Pandua: The Lost Capital of the Bengal Sultanate

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    A pilgrimage site for centuries, the Malda district in the north of West Bengal state holds many a secret for the history buff, with a long list of quaint-sounding old towns steeped in history.

    North of Gauda, about 19 km from the administrative centre of English Bazar or Ingrejbajar, stand the ruins of the old capital city of Pandua which was at its prime in the 13th century CE.

    The city was also known as Hazrat Pandua or Boro-Pendo. It was given the prefix ‘Hazrat’ by several prominent Muslim saints and preachers such as Jalaluddin Tabrizi (13th century CE) and Nur Qut Alam (died 1415 CE approx.), who made the city their home and whose tombs have made it a Muslim pilgrimage site.

    From the mid-fourteenth century to the mid-fifteenth century, Pandua served as the capital of Bengal under the Ilyas Shahi Dynasty that ruled Bengal between 1342 and 1487 CE. It would continue to serve as a mint town until the time of Sher Shah Suri.

    Although Shamsuddin Ilyas Shah, the man who founded Bengal’s Ilyas Shahi Dynasty, is said to have first moved the capital from the city of Gauda to Pandua in 1339 CE, coins from the time refer to Pandua as Firozabad, leading to speculation that the move to Pandua had been effected by Shamsuddin Firoz Shah of the Balban Dynasty, who ruled between 1300 and 1322 CE.

    Bengal’s great distance from Delhi, which was also busy fending off Mongol invaders during the 13th century, was a great excuse for the local governors to rebel and declare their independence.

    The period saw a series of rebellions like Nasiruddin Bughra Khan’s for instance, who had himself helped his father, the Delhi Sultan Ghiyasuddin Balban, crush the rebellion of then governor of Gauda, Tughral Tughan Khan. He declared his independence in 1287 CE, only weeks after his father’s death

    The early 14th century CE saw the emergence of 3 city-states which controlled 3 regions of Bengal – in the south, the port city of Satgaon (modern Saptagram), in the east, Sonargaon and in the west, Lakhnauti or Gauda. The bitter struggle between the 3 local powers continued until Shamshuddin Ilyas Shah, who gained control and declared himself the first ‘Sultan of Bengal’ in 1352 CE.

    While Delhi would attempt to put down the rebellion, two attempts at recapturing Bengal by Firuz Shah Tughlaq, cousin and successor of Mohammed bin Tughlaq, in 1353 and 1359 CE, proved fruitless.

    Bengal remained mostly independent until the death of Daud Khan Karrani in 1576 CE, at the hands of Akbar’s brilliant commander, Khan Jahan.

    Over a period of 114 years, 9 kings would rule Bengal from Pandua. All of them were from the Ilyas Shahi Dynasty, with the exception of Raja Ganesha, his son and grandson. They would build palaces, forts, bridges, mosques and mausoleums, many of which are now in ruins or have disappeared altogether.

    It was Scottish physician Francis Buchanan-Hamilton who first noted the existence of historic ruins in Pandua in 1808 CE. Sir Alexander Cunningham, the British Army engineer who would go on to create what later became the Archaeological Survey of India, then did a detailed study of Pandua. An aerial survey of the ruins was conducted by the ASI in 1930 CE.

    The survey also revealed the presence of the ruins of several Buddhist stupas and viharas in the area. But contemporary accounts of Pandua come mostly from the Chinese. A Ming Chinese ambassador to the court of the Sultan in 1415 CE, writes:

    ‘The dwelling of the King, is all of bricks set in mortar, the flight of steps leading up to it is high and broad. The halls are flat-roofed a white-washed inside. The inner doors are of triple thickness and of nine panels. In the audience hall all the pillars are plated with brass, ornamented with figures of flowers and animals, carved and polished… The king sat cross-legged in the principal hall on a high throne inlaid with precious stones and a two-edged sword lay across his lap.’

    Although the description shows mostly Persian culture in the courts, we find one of the first attempts at fusing together Islamic and Bengali styles in the architecture of the Ilyas Shahi Dynasty.

    An early attempt at this can be seen in the colossal Adina Masjid. Adina consists of a large, rectangular, open courtyard, measuring 507 ½ feet by 285 ½ feet, surrounded on all four sides by pillared halls. When it was built, it was, and still remains, the largest mosque in the Indian subcontinent.

    It was built in 1373 CE by Sultan Abul Mujahid Sikandar Shah, the 2nd ruler of the Ilyas Shahi Dynasty. Although most of the structures to the East, North and South have collapsed, as have the more than 300 domes the mosque once had, there is enough left in the western section of the mosque to show that stones from pre-existing Hindu and Buddhist structures have been re-used.

    The builders were surprisingly adept at adapting Pala and Sena period art to their needs. But more significant are the tympanums on the western wall, where we see profuse and exquisite terracotta decoration. The lack of significant amounts of stone in the alluvial plains of Bengal necessitated the use of terracotta, and while Bengal’s terracotta temples are famous, it is mosques that led to the elevation of this folk art form.

    The Ilyas Shahi line of succession was interrupted only once, for a short period, by the rise of the Hindu ‘Raja Ganesha’ who ruled between 1414 and 1418. Contemporary accounts and modern historians differ widely in their evaluation of this period, but it seems clear that Raja Ganesha, representing the Hindu faction in the court, had become a kingmaker, ruling through a series of minor puppets before ascending the throne himself.

    Civil unrest and local rebellions during his rule were suppressed and Ganesha was succeeded by his son, Jadu, who embraced Islam and became Jalaluddin.

    Under Jalaluddin emerged the ‘Bengal style’ of mosques. Historian Richard M. Eaton in his book ‘The rise of Islam and the Bengal frontier, 1204-1760)’ identifies the key elements of this style as:

    ‘Square shape, single dome, exclusive use of brick construction in both exterior and interior, massive walls, engaged octagonal corner towers, curved cornice, and extensive terracotta ornamentation.’

    The inspiration of the curved cornice probably came from the thatched bamboo huts commonly seen in Bengal, where the bamboo naturally bends under the weight of the thatching. This is the prototype ‘Bangla roof,’ now seen in dozens of Mughal monuments. The best example of this is Jalaluddin’s own tomb, the Eklakhi mausoleum, which cost a lakh of rupees to construct.

    With Jalaluddin’s reign we see the beginnings of a trend, a Muslim ruling dynasty that grounded itself in local culture rather than seeking legitimacy from Delhi or Mecca. His commemorative coin, struck in Pandua in 1421, not only lacks the Muslim confession of faith, but also bears a stylised lion, the mount of the Hindu Goddess ‘Chandi.’

    It is interesting to note that a similar lion, which looks more like a horse, is seen even today in the more traditional Durga Pujas of Bengal. Eaton also cites another Chinese traveller’s account, which mentions that:

    ‘Although Persian was understood by some in the court, the language in universal use there was Bengali.’

    This policy of ‘Bengali-fication’ would continue even after the death of Ganesha’s successors and the restoration of the Ilyas Shahi line.

    On the Western side of the Eklakhi Mausoleum, a recently-paved path leads visitors through a village, straight to the Qutub Shahi Masjid, also confusingly called the Sona Masjid. That would mean that there are 3 Sona Masjids in this area - the Boro Sona Masjid of Gauda, the Chhoto Sona Masjid of Gauda, now in Bangladesh, and then this.

    The name probably comes from the fact that the domes were gilded, and remains of gilding were found in the Chhoto Sona Masjid. The Qutub Shahi Masjid is named after the Muslim saint Hazrat Noor Qutub-ul-Alam, who is buried in Pandua. The mosque was built by his descendant Mohammed-al-Khalidi in 990 as per the Hijri calendar, which corresponds to 1582 C.E.

    While the mosque is missing its roof, the stone pillars inside remain standing along with the minibar, where the imam leading the prayers would have been seated. This is the enclosed type of mosque, with no open courtyard in front. In Bengal’s steaming weather and pouring monsoons, such a courtyard would have been pointless in any case. Upon his return to Delhi from his first Bengal expedition, Firoz Shah Tughlaq built the Kotla Mosque, which bears a striking resemblance to the Bengal style.

    Pandua’s association with the two Muslim saints, Jalaluddin Tabrizi and Nur Qutb Alam, is alive and well. Born in Tabriz in Iran, Sheikh Shah Jalaluddin Tabrizi was a Sufi saint who came to Delhi during the reign of Iltutmish (1211-1236) and arrived in Bengal during the last Hindu king Lakshmansena’s time.

    Lakshmansena (1178-1206) is said to have had a liberal outlook, and permitted the Sheikh to settle in Pandua and preach to the people of the area. The Sheikh is said to have performed many miracles and also predicted the Turkic invasion that was soon to come.

    His dargah is believed to have been constructed around 1342 by Sultan Alauddin Ali Shah and various other buildings have been added to it over time. It consists of a Jami Masjid, a bhandarkhana or store room, a small room to entertain visitors known as the Lakshmanseni Dalan, and a tandoorkhana or kitchen. But, strangely, his grave still cannot be located.

    The dargah is known as the Badi Dargah or Larger Dargah, to distinguish it from the Chhoti Dargah or Smaller Dargah, which is associated with Hazrat Noor Qutub-ul-Alam.

    The Chhoti Dargah was built in 1427 CE, 12 years after the death of the saint. A large number of people are buried here, including other religious figures and soldiers who were followers of the saint.

    Near the Badi Dargah is the Salami Darwaza, which is the gateway to the dargah of Sheikh Shah Jalaluddin Tabrizi. The original gateway was probably in a different architectural style, but it was reconstructed in the Bangla ‘do-chala’ style by its caretakers at some point.

    The question that most visitors ask is ‘where is the palace?’

    If Pandua was indeed the capital city, then a palace, or at least the ruins of a palace should be seen somewhere. Unfortunately, absolutely nothing survives, due to multiple reasons.

    Firstly, Bengal’s climate with its high humidity and generous monsoons is not ideal for the survival of a brick structure. It also promotes rapid growth of vegetation and once a banyan tree has taken hold of a building, it is as good as ruined.

    Secondly, Bengal was rocked by multiple earthquakes in the 19th century, which have felled the domes of many a historic mosque.

    And finally, re-use of ruined structures is very much a part of Bengal’s and India’s culture as a whole. Stones from the ruins of Gauda, for example, have been used for everything from churches to palaces to headstones in the South Park Street Cemetery.

    This continuous process of cannibalization has ensured the disappearance of historic ruins. In 1808 and 1880, surveys had revealed a couple of ruined Turkish baths and some ponds in the vicinity of Adina Masjid. These too, have now vanished.

    In the words of Shelley -

    Nothing beside remains.

    Round the decay

    Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

    The lone and level sands stretch far away


    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 Kolkata since 2013 and hopes to release a book on Kolkata's history soon.


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