In a promotion campaign, Amitabh Bachchan, the brand ambassador of Gujarat Tourism, calls the place the university of architecture. Rightly so. The structures of Champaner display a stunning confluence of architectural styles. Just an hour’s drive from Vadodara, it is a fascinating place. Not one to resist a visit to historical places, I made my way there. The fact that it lies just below Pavagadh, another historical site, made the visit doubly enticing. Founded in the eighth century by a Rajput king called Vanaraja Chavda, Champaner is dotted with several architectural marvels. A self-proclaimed guide appeared out of nowhere, offering to take me through the important monuments for Rs 2,000. Much haggling later, a mutually acceptable fees agreed upon, we set out to explore the ruins of Champaner.
Champaner was once a prosperous town that stood along an important trade route. It has now been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and forms a part of the Archaeological Park along with Pavagadh. The two towns are a repository of art, culture, architecture, and history. The archaeological park is spread over six sq km and traipsing through it demands a pair of sturdy legs and a comfortable pair of shoes. The exhausting trek comes with ample rewards. It offers a chance to experience the spellbinding history of the place while one takes in a surfeit of architectural marvels in the form of gates, tombs, mosques, palaces and step wells.
The history of Champaner is chequered with harmony and strife. For a long time, the town thrived under the Chavda kings’ reign till Mahmud Begada, the Gujarat sultan, laid his eyes on the place. It took a 20-month-long siege for the two towns to fall to the invader, but fall they did. The sultan renamed the place as Muhammadabad and made it his capital. Thus began the 20-year-rule of Mahmud Begada.
Begada, enchanted with the place, spent many years in planning and beautifying the town. Streets were paved and an elaborate system of waterworks was put in place. Mosques and palaces were erected, gardens planned, step-wells constructed, town fortified, and life continued peacefully for the denizens until it was ransacked by Mughal emperor Humayun, in 1535. Fearing for their lives, people fled and that was the turning point for the town. Deserted by its people, it fell to ruins.
A fine assortment of mosques greeted the eyes as I traipsed through the ruins of the once flourishing town. What stood out was the remarkable confluence of Hindu and Islamic architectural styles. I lost count of the mosques in the area. There is the Jami Masjid, Nagina Masjid, Kevda Masjid, Lila Gumbaj Ki Masjid, Sahar Ki Masjid, Kamani Masjid, Ek-Minar Masjid and Bawaman Masjid.
Jami Masjid, with its tall minarets and elegant porches, is the most impressive of the lot. Constructed on the style of regional sultanates, it went on to become a model for later mosque architecture in India. There are seven mehrabs in the main prayer hall, the one in the centre being the most intricate. Porches, arches, domes and pillars, each element is a work of art. Elaborate trellis and jaali work, which is the leitmotif of the mosques, exemplifies the skill of the artisans, who worked on the structures.
Sahar Ki Masjid, with its five mehrabs, was where the royal family prayed. A blend of Indo-Islamic construction, it is adorned by carved pillars and ornate beams with several Hindu elements like lotus and kalash patterns. The main arch of the Lila Gumbaj Mosque is flanked by minarets with ornate cornices, niches and mouldings. The three mehrabs of the prayer hall are adorned with floral motifs. Of the three domes in the mosque, the fluted central one displays traces of colour. It is easy to spot the free blend of Hindu, Islamic and Persian styles of architecture in all the mosques in Champaner.
Near the Ek-Minar Ki Masjid, I came across an impressive helical stepwell that once supplied water to the townsfolk and travellers, and has stood the test of time. It is considered an architectural marvel by the knowledgeable.
The Kabutar Khana, a multi-pillared, double-storeyed pavilion on the bank of Bada Talao was where I decided to rest. It had also served as a sarai at one time, I was told. With the wind blowing through my hair, a large lake stretched before my eyes. It seemed the right place to catch my breath and recapitulate the glorious sights that had captured my imagination that morning.
Having spent more than half the day at Champaner, I made my way to Pavagadh, which stands on a hill with one of the oldest rock formations in the country. With its impregnable fortresses, Jain and Hindu temples, mausoleums, paved streets, baths and water tanks, the hill town draws more pilgrims than tourists. I joined the scores of pilgrims making their way to the Kalika Mata Temple, which dates back to the 11th century. A ropeway ride later, we arrived at the temple that is considered one of the shakti peethas in the country. Interestingly, the temple roof contains a dargah drawing both Hindus and Muslims to the shrine.
The oldest structure here, Lakulisa Temple, with its intricate sculptures of Dakshinamurthy Shiva, Ganesha and Gajantaka Shiva, belonging to the 10th century, sits forlornly while pilgrims flock to the Kalika Mata Temple. Unwilling to join the long queue, I made my way towards other structures. From a vantage point, I could spot a series of arches known as Saat Kamaan. Of the seven arches, only five have braved the test of time.
The Rajput kings of Pavagadh had fortified the place with three layers of defence with gates constructed on three levels. The fortifications begin on the hill and end where the plains begin. Innumerable gates, watchtowers and high ramparts made Pavagadh almost impregnable. It’s impossible not to be impressed by the water management techniques practised in Pavagadh and Champaner so many centuries ago. The visionary rulers had used rainwater harvesting in a bid to provide water to the town. There were tapered ledges at the base of the slopes to redirect downhill streams into smaller, interconnected lakes, which finally fell into the large Bada Talao at Champaner. These helped in keeping the two towns free from water scarcity. Not for nothing was Champaner called the ‘city of a thousand wells.’
It was time to return to the hustle and bustle of Vadodara, but the two deserted, medieval towns, Champaner-Pavagadh, will remain embedded in my mind for a long time.