Gaur: The Capital of Sultanate Bengal

A team of state archaeologist from Bengal led by scholars like Professor Aniruddha Ray, Prof Ratnabali Chaterjee and others (e.g. Sutapa Sinha) worked on Gaur,the medieval capital of Bengal. This blog is based on the various research papers written by Prof. Ray and Dr Sinha.

After extensive explorations and some ‘debris cleaning’, they contributed a number of research papers. Recently (february 2013) a whole issue was also devoted to this city. Here I give a sum total of these works for a layman’s understanding:

CITY OF GAUR

The history of the Sultanate period in Bengal is marked by the absence of contemporary source material unlike other Sultanates in India. The hot and humid climate of Bengal may be one of the reasons for this complete absence written records. The political history of the period is thus primarily dependent on the epigraphic and numismatic evidences.

Gaur or Lakhnauti, as it was named after Lakshmanavati, was the capital of the Sultanate Bengal from 1213 to 1324 A.D. Between 1333-1339 the seat of power shifted to Firuzabad, popularly known as Hazrat Pandua. “The causes of this transfer are nowhere stated ; but it was obviously connected with the changes in the river courses, making Lakhnauti unhealthy and uninhabitable. The various civil wars, with repeated plunderings of the city, might have hastened the transfer.”(M. M. Chakravarti “Notes on Gaur”, JPASB, Vol. V, 1999, No.7, pp.204-234)

The capital was again shifted to Gaur during the reign of Sultan Nasir al-din Mahmud Shah, between 1437-38 and 1450-51 AD. This transfer was again largely due to physical changes in the locality. Quoting MM Chakravarti, “After much fluctuation, the Ganges seems to have found a comparatively stable course on the west of the city and its floods probably raised the level of the city on its eastern part.”

The city of Gaur began to flourish during the reign of the subsequent rulers of the later Ilyas Shahi dynasty. On the accession of Sultan Husain Shah in 1493AD Ekdala emerged as the seat of Sultanate in place of Gaur and it remain capital till at least 1505 after which the capital once again reshifted to Gaur during the later half of the reign period of Sultan Husain Shah. Ultimately in 1565 Sulaiman Kararani removed the capital from there to Tanda which is further south-west. In 1575 Munim Khan, the first viceroy of Akbar, re-transferred the seat of Government from Tanda to Gaur but due to an epidemic which broke out in the monsoon of that year, Munim Khan was forced to return to Tanda where he died after ten days on 23rd October 1575.

In 1595 Raja Man Singh removed the seat of Government from Tanda to Rajmahal (then known as Akhmal) on the other side of the Ganges. Fluctuations in the river course were probably the main cause of the transfer.

Shah Shuja who Governed Bengal during 1639-1660, although he added some buildings to Gaur, usually resided at Rajmahal and Gaur never afterwards was the seat of the Government.

The city of Lakshmanavati where Ikhtiyar al-din Bakhtiyar Khalji and his successors established their capital, has not been identified with certainty. The present day ruins at Gaur belong to the second city of Gaur, which flourished from the middle of 15th century on the bank of the river Ganges. But the decline of the city started in 1583 AD when Sher Shah invaded Bengal and burnt and sacked the city. During his viceroyalty, Shah Shuja sent some of his personnel to Gaur in search of treasure trove in the deserted palace of the Bengal Sultans. Frey Sebastian Manrique has given a vivid description of his arrival to the palace of Gaur, attracted by the massive wall of the Palace while passing through the river sometime in 1641. The vast number of buildings which survived the destruction and desertion were further damaged by the freaks of nature and human vandalism. The climate of Bengal was equally inimical to the preservation of building remains. More destructive force was the purposeful demolition of the buildings to carry boatloads of curved stones and glazed bricks to Rajmahal, Murshidabad, Hughly and Calcutta.

Therefore, very few buildings are now extant in one of the most populous and great city of medieval India, mostly the religious building are spared and a few bridges, gates and ruins of other structures remained to remind us of lost glory of the city. The mud city wall or embankment however, is in a tolerable shape of existence, which help us to delimit the area of this vast city. The landscape of the city is punctured with innumerable tanks and ponds amidst waste land littered with brick bats. The city of Gaur, remains largely buried and unless systematic excavation is carried out in the different areas it is very difficult to form a clear idea of its integral parts. Thus a research project was undertaken by the Directorate of Archaeology and Department of Islamic History and Culture, University of Calcutta, in 1992 entitled “Pattern of Urbanizaion in Medieval Bengal – A case study of Gaur Pandua Complex”.

The fortified city of Gaur covers an approximate area of 46.473 Sq. Km and falls within the Modern English Bazar Police Station of the district of Malda, West Bengal. The southern suburb and a small portion of the main city of Gaur is however within the administrative jurisdiction of Chapai Nawabganj district of Bangladesh. The city lies between 24 50′ 44″ and 24 55′ 50″ N latitude and 887′ and 8810′ E longitude. It was bounded by an embankment on the north, double embankments on the east, the Ganges on the west and a single embankment on the south. On the west of the city along the river, there was also a mud embankment traces of which are still visible in some places. The double embankment on the east was constructed to ward off the water of a huge marshy lake known as Chatia Patia.

The fortification wall was relieved with two principal gateways, one in the north called Phulwari Darwaza and the other in the south called Kotwali Darwaza which served as the main entrance to the city.

These two gateways were connected through one arterial road, which was known in the 19th century as Shibganj Road. This road vertically dissected the entire city. Another road was also running parallel to the main arterial road upto Chamkatti mosque and then took a bend towards west at a sharp right angle and ends near the Choto Sagar Dighi. Two more gateways can be traced on the northern city wall which provides easement to the city.

The general topographical slope of the area is from north to south. A number of tanks, ponds, swamp and canals suitably spaced relieve the landscape. The entire tract of land is raised from surroundings and is not easily prone to inundation during the rainy season, except the north-eastern low lying tract.

To facilitate exploration work in the city of Gaur, the accurate survey map prepared in 1878 by J.H. Ravenshaw was used and to systematise the work, the entire area of the city into 15 hypothetical sectors.

The city of Gaur can broadly be divided into four principal functional zones; the Royal Center, the Noble’s Quarter, the Urban Core and the Garrison Area. Another distinct zone can also be defined from the reassembled map, which we have termed as “Fringe area”. People of secondary occupation may have lived here. The extreme northern and north -eastern tract is a low land like a shallow basin and was probably used for cultivation of emergency crop when the city was besieged.

The Royal Centre, i.e. sector 5 in the base map – is the citadel containing the Palace complex and some other monuments in its surrounding. It is easily identifiable through the massive citadel wall, mostly extant, strengthened with bastions at the corners and surrounded by a deep moat outside and pierced by three prominent gateways. The imposing citadel occupies the most pronounce and advantageous position in the city and is situated on the highest ground on the eastern bank of the Bhagirathi, now a dried up streamlet. Some 46 sites have been identified within the citadel area.

The Palace itself was rectangular and was enclosed on three sides by a high brick wall measuring 42 feet high which is still extant in most part on the northern and eastern sides. The enclosed area of the Palace measures approximately 300 Mts. x 100 Mts. and is divided into three unequal rectangular compartments. Legend says that the first compartment from the north was the Durbar hall and treasury of the Sultan. The second was the living apartment of the Sultan while the third one was traditionally known as the Haram. Each compartment having a tank within it was separated by a dividing wall – remnants of which can only be traced from the deep burrow created by the brick robbers worked since ages.

From the nine sites of the First compartment plenty of architectural fragments of stone as well as decorated bricks (18.06%), glazed bricks (16.12%), floor tiles (9.68%) and glazed pipes (12.90%) have been found along with extant areas of a white tiled floor.

The percentage of potsherds, either of coarse pottery (18.70%) or of Porcelain (12.90%), is very little compared to the other living apartments of the Palace. There were several huge structural mound in the compartment , full of decorated bricks strewn all around, mostly of similar geometric designs of blue and yellow on white due to which it can be identified as the ruins of the Darbur hall.

The Archaeological Survey of India has excavated this particularly area since 2001 and a massive structural complex came out which very interesting and perhaps unique in Eastern India, if not in India.

In an inscription of Sultan Barbak Shah, there is a mention of construction of an underground water course of cold water flowing beneath the palace which could be compared to the fountain of heaven. But we are not sure what it exactly was and what was the functional aspect of such construction.

The Second compartment offered very rich archaeological material. The nature of artefacts found from this area gives credence to the tradition that this compartment was used by the Sultans as their personal residence or Khas Mahal. At the North West corner, a portion of a beautiful bi-chrome tiled floor, of blue and white tile, still exists.

Surface survey of this area yielded highest number of artefacts comprising of finest quality of porcelain shards (47.26%), celadon ware (6.08%), shards of buff coloured ceramics (1.42%), coarse pottery (19.68%), decorated bricks (5.88%), glazed tiles (5.88%), glazed pipes (2.23%), cawrie shell (0.81%), glass bangles & glass bowls (2.63%) etc. Among the porcelain shards, the most interesting and remarkable finds are thin and fine white porcelain shards with blue coloured pre-fired inscriptions on them. The script of the inscription is proto-Bengali and the style of calligraphy belongs to 15th- 16th century. A few porcelain with Chinese inscription, especially potter’s mark at the bottom of the pot and sherds of pre-Ming porcelain with self-design have also been found. Most of the porcelain sherds are decorated with typical Chinese blue on white designs but not always of a very fine quality. Different quality of porcelain with various thickness and fabrics collected within this compartment indicates a regular inflow of imported Chinese porcelain as luxury item of the royalty.

The third compartment of the palace is traditionally known as the Zenana Mahal or Harem, the living apartment of the women. A stone paved tank on its eastern side marks this quarter. Exploration in the third compartment was greatly hampered by cultivation of seasonal crops and mulberry culture and a thick cluster of mango groves. Beyond the third compartment, an area was located that can be termed as service area of the Palace.

On the north of the citadel was the main entrance – called Dakhil or Salami Darwaza. One could make a straight approach from this gate to the palace proper through a raised paved road. Ruins of two intermediary gateways on this royal road have also been located, traditionally known as Chand darwaza and Nim Darwaza, which no longer exists but was standing in the late 18th century as Crieghton made a beautiful painting of one of them.

To the east of the Palace, two distinct zones have been identified as the burial ground of the Sultans and their families: Cemetery A & B. The former is located on the north east of Palace where according to 18th century records lay the tomb or Mausoleum of Sultan Husain Shah and his dynasty, which is now in complete ruins. No mausoleum exist in this Cemetery complex but a large mound filled up with scattered pillars, number of tombstones, beautifully ornamented polychrome bricks indicate the ruins of a Royal cemetery. The team has even located the remains of the enclosure wall of the cemetery, now in ruins but was extant during the days of Henry Creighton, a Scottish Indigo planter of 18th century who has left us a brilliant drawing of the site. The glazed bricks collected from this burial site are brilliant and exclusive in design and colours. ASI has also excavated this area and opened up the foundation of the building.

An excavation conducted by the ASI near Chika monument in 1940’s laid bare a series of burials. The Chika building could well be a mausoleum without the tombstone above the ground, which is lost and may have entombed the mortal remains of a principal Sultan or Sultans of the later Ilyas Shahi house. A mosque is located on the west of Chika monument which was earlier thought as a remains of a cemetery building of which only the bases of load bearing pillars, thirteen in number and another two rows of stone pillars are standing forming a rectangular plan.

To the east of this Chika monument, is a gateway standing on the citadel wall named Gumti gate, standing on the same axis. This small gateway may have been constructed for the use of private easement of the members of the royal family. This domed structure with its magnificent brick ornamentation on the walls and also on the turrets at the four corners is dissimilar in architectural style to the other gateways of the citadel or of the city. On further left of it is situated the eastern main entrance of the Citadel named Lukochuri Darwaza which is evidently a building of the Mughal period, most probably built by Shah Shuja during his short stay in Gaur. But there is a strong possibility that this later structure was built on the site of a previous gateway, which originally used to connect the Citadel with the southern part of the city through a raised road. We will see later that the court nobility most probably inhabited in the south-east of the citadel and therefore an eastern gateway of the Citadel was absolutely necessary for frequent easement. Within the Citadel, the only religious structure is Qadam Rasul that enshrines the sacred footprint of Hadrat Muhammad. Aside Qadam Rasul with its porched liwan, which can be used as a place of worship, surprisingly, trace of no other mosque has been found within the Palace-Citadel complex.

The next zone to be discussed is the Noble’s Quarter of the city which falls within the sector 3 (fig. 22) of the working map where we have located eleven sites altogether. The area is situated in the south east of the Citadel and not very far from it, connected with the main arterial road of the city that directly leads to the Kotwali Gate, the southern entrance of the city. It is an area of about four square Kms around the largest tank of the city locally known as choto sagar dighi, the main source of water supply for the locality. There is another landmark, almost hundred meters north of this tank is the ruin of Belbari Madrasah, the principal place of learning within the city. In the southern suburb of Gaur, which is presently in Bangladesh, another madrasah has been located and partly excavated by the Archaeological Department of Bangladesh, known as Darasbari madrasah. The Belbari Madrasah is at present in utter ruins The entire structure of the Madrasah building has fallen down and formed a huge mound locally known as Chand Saudagarer bhita over which are scattered a number of pillars with typical Islamic curving.

The intellectual class and the supportive apparatus of the administration probably inhabited the area. Exploration conducted in this sector revealed ruins of extensive habitation in the area between sagar dighi and the arterial road of the city and also around the Madrasah. A bridge of three arches was found behind the Madrasah where a raised road has crossed a canal flowing in east-west direction. This road was running parallel with the main arterial road from the north of the city as a bypass and was connecting the Madrasah with another most important part of the city namely urban core, which will be discussed next. The road ends at the south eastern corner of the choto Sagar dighi. A number of structural mounds relieve the topography of the zone, which indicates the remains of residential building. The quality of the archaeological artefacts found together with the close cluster of ruins of residential structures in proximity of the royal centre help us to identify the sector as the Noble’s Quarter. Nevertheless, the quarter was also carefully planned for habitation of the elite class and provided with largest source of drinking water in vicinity and other urban amenities such as easy access to the main arterial road of the city, well planned canal made both for carrying of daily waste as well as diffusion of excessive rain water from the large lake on the east, connecting subsidiary roads with other part of the city.

The third important and the largest zone in the city has been termed as Urban Core comprising of Sectors 1,2, 4 and 6. On the basis of the surface explorations, the area around the Royal Palace stretching from Great Golden Mosque [Bada Sona] on the north to the city wall on the south and double embankment on the east to the bank of the Bhagirathy on the west can roughly be defined as the Urban Core of the medieval city of Gaur. This part of the city is situated around the royal centre in a half circular manner and was warded off from the fringe area by a raised causeway. Density of population here was probably the highest as revealed through the traces of clustered settlements, occurrences of large and small tanks, bridges, mosques, canals, high ways and causeways and other structures and monuments.

At the northern end of urban core lies the principal mosque of the city known as Bada Sona Mosque used for the weekly congregational prayer (sector 6). The area to the west of it is marked by a structural mound with stone pillars scattered around, traces of sewerage system and a large concentration of the usual archaeological assemblages of medium to inferior quality denoting the area to be extensively populated and frequented by all classes of people and probably having a market place within it.

Just opposite the Noble’s Quarter, (sector 4) on the right hand side of the arterial road stands the grand Tantipara Mosque. The size of the mosque and its rich terracotta decoration on the façade and in inside, suggests that it used to cater a large number of people belonging to the elite core. Surprisingly enough, the result of surface exploration in and around the mosque belies the suggestions because the artefacts are of quite inferior quality and distribution of them is very sparse and erratic as well. However, we should mention here that a considerable part of this sector is completely unapproachable due to thickets and cultivation of mulberry.

The sector east of the main arterial road i.e. sector 2 has not been explored thoroughly since a considerable portion of it falls within the modern Bangladesh. The zone is marked by raised causeway starting from a Bridge named Nungola on the main canal on the east and runs along the eastern side of the Sagar dighi through the entire breadth of the city. This causeway cordoned off the noble’s quarter and urban core from the fringe area of the city protecting it from inundation. Through the surface exploration carried out in this area the team has located only five sites which revealed the usual assemblage of coarse pottery, porcelains, celadon, glass ware but very sparsely distributed. Two bridges, one having a single arch and the other having double arches are situated in this area connecting it with the fringe area of the city. The ruin of a mosque locally known as Mashagidda can still be identified with difficulty, which served as the place of worship. From the indication of the surface finding the area appears to be inhabited by middle class people of secondary occupation.

There are also two other distinct functional zones in the city as revealed through our explorations, namely Garrison area and Fringe area.

Garrison Area: A narrow strip of the land stretching from the north of Dakhil Darwaza to the north entrance of the city is separated from the other parts of the city by a raised road used for military purpose. Within this narrow tract lies a small fort known as Phulbari fort, enclosed by huge mud wall on three sides and river Bhagirathi on the west. Extensive surface exploration conducted in this fort has brought to light a large quantity of iron slag along with other artifacts. The location of the fort is suitable for the army barracks or headquarters having the ordnance factory within it as the huge quantity of iron slag would suggest. Surface exploration at Phulbari fort area also yielded a good number of coarse pottery and ordinary brickbats and a few good quality porcelain and celadon ware. Behind the Phulbari fort to the east of Phulbari fort, on the other side of the road running from north to the palace in the south via Phulbari, the team has located ruins of a mosque of which there is no reference in any maps, even the base map. The stone pillars of the mosque are heavily decorated with exquisite Islamic patterns and dispersed over a structural mound. The mosque was probably erected for the troops to offer their prayer.

A tract of land between the army Garrison and the main arterial road running parallel to it has a striking topography. The entire area has a shallow basin like formation and full of sandy soil unsuitable for any kind of cultivation as well as human habitation.

Fringe Area: The area situated between Peasbari Dighi on the north to the canal end near choto sagar dighi on the south and the arterial road of the city on the west to the double embankment on the east can be termed as the Fringe area of the city. Within this spread, the portion of land lying beyond the raised causeway and encircling the noble’s quarter is not accessible. But the area beyond the canal, which runs through the bridge of three arches upto, Peasbaridighi, is relatively accessible and may be once populated. From surface exploration in the village Beki, and its surroundings within this zone, we have found all the diagnostic artifacts of the sultanate period but of inferior quality. The people of lower income group evidently inhabited the area. This tract is low lying compare to the other parts of the city and was relatively insecure during the monsoon because there was a watercourse inside the embankment that could have easily led to water logging of this low lying tract. Moreover, there was no canal inside to diffuse the water. In the northern end of this area a huge structural mound overlooking the Peasbari dighi (above which the present Duk Banglows of the Zilla Parishad stands), has been identified as the remains of the prison of the city. The exploration work in this area revealed ruins of official structures made up of ordinary bricks without embellishment.

The residual part of the city beyond Peasbari dighi upto the northern city wall is now a long stretch of agricultural land. The exact use of this area in the Sultanate period is not clear to us but as suggested earlier was probably used for cultivation of emergency crop when the city was besieged. Exploration conducted in the area revealed no trace of habitation.

Bibliography:

1. Suchira Roychoudhury, Gaur The Medieval City of Bengal, c. 1450-1565

2. Gautam Sengupta and Sheena Panja, (ed), Archaeology of Eastern India: A New Perspectives, 2002

3. Aniruddha Ray, ‘Archaeological reconnaissance at the city of Gaur: A preliminary report’, Pratna Sameeksha, Vols II and III, pp. 245-63

4. Sutapa Sinha, ‘Rediscovering Gaur: a medieval capital of Bengal’, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh (Hum.), Vol. 58(1), Dhaka, 2013, pp. 27-65

5. Sutapa Sinha, ‘Settlement Pattern through Archaeological Finds, PratnaSamiksha (A Journal of Archaeology), New Series 3, 2012, pp. 127-37

6. Sutapa Sinha, ‘Archaeology of the Medieval City of Gaur’, Archaeology of Eastern India: A New Perspectives, (Eds.Gautam Sengupta and Sheena Panja), Kolkata, 2002, pp. 329-356.

• Ali Nadeem Rezavi

Published by

nadeemrezavi

A history buff interested to unravel the past as it was!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s