This ancient city of Gujarat is a treasure trove of monuments that belong to the pre-Mughal period
Watching the sunlight filtered to a latticework of dappled shadows on the floor through the ornate windows of Jami Masjid can be a humbling experience. Deemed as one of the finest mosques ever built in Gujarat, its grandeur is breathtaking. A walk through the damp dark alleys, with the occasional attendance of bats amidst the ruins of the 16th century monument, will take you back to the bygone era when Champaner flourished as the vibrant capital of Pavagadh under the aegis of Delhi Sultans during the late 1400s. Replete with the ruins of a fortress, numerous mosques, temples, tombs and stepwells, the area is a historical feast and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004, the first and only one of Gujarat. Settled in the pre-Mughal era, the monuments are a fusion of Hindu and Islamic architecture.
Gujarat boasts of more than 500 stepwells and few of these date back to 600 AD. Located on the Halol-Pavagadh road is the only helical stepwell in Gujarat that was probably built during the 16th century AD. A picturesque garden surrounds the structure. The spiral staircase winding down the 50 feet well gets narrower towards the base. There is no scientific reason to support the making ofsuch uncanny architecture. With the Pavagadh hill serving as a backdrop, it is the perfect start to the exploration of Champaner’s historical area.
Vanraj Chavda built the city of Champaner in the 8th century AD. He was the most renowned king of the Chavda dynasty. The majestic high walls of the crumbling citadel are a testament to the glorious days the city witnessed during the 14th century under the rule of Khichi Rajputs. It is said, the city prospered under their rule until it was invaded by Mahmud Begada (grandson of erstwhile Sultan of Delhi, Mohammed Shah, who built the Ahmedabad city). He captured the city of Champaner after a 20-months long battle with the incumbent ruler Raval Jaisingh in mid-15th century. This explains the presence of the various mosques built during this period in a city, which was a Hindu kingdom for 650 years. After Champaner was raided by Mughal King Humayun in 1535 AD, the reigning Sultan fled to Ahmedabad abandoning the city. The sands of time engulfed the settlement and it wasn’t discovered until 1879 when the British archaeologists stumbled upon this forgotten city.
Built only for royalty, this impending structure served as a private mosque. Typical to all other structures here, it is a fusion of Indo-Islamic architecture. Built during the 16th century, it is a mix of Indian trabeate (pillar and beam) and Islamic arcuate (column and arch) style. The central arched entrance is flanked by two beautiful minarets on either side. There are five large domes corresponding to each arch in the mosque imparting a unique view from front. The mosque consists of a large prayer hall filled with a labyrinth of pillars and five mihrabs.
Built in 1508, it is a world heritage monument and is considered to be one of the finest mosques ever built in Gujarat. Large manicured lawns grace the premises and the inside courtyard. Another befitting example of the Indo-Islamic architecture, the mosque is raised on a high plinth and can be accessed through three imposing porches on the north, south and east. The walls on the eastern side porch have intricate carvings and jaali work making it the most spectacular entrance of the mosque. Two towering minars (30m) guard the central entrance as sentinels. Walking inside the imposing structure, one can’t help but marvel at the northern section of the main prayer hall. It is separated by a delicately carved perforated screen. With many of the designed perforations broken, one would wonder how beautiful it would have been in its time. Another remarkable structure in the premises is the huge octagonal ablution tank, probably built for pilgrims. Series of fragmented steps in the form of a triangle at each level gives it a fascinating appearance.
KEVDA AND NAGINA MASJID
Two other notable structures near Jami Masjid are Kevda Masjid and Nagina Masjid. Situated at the far end of the Champaner- Pavagadh Archaeological Park, both these places are better known for their unique cenotaphs. The one at Kevda is built in oman style and the other one at Nagina is much more impressive. Standing at 50 feet, the artwork is considered to be one of the finest in Islamic architecture. With openings on all four sides, the walls, columns and niches are delicately carved with floral and geometrical designs.
SAAT KAMAN – PAVAGADH HILLS
The volcanic hill of Pavagadh forms the other part of the vast 3,280 acre Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park. Part of the Southern Aravalli range, the hill is characterised by steep rock formations, dense vegetation and reddish-orange rhyolite boulders. On the western side of the crumbled Pavagadh fort lies Saat Kaman (Seven Arcs). Its quirky architecture with trapezium-shaped stones locked with the technique of pestle-mortar joint is intriguing. Built probably in the 15th century AD, the reason for its construction is unknown. Only five arcs remain now. The place provides a green aerial view of the entire town of Champaner.
KALIKA MATA TEMPLE
Perched on the top of Pavagadh Hill is the Kalika Mata Temple. Built between 10th- 11th century AD, it is one of the 51 Shakti Peeths in India. It stood as an epitome of Hindu religion during the rule of the Rajput Chauhans. At the end of the ghat road lies the small village of Machi which serves as the base station for the temple. From here cable car services are available to get to the summit. The ropeway is short yet exciting with magnificent views of the valley below. From the cable car station, it is another vertiginous climb of 250 stairs to reach the temple.
Text & Photos: Sugato Tripathy