A personal travel blog by Ms. Reetwika Banerjee
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By hearing the word ‘terracotta’ (burnt clay of brick red colour), the first thought that comes to our mind is ancient Hindu temples of Bishnupur. But I was really amazed to discover an array of antique terracotta mosques at the lost capitals of Gour and Pandua in Malda district of West Bengal. It was a planned fort city belonging to the medieval period. Few monuments including terracotta mosques, which have passed the ravages of time, stand in bones and skeletons today; pleading for attention from the modern world. Recently, a song from the Tollywood hit ‘Bojhena Se Bojhena’ was shot at different corners of Gour and Pandua, depicting the glorious past of the ruined capitals.
Glimpse of Terracotta Artworks on Gour Mosques
Malda can be easily reached by rail or road; rail is preferred but we are long drive freaks as you know; and thus voyaged again on an audacious road drive from Kolkata via Farakka.
There are different schools of thought about the monuments of Gour and Pandua. Some say they were built by the early Hindu kings which gained ultimate prominence in 7th century AD during the reign of King Shashanka. Later when transferred to the hands of Buddhist patrons of Pals and Sens, they flourished the kingdom from 8th to 12th century AD. But when the Islamic dynasties took control over the fort in 13th century, the temples were all converted to mausoleums which seem to be the source of exquisite terracotta artworks of Gour and Pandua mosques.
Historians have mentioned about twelve mosques inside the citadel of Gour and couple of more at Pandua, the Afghan capital. But as of today, only seven have been renovated and opened to public by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). These are – Boro Sona Masjid, Qadam Rasool Masjid, Chika Masjid, Lottan Masjid, Gunmantam Masjid, Tantipara Masjid and Chamkati Masjid. Apart from these, there are Adina Masjid and Choto Sona Masjid at Pandua, around 16 kilometres from Gour.
All the mosque premises are beautifully decorated with flowering plants by ASI. However, any kind of picnic is strictly prohibited within the campuses. There is no formal parking facility at any of the monuments, but ample amateur parking space is available outside the entrances.
Boro Sona Masjid (Great Golden Mosque)
The Boro Sona Masjid (Great Golden Mosque) is the most remarkable of all the monuments of Gour, the largest of its type, if not in the entire state. It earned its name due to the gilded gold ornamentations on its domes and cornices. The arcaded aisle of the long corridor is the grandest among its other features. The brick walls and stone pillars stand straight; however, none of the gold ornate carvings exist today. But the Indo-Arabic style of architecture makes it a matchless destination for tourists.
Baro Duari Masjid
The erection of the mosque was started by Sultan Alauddin Hussain Shah and was completed in 1526 AD by his son Sultan Nasiruddin Nusrat Shah. It is a rectangular edifice comprising of a colossal prayer hall and twelve doorways, out of which only one is closed and rest all are open. Hence many call the mosque as Baro Duari Masjid (Twelve Gated Mosque).
There are three facades of the edifice, couple of which are in ruins, except one in the east which stands proudly in its original glory even today. In the south-east, there is a broken podium, which was perhaps used by the Muazzin for calling the devotees before the commencement of the holy prayer. And in the north, the remains of a ladies prayer gallery could be seen. Spending an hour at the mosque is a wonderful experience.
Qadam Rasool Masjid
A few yards from the Baro Sona Mosque stands the Qadam Rasool Masjid, built in 1531 AD by Sultan Nasiruddin Nusrat Shah. From the name itself it can be made out that this mosque houses the footprint (meaning ‘Qadam’ in Arabic) of Hazrat Muhammad (meaning ‘Rasool’ in Arabic). As per Islamic belief, whenever Prophet stepped on a holy stone, it bore a permanent impression.
Exquisite terracotta ornamentation on the inner mosque wall
In Qadam Rasool Mosque, His right footprint is enshrined on a white marble inside a single domed building with arched balconies surrounding it. On the four corners there are four stone towers made of black marble. One can also find the holy Arabic inscriptions on the eastern wall of the mosque. However, the resting shed in front of it is now in complete ravages, except a few arched facades. The most striking feature of this mosque is the exquisite terracotta artwork on its outer walls, commonly found in Hindu temples of the same era, which makes it one of the most salient monuments of Gour.
Holy Arabic inscriptions
Tomb of Fateh Ali Khan
The tomb of Dilawar Khan’s son Fateh Ali Khan, sent by Aurangzeb to kill Peer Shah Niamatullah of Gour (who was apprehended to instigate Sultan Shuja against the Emperor), is housed inside the mosque. Surprisingly, after reaching the fort Fateh Khan died out of vomiting blood and his tomb is constructed in a typical Hindu temple style (‘aat chala’) within the building. No records of the architect are documented though. Apart from Fateh Khan’s mausoleum, there are other open tombs too inside the premises. Any kind of videography is strictly prohibited inside the Qadam Rasool Masjid.
Chamkan Masjid (Bat Mosque)
The next remarkable religious monument of Gour is the Chamkan Masjid (Bat Mosque); located hardly a few steps ahead of Qadam Rasool. The name has a very unique origin. The mosque is colloquially termed as Chika alias Chamkan Masjid because it was swamped with huge number of bats (‘Chika’ in Arabic, or ‘Chamchika’ in Bengali) in past. It is a single-domed building, but now almost in ruins except the exterior walls and the backside stone pillars. The prayer hall gates are also closed for public due to the nuisance of bats.
Rear side of Chika Masjid
Though named as a mosque, it was originally a Hindu temple which is also evident from its architectural pattern and stone carvings. Impression of Hindu Gods on the stone pillars and lintels are still sparsely visible. Was taken over by the Mughals in the year 1450 AD, replacing the original stone works with enamelled bricks, typical of Islamic style. A few years later, during the reign of Sultan Hussain Shah, it was used as a royal prison house from 1493-1519 AD. After his death, it was finally converted to a mausoleum.
Our next stopover was at Lottan Masjid, a double domed structure, located on the Mahidpur highway heading towards the Indo-Bangladesh international border. The road was earlier known as King’s way or Governor’s road, but now renamed to Mahidpur highway where it ends in Indian side. Beyond it is the Nawabganj district of Bangladesh after crossing the international border. On way, we visited the vestiges of royal dock (‘Jahaj Ghata’), the palace of Hindu kings (‘Ballal Bati’) and their 22-yards high perimeter wall (locally famous as ‘Baish Gazi Dewal’).
Baish Gazi Dewal
Though named as a mosque now, but originally it was built by Sultan Yusuf Shah as a personal residence of his favourite dancer courtesan Lottan Bai. Historians say, the lady was an epitome of beauty and creativity. To ensure Lottan Bai’s dignity and also to honour her gorgeousness, the Sultan had built her this colourful mansion in 1475 AD, outside the inner fort of Gour.
Enamelled brick works on Lottan Masjid
The exterior walls were decorated with brightly painted bricks made of coloured glass powder (blue, red, white, green etc), only remnants of which could be witnessed now. It is a pity that the enamelled stones have vanished now, remaining only in bits and pieces on the outer walls. Doors are locked for public. A worn out tree in front of the entry gate is the only witness of the century old secrets hidden inside the royal edifice. The inner hall is surrounded by verandas on all sides with sloping roofs. And the entire building is located in the middle of a huge mango orchard, famous for Fajli mangoes even today. The gardens are beautifully maintained by ASI. Parking has to be done on the main road, outside the mosque.
Little ahead, inside the Muslim dwellings is the Gunmantam, another protected ASI monument of Gour. But due to traffic congestion caused by a local procession, we skipped Gunmantam, took a U-turn and proceeded towards Tantipara.
Tantipara Masjid (Weaver’s Mosque)
Tantipara Masjid (Weaver’s Mosque) is also located on the Mahidpur highway, on the opposite side of the road. In those days, Gour was famous for producing huge quantities of muslin and a heavy chunk of the population comprised of weavers.
Legends say, this mosque was built by the Sultans especially for these professionals (weavers). No ASI boards were found in front of the mosque, hence it is difficult to gauge the exact age of this building. Sadly, there are two tombs near the entrance but with no epitaphs. However the premises are well maintained by the authorities.
Unnamed tombs at Tantipara Masjid
This mosque is one of the most conspicuous of all the mosques in the area but with time it has lost its glamour. The octagonal interior domes have collapsed.
Collapsed octagonal interior domes
It is commonly believed that the mosque might have been purposely looted by the intruders as it was richly ornamented with gold works at cornices and turrets. The black stone pillars still stand strong as elegant as ever. The western side has massive prayer niches which were profusely decorated with precious stones and gilded gold in those days, but nothing exists today other than the half-fallen brick walls.
Garden side of Tantipara Masjid
Our final stopover was the Chamkati Masjid (Skin Cutter’s Mosque), also located on the Mahidpur highway within a mile from Gunmantam. It is one of the smallest mosques of Gour, hardly visited by any tourists. Once dilapidated, it has now been opened to public after restoration.
Chamkati Masjid (Skin Cutter’s Mosque)
The naming of the mosque associates with the skin-cutter class of Muslims. It is believed that this building was constructed in 1475 AD by Sultan Shamsuddin Yusuf Shah for the religious prayers of the ‘Chamkatti’ professionals. It comprises of a small dome and a three-way vaulted veranda in the east. The external walls were decorated with glazed tiles, only the ruins could be seen now. However, the beautiful terracotta reliefs have stood the weathering over centuries and can be well watched even today.
Terracotta designs on Chamkatti Masjid
With the sun setting in the west, our Gour trip ended with a bittersweet feeling. Sweet because of witnessing the awesomeness of the lost capital and capturing every bit of it through our lens. Bitter for lack of deserved attention and advertisement by the managing authorities to present the rich history of our ancient Bengal to the world at large. Hopefully, after reading this travel tale, many of you who love history and Bangla, would plan to make the twin heritage cities Gour and Pandua your next holiday destination.