brought inside the fort, tortured, killed, and their severed heads sent to Hussain Shah as a form of stern message. Hussain was made of sterner stuff. At the end of 4 months, he stormed the fort, killed the black sultan. He sought restraint from his people from pillaging and sentenced a few thousand soldiers of his own camp to death for plunder. But he was more unforgiving to the blacks and had their necks rolling, literally. This saw the end of blacks in Bengal, forever, even as they continued to flourish in other parts of India for much more time. During his rule of nearly 2 decades, Hussain continued to heal many wound that Bengal's soul had endured. He brought political order and a semblance of justice, and used the Chika (mosque?) as his gaol within the city perimeter. A short walk away from the Chika mosque, is another structure --- Gumti Darwaza, smaller than Chika. See the picture of Gumti Darwaza by the side: it sill has a few painted tiles left. Its flanks are curved down in the Bengal temple style and has a facade of minarets. It may have been gate to the fort and is a slight improvement over the earlier architectures such as Chika. Among the structures built by Hussain during his reign, this probably is the only one that survives. An architectural marvel of that time is the Small Golden Mosque (Chhota Sona masjid), but sadly we could not see it. This one was a little further South on the main road and everyone preferred to get back early for lunch instead. The Chhota Sona mosque has ornate design, and its aesthetic was ahead of its time. The mosque was built by a private individual called Wali Muhammad. I am imagining him to be a rich merchant of Arabic descent. In the words of Duarte Barbosa who visited Gaur around the time Wali Muhammad built the Chhota Sona Masjid: merchants and nobles of Gaur are "dressed in long morisco shirts reaching to the instep, white and slight texture….silken sash round the waist, and a dagger set with silver...many jewlled rings on their fingers...They are luxurious people". Hussain used his level head and leadership to expand Bengal. He brought more parts of Bengal under his control and invaded Orissa. He then went on to attack and invade Assam. This was to prove a mistake. No Muslim power could ever occupy Assam. Just as the invading army was getting ready for the spoils, a force of regrouped Assamese mowed down the sultan's army.

Our driver was familiar with Gaur and dropped us in front of a gate of stone. The gate was imposing with its stone arches that towered over us. As we entered, we found gardens in front of us and to our right, a large rectangular building with grand arches and multiple domes of shallow height. This was Sona Masjid, popularly translated as Golden Mosque. I thought Gold Mosque would be a more appropriate translation. The garden was in its time, the front yard where people prayed, and must have been paved in stone.
The gate we entered through was the side gate, with the main gate facing the mosque, lying to our left. The Mosque was built in 1525 by Nasrat Shah, Hussain Shah’s son. Hussains were one of the most powerful rulers of the Muslim era in Bengal. A lot is said about Hussain Shahis being liberal rulers of Bengal. I am not as sure. It was during this period that Chitanya Mahaprabhu found it difficult to preach in Bengal. On persecution, he moved to Jagannath Puri, where he preached for life. More likely therefore, the Hossainis were only less restrictive to Hindus than other Sultans in Bengal and may have abandoned the policy of forced conversions to Islam. A large part of the mosque is now gone. But what remains is testimony to its grandness. I stood in the open yard, dotted by occasional pillar-bases that have survived the assault of weather and time, and plunder by men. It must have been a very large mosque for its times. In scale it is much smaller than Delhi's Jama Masjid or Lahore's Badshahi Mosque. When Nasrat shah succeeded his father, it was routine for a king to kill or blind all brothers on coronation, in order to eliminate any possibility of competition. Nasrat Shah was an exception in history. He spared his 18 brothers, and their eyes. He expanded Bengal by invading Bihar and annexing lands northwards right up to Azamgarh, in present day UP.
We visited another building. Much more remained here than elsewhere. The large complex walls still stand in their place, albeit blackened at places. It houses the Kadam Rasool mosque.It has a footprint cast in stone, believed to be of the prophet himself. Nasrat Shah brought this from Arabia and built a mosque around it. The mosque was always looked after, long after the city faded and rest of it was claimed by the wild. My son and I passed through a tomb of a dead general of the Mughals, constructed in the days well after the city's twilight years. The tomb's top was styled as a four-eaved hut, resembling the rural Bengal terracotta temple roofs. We now entered the ruins of a building that had numerous rooms, none very large, with ceilings long lost. This was a rest house facing the Kadam Rasool mosque, providing a privileged view for the pious guests of the sultan.

Our next stop was Dakhil Darwaza. A colossal of red bricks and terracotta. Dakhil means to enter. This was too large for a gate and helped to put in perspective the size of the walled city. What stands now is a gate, nearly 200 feet from the end you get in to the one you get out. Once inside, we were dwarfed by its height. It was cool and gave a feeling of dampness. The little one had fixed his gaze on the ceiling where a few bats seemed unsettled by our presence. Two galleries ran parallel to the main passage and were darker and cooler. The erstwhile fort entrace had four minarets at its corners. The minarets survive with loss of some portion from the top. Who built it? Strangely, the ASI board dates it to 1425, and then attributes it to Barbak Shah (1459-1474) in the same board. Obviously a mistake. Some of the other sources I have referred to also date it to 1425, but then don’t attribute to Barbak. The one that attributes it to Barbak, doesn’t date it at all. After going through several references, I have come to the conclusion that it was build in 1425 and it was not the creation of Barbak Shah. May be parts of it were restored by Barbak. In that case, the Dakhil Darwaza was built by Sultan Jalaludddin – a person I would come to in a later paragraph.

We visited next what seemed to be a big gate, but poor in comparison to the Dakhil Darwaza. Luckochuri gate, built in the late 17th century by a Mughal prince. Parts of it have collapsed. There are quarters on the side, being the Naqqarkhana (the Drum-room).

When the governors of Bengal successively declared independence in the middle of 16th century, they had not realised that the emperor in Delhi was more powerful than anything the Muslim rule in India had ever seen. Sultan Daud Shah attacked Akbar's territories. When Akbar dispatched an army to crush him, he met them with force, sending boats loaded with 2000 severed heads of Mughals and their non-Mongol soldiers. Enraged Akbar reinforced the forces with his Rajput general. A few months later, a Mughal courier rushed to Delhi with the severed head of Daud Shah, something the emperor wished to see personally (a painting of the scene of Daud Shah being taken prisoner by the General is captured in a painting made in 1550, by an artist by the name Lal. The painting is lodged at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London ). Calm descended on Bengal. Akbar enforced vegetarianism in villages in Bengal as demanded by the Hindus.

Gaur was now reduced to a provincial capital, from being the capital of the richest independent sultanate in the subcontinent. But worse was yet to come. In around 1575, the Ganga swelled with the monsoon more than it did every year, marooning everything but the walled city that was at a slight height. In October, when the waters receded, the Ganga had changed course forever, shifting several kilometers westwards. Gaur was left with sands and wet marshes on its periphery, exactly where once the Ganga provided life, unleashing a deadly crop of mosquitoes. Disease killed too many people. Burying or cremating the dead became a daily burden for the living. Only around a tenth of this large city finally survived. Murshidabad became the new provincial capital.

We stopped opposite the Kadam Rasool mosque, for resting and feeding ourselves. A stall sold Jhhal Moori -- spiced puffed rice mix, a typical taste across Bengal that I love so much. It was here that I bought some tea from the stall, where I saw the blue tiles. There was much more to be seen here. When Italian traveller Ludovico di Varthema visited Gaur around 1506 (during Hussain Shah’s reign), he described it as the most magnificent city that he had seen. Some historians think Varthema visited Chittagong, not Gaur. But in Varthema's own words, the sultan maintained an army of 200,000 ready for war at all times --- a number equal to the East India Company's total forces at its pinnacle. This could not be a town on the fringes of the empire then. The city was crisscrossed by canals, much like Varthema's own hometown Venice. He met Christian merchants, fair in skin and then travelled with them to Sumatra. He was referring to Chinese merchants of Christian faith. With this account as background, the fine translucent bone China wares at this stall, that have been dug up by locals, began to make sense.

We were now to head back. What about the pre-Islamic period? Some years ago, I watched a program on the great Angkor temples and the pyramids of Egypt. While the former was built from seasonal availability of labour, the latter was a product of forced labor (slaves). The expert researchers said that no matter which of these is applicable to a monument, builders always leave some clues. On the inside walls of Chika, some tiles have Arabic writings carved out. Well, at least that's what you see at the first glance. On closer look, these are Hindu images, fixed upside down. The material for the Chika was evidently sourced by demolishing Hindu temple(s). It implied instinctively that on all tiles, the images of Hindu gods were fixed in such a way that these faced the mortar, leaving their erstwhile mortar faces to the viewer. The Hindu builders left some stone pieces in exactly the opposite orientation, leaving us to see Saraswati playing Veena and an image of Lord Ram (See the pictures, rotated upside-down). There were Hindu lamps at the tea stall and also a traditional Hindu Bengali kharga (a curved axe) used for religious sacrifices.

Bengal was ruled by the Ilyas Shah clan, notably, Ilyas Shah and his son Sikandar Shah through the 14th century, in their capital Pandua. Sikandar ruled for 31 years, right into the twilight of the 14th century. He built the gorgeous Adina mosque at Pandua. Sikandar was killed by his son Ghyasuddin Azim (reign: 1396-1406), over the matter of succession. Azim ruled for 10 years well. And then, Raja Ganesh, the powerful Hindu ruler of Bhaturia (present day Dinajpur distt in Bangladesh) moved into the capital, and forced himself as the Vizier. Nobles would not accept the Raja as Sultan, for he was a Hindu. So, he turned his son Jadu (Jatmal) into a muslim. Jadu assumed the throne at Gaur as Sultan Jalaluddin. He ruled for 17 years (1414-1431). He moved the capital back to Gaur from Pandua and started its restoration and augmentation. The grand Dakhil Darwaza was his creation – the masterpiece of his capital rebuilding activity. Amid the sultanate period coins at display in the Mumbai museum, there is a unique coin. It is the only coin with non-Arabic inscriptions on it -- the writing is in Bengali. The museum provides no clue on what it is. This is probably among the coins minted during Raja Ganesh's period, by Jalaluddin.

Raja Ganesh's home in Dinajpur still has a temple standing, built by his family. The temple's architecture draws a very strong point -- the Gaur architecture was inspired by the Hindu temples. Pika Ghosh - an architect of repute and a specialist in sultanate period buildings, writes in her piece* that Gaur edifices have strong Bengali stamp on it. It was inevitable. The builders and their material were all local. She then draws attention to the four-eaved hut shaped roofs of a mosque and Fath Khan tomb, both being based on the thatched roof of local huts in Birbhum district of Bengal. She also refers to temples by Raja Ganesh, which I could not locate.
(*The Architecture of Indian Sultanates -- Marg Publications, Mumbai)

Ruins of Gaur were introduced to the world through the detailed descriptions and sketches of Henry Creighton, in the form of a book published in 1817. Apart from the ruins that I saw, Creighton describes Hindu sculptures. Bhavani seated on lotus with a sacred book in Hand. An exquisite statue of Vishnu's Vraha Avtar. Most stunning was the image of an elephant caught beneath the claws of a giant lion. Is this the inspiration for Konark's sun temple, which is replete with this same image?

None of it is now visible anywhere. Probably, these have been plundered and have ended up being destroyed or reside at private homes. More probably, these are stocked in some store/museum of the Museums of India. No catalog could be found online. No mention could be gathered from anywhere. For the general man in quest like me, it is lost forever.

Englishmen found tigers and wild boars at the ruins of Gaur when they were making merry, by stripping its stones. While the poor Indian laborers and their skinny bullocks toiled hard to carry the stones to Calcutta, the Gora Sahibs amused themselves by hunting these animals, and big copper shells poured out of their guns. We saw one such shell at the hut, deep brown from aging, with an engraving "Prince". The Prince shell factory obviously must have closed down long ago, for I could not trace its mention in books that I laid my hands on. At Gaur everything is history.


Param said...

Amazing write-up. Loved the pics.
I wish you could put a link to the place on Google Maps...

Rahul said...

Thanks. It also amazing that you've had the interest to read it all.

Param said...

The relevant places have been added in G-Maps. Search for 'gaur' in the vicinity of this area to see the specific points.,88.130479&spn=0.022542,0.042272