Gauda: Haunting Beauty
The city of Gauda is little more than a ghost town today. Straddling the international border between West Bengal and Bangladesh, it was the opulent capital of Bengal between the 12th and 16th centuries CE. Located in modern-day Malda district, Gauda was the seat of more than a dozen Islamic dynasties and noted for its architectural splendour. But the remains of its stunning mosques, gateways, tombs and palaces mirror its broken spirit, one than never recovered from a crushing blow in 1575.
Between the 8th and 12th centuries, Bengal was ruled by the Buddhist Pala dynasty. As the Pala Empire began to fall apart after the death of Ramapala in 1130 CE, the Senas, a Hindu dynasty, came into prominence. Samantasena was a warrior from the region that now forms the Indian state of Karnataka. In his old age, he had become an ascetic and settled on the banks of the Ganges, somewhere in modern-day Bardhaman district in West Bengal. His son Hemantasena seems to have been a ruling chief. As central power under the Palas waned, the Senas grew in importance. Hemantasena’s son Vijaysena married a princess of the Rarh region in Southern Bengal and ultimately brought all of Bengal under his rule.
It was Vijaysena’s grandson, Lakshmansena who laid the foundations of the city of Gauda and made it his imperial capital, with a second minor capital in Nadia. Lakshamnsena must have been around 60 years old when he ascended the throne in 1179 CE. Under his father, he had been a successful military leader and had conducted campaigns against the Kamarupa kingdom of Assam and the Kalinga kingdom of Odisha. Lakshmansena had his new capital named ‘Lakshmanavati’, also referred to as Lakhnauti. Almost nothing from this period of the city’s history now survives.
In the late 12th century, Hindu rule in North India had weakened sufficiently to permit Turkic raiders to start plundering the country. Among those leading the raids was an adventurer named Mohammed Bakhtiar Khilji. Around 1200 CE, Khilji, after plundering a monastery in Bihar, proceeded with his cavalry towards Bengal.
Lakshmansena had been receiving news of the plunder his territories by Turkic cavalry, and had posted armies in the mountain passes of Rajmahal to intercept them, but Khilji surprised him by turning up right at his doorstep, in Nadia. What happened next was documented 50 years after the events by Minhaj al-Siraj Juzjani in his book Tabaqat-i Nasiri.
Khilji’s advance was so swift that only 18 of his riders were able to keep up with him. Legend has it that the townspeople mistook Khilji and his men for traders and the alarm was only raised when they drew their swords and started slaughtering the guards inside Lakshmansena’s palace. The king was in the middle of lunch, and escaped barefoot by the back door. Although Lakshmansena and his descendants continued to rule in Eastern Bengal, half his kingdom had effectively passed into Turkic hands.
With Khilji, the capital shifted to Devkot in South Dinajpur. It returned to Gauda with Ghiyasuddin Iwaj Shah in the early half of the 13th century. Gauda continued to be governed as a regional capital under the Mamluks of Delhi, until 1287 CE, when Nasiruddin Bughra Khan, son of Delhi Sultan Ghiyasuddin Balban, declared independence. The Tughlaqs of Delhi managed to establish their rule in Bengal once more, but only for a short period of 15 years. By this time, three city-states had emerged in Bengal – Lakhnauti, Sonargaon and Satgaon. Shamsuddin Ilyas Shah became the first ruler to conquer all three cities, establishing the independent Sultanate of Bengal in 1352, along with the Ilyas Shahi Dynasty.
The capital of the new sultanate shifted briefly to Pandua but returned to Gauda with Nasir-ud-Din Mahmud Shah of the Mamluk Sultanate in 1453, and was a prosperous city in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Eyewitness accounts of the period provide a fascinating look into the city and its culture. In 1521, a Portuguese mission, perhaps the first European mission to Bengal, reached the court of Sultan Nasiruddin Nasrat Shah in Gauda. In Voyage dans les deltas du Gange et de l’Irraouaddy (Paris: Centre Culturel Portugais, 1988), we get our first glimpse of the imperial court. After “passing 300 bare-chested soldiers bearing swords and round shields, and an equal number of archers”, the mission’s anonymous interpreter writes of the Portuguese mission:
“We arrived before the palace‘s second gate and were searched as we had been at the first.
We passed through nine such gates and were searched each time. Beyond the last gate, we saw an esplanade as vast as one and a half arenas and which seemed to be wider than it was long. Twelve horsemen were playing polo there. At one end, there was a large platform mounted on thick sandalwood supports. The roof supports were thinner and were covered in carvings of foliage and small gilded birds. The gilt ceiling was also carved and depicted the moon, the sun and a host of stars, all gilded.
“We arrived before the Sultan. He was seated on a large gilt sofa covered with different-sized cushions, all of which were embedded with a smattering of precious stones and small pearls. We greeted him according to the custom of the country—hands crossed on our chests and heads as low as possible”.
The same interpreter later talks of the generosity of the Sultan:
“I saw one hundred and fifty cartloads of cooked rice, large quantities of bread, rape, onions, bananas and other fruits of the earth. There were fifty other carts filled with boiled and roasted cows and sheep as well as plenty of cooked fish. All this was to be given to the poor. After the food had been distributed, money was given out, the whole to the value of six hundred thousand of our tangas…The money was thrown from the top of a platform into a crowd of about four or five thousand people.”
The streets of the capital, he wrote:
“are paved with brick like the Lisbon New Street. The market is everywhere and everything—food and other goods alike—is in plentiful supply and very cheap. The streets and cross-lanes are so full of people that it is impossible to move and it has reached the point where the high noblemen have taken to being preceded along the road to the palace by men carrying bamboo sticks to push people out of the way.”
Richard M Eaton, in his book The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier (University of California Press, 1993) mentions Portuguese officer Duarte Barbosa, who visited Gauda around 1518 CE, and wrote that the elite of Gauda -
“walk about clad in white cotton smocks, very thin, which come down to their ankles, and beneath these they have girdles of cloth, and over them silk scarves; they carry in their girdles daggers garnished with silver and gold, according to the rank of the person who carries them.… They are luxurious, eat well and spend freely, and have many other extravagancies as well. They bathe often in great tanks which they have in their houses. Everyone has three or four wives or as many as he can maintain.”
Eaton writes that while the court culture of Gauda was decidedly Persian, Bengali was the lingua franca. In choosing to ground themselves in the local culture, the Sultans of Bengal had also developed a tolerant attitude towards religion. Outside the city, the majority of the population was Hindu, and the Sultans offered sponsorship and encouragement to Hindu religious literature. The Bengal Sultanate also saw the rise of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, under the great reformer Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Vaishnava literature flourished under the Sultans.
Along with the unique culture, there emerged a new style of architecture that used local techniques and materials. Since stone was rare in the Gangetic plains, the Sultans chose the local terracotta for their mosques and buildings. Under their patronage, terracotta came to be elevated from a folk art form to high art, and the terracotta mosques of Bengal predate its more famous terracotta temples. The ‘Bengal style’ of mosques also evolved in Gauda and its sister city of Pandua. The new style accounted for local weather conditions by ditching the open courtyard commonly seen in Mughal mosques in favour of a completely closed structure.
But trouble came to Gauda in the form of the Pathans. The city was burnt down by Sher Shah Suri between November 1538 and April 1539, as the Pathans and the Mughals competed for control of the region. It was repaired and made fit for habitation by Mughal emperor Humayun, who was so taken with the place that he gave it the name ‘Jannatabad’.
Gauda was retaken by Sher Shah Suri in the winter of that year, but the Suri Empire ended with the death of his grandson Firoz Shah Suri in 1554. Bengal would remain under various Pathan houses for another two decades, and in 1565, Sulaiman Khan Karrani, the then Afghan lord of Bengal, would abandon Gaur for a place called Tanda.
Mughal Emperor Akbar’s armies finally drove out the Pathans from Bengal for good. His general Muni’m Khan had set up base at Tanda but found living in tents in the marshy terrain around Tanda during Bengal’s monsoon to be impossible and moved back into Gauda, which was now a hollow, abandoned shell of a city. In the damp, unhealthy environs of the city, a mysterious disease broke out which killed Muni’m Khan’s men by the thousand, ultimately killing Muni’m Khan on 23rd October 1575. The disease was probably the plague, and this was the end of Gauda. The city was abandoned for good and left to be reclaimed by nature.
But a giant, abandoned city is rarely left alone. For the next few centuries, Gauda became the number-one source of construction material in Bengal, especially stone and brick. The British cartographer Rennell writes that Gauda’s bricks were unusually tough, maintained their sharp edges even after hundreds of years of exposure to the elements, and in some cases, you could even see the fingerprint of the person who made it. As people began picking the former capital’s bones clean, in the 1740s, Alivardi Khan, the Nawab of Bengal, issued a decree putting a tax on Gauda bricks.
In the wake of Plassey, the English established their silk factory in the Malda region and more and more Englishmen (and women) began visiting the ruins of Gauda. While many left behind fascinating sketches of the monuments, many more stripped the city of its valuable craftsmanship even further. Governor-General George Eden was in Gauda in March 1873, and his sister Fanny wrote about how she found one half of a ‘mihrab’ from the Bada Sona Masjid being used as chimney piece in an English factory. It was finally the autocratic Lord Curzon who put an end to this loot and arranged for the preservation of Gauda.
Today, the twin cities of Gauda and Pandua are major tourist attractions, but both are open archaeological sites and as such continue to be at risk of theft and other damage. What is also completely lacking is any attempt to take the scholarship on the sites and present them in a manner accessible to the general public. Unless steps are taken in this direction, Gauda will continue to remain little more than a day trip for the casual tourist.
Cover Photo: Kadam Rasul Masjid of Gauda
– ABOUT AUTHOR
Deepanjan Ghosh is a broadcast professional from Kolkata, India. A history buff, a landscape and architecture photographer and blogger, he has has been writing about heritage since 2013.