A former capital of Gujarat, dating back to a prehistoric era, Champaner flourished at the base of a volcanic origin hill called Pavagadh. The city built in the 8th century by the Rajput Chavda dynasty subsequently changed hands to the pre-Mughal sultans, and later to the Mughals who looted its coffers. Soon the city was forgotten for three centuries until archaeologists and heritage trusts discovered its ruins.
New Year’s Eve is always about partying with friends either with an overnight trip to a nearby destination or at a friend’s home. In a departure from the routine three years ago, we decided to explore Gujarat.
On landing in Vadodara at night, we headed to the Gujarat Tourism kiosk at the airport to grab hold of the tourist guide books and maps that I thought would come in handy. We were pleasantly surprised to interact with an enthusiastic staff member who seemed genuinely happy in helping us plan our itinerary so that we could explore as much as possible during the period of our stay.
After checking into our hotel, we had a quick dinner and retired early to bed. We would be fresh the next morning to explore the Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Champaner dates to the Copper Age and consists of forts, mosques, cenotaphs, palaces, step-wells and numerous other structures that thrived at the base of the Pavagadh hill home to ancient temples visited by pilgrims till today. What is impressive about this site is that ‘it is the only complete and unchanged Islamic pre-Mughal city’.
We hired a cab to Champaner, which is an hour’s drive from Vadodara, and got off at the main road adjacent to the fort ramparts. As we walked through the walled gates of the citadel, we realized that there were hardly any tourists around, not even a guide. We began doubting if it was a World Heritage Site. Was our trip going to be like a dud firework with no spark and false claims?
We strolled out of the fort and asked our cab driver where we could see the mosques that this place was known for. Seeing our confused expression, a thin, lanky guy introduced himself as Kishan – the guide who could take us around. Left with no choice, we decided to hire his services. As is a usual practice, I had carried a printout with pictures of all the monuments that we wanted to see, and our guide agreed to show us around.
Shaher Ki Masjid or the City Mosque was the first mosque built in Champaner in the 16th century by Sultan Mehmud Begda. This private mosque of the Sultan and the royal family had five domes, arched doorways and two minarets and was in a remarkably good condition.
We then walked through a narrow road overgrown with thorny shrubs to the Kevada Masjid. On a raised platform was a rectangular cenotaph with a series of pillars and a three-domed roof. Behind the cenotaph was the mosque which was a smaller version of the Shaher Ki Masjid. The central dome of the mosque was missing so we could see the azure blue sky above us from within the circular opening of the yellow and pink sandstone mosque which made for unusual but remarkable photo composition.
Usually, heritage sites are buzzing with tourists and often one is pushed or distracted or disturbed by fellow visitors. But here it was just the converse, we were the only visitors and could patiently click pictures, admire the minutiae and soak up the ambience.
Next in line was the Nagina Masjid which too had a cenotaph with no dome but its four walls and pillars very intricately carved. The mosque gets its name ‘Nagina’ meaning jewel from jewellers who frequented this mosque in search of designs that they could replicate in their jewellery! The two-storeyed mosque had intact domes and a balcony overlooking the surrounding landscape. After exiting this mosque, we walked on a kaccha road and soon found ourselves amid a herd of goats, a rare treat for city dwellers like us.
The Jami Masjid, where the faithful assembled for the customary Friday afternoon prayers, is the most impressive monument of Champaner and is an excellent example of Indo-Islamic Architecture style. This two-storeyed mosque, with several prayer halls which are supported by 200 pillars, served as a model for later mosque architecture in India.
The mosque had three entrances, with the east one being the most impressive having intricate carvings and perforated stone lattice (jaali) work through which the light filtered in creating stunning silhouettes. The jharokhas (overhanging enclosed balconies) were reminiscent of the architecture of the havelis of Rajasthan.
Now that we had seen the mosques in Champaner, it was time for us to explore Pavagadh. One must take private jeeps which charge you a couple of rupees should you decide to share them with other pilgrims or one can shell out more in case you choose to travel on your own. The jeep drivers seeing us city folks started demanding exorbitant sums of money, and since it was a short drive, we decided to just hop into the sharing jeep.
What we hadn’t anticipated was the number of passengers the driver would squeeze in one jeep with barely any breathing space. Rather than complaining, we decided to make the most of this ‘joy ride’. After getting off at the Machi plateau, which is halfway up Pavagadh, we took the ropeway ‘Udan Khatola’ to ascend the hillock although the adventurous can choose to trek.
Pavagadh hill had numerous shops: some selling Gujarati farsan, others peddling flowers and puja items for the pilgrims to offer at the temples. There were photo booths, like the ones seen in village melas or fairs, for pilgrims to click pictures with all the necessary paraphernalia-a painted backdrop of the temple, kitschy plastic flowers in oversized pots, life-sized tiger statues… This place indeed had an old-world charm about it and transported us back in time.
After a quick lunch at a makeshift restaurant, we explored the surroundings and the Lakulisa Temple made of black stone, dating back to the 10th-11th century, which is now in ruins. The Kalki Mata temple and the Jain temples were located even higher up the hill, so we decided to skip them. There is an interesting legend that the gifted singer and Tansen’s rival Baiju Bawra who hailed from Champaner was born mute but was blessed with a beautiful voice thanks to Goddess Kali.
We then took the ropeway and headed back to Machi to see the Seven Arches or Saath Kaman. The staff at the airport Gujarat Tourism kiosk had explicitly told us to check it out, as most visitors miss it since the way to it is somewhat obscure. There were six arches made with neatly cut blocks of sandstone (while one was destroyed due to unknown reasons) that provided support to the battlements of Pavagadh fort.
Once back at Champaner, our guide took us through fields to show us the last mosque called Lila Gumbaz Ki Masjid, built on a plinth having three domes but fallen minarets. We would have never found this mosque on our own because it seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. The sad part about Champaner- Pavagadh Archaeological Park is that despite being a UNESCO World Heritage Site it didn’t have signages which could guide first-time visitors like us. Was it not for the chance encounter with our unofficial guide we would not have known how to access all these monuments?
As we were walking back, we spotted a water handpump which can only be seen in remote villages and decided to try our hands at it. Our guide then took us into the kaccha home of a villager. A whitewashed wall had a tribal Pithora painting in vibrant colours of horses, camels, elephants, and other elements of nature.
The significance of these paintings is exciting. Whenever a family is encountering a challenge, the head priest is usually approached and the problems or difficulties narrated. A solution is provided to the family and in response to which this painting is made. The Pithora paintings are a ritual signifying that the family’s wish is granted, or a problem is solved. They are thus a symbol of peace, prosperity and wellbeing. We hadn’t expected this and were charmed at this incredible finding.
It was now time for us to return to Vadodara. After freshening up at the hotel, we decided to bring in New Year’s Eve by savouring a Gujarati Thali at a restaurant. Food was served in a steel thali or plate with several katoris or bowls for the assorted preparations. Chappatis, bhakris, varieties of vegetables, three types of farsan including dhokla and patra, salads, chutneys, pickles and papads, dal and kadhi (in two versions sweet and regular) as well as rice and khichadi. A glass of the chaas or buttermilk to help wash it all down and not to forget 2-3 types of desserts!
After that marathon eating and sightseeing session, we were so sleepy and weary that we retired early to bed. We were oblivious to the firecrackers that were bursting at midnight, bringing in the new year. For us, we had discovered a novel way of celebrating New Year’s Eve. Rather than just partying, we were now choosing to travel and discover new places.
Champaner – Pavagadh is the forgotten city of Gujarat where the sere landscape is scattered with a treasure trove of mosques, tombs, arches, step wells, citadels, pilgrimage sites unknown to a lot of people but deserving more considerable attention. Not sure if the present generation of children and youth would find a trip like this exciting unless if they got to know that Champaner was the fictional location of Aamir Khan’s cricket-themed movie ‘Lagaan’.
If you’re looking for an offbeat day trip that provides a glimpse of Indo-Islamic architecture, history and heritage, village life and a dash of spirituality, then the Champaner -Pavagadh Archaeological Park located at an hour’s drive from Vadodara is what you may want to explore.
Nearest Airport: Vadodara and Ahmedabad are the nearest airports. You can then drive down from there to Champaner – Pavagadh.
Distances: Vadodara -Champaner 1 hour/ 50 km
Ahmedabad -Champaner 2 hours 30 mins/ 150 km
Where to Stay: If you plan to stay in Champaner then Gujarat Tourism run Champaner Hotel is a decent option. It is best to stay in Vadodara since it’s the nearest city which has a range of hotels to suit your budget and comfort requirements.
This travelogue was first Published in Corporate Tycoons Magazine, Oct 2018.