Gauda (also spelt Gaur or Gour), located in the Malda district in the North of the Indian state of West Bengal, is a ruined city that served as the capital of Bengal between the 12th and 16th centuries. Over a period of four centuries, Gauda has seen more than a dozen ruling dynasties come and go and today is home to some spectacular ruins mostly from Bengal’s Islamic period. Historically and architecturally there is much in Gauda that is of interest, especially its spectacular mosques.
To begin, a distinction needs to be made between the Kingdom of Gauda, comprising the Northern part of Western Bengal and most of North Bengal, and the city of Gauda. The kingdom of Gauda emerged as an independent entity in the late 6th and early 7th century, under the powerful Hindu king Shashanka. Between the 8th and 12th century Bengal was ruled by the Buddhist Pala dynasty. As the Pala empire began to fall apart after the death of Ramapala around 1130 C.E., the Senas came into prominence. Samantasena (or Samanta Sen) was a warrior from the area that now forms the Indian state of Karnataka. In his old age, he had become an ascetic and settled on the banks of the Ganges, somewhere in modern day Burdwan (or Bardhhaman) district. His son Hemantasena (or Hemanta Sen) seems to have been a ruling chief. As central power under the Palas waned, the Senas grew in prominence. Hemantasena’s son Vijaysena married a princess of the Rarh region of Southern Bengal and ultimately brought all of Bengal under his rule.
It was Vijaysena’s grandson, Lakshmansena who laid the foundations of the city of Gauda and made it his imperial capital, with a second minor capital in Nadia. Lakshamnsena must have been almost 60 years old by the time he ascended the throne in 1179 C.E. Under his father he had been a successful military leader and had conducted successful campaigns against the Kamarupa kingdom of Assam and the Kalinga kingdom of Orissa (now Odisha). Since the Pala king Ramapala had the city of Ramavati named after him, imperial vanity demanded that the new capital be named Lakshmanavati (also referred to as Lakhnauti). Around the late 12th century, Hindu rule in North India had sufficiently weakened to permit Turkic raiders to start plundering the country. Among those leading the raids was an adventurer named Mohammed Bakhtiar Khilji.
Bakhtiar Khilji, also known as Malik Bakhtiar had no pretensions of royal descent, neither did he have sufficient expertise to lay siege to well defended Hindu forts. His aim was to capture as much booty as possible with the minimum possible conflict and commotion. Around 1200 C.E., Khilji plundered a fortress whose inhabitants turned out to be shaven-headed monks, whom he put to the sword. The monks possessed great wealth and many books (which I can’t imagine he found much use for). When asked what this place was, he was told that it was a “vihara”, or monastery. Khilji named the entire country “Bihar”, after the monastery and proceeded with his cavalry towards Bengal. Lakshmansena had been receiving news of the plunder his kingdoms by Turkic cavalry, and had posted armies in the mountain passes of Rajmahal to intercept them, but Khilji surprised him by turning up right at his doorstep in Nadia. So swift had been his advance that only 18 of his riders had been able to keep up with him. Legend has it that the townspeople mistook Khilji and his men for traders and the alarm was only raised when they drew their swords and started slaughtering the guards inside Lakshmansena’s palace. The king was in the middle of lunch and escaped barefoot by the back door. Although Lakshmansena and his descendants would continue to rule in Eastern Bengal, half of his kingdom had effectively passed into Muslim hands.
Gauda would serve as the capital city for the Khilji dynasty, the Mamluk Sultanate, the Balban dynasty and the Tughlaq Sultanate. During the reign of Alauddin Ali Shah (1339 – 1342), the capital was moved to Pandua. However, Pandua had to be abandoned, probably because the course of the river on whose banks it was built, changed. The capital returned to Gauda with Nasir-ud-Din Mahmud Shah of the Ilyas Shahi dynasty in 1453 and was a prosperous city in the 15th and 16th centuries filled with people of every imaginable race and nationality, including the Chinese! Try and imagine chow mien and dim sum being cooked in 16th Century Bengal! Gauda was burnt down by Sher Shah Suri sometime between November 1538 to April 1539, only to be repaired and made fit for habitation by Mughal emperor Humayun who was so taken with the place that he gave it the name “Jannatabad”, literally meaning paradise city. Gaur was retaken by Sher Shah Suri in the winter of that year, but the Suri Empire ended with the death of his grandson Firoz Shah Suri in 1554. Bengal would remain under various Pathan houses for another two decades, and in 1565, Sulaiman Khan Karrani, the then Afghan lord of Bengal would abandon Gaur for a place called Tanda.
Akbar's armies finally drove the Afghans or Pathans out of Bengal for good. Akbar’s general Muni’m Khan had set up base at Tanda but found living in tents in the marshy terrain around Tanda during Bengal’s monsoon season to be impossible and moved back into Gauda which was now a hollow, abandoned shell of a city. In the damp, unhealthy environs of the city, a mysterious disease broke out which killed Muni’m Khan’s men by the thousands, ultimately killing Muni’m Khan on the 23rd of October, 1575. The disease was the plague, and this was the end of Gauda. The city was abandoned for good and left to be reclaimed by nature. The ruins of Gauda have been vandalised for several hundred years, first by locals and then by British officials, who took away precious and rare blue marble from the ruins and put it in buildings in Calcutta (Kolkata). The marble tiles on the floor of St. John’s Church near Dalhousie Square come from Gauda. Of the Hindu period of Gauda, there is almost nothing left. Most of the ruins that tourists visit today are from the Muslim period, including some fine specimens of pre-Mughal mosque architecture.
Those four rhyming words, literally meaning coming, going, staying and eating, are how any Bengali will calculate travel expenses. Yes, we are a rather poetic lot. To get to Gauda (and Pandua), you need to reach Malda, which is both the district and largest town. Malda is very well-connected to Calcutta (Kolkata) by rail. We took an overnight train from Sealdah (Gour Express), departing from Sealdah station at 10:15pm and arriving at Malda bright and early, at 6am. We travelled in first class comfort, for the princely sum of Rs. 2200 for two people. Of course, Mum is now officially a senior citizen, so her ticket was heavily discounted. A word of advice here; dinner is not served on this train at night. So you can either have dinner before getting on the train, carry your food with you, or order dinner via IRCTC’s online portal, and it will be delivered hot and fresh to your compartment. The last option works surprisingly well.
In Malda, we stayed at the government-owned Malda Tourist Lodge. These tourist lodges are operated by the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation, and while they may not be comparable to star category hotels, they offer clean, comfortable rooms, delicious Bengali food and a level of security that only the government can guarantee. There is a familiar and homely air to these places that I have always loved. The choices when it comes to food can be somewhat limited. Don’t expect fancy Chinese and Continental dishes here, but if you’re ok with Bengali food, then you will face no problems. I particularly recommend the “posto” (khus khus) dishes and for fish lovers, they serve some of the best, fresh, local fish. The helpful manager arranged a car for us. While most tourists manage to cover both Gauda and Pandua in a day, I opted not to do that, since photography would take time. I was charged Rs. 1400 per day for an ac ambassador, which was quite comfortable.
ATTRACTIONS ON THE WAY TO GAUDA
Gauda lies some 12 km South of Malda town and there are several little spots to cover on the way. Unfortunately, we could find no traces of the fort of Shonarae or Loha Garh, both mentioned by Pradyot Ghosh in his book “Malda Jela-r Puratatwo”. The first things we came across were the mysterious pillars known as “Hathi Badha Stombho”. These two stone pillars must have been brought here from Gauda at some point, but no one seems to know when or why. Sometime in the past, a rich local gent used to tie his elephant to these pillars, and hence the name (hathi = elephant, badha = to tie, stombho = pillar). On both sides of the road are several large lakes, all of which have been dug many years ago by the affluent residents of the area for the use of the common people.
|Hathi Badha Stombho - random pillars in the middle of nowhere!|
|Footprints of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu|
|The Madanmohan Jiu Temple|
THE BARADWARI OR BADA SONA MASJID
|Bada Sona Masjid|
The obvious question is that if this is the “Bada” or larger Sona Masjid, where is the “Chhota” or smaller one? The Chhota Sona Masjid is in modern day Bangladesh. While most of the old citadel of Gauda is now in India, a small portion of it lies on the other side of the border. Flower motifs may be found all over the Bada Sona Masjid and even from the ruins, it is not impossible to guess that at one point, large portions of the walls must have been covered by coloured tiles. Decorations on the stone walls are still visible. The mosque is built using both stone and brick and mortar, with stone in the mosque being used only to the height of 22 feet. The large entrance gateway to the complex is built of brick and mortar, with stone cladding, only a part of which remains intact today.
|Terracotta ornamentation of Dakhil Darwaza|
FIROZ MINAR OR FIROZA MINAR
Firoz Minar looks somewhat like Delhi’s Qutub Minar and was taller at one point. The topmost levels, along with a dome has been levelled to increase the tower’s stability. It is now 84 feet tall, and 73 steps lead to the top. These steps are a later addition. Access to the top of the tower is naturally restricted, although it may be possible with special permission from the ASI. Firoz Minar was probably originally intended as a victory tower. It is now surrounded by a well-manicured lawn, and the surrounding trees are filled with parrots. If you can be a little patient, you will capture some interesting moments.
|Ballal Bati. Does this look like a palace to you?|
|Baish-Gajee Pracheer. The trees are all mango|
CHIKA BHAVAN OR CHAAMKAAN BHAVAN
|Interiors of Chika Bhavan|
|Colourful enamelled bricks of Gumti Darwaza|
QADAM RASUL MASJID
|Qadam Rasul Masjid|
|What is thought to be Qadam Rasul's bath|
QADAM RASUL BATH AND FATEH KHAN’S TOMB
Directly opposite the entrance to Qadam Rasul mosque is a building which is now thought to be a bath, although I did not find any signs of a bathtub or similar enclosure for water. The floor was absolutely smooth. Not much chance of this being a “wazu khana” either, where the devout would perform their ritual ablutions before prayer.
|Fateh Khan or Fath Khan's tomb|
|Qadam Rasul's ruined cemetery.|
SHAHI DARWAZA OR LUKOCHURI GATE
|A room in the Shahi Darwaza|
|Inside the vaulted "Bangla roof"of Gunamanta Masjid|
|Ornamentation inside the drum of one of the domes of Gunamanta Masjid|
Built in 1476 C.E. by Sultan Shamsuddin Yusuf Shah, the Lotan Masjid was at one point, completely covered in coloured enamel tiles, traces of which still remain. The colourful interiors of Lotan Masjid, however, are in much better shape. How the mosque came to be called “Lotan” is not known. Local legends associate the mosque with a certain famous dancer, however, this remains unconfirmed. At the time of my visit, the doors to the mosque were securely locked, and I was informed that work was underway and would be completed around winter of 2016. For sheer architectural splendour, Lotan Masjid may well be called on the most beautiful ancient mosques of India.
|Tantipara Masjid interiors|
Built by Sultan Shamsuddin Yusuf Shah in 1475 C.E., the Chaamkati Masjid has an interesting name and many theories behind it. One belief is that the mosque was built for a class of Muslims who were in the leather trade. However, the most likely explanation is that the name comes from the very narrow entrance to the mosque (chaam = narrow, kaathi = path). The mosque contains a joint vault at the entrance and the interiors contain traces of enamelled tiles. The single dome looks like it has 5 steps. Although a part of the mosque has collapsed, I found it under repair in the early summer of 2016.
|Chaamkaati Masjid, collapsed southern face|
The Chaamkaati Masjid was the last mosque we visited on our tour. We had managed to cover all the major sites in Gauda in one day. We had set out from Malda town at around 8am and wrapped up by around 2pm. I made a quick phone call to the Malda Tourist Lodge and the extremely helpful manager said he would have a hot lunch waiting for us when we got there. We did take a small detour to visit the Kotwali Darwaza of Gauda. The Kotwali Darwaza currently serves as the border between India and Bangladesh, with the modern road running right through it. With permission from the local BSF post, and upon submitting photo ID, it is possible to climb to the top of the gate and have a look around, but photography is prohibited. Not that that has ever stopped me, but when you are surrounded by men with guns, you really don’t feel like pushing your luck.
- By Deepanjan Ghosh
GPS POSITIONS OF MONUMENTS IN GAUDA
|Chaamkaati Masjid terracotta detail|
- Chaitanya Mahaprabhu Temple - 24°53'20.4"N 88°07'43.8"E
- Radhakanta Jiu Temple - 24°53'21.5"N 88°07'42.3"E
- Baradwari/Bada Sona Masjid - 24°52'58.6"N 88°07'40.6"E
- Dakhil Darwaza - 24°52'43.9"N 88°07'30.4"E
- Firoz Minar - 24°52'25.3"N 88°07'49.3"E
- Ballal Bati - 24°52'12.7"N 88°07'29.6"E
- Jahaj Ghata - 24°52'09.8"N 88°07'23.8"E
- Baish-Gajee Pracheer - 24°52'15.0"N 88°07'30.8"E
- Chika Bhavan - 24°52'03.4"N 88°07'52.0"E
- Gumti Darwaza - 24°52'04.2"N 88°07'55.2"E
- Qadam Rasul Masjid - 24°52'08.9"N 88°07'53.9"E
- Shahi Darwaza - 24°52'07.1"N 88°07'55.0"E
- Gunamanta Masjid - 24°51'05.2"N 88°07'52.5"E
- Lotan Masjid - 24°51'17.5"N 88°08'22.0"E
- Tantipara Masjid - 24°51'38.6"N 88°08'14.2"E
- Chaamkati Masjid - 24°52'13.2"N 88°08'09.0"E
- Kotwali Darwaza - 24°50'34.3"N 88°08'26.9"E
TIPS FOR VISITORS TO GAUDA
|Entrance to Bada Sona Masjid|
- Photographers, carry a wide angle lens and either a lens with a wide maximum aperture, such as f/2.8 or a flash, because the insides of old mosques can be rather dark. The Sultans neglected to install electricity! Canon shooters, the el-cheapo 24mm f/2.8 EF-S lens for crop sensor cameras, will serve you well.
- If you are addicted to bottled water, carry it with you. Other than a couple of shops in front of Qadam Rasul, you will not find water or snacks anywhere on the route.
- There are no entrance charges for any monument at Gauda, cheapskates rejoice! However, since many of these monuments are active Islamic sites, entrance may be restricted during specific festivals.
- Best time to visit Gauda – it’s rural Bengal, stick to winter. October to February would be ideal. I visited in the 1st week of March and although I got terrific light and blue skies, the heat almost killed me. But evenings in Malda, in March are pleasant and cool.
- A tour of Gauda is usually combined with a tour of Pandua.
- Many thanks to Amrita and her company Pathikrit Tours for making all the arrangements. For enquiries, contact Pathikrit via email - firstname.lastname@example.org
- Thanks to my mother for accompanying me. In all my time travelling, she is probably the most energetic, enthusiastic and least obtrusive travelling companion I have ever had.
Ghosh, Pradyot – Malda Jela-r Puratattwo
Cunningham, Alexander – Report of a Tour in Bihar and Bengal
Majumdar, Ramesh Chandra - History of Bengal Volume 1
Sircar, Sir Jadunath - History of Bengal Volume 2
Majumdar, Ramesh Chandra - History of Bengal Volume 1
Sircar, Sir Jadunath - History of Bengal Volume 2