The forgotten medieval ruins of Champaner

Once upon a time there was a prince. He wasn’t particularly a happy prince or, for that matter, an unhappy prince; but he was an ambitious prince. He wanted to be remembered for posterity for his conquests, and his rule. The prince wanted to be like his grandfather, who had founded a great city and named it after himself. But the prince had to first become the king. And one day, he became the king.

Detail of a window at the Jami Masjid

The prince, now the king, set his eyes on a neighbouring kingdom, which was very well fortified and was known to have an impregnable defence system. The king’s  advisers and soldiers urged him to consider some other kingdom to conquer.

But he declined; it had to be this kingdom. The king’s strategy was not to engage in a battle or a war; he captured the lower fortifications of this hilly kingdom, and then laid siege to it and cut off supplies.

Cloisters of the Jami Masjid

The kingdom’s ruler was amused and offered the king money, women, and jewels, but the king was not enticed. He was firm about his intentions—he wanted the kingdom. Nothing else. To show that he meant business, the king laid the foundations for his palace and a place of worship for his soldiers just outside the fortifications and at the base of this hilly kingdom.

For 20 long months, the kingdom held out against the king and his army. Till one day they surrendered. The victorious king marched in and named the kingdom after himself—Muhammadabad. For the king was Mahmud Begada, the Sultan of Gujarat, and grandson of Ahmed Shah, the founder of Ahmedabad. The kingdom he conquered was Champaner (in present day Halol taluka, Godhra district, near Vadodara), and the king he defeated was Patai Raval. This victory was very special for Mahmud Begada as both his grandfather and father, Muhammad II, had attempted to capture Champaner during their respective reigns and had failed.

Champaner flourished under the rule of Mahmud Begada, who made it his second capital, and ruled from 1484-1511. He improved upon the existing fortifications on the Pavagadh Hill, where the kingdom was based and built a new city at the base of the hill. He installed or improved upon existing water storage devices, and reportedly built 18 mosques and pleasure palaces. After his death, Champaner’s glory also diminished and with the city falling to the Mughal emperor, Humayun, the decline of a gloriously short times set in. During Jehangir’s period, Champaner had reached such an advanced state of decline that only the Royal enclosure was inhabited and all other places abandoned. Over the years, the forest claimed Champaner as its own and soon the monuments of Champaner were hidden, lost and forgotten.

An inner fort almost obscured by forest overgrowth

In 1727, Champaner came under the rule of Krishnaji Kadam, who was followed by the Scindias, before finally passing into the hands of the British in 1853. A survey conducted by two Britishers, James Burgess and Henry Cousens, resulted in these forgotten medieval monuments coming to light.

But it wasn’t really until 1969 that a six-year study undertaken by the Department of Archaeology of the MS University of Baroda, uncovered a veritable treasure of forts within forts, older roads, buildings, mosques, water tanks, granaries, military outposts, etc. Excavations carried out in the area, not only underlined Champaner’s importance as a medieval city, but also revealed human occupation in the area from as early as the Stone Age.

Saat kaman or seven arches

Since then many of the monuments have been cleared of forest growth or excavated and then restored by the Archaeological Society of India (ASI). It is still an ongoing process with work still being carried out in a few areas of Champaner.

The excavations revealed that the town planning was circular in design with the Royal Enclosure and the Jami Masjid at its centre. The mosques, reservoirs, cenotaphs, military outposts, etc. were all uncovered in various stages of decay. In spite of that, it was clear to the experts that the designs were like no other, and probably the best of its kind in the country—Indo-Islāmic architecture and design at richest. While the architecture was Islāmic, the design was pure Indian, the embellishments Hindu, but keeping in mind Islāmic sensibilities.

Detail from ceiling at the Jami Masjid

Mahmud Begada’s wish to be remembered for posterity is coming true. After centuries of being forgotten, his kingdom of Champaner is literally seeing the light once again.

In 2004, the UNESCO included the Champaner and Pavagadh group of monuments as a World Heritage Site for its blend of Hindu-Muslim architecture, its temples and water-retaining installations, and together with its religious, military and agricultural structures it represents a culture, which has disappeared. This recognition as a World Heritage Site was the first for the state of Gujarat.

I heard about Champaner-Pavagadh from Doreen D’Sa last year on a trip to Hampi with her travel tour group, Doe’s Ecotours. I was so hooked by Doreen’s account of Champaner and her visits there, that I asked her to keep me in mind whenever she organised the next tour there. So when Doe’s Ecotours announced a trip to Champaner in early September, I was probably the first to sign up for it. :-)

When I shared with people about my trip to Champaner-Pavagadh, I was surprised to find that most people were ignorant of Champaner’s location or significance and often confused it with Champaran of Gandhi’s satyagraha fame or with the setting of the film Lagaan ! I hope that this post, which is the first of my three posts on Champaner and Pavagadh, will go along some way in dispelling that ignorance.

The 2-day trip to Champaner-Pavagadh was a memorable one with gorgeous ruins, continuous rain, lots of creepy crawlies, walking through ankle-deep slush, sunburn, a twisted ankle, forgotten camera batteries, etc. But more about that in my forthcoming posts. :-)

PS: Two books (Champaner: A Medieval Capital by Prof. R.N. Mehta, and the information booklet on Champaner Pavagadh by the ASI) and discussions with the tour guide, Manoj Joshi helped me with the information for this post. The words are, of course, all mine. Thanks Doreen, for lending me Prof. Mehta’s book.

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38 thoughts on “The forgotten medieval ruins of Champaner

    • Champaner-Pavagadh area is a virtual treasure trove for history buffs and is a refreshing change from the normally Mughal-dominated history that we get to read all the time. Do watch out for my forthcoming posts on my visit to this place. :-)

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  1. Wonderfully described. I feel like I have visited the place. Yet, I want to see it with my eyes.

    The siege lasting 20 months was interesting to learn. Either they had a lot of patience or no other work. :|

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    • Thanks. And this place is a must visit. It is not overrun with tourists and one can spend a lot of time walking about the various monuments at Champaner.

      As for the seige, I don’t think that ahmud Begada had any choice. In a battle he could not have won as the place is fortified and the location marvellous. A seige was the only way and Begada a patient man.

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  2. Thks Sudha, so beautifully put and lovingly photographed, like Mags, i can’t believe i was on the same trip,have learnt sp much more from this post and waiting to read your other ones !

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    • Welcome to my blog, Gloria and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. :-D

      And I will say the same thing that I said to Mags,you were very much there through every bug-infested, slushy walk :-P

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  3. Gosh… How I may mention that I really love the simplicity and smell of your words. No exaggerations, but this resembles to travelogues of William Dalrymple.
    Great work, please don’t stop!

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    • Thanks for the compliment and your encouragement, Abhishek. But it is embarassing to be compared to William Dalrymple, especially when I know that I definitely do not write like him.

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    • Thank you, thank you, Deboshree. Your comment made by day. :-) As for me writing travel posts the best, I actually don’t enjoy writing them very much and I really labour over each one of them.

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    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I found Champaner to be a real gem and though it gets crowded, most of the tourists are headed towards the ahakalika Mandir in Pavagadh. Champaner is blissfully free from the tourist hordes. For now. Do visit the place at the earliest.

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  4. This is a real treasure and hope ASI can unearth more fascinating pieces of history in and around Champaner. You are lucky to have found literature about the monument to read and appreciate what you saw. Thanks for sharing this and looking forward to reading your next posts.

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    • Yes it is, isn’t it? And to think that many people don’t know about it ! When one thinks about Islamic architecture, most people equate it with Mughal architecture. The monuments of Champaner is a pre-Mughal example of Islamic architecture with very strong, Hindu influences in its embellishments.

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    • You are from Mumbai, aren’t you Richa. This is eminently doable from there as Champaner is just 47 km from Baroda. In case you would like guide services, I would recommend the one who took us around. Actually he is the only guide in Champaner :-) Do let me know if you want the details and out itinerary.

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  5. I had heard of Champaner definitely and knew vaguely of its historic significance (not confused it with Champaran, surely :) ) but getting all the details through a well written blog post is a great treat. Loved the pics too. It is extremely satisfying to visit such places that are off the beaten track.

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    • I heard about Champaner only about a year back, and though I didn’t confuse it iwith either Champaran or Lagaan’s Champaner, I remained ignorant about this place. The visit was an absolute treat for the senses and I learnt a lot more than just history about the place.

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  6. Words fail me
    when i want to say
    i sure am happy i
    passed by this way
    Your reflections
    on a place
    oft heard replace
    all my attitudes and
    points of view..
    The snippets of memory
    recorded in pictures
    set to the tune
    of an articulate lecture
    make me wonder
    what to say
    in praise of something
    so perfect in every way..

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  7. Aww. Brings back lot of memories. I visited Champaner in Jan this year with my besties. The ruins were indeed so beautiful. They’ve left a permanent mark on my heart.

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