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Buried Palace of Gaur
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Gaur (City of) one of the largest medieval cites in the Indian subcontinent, was the capital of Bengal from c. 1450 AD to 1565 AD. Located on the eastern strip of land between the Ganges and the Mahananda rivers, in lat. 24°52' N. and Long. 88°10' E., south of the present town of Malda, its ruins spread over nearly twenty miles in length and four miles in breadth.

It has been postulated that the earlier city of Laksmanavati (later Islamised as lakhnauti) was located at the same site. Alexander cunningham, however, placed Laksmanavati to the north of the ruins of Gaur on the basis of Hindu place names and the existence of the ruins of a fort traditionally associated with vallalasena. It has also been held that laksmanasena had transferred his capital to nadia in order to spend his last days on the bank of the Ganges, which is difficult to accept since the Ganges was flowing past the city of Laksmanavati as well. MM Chakrabarty held that at an earlier period the Ganges was flowing through the Mahananda but had gradually begun to detach itself from the Mahananda to move towards the west. james rennell has recorded its westward movement at the end of the eighteenth century as he found the Ganges nearly ten miles west of the ruins of Gaur. The existing palaeo-channels clearly mark such movements. In that case, Laksmanavati would be located on the western side of the Ganges-Mahananda channel, whose memory was perhaps embodied in the sketches of Lopo Homes (1519) and Gastaldi (1548), showing Gaur on the west of the river. One could surmise that Laksmanavati was abandoned by the Sena king due to the westward movement of the Ganges that might have washed away his capital. The remains of the sandy soil over a long area in palaeo-channels can still be seen. However, the pre-Muslim artifacts, both Buddhist and Hindu, are found only in the higher ground located to the south of the medieval Gaur fort.

The first inscription of Gaur, dated December 1457, during the reign of Sultan Nasiruddin Mahmud I (1435-1459), on a bridge erected by him on the road from the kotwali darwaza (gate) in the south to the north of the city, suggests the date of transfer of the capital from pandua. One may not, therefore, accept abm habibullah's view that the capital was transferred in the early part of the fifteenth century during the reign of Sultan Jalaluddin. The visiting Chinese delegates during his reign clearly mentioned going to Pandua, then the capital of Bengal.

Gaur remained the capital of Bengal till 1565 when sulaiman karrani transferred it to tandah in the west. The Mughal general munim khan brought it back to Gaur in 1575 and was perhaps instrumental in constructing the lukochuri darwaza the eastern side of the fort, which is generally ascribed to shah shuja, subahdar of Bengal in the first half of the seventeenth century. But Shah Shuja had never lived at Gaur. Gaur was finally abandoned in 1575 due to the outbreak of plague.

Minhaj-us Siraj, visiting the renamed capital forty-five years after its conquest in 1205 by bakhtiyar khalji, saw mosques and madrasas built by him, which are not extant today. Since the embankments protecting the city were constructed in 1227, these buildings could not have been washed away by the river.

Apart from the Kotwali gate, ascribed to the fourteenth century on the basis of design, there were no other architectural remains of the 13th-14th centuries. Abid Ali, in the early twentieth century, identified the northwest area of the big Sagar Dighi between the Durbhasini and Phulwari gates (now disappeared) as the commercial centre of the old Laksmanavati, with the port of Gaur served by a canal. This seems highly unlikely since no pre-Muslim artifact has been found there. Ziauddin Barani in the fourteenth century had given the description of a long market with rows of shops on both sides stretching nearly two miles and leading to the old palace of the Senas. The Phulwari fort, two miles north of the present ruins of the fort of Gaur, has been termed a Hindu fort by Cunningham, and was used, according to Barani, by the son of Balban. However, excepting some black basalt stone slabs, no pre-Muslim artifact has been found there. On the other hand, while according to local tradition the fort was used by Shah Shuja, glazed bricks, broken pieces of clay pipes, inscribed porcelain pieces as well as coarse pottery found inside the walled fort (there is a ditch) would suggest its use in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

From the early fifteenth century, Gaur and Pandua were becoming populous. Perhaps it was the pressure of population that led Sultan Nasiruddin Mahmud to shift the capital to Gaur from Pandua. The rise of the overseas port of Saptagram/satgaon took place around the same time. Since then, the immigration to Gaur continued at a brisk pace while other towns on the Bhagirathi also began to grow, mostly acting as suppliers of textile to Saptagram and Gaur. It is significant that the city of Gaur began to grow towards the south beyond the wall, whose remains have been recently explored by a Bangladesh team.

Henry Creighton, an indigo planter living near Gaur, gave a description of the morphology of the city in 1786, including a sketch of the place and superb drawings of its monuments. He found the ruins of the city extending up to ten miles in length and one and half mile in breadth, lying between the Ganges and the Mahananda; the latter became a lagoon by the end of the fifteenth century, as Castenhada de Lopez noted, and was named by Abul Fazl as Chatia Patia. The city had two big paved roads, parallel to the river, in the north-south direction, crisscrossed by smaller lanes and canals, some of which still exist.

Creighton's description was modified by James Rennell, Alexander Cunningham and JH Ravenshaw, who found the ruins extending up to twenty miles in length and four miles in breadth (later confirmed by aerial survey and explorations), thus extending beyond the boundary wall to the south.

Creighton's chief credit lies in sketching the fort and the palace, with the principal gate in the north, called the dakhil darwaza, probably built in the early part of the fifteenth century and later added to by successive rulers till nusrat shah in the early sixteenth century. From this gate an anonymous Portuguese interpreter who has left a valuable memoir went straight to the darbar hall of Nusrat Shah in 1521, who was then watching a game of polo being played on the plains below.

On the basis of the writings of Creighton and Francklin, Ravenshaw divided the palace into three compartments. The palace was enclosed by a high wall, called Baishgazi. A ditch enclosed the three sides of the palace and was connected to the Ganges, which guarded the western side of the fort. According to a contemporary Vaisnava poet, Sultan Alauddin husain shah saw a procession led by chaitanya on the opposite bank of the river.

It is clear that the first compartment from the north was the darbar, so clearly described by the Portuguese interpreter in 1521. Halfway from the Dakhil Darwaza there was a gate under which flowed a channel of water to supply a fountain, as recorded in the inscription of Sultan ruknuddin barbak shah (1466). According to the testimony of the Portuguese and the celebrated Bengali poet, Krittivasa, the road from the Dakhil Darwaza to the darbar had nine well-guarded gates at least two of which could be identified today.

The second compartment from the northern side is termed the living quarter of the sultan, where the multi-coloured tiled floor, described with admiration by humayun's companion, reminds one of the rich lifestyle of the pre-Mughal sultans of Bengal. The third compartment has been termed as Haram Sara or zenana mahal, as was attested by the visiting Frenchman Vincent Le Blanc in 1575. While from the third compartment nothing worth speaking has been found, the other two compartments have yielded extensive deluxe artifacts including multi-coloured bricks and porcelain pieces inscribed in Chinese, the first such find in Bengal of the period. Ruins of a building in the northeastern part of the first compartment have been called a treasury, but this cannot be confirmed.

The citadel wall in the east has two gates. The earlier, called gumti gate, has been dated from the reign of Alauddin Husain Shah, while the latter one, called Lukochuri, is generally ascribed to Shah Shuja, but possibly was built by munim khan after his victory over daud karrani in 1575. North of this gateway, among a group of buildings, the first one, a Bangla type low building, has been identified, on the basis of legends, as the tomb of Fath Khan (son of Dilir Khan), who allegedly died here in pursuit of Shah Shuja. The next building, kadam rasul, where the footprint of the Prophet (Sm) has been kept, was earlier thought to be a mosque. Close by this building, there are a number of ruins with pavilions. This is the graveyard of the Sultans of Gaur. Henry Creighton saw the black stone tombs of Alauddin Husain Shah and Nusrat Shah, which have disappeared, allegedly carted away by the English.

Further north, outside the citadel, there is a tower, probably used as a watchtower. There is another such tower opposite Malda. The Portuguese interpreter in 1521 saw that the entry from that side to the Dakhil Darwaza was barred for ordinary people by a heavy iron chain. He also mentioned a big mosque round the corner, obviously bara sona mosque, identified so long by an inscription (not in situ) which gives 1526 as the date of construction. The reference of the Portuguese clearly indicates its construction prior to 1521, during the reign of Alauddin Husain Shah, who had constructed a similar mosque (chhota sona mosque) on the southern side beyond the Kotwali gate.

Inside the citadel, in a straight line to the west of the Gumti gate, is a building, generally called chika building. Although the ground plan resembled that of the eklakhi mausoleum at Pandua, it is not a mausoleum, as no grave has been found. It is not a mosque either and figures of Hindu deities in relief were used on the lintels inside the building. According to the account of the Portuguese, it seems to be the Diwan-i Mazalim, where the Portuguese was tried as a spy. It was not used as a prison after Sanatan, a prisoner during the reign of Alauddin Husain Shah, had bribed the guards and jumped to the river Ganges to escape. From here, there is no direct access to the river.

The citadel area is strewn with ruins of black basalt stone slabs. Some of these are still standing, giving the impression of offices with the ruins of a gate in the south. Big basalt stone slabs lie embedded, giving an impression that it was part of old Laksmanavati.

Local legends identified the high area south of the citadel, from where Buddhist and Hindu icons have been found, as the commercial centre of Gaur. Traditionally it is termed Lal Bazar, while a section of it is called Mahajan Tala. Contiguous to the citadel and of one mile in square area, where cowries and coarse pottery are found in profusion, the ruins indicate the existence of several mahallas or wards dating from pre-Islamic days. The Portuguese found the streets well mapped out and arranged. Certain types of goods, like weapons or sweetmeats or food, were sold on separate streets, as in other large medieval cities of the Indian subcontinent. The Portuguese favourably compared this city with Lisbon.

The city seems to have been densely populated. The Portuguese interpreter in 1521 speaks of a high density of population. He found it difficult to move through the crowded streets while the nobles used to employ a number of retainers to clear the way. Fariya Y Sousa, and following him others, put the number of inhabitants at twelve lakhs while the visiting Frenchman put the population at forty thousand hearths. Taking five persons per family, the population would come to two lakhs, quite close to two lakh twenty-thousand of contemporary Fathepur Sikri. The density at Gaur would however be over two thousand persons per square mile in an eighty square mile area. The analysis of revenue data, given by Abul Fazl in 1595-96, obviously based on earlier revenue figures, would give an idea of the tremendous draw of the Gaur area and its high density of population.

Castenhada de Lopez left a description of the houses. The buildings were low-lying, wrought with gold and bluish tiles and they had numerous courtyards and gardens. The floors of each house were covered with ornamental tiles. Humayun's companion, author of the Waquiyat-i Mustaqui stated that Humayun was struck by the Chinese tiles, which were used on the floors as well as walls of the rooms. There is no mention of any double-story house at Gaur, although the Portuguese interpreter has described the underground room of the darbar hall.

Between the citadel and the eastern embankment, a ruined structure, alleged to be the house of a legendary merchant, Chand Saudagar, has been identified as the belbari madrasa, the only one found so far within the walled city. Beyond the southern wall the darasbari madrasa has been excavated by the Bangladesh Archaeological Survey. East of the Belbari Madrasa lies a big tank, the Chhota Sagar Dighi, connected to canals winding through the different areas of the city. One can still see the parallel double canals running towards the Ganges, one carrying the waste.

As seen on the survey map of 1849-52, the canal cuts the Nawabganj-Pandu road twice, with bridges on them. The three-arched bridge over the canal flowing past the Belbari Madrasa is still intact. Since the eastern part of the land is higher than the city, the water of the lagoon flowed through holes in two embankments to supply water to the city; the Chhota Sagar Dighi served as the reservoir. The principal canal runs in front of the Chamkathi (leather cutter) Mosque. The bridges, having one to seven arches, would indicate the volume of water flowing by. That there was a sewerage system, mostly of clay pipes under the ground, could be seen in one of the ruined houses of the area between the Ganges and the Bara Sona Mosque. The raised land on both sides of the canal from the Belbari Madrasa to the west, where fine ceramics have been found, would suggest that it was an area inhabited by upper class people. The frontal area of the land gradually slopes down to the canal. The area from the Chhota Sagar Dighi to the eastern embankment seems to have been occupied by marginal people as no ruins or artifacts have been found.

Coming closer to the citadel from the east, one finds mosques situated in close proximity. The earliest mosque, Chamkathi, built in 1475, was followed by two others, lattan mosque and Tantipada (weavers' locality) mosque, both built in 1480. The names would suggest association with manufacturing groups. The brief span of time of the building of these mosques, within a radius of two miles, would suggest a rapid growth of population after 1470. This acceleration of urbanisation began to take place during the reign of Sultan Ruknuddin Barbak Shah (1459-1474) and continued till the end of the second decade of the sixteenth century. The Portuguese interpreter witnessed the problems of the immigrants in 1521, and found people lying dead in the streets in the winter mornings. He also saw the distribution of both vegetarian and non-vegetarian food on certain occasions by the sultan, which would indicate the presence of homeless and jobless people of both communities at Gaur.

The city was extending to the south, although one of the mosques, gunamanta, probably built by jalaluddin fath shah (1481-1486), was located on the bank of the river (now there is only a palaeo-channel) near Mahdipur village. The extensive exploration work done by the Bangladesh team shows the existence of several mosques and tombs of saints as well as a tahkhana, supposed to have been built by Shah Shuja. This confirms the statement of the Portuguese on the expansion of the city, possibly in the south, since nothing has been found in the north beyond the Bara Sona Mosque. It seems that a second wave of expansion started from the early sixteenth century under Alauddin Husain Shah(1494 -1519), whose construction of the Chhota Sona Mosque suggests such growth.

The Bangladesh team has identified Jahaz Ghata, southwest of the citadel on the river, beyond the walls. Although tome pires had called Gaur a port city, yet the area seems to be part of an inland port, where the Portuguese interpreter saw about 130 boats of varying sizes at anchor, including the one which looked like a Portuguese galley.

Most scholars have referred to the shifting of the river course to the west as the reason for the decline of Gaur. Although the capital was finally transferred from Gaur to Tanda in 1575 after Munim Khan's death in the plague, the Bengali poet Mukundaram Chakrabarty's merchant-cum-zamindar had gone to Gaur, which was a city of pleasure as well as of artisanal manufactures. Since this was written at the end of the sixteenth century, it may be presumed that the city lingered for sometime after the transfer of the capital.

James Rennell found that the river had shifted nearly ten miles to the west of Gaur at the end of the eighteenth century. The two European travellers, Father manrique (1648) and Robert Hedges (1687), did not mention the shifting of the river and clearly described their anchoring of boats in front of the palace, which the latter found to be bigger than that of Constantinople. Besides, there was no reason for Sulaiman Karrani or the Mughal authorities a decade later to shift the capital to Tanda, towards the west in the same direction in which the river was moving. The description of ralph fitch at the end of the sixteenth century would suggest that the river had started moving towards the west, which had perhaps prompted man singh to shift the capital to rajmahal on the eastern bank.

The principal reason of the decline of Gaur appears to be political instability. While the port of Chittagong had become the bone of contention between Arakan, Tripura and Bengal, later joined by the Portuguese adventurers, the Bhagirathi area, particularly its upper part, had become unstable with the conquest and plunder of Gaur by sher shah from the end of 1538. Humayun, whose life of pleasure for three months made him term the city Jannatabad, while the Husain Shahi dynasty was being extinguished. Then came the invasion from Orissa, whose ruler seized Saptagram. While the Portuguese merchants had settled first at Saptagram and then at hughli, their adventurous countrymen began their depredations in the coastal areas affecting the trade route. The final onslaught came in the wake of the Mughal-Pathan contest, which practically devastated the northern part of Bengal.

Such continuous anarchy resulted in the neglect of the maintenance of the overcrowded city. The canals linking the lagoon and the Ganges and serving as the lifeline of the city had to be properly maintained. In 1575, Vincent Le Blanc saw waterlogging in parts of the city, which would suggest that the canals were not properly maintained. This resulted in the outbreak of a severe plague, which carried away three hundred persons per day, in which Munim Khan also lost his life. It is possible that the connection between the Mahananda and the Ganges through the canals of the city had snapped due to lack of maintenance as much as due to the beginning of the westward movement of the Ganges.

The Portuguese occupation of Malacca from the early sixteenth century created problems for the Muslim merchants carrying on trade between Gaur-Saptagram and the southeast. It may be presumed that the trade links between the Bhagirathi and southeast Asia were being controlled by the Portuguese and this affected the flow of silver into Bengal. Coupled with political instability and anarchy, the commercial and financial world of Gaur was gradually declining. The Mughal conquest and the shifting of the capital from Tanda to Rajmahal to the east of the river signified a new situation putting a stamp on the fall of Gaur.

From the late nineteenth century, Bengali nationalistic writings focussed on Gaur as a symbol of independent Bengal. akshay kumar maitreya, ramaprasad chanda, rakhaldas bandyopadhyay, Rajani Kanta Chakrabarty, Charu Chandra Mitra and others dwelt on the political history of pre-Mughal Bengal focussing on Gaur as a symbol of Bengal's independent entity and not as a part of regional history. With the exception of a few, the ruins as well as the city remained beyond the purview of historians, making Jannatabad of Humayun a lost and forgotten city. [Aniruddha Ray]

Bibliography Henry Creighton, Ruins of Gaur, London, 1817; JH Ravenshaw, Gaur, Its Ruins and Inscriptions, London, 1878; M Abid Ali Khan, Memoirs of Gaur and Pandua (ed & revised by H Stapleton), Calcutta, 1986 (reprint of 1924 ed.); Aniruddha Ray, "Archaeological Reconnaissance at the City of Gaur: A Preliminary Report", Pratna-Samiksha (Calcutta), 1995, No 2-3, 245-63; ABM Hussain (ed), Gawr-Lakhnawti, Dhaka, 1997.

(With Thanks from