Champaner, a city built in the 8th Century by Vanraj Chavda of the Rajput Chavda dynasty, was a former capital of Gujarat. The town flourished at the base of the volcanic origin hill called Pavagadh which was and continues to be a pilgrimage site. Sultan Muhammad Begada of the Muzaffarid Dynasty conquered Champaner in 1484, made it his capital and rechristened it Muhammadabad. He spent 23 years in building this town after which the Mughal emperor Humayun seized it in 1535 and looted its coffers. Soon the city was forgotten for three centuries until its ruins were discovered by archaeologists. Tools retrieved from Champaner and Pavagadh indicate that the site was inhabited as early as the Stone Age.
Gujarat never ceases to amaze. So, what better than spend Christmas holidays exploring the culture and heritage of Gujarat. My fascination for visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites had just begun (2014-2015), and a quick internet search revealed not one but two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Gujarat. (This was before Ahmedabad had been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage City.) One of course was the Rani ki Vav in Patan district, and the other was Champaner and Pavagadh. The name Champaner sounded familiar and seemed to ring a bell. Yes, Champaner was the fictional location of Aamir Khan’s cricket-themed movie ‘Lagaan’. It wasn’t shot in Champaner but Kutch another must-visit destination in Gujarat.
To add to the excitement was the Gujarat Tourism’s ‘Fragrance of Gujarat’ advertisements which had Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan promoting various Gujarat locations. To be very honest it was the Rani ki Vav that was the main draw but since Champaner and Pavagadh were also a heritage site we thought it was a bargain like the ‘Buy 1 Get 1 Free’ sales promotions and best explored in the same trip.
When we mentioned to friends and acquaintances, some who were from Gujarat, that we were visiting Champaner and Pavagadh they seemed to be having a quizzical expression like “Excuse me, where on earth is that?’ My husband would then explain my interest in World Heritage Sites and the reason for wanting to visit these places. He, of course, would later check with me whether I was sure that I wanted to visit these places which were unheard of to the average travellers. A net search too hadn’t revealed much about this place other than Wikipedia and a couple of blogs. As always, I removed a printout of all that I wanted to see with pics and details and kept my fingers crossed.
After landing in Vadodara late evening, we checked into our hotel and after a quick meal decided to retire early to bed. The next day we were all set to visit the Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park, which is an hour’s drive by road from Vadodara. Champaner consists of forts, mosques, cenotaphs, palaces, step-wells and numerous other structures that thrived at the base of the Pavagadh hill home to ancient temples visited by pilgrims till today. What is remarkable about this site is that ‘it is the only complete and unchanged Islamic pre-Mughal city’.
As we alighted from our hired cab, we could see the ramparts of the Champaner fort. As we strolled through the walled gates of the fort, we realized that there were hardly any tourists around, not even a guide. We seemed to be at a loss as there were no signboards and no ticket window to purchase entry tickets. Soon alarm bells rang and numerous thoughts raced through my head, “Was this a UNESCO World Heritage Site? Was our trip going to be like a dud firework with no spark and false claims? Had the cab driver brought us to the wrong place?” We hurried out of the fort and asked our cab driver where we could see the mosques and monuments that this town was known for. Seeing our baffled appearance, a frail lanky guy standing close by introduced himself as Kishan – the guide who could show us around. Since we were lost and left with no option, we decided to hire his services.
The first monument we visited was coincidently the first mosque built by Sultan Begada called the Shaher ki Masjid or City Mosque. The mosque built in the 16th century was the private mosque of the royal family. It had five domes, with two minarets and arched doorways. It was in an admirably well-preserved condition. Kishan then took us through a narrow road that was overgrown with prickly shrubs to the Kevada Masjid. On a raised plinth was a rectangular cenotaph with a series of pillars and a three domed roof. Behind it was the Kevada Masjid which looked like a miniature version of the Shehar ki Masjid. The central dome of the mosque was missing so we could see the blue sky above us. The circular opening of the yellow and pink sandstone mosque, which provided a glimpse of the azure sky made an odd but incredible photo composition
Usually, heritage sites are overcrowded and bursting with crowds with hardly any elbow room to move around but here we were all by ourselves and could leisurely click pics and admire the details. Champaner was a total contrast where we could soak in the ambience and not be perturbed by distracting crowds eager to click selfies of themselves rather than absorbing the priceless monuments. Nagina Masjid was next, which too had a cenotaph with no dome, but the pillars and four walls were intricately carved. The mosque got its name from ‘Nagina’ meaning jewel from jewellers who visited this mosque in search of designs and patterns that they could replicate in jewellery. The double storeyed mosque had intact domes and a balcony overlooking the neighbouring rustic terrain. As we left the mosque, we soon found ourselves on a kaccha road amid a herd of goats, a rare treat for city dwellers like us. Champaner does have an old-world charm about it as if frozen in time.
The pièce de résistance of Chamapner is the Jami Masjid where the faithful assembled for the Juma Namaz or Friday prayers in the afternoon. This two-storeyed mosque, an amalgamation of Islamic Hindu architectural style, served as a reference model for later mosque architecture in India! The mosque had three entrances leading to several prayer halls supported by 200 pillars. The east entrance is the most extraordinary with detailed cravings and perforated stone lattice or jaali work through which sunlight filtered inside creating dramatic silhouettes. The jharokhas or enclosed balconies overlooking the gardens were suggestive of the architecture of the havelis of Rajasthan.
Having explored the mosques of Champaner, it was time for us to explore Pavagadh hill. For a couple of rupees, private jeeps will ferry you along with other pilgrims to Machi en route to Pavagadh. Alternatively, you can travel on your own but will have to shell out more. Seeing us city folks the jeep drivers started demanding exorbitant sums of money, and since it was a short drive, we decided to share a jeep with the other pilgrims. What we hadn’t bargained for was that the driver, wanting to make a fast buck, packed in as many pilgrims as he could not be bothered if there was any room for more or not. Rather than get flustered, we decided to make the most of this ‘joy ride’. After getting off at Maachi, we took the ropeway called ‘Udan Khatola’ to go up the hillock although youngsters often choose to trek.
It was not uncommon for our generation that grew up listening to the elderly talk about village melas or carnivals that they visited as a part of a pilgrimage. They would share anecdotes of how they purchased a toy or some bangles, ate farsan/ snacks and possibly show you a sepia-toned picture clicked at one of the makeshift studios complete with a painted backdrop and oversized flowerpots. Well, Pavagadh was just that. It was as if grandma’s story had come to life! The winding road was lined with shops that sold pooja items like marigold garlands, incense and coconuts, food stalls displaying mounds of different types of farsan, and a photobooth for pilgrims to click pictures with all the necessary paraphernalia-a painted backdrop of the temple, kitschy plastic flowers in oversized pots, life-sized tiger statues… This place indeed had an old-world charm about it and transported us back in time.
After a quick meal, we explored the surroundings and the Lakulisa Temple made of black stone, dating back to the 10th-11th century, which is now in ruins. The walls of the temple had carvings of sculptures of various gods and saints. Blocks of the temple with detailed carvings were strewn around carelessly. It is this apathy that makes my heart weep of what a treasure trove we have in India but regrettably it is not valued and respected. The Kalki Mata temple and the Jain temples were located even higher up the hill, so we decided to skip them. There is a fascinating legend that Tansen’s rival, the gifted singer Baiju Bawra who hailed from Champaner was born mute but was blessed with a beautiful voice thanks to Goddess Kali.
It was time for us to take the ropeway back to Maachi. A not to be missed attraction here are the Seven Arches or Saath Kaman. Most visitors miss it since the way to it is somewhat complicated. There were six arches made with neatly cut blocks of sandstone (while one was destroyed due to unknown reasons) that provided support to the ramparts of Pavagadh fort.
Once back at Champaner, our guide took us through fields to show us the last mosque called Lila Gumbaz ki Masjid, built on a platform having three domes but fallen minarets. Had it not been for the guide, we would have never found this mosque on our own because it seemed to be in the middle of nowhere.
As we were walking back, we spotted a hamlet with huts, wells and a water handpump. Women were washing clothes and utensils, as children happily played with mud and water. The simplicity and starkness made one realize that very little is needed to survive and enjoy the simple pleasures of life which we so-called ‘modern educated folks’ have only complicated.
Our guide then took us into the kaccha home of a villager. On a whitewashed wall was a tribal Pithora painting in vivid colours of horses, camels, elephants, and other elements of nature. Explaining the significance of the art Kishen narrated how when a family encountered a challenge, the village head priest was approached, and the problems or difficulties described. A solution was provided to the family and in response to which this painting was made. The Pithora paintings are a ritual signifying that the family’s wishes had been granted or a problem solved. They are thus a representation of peace, prosperity and wellbeing. It was now time for us to return to Vadodara. There were other attractions too that we wanted to visit like the helical step-well and smaller mosques, but our guide said he was clueless about their location. In fact, so impressed was he with my printout, of all the attractions that I had carried, that he requested if I could give it to him as it would come in handy to show to other tourists!
The sad part about Champaner- Pavagadh Archaeological Park is that despite being a UNESCO World Heritage Site it didn’t have signages which could guide first-time visitors like us. Was it not for the chance encounter with our unofficial guide Kishan we would not have known how to access all these monuments? The monuments are not in one cluster but spread over a considerable distance needing accurate directions and signboards. Champaner and Pavagadh are the forgotten gems of Gujarat, where the sere landscape is scattered with a treasure trove of mosques, tombs, arches, step-wells, citadels, pilgrimage sites unknown to a lot of people but worthy of more attention.
If you’re looking for an unconventional day trip that provides a glimpse of Indo-Islamic architecture, history and heritage, village life and a dash of spirituality, then the Champaner -Pavagadh Archaeological Park located at an hour’s drive from Vadodara is definitely worth exploring.