Kannauj is an ancient town with a rich history. Exactly what I can see in Kannauj today is really an unknown. They say the town has many ruins but most of them are not preserved. My research has yielded little of notable monuments of the place.
‘When is the next bus to Kannauj?’ I ask at the enquiry counter at Lucknow.
‘What to see if there is a bus at 8 am,’ he says. It doesn’t give me a lot of hope.
‘What if the bus doesn’t come?’
‘The next one is at 10.30 am,’ he replies in the same unvarying tone. It is only 7 am. Getting to Kannauj is more difficult than I imagined.
After half an hour of wait, I find a bus to Agra via Kannauj. Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be taking a direct route to Kannauj. It goes south to Kanpur before turning north to Kannauj. I board it anyway.
I don’t get off the bus at Kanpur. I can see that it is a messy city. Traffic is chaotic. It takes us ages to get passed all this traffic, stop briefly at the bus station and leave for Kannauj. Kanpur is a world apart from Lucknow.
When I reach Kannauj, it is 1 pm. I might have reached earlier had I taken a train. I find a room and head out for lunch.
Walking out from the bazaar past the railway station, I find a derelict ruin. It is an Islamic monument, possibly a mausoleum. The main structure is open on all four sides. What is interesting on the inside is the arch netting. It is stuccoed in two levels – a finer netting within the broader arch netting. This is unique here. I have not seen similar stuff elsewhere.
After much search I find a clean place for lunch. It is aloo ghobi and rotis. The salad is stale and dry. I don’t touch it. I present him a five hundred rupee note. He is unwilling to take it, although I am pretty sure he has change for it. I hunt around for change. I find a neighbourhood shop. I am hoping to buy something to get some change. It turns out that every food item in this shop is outdated – passed its expiry date. I point this out to the proprietor but he doesn’t care. Eventually I get change at a mechanic’s shop and pay for my lunch.
I return to my room, rest awhile and then head out to town. I am careful to close all windows and the bathroom door. Monkeys are plenty in Kannauj. They appear to be a greater menace here than in Ayodhya.
I ask around. Someone says there is a fort in town. I take a shared tempo to town. I find the fort not as a structural ruin but as an embankment whose profile shows ancient brickwork embedded in mud, mortar, rubble and roots. Many little paths go up the slopes. I take one of them and find myself on top of what must have been an old fort. Nothing remains here, not even a low wall. I am actually standing on top of buildings buried under and long gone. The view from here is lovely. I see behind me twin domes. Far away to my right is a greater building that appears to be a mosque.
I come down the embankment and head to the twin domes, both mausoleums of a similar size. They look alike but there are subtle differences in their design. It is like one of those old picture puzzles in which children try to find six differences. The main domes have corner chhattris, an influence from Hindu India. In one mausoleum, the pillars of the chhattris are trabeate, while in the other they are cusped arches. The entrance doorway in one mausoleum has a chhajja, the other doesn’t. In India, it is rarely possible to find something purely Hindi or Islamic unless one goes back to pre-Islamic times – before 11th century AD. Later monuments have clear influences of both Hinduism and Islam.
‘What is this called?’ I ask a boy. Some of his companions are flying a kite. It is windy here, more so on top of the embankment I had just left.
‘This is Balapeer,’ he replies.
‘What do you do?’
‘I study at the madrasa here,’ he says and points to a building nearby. I passed this building while approaching the twin mausoleums.
‘Do you also go to a normal school?’
‘This is my school.’
‘When will you finish your course?’
‘It takes many years. I will go home for Ramzan and come back here for Id.’
This annual visit to his family seems to be the only holiday he gets. He will become a teacher of Islam in a madrasa himself someday.
I leave the boys to their kite-flying and head through the village to the other monument. I learn that it is named Makhdoom Jahania (Zania). I arrive their just as the muezzin calls out for evening prayers. The sun has dusted the mosque, its domes and pillars with a golden hue. Village men arrive one by one. They perform their traditional ablutions. They do this with great awareness. It is a ritual that comes out of practice and now almost a habit. There is no hurry in the way they wash their faces, their hands and their feet.
It is not a crowd. Only eight people have gathered here for the prayer. I sit around looking at them burying their faces into their open palms and bowing down in unison before the qibla. The moment this evening is perfect. I see the beauty in their prayer and their coordinated movements. When they are done, they disperse as quickly as they had gathered.
I hang around awhile admiring the reliefs on the pillars and the ornate qibla. The main dome is missing. I chat up with the caretaker. He mentions Lodhi and Aurangazeb but the exact history of the place eludes me.
I leave the mosque and head back through narrow lanes, open cowsheds and filthy drains. Much of Kannauj town center has narrow lanes lined with shops. The drain running below provides a constant stench. It is difficult to believe that this is the town that is famed for perfumes.
‘Can I visit a perfume factory here?’ I ask at one of the perfume shops. There are many perfume shops in town. From the look of it, I gather that the perfumes are mostly Islamic. In other words, these are perfumes concocted to their tastes and preferences. They are truly exotic but I am not sure I would wear them.
‘Factories are outside town,’ he replies vaguely. I don’t think I would be able to visit any factory here. Maybe if I buy an expensive perfume the owner would make an effort. Am I going to buy one of Kannauj’s expensive perfume? Your guess is as good as mine.