Fairy tales often start like this, don’t they: Once upon a time there was a fearless, virtuous king who had dreams of conquering an invincible fortress perched on a hill. His father and grandfather had time and again attempted to defeat it too, but to no avail.
The tale I am writing about continues like this: The brave king was Sultan Abu’l Fath Nasir-ud-Din Mahmud Shah I, ruler of the Gujarat Sultanate and great-grandson of Ahmed Shah I, founder of Ahmedabad, Gujarat in 1411. The invincible fortress belonged to the Kichchi Chauhan Rajputs on Pavagadh.
Calling himself “Sultan al-Barr, Sultan al-Bahr” meaning “Sultan of the Land, Sultan of the Sea,” history knows him as Mahmud Begada. The name “Begada” was derived from his winning two gadhs in his lifetime, namely Pavagadh and Junagadh.
Considered the most prominent of the Muzaffarid dynasty Sultans, he ruled from 1458 to 1511, extending his empire from Malwa in the east to the Gulf of Kutch in the west. Pavagadh was all the more a crucial win to him because of its strategic location between Mandu and Gujarat.
When Begada set his eyes on Pavagadh, winning it in 1484 after a 20-month long siege, Champaner was an insignificant town at the base of the hill. Some claim Vanaraja Chavda, a Chavda dynasty ruler of the 8th Century named the little town after his minister and dear friend, Champa. Others state the name is derived from the yellow-coloured indigenous rocks which are evocative of champaka flowers.
Unlike what most victorious rulers did back then, and often still do, Begada did not destroy any part of the vanquished Kichchi Chauhan Rajput stronghold, not even the Hindu and Jain temples in it. Instead he fortified Pavagadh further and embellished it with gateways and added a mint and water cisterns.
For his capital, he rebuilt the little town of Champaner into a majestic city. A city which epitomised the Sultanate’s political, economic, and cultural peak reached under his rule. Taking about 25 years to build, he called it Muhammadabad urf [alias] Champaner.
For each unit of his massive army, Begada constructed a mosque in the city, each more splendid than the other leading to 16 in total. This was in addition to the royal mosque and Jami Masjid. These places of worship include the ethereal Kevada Masjid and Nagina Masjid accompanied with poetic cenotaphs, and mosques with unusual names like Khajoori Masjid [Dates Mosque] and Ek Minar ki Masjid [Mosque with One Minar].
Numerous water reservoirs, catchment basins, and elaborate water supply systems gave Champaner the nickname “City of a Thousand Wells.” Large residential complexes with spacious rooms, bathing facilities, and running water were built near the city gates. Some of the houses had stables with mangers. Rows of shops lined the streets. For law and order there was a Chor Kothadi or three jail cells to keep prisoners.
Broad avenues with equally wide lanes, meanwhile, cut at right angles and were dotted with pleasure pavilions and gardens. Determined to leave no stone unturned in beautifying Champaner, Begada even invited a Persian landscape artist from Khurasan to specially lay out the magnificent Khurasani Garden in his palace grounds.
Combining Hindu motifs [by local Hindu artisans] with Islamic structures [commissioned by the foreign rulers of Turkic descent], the Hindu-Islamic architectural style created in medieval Gujarat was unique to the Sultanate. What is distinctive about Champaner’s monuments is the level of sophistication the style grew into within its walls—sumptuous and majestic, yet intricate and graceful.
But it was all short-lived. Begada and his successors got to live in their city for merely another 25 years. In 1535, Champaner was captured by the Mughal Emperor Humayun, only to be abandoned. Neither destroyed nor revived by subsequent rulers or governments, the city with its exquisite towering mosques and black rhyolite stone palaces, was left to crumble under the elements forgotten by the world at large.
This continued till a small group of villagers and Heritage Trust, a Vadodara based NGO led by architect Karan Grover, decided to give it and nearby Pavagadh, their due credit by pitching them for listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Today, the site still crumbles around the traveller, echoing stories of a bygone era’s ephemeral grandeur and beauty. The edifices built in stone, stand; whilst those in brick lie reduced into piles of rubble. A village, comprising 3,000 people, lives inside the royal enclosure. But the signs in clumsy academic English outside the monuments now give it a quiet dignity. And I’d like to believe Mahmud Begada is at peace that his city still lives. ❤
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You may also like to read Pavagadh—The Hindu part of the Champaner-Pavagadh UNESCO World Heritage Site.
[Note: Click on any of the below images and it will start a slide show.]
- Guide: If you are passionate about history and heritage, you may like to connect with Manoj Joshi at: +91 98 7954 2611. He is the one who showed me around.
- Staying there: There are no hotels in Champaner. I stayed in Vadodara which is around 50 kilometres/ one hour drive away.
- Getting to Vadodara and back: I took the Shatabdi Express from Mumbai Central.
- Getting around: The ruins of the Champaner-Pavagadh archaeological site are scattered over 1,329 hectares and cannot be covered easily by foot. It is recommended you hire a car [with driver] from Vadodara for the day.