My visit to Bagh Caves has taken me more time than imagined. I return to the main road and wait for what seems an age. Finally I get a bus. It is a crowded one but I manage to squeeze through with my backpack. I can’t tell how much I love real India. I had hoped to get to Champaner for the night but transportation in these parts is limited during late evenings. I find a basic room at Alirajpur right opposite the bus stand. This town appears to be the last major one before Gujarat begins to the west.
When I arrive the next day at Champaner it is already mid-day. There is some confusion within me if I have got to the right place. My research tells me that Champaner has loads of places to see but it is a place not easily known to people in these parts. They are more familiar with Pavagadh. I use Pavagadh as the landmark when I make enquiries. Pavagadh is supposed to be close of Champaner. Perhaps, this way I will find Champaner. It turns out that these are twin locations facing each other. Champaner is the name of the town at the bottom of a rocky hill that goes by the name of Pavagadh.
I walk around looking for a room. I find one in a Jain dharamshala. They do give rooms to singles. The room has a dirty mattress spread on an iron cot strung with plastic bands. I hurry down to the kitchen. They are about the serve the last of the day’s lunch. Puris, vegetables, daal and some rice fill me up. The meal is simple and savoury. This is exactly the sort of thing I love. I enquire if they serve dinner as well. Yes, they do. I promise to come back in the evening. Surprisingly, they collect a nominal fee for the meal only from me because I am not Jain. I don’t see them collecting anything from other visitors sitting down to dine. Many months ago at the Jain retreat at Humcha in Karnataka, I was not asked to pay anything for the lunch.
I am staying within the fortified walls of an old town. The walls are mostly gone but a couple of splendid gateways continue to stand in their ruins. Champaner is an old town which came to prominence and greater glory during the time of Mahmud Shah Beghara who is credited to taking Pavagadh from the Rajputs after a long siege and later conquering Girnar. The first monument I come across is so close and accessible that it takes me by surprise; and it is a gem of a monument. I have seen nothing like it anywhere. This is the Shahr-ki-Masjid.
Two minarets stand beautifully on five levels at the facade. Five domes surrounded by smaller ones balance the picture. Inside, the pillars are arranged in order creating octogonal spaces under the domes. Smaller spaces stand beneath the smaller domes. Except for the doorways and windows between them on the facade, the interiors do not sport any arched bays. The architecture is trabeate. The central mihrab, five of them in all, is superbly sculpted. Within the niche a floral relief supports by handing chains a beautiful kalasha. Is this the marriage of Hindu and Islamic art so peculiar to Gujarat? Everything about this mosque, from its modest scale and unexpected beauty, interests me. I count the bays, pillars, doorways and windows. I make a sketch of the plan. When I am done, I realize I have much more to see in Champaner but I think I have understood the essence of this architecture. I expect the others to be very much in the same style.
From a distance I can see the Jami Masjid which happens to be more spectacular than the Shahr-ki-Masjid. The mihrabs when seen on the western wall from the outside appear as beautiful projections. Between them are jali screens letting in light into the main prayer hall. On the southern side I can see projected balconies supported on beautiful brackets. These brackets display a similarity to Jain temple creations. Two minarets are matched by smaller corner towers. Plain domes are all around. A central dome stands two levels above ground level. It is surrounded by smaller domes.
There are three entrance porches and the eastern one is the most impressive one. The porch is domeless but what’s left of it is packed with details. The squinches sit above a triangular space and are defined by recessed arches. Jali work is superb. Corner chhatris typical of Hindu architecture are placed around the main dome of this entrance. From the steps I can see arch framed by arch at many levels, high and low, far and near. The inner courtyard is surrounded by corridors of arched bays, some in ruins, others better preserved. Inside, the dome towers high above ground. It appears ribbed on the inside. The mihrabs are beautiful and so are a couple of ceiling panels packed with the most exquisite of stone art.
I come back to the courtyard. The lawn is green. The low hedges are neatly clipped. The minarets cast their shadows across to the corridors to the northeast. I linger here for a while, wander by the corridors, walk around the mosque on the outside, return by another entrance, enter the main prayer hall once more and finally return to the wonderful perspective under the main dome. I can’t enough of this mosque, truly a wonder of Islamic architecture before the time of the Mughals. We can tell the ambitions of the Gujarat Sultanate from the time of the 15th century.
Outside, there is an octogonal stepwell near the mosque. It is as unique as the mosque itself. With the stepwell for foreground, I can see the mosque in the background, its minarets, its dome and patterns in the jali screens catching the late afternoon night.
I consult my map and quickly walk to the Kevda Masjid. A separate structure to the east of the mosque is a cenotaph that has a characteristic ribbed dome with four corner domes and a entrance portico to the east. The architecture is trabeate but curiously the southern side of the cenotaph is arcuate. Perhaps it’s a modern restoration. The mosque has two side domes and a larger central dome on a higher level. The central dome is gone and all I see today is a perfect circle framing the blue sky. Not as impressive as the Jami Masjid, yet the dome must have been quite high standing on pillars of the first level. Two pillars at the entrance run all the way from ground level to the base of the dome. They alone are a marvel of medieval engineering. Details sculpted on its pillars, mihrads and the twin minarets are superb.
A winding stairway is open inside one of the minarets. I climb up to the first level balcony. I climb higher. Arched openings allow me to step out on to platform going around the minaret. These platforms are supported on brackets embellished with pendentives. I climb to the highest level of the minaret till the mosque is below me. The plains of Champaner stretch around me. Pavagadh dominates the landscape. I spot many other ruins of the area and plan my next visit.
It is a long walk to Lila Gumbaj Ki Masjid. The minarets are gone but the central dome still stands. It is ribbed, which makes it unique. The shrubland around the mosque is low, thick and thorny. It is a rather distant from town. There is no one around except for a cowherd leading his buffalo calves back to his village home. The sun is setting behind the high peaks of Pavagadh.
In the morning I walk past Kevda Masjid to another one I had seen last evening. It is rather hidden among invading creepers and weeds. Nothing much of the mosque survives except for the eastern wall and the tall minarets. I wonder if this is the Nagina Masjid. Only later I learn that Nagina Masjid is elsewhere. That’s the main one I have missed on my exploration of Champaner.
I explore farther ruins of Champaner for the morning. Kamani Masjid has its dome missing. Two small domes remain of four which must have stood at the corners of the main one. Unlike the Shahr-ki-Masjid, arches stand from pillar to pillar. Nothing remains of the roof. Ek Minar-ki-Masjid is another one that’s hard to find, hidden deep within woodland cut across with little paths. Kabutarkhana is far and I hop on to a shared tempo to get to it. A brick structure facing the lake appears to be the dovecote that gives this building its name. Opposite, across the road, is what remains of another mosque, roofless and without it dome. The pillars and beams that stand make an impressive sight.
I return to my room and check out. I take to the road going up to Pavagadh. I take the easy option of taking a bus instead of walking up. Bus operators are making the best of Sunday crowds coming here for a visit. The crowds at the top put me off. I search for rooms but nothing is available. Options are limited and the little on offer are closed to singles. One establishment appears completely empty. I seek out the owners.
‘Do you have a room for tonight?’ I ask the woman hopefully.
‘We are closed. There is no water,’ she explains.
I am beginning to think if I’ll have to return to Champaner for the night. Luckily I find a nice and comfortable room at a hotel run by Gujarat tourism. It is bit of a luxury for me but I take the room. There is hot water. The place is exceptionally clean. From the balcony I get a view of the mountains higher up.
I spend the afternoon walking up to the high reaches of Pavagadh. The crowds are unbelievable. Apparently there is a famous Kalimata Temple at the highest point. I join the crowds to their shouts and chants. It is quite a climb. I had not expected it would be so energy sapping. I don’t visit the temple. It does not interest me. I get a eyeful of the views from the top. Old Jain temples at the summit keep me interested for a while. Scattered around the temples are stone carvings in ruins. I discern three surviving out of four Jain temples. These four are designed around a central larger temple which remains only in sparse foundations. All temples have three porches on three sides and a shikara on the fourth. Over the main hall is a dome which appears like that of a Buddhist stupa from the outside.
On the banks of a little lake higher up are the ruins of one superb Hindu temple. Nothing much remains of it but the sanctum, antarala and parts of a mandapa. The exteriors of this temple boast superb carvings – Nataraja dancing with an array of arms like the masterpiece at Badami, Karnataka; Brahma standing in relief with effaced countenance; Lord Shiva surrounded by a host of miniatures; sages with knotted hair; couples perhaps royal or celestial looking at each other lovingly. The best one from this wealth of masterpieces is one that tells the story of Gajendra Moksha. Gajendra is entangled by the coils of a serpent. A beast appears in the form of a makara. Lord Vishnu assumes huge proportions and pries open the jaws of the beast with his hands. It is a sculpture with energy and dynamism.
I have a simple dinner at the hotel but breakfast in the morning is even simpler. It’s really hard to find a hearty breakfast in much of North India. I have vada pav, not the sort of thing I like for breakfast. The stuff is fresh and tasty, some redemption to my preferences. I pack up and leave Pavagadh. On my return to Champaner I take to walking down. The weather is beautiful.
I pass the Saath Kaman, a bastion like structure that follows the contour of the hill. Roof is missing and the arches intersect to form an impressive spectacle against the bright morning sky. I pass fort ramparts, remains of old gateways and crumbling barbicans. A banyan tree hanging down its long prop roots seems to complete the ruins to picturesque perfection. Closer to Champaner, I pass yet another mosque, roofless, a missing central dome and arcuate in style. It is a beautiful ruin. With ruins in every corner and turn, it is quite fitting that this place is on UNESCO’s heritage list.
Walking past Champaner, I stop at a stepwell for which Gujarat is famous. This one is called Gebanshah’s Vav. I see that it is similar to the one I had seen at Vidisha but bigger. Art is minimal. Beams and pillars link up with one another on many levels as the long flight of stairs lead down to the well shaft. I estimate the well to be 20 m deep, 50 m in length and a well shaft of 6 m in diameter. Despite its sorry state, it is an insight into ancient India and practice of tapping ground water.
I leave Champaner behind and take to the road towards Halol. It is not a long walk before I come across a square mausoleum with a simple dome. On the inside, the space is octogonal, so typical of many Islamic buildings of this nature. A little farther across the road is a path leading to another wonderful ruin. This is the helical stepwell. A stairway leads to a landing. Narrow steps hug the wall of the well shaft and descends to the water level like the coils of a snake. The well parapet is low. At first glance, the well appears a circle but I study it for a while. It isn’t. It appears to grow smaller as is descends. I look back at Pavagadh for one last time. I have had a couple of fantastic days. My visit to Gujarat has started well. My reverie is broken by a troupe of langurs who arrive noisily at the helical stepwell. Robbed of my monopoly, I make a quick exit.