History in carved niches

| Updated on January 12, 2011

Champaner intricate stone work   -  to be given.

Champaner jali details   -  To be given.

Champaner kabutar khana   -  to be given

Champaner masjid stonework   -  To be given

Champaner Pavagarh is a World Heritage site tucked away in a pretty recess of Gujarat.

Quiz time, folks! Which World Heritage site in India did UNESCO recognise most recently? Not the Taj Mahal. That was in 1983. Nor the Ajanta and Ellora caves (1983). Not even the Konarak sun temple (1984) or the Mountain Railways of India (1999).

It took my first visit to Baroda last winter to learn of it — the 16th century Champaner Pavagarh archaeological park in Gujarat, so designated in 2004. At the former royal Gaekwad capital, with a current population of about three million, its art scene abuzz with 300-plus practising contemporary artists, each day brought a reference to the wonders of Champaner.

Tantalised, I allow my friend Malavika to whisk me away to the heritage city on her hot pink scooter, our helmets strapped on. Giant trucks drone past on the national highway to Ahmedabad, 159 km to the north, interspersed with stuttering two-wheelers, an Ambassador, a Scorpio, then a Sumo at breakneck speed.

A rickety tempo wheezes by, bearing saffron-clad pilgrims, their tridents raised. “They are off to the Mahakali temple atop Pavagarh,” says Malavika, steering her bike through the maze-on-wheels. “Some folks trek to the top of the garh (or fort). Others choose to take the cable car up…”

But we bypass Pavagarh on our daytrip, choosing to concentrate on the 16th-Century pre-Mughal Islamic ruins of Champaner. In over an hour, we cover the 48-km northeast, to halt at an innocuous white signboard that reads, ‘ Ek minar ki masjid' (mosque with one minaret).

It is one of 36 sites across six sq. km, protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The others include vestiges, fortifications, palaces, residences, a cenotaph, step wells, agricultural structures, even water facilities from the 8-14th Centuries.

The stone minaret towers into the cloud-free sky, graffiti scrawled on its upper reaches. Scattered on the ground around are fragments of carved lotuses, crumbling pillars, geometric patterns on friezes numbered for re-assembly.

Which muezzin called the faithful to prayer at this masjid? How long ago did this site ebb from life?

Champaner was founded by the 8th Century king Vanraj Chavda. Erudite guesses say it was named after his friend, a general named Champa or Champaraj. By the late 15th Century, the Khichi Chauhan Rajputs held Pavagarh fort, which towered over the town.

The young sultan of Gujarat, Mahmud Begada, was determined to capture Pavagarh. He succeeded on November 21, 1484, after a 20-month siege. Over the next 23 years, he rebuilt a capital city renamed Muhammadabad. Later, he relocated to Ahmedabad, from where he reigned till his death. Champaner finally fell to an attack by Mughal emperor Humayun in 1535.

The sleepy town, where Marutis and cycles jitter through the narrow lanes behind crumbling fortifications, is a tribute to Begada's architectural imagination. It reaches its acme at the Jami Masjid. Set on a high plinth, its two 300-metre minarets tower above the landscape, while the central dome is richly patterned with graded stones. Its 172 ornamented pillars are set amidst seven elegant mihrabs or pulpits. But the eye is repeatedly riveted by the masjid's multi-patterned, intricate stone jalis that overlook mossy walls and motorbikes that wheeze by, their turbanned riders cool to urban intruders like us.

Gazing at leafy boughs that sway past stone niches, we wonder at the rise and fall of Champaner. How did its citizens feel about the medieval centre for silk and cotton textiles, besides sword manufacture? How many perished in the battle against Humayun at the Atak Gate, its catapult-stands armed to hurl stone missiles? History notes that when the British came to rule the town in the early 19th century, its population was barely 500.

Radiating outward from the central Jami Masjid, arterial roads lead to the city's nine main gates, adjacent to the remains of elevated mosques. The Hauz-i-Vazu, a large open-air tank for rainwater harvesting, adjoins the main mosque. Water-wise, Begada created narrow ledges at the base of slopes to contain downhill streams, leading to interconnected lakes, and finally to the largest Vada Talav in the plains.

Stopping, looking, riding on, we come across a well-preserved helical well en route to the Jami Masjid. At the base of the hill stands the Hissar-in-Khas, or royal palace. Thousand-year-old Hindu and Jain temples dot the plains around.

By noon, hot air fans our face. We search for a kabutarkhana or pigeon roost. We ask half-a-dozen strangers before we arrive at a serene pavilion. It overlooks a picturesque lake, where water birds skim, glide and dive for prey. Frozen in time, farmers plough the fields beyond for wheat, maize and pulses as egrets preen the lumbering bullocks. Across the road, delicate fronds fan the ancient bird-free roost.

Once back in Baroda, we mull over why Champaner seems familiar, even to a first-time visitor like me. Does it recall Hampi in its layout and breadth of vision? Or replicate features of the Jama Masjid at Delhi or Agra? Not quite.

Out of the blue, the answer looms before us. It was the fictional location for the Oscar-nominated 2001 mega-screen hit Lagaan, though shot in Kutch. In a trice, the Champaner saga takes on a new hue beyond movie mania.

Published on January 12, 2011

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