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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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