The lost city of Champaner is one of India’s forgotten gems – and it’s not even hard to get to.
The road from Baroda is a highway to the new India, humming with trucks, a flat, smooth drive past industrial parks and scrubby fields. Then, after 40 kilometres or so, a mountain builds as suddenly as a storm cloud on the horizon and the taxi turns off behind a cluster of factories. Soon enough it passes through a stone wall pierced by an arched gate, and the prosperous tedium of 21st century Gujarat gives way to a time before the Mughals.
The mountain is called Pavagadh and it’s obvious at a glance that it’s a natural fortification. Battlements still drape its flanks like lizards in the sun, four and a half centuries after the place was abandoned. Before long, the road is skirting a gargantuan crenellated rampart at the base of the hill.
The entry to Champaner begins with a labyrinthine twirling about the city walls, giving the impression that there is something magnificent, a palace or a pleasure garden, at the kernel of the place, if only the car can complete enough tight spirals to get there. Instead, you pass a ragged string of stalls that form the commercial hub, and emerge on the other side of town. The taxi pulls up at the Sahar ki Masjid, or royal mosque, and all of a sudden you know that you’re somewhere very unusual.
The building, made of mottled blond and red sandstone with the texture of milk cake, seems somehow to float on its foundations, lifted by twin minarets and one or two restrained sculptural flourishes. The interior is softly lit by latticed windows, the simple geometric trim of the pillars and domes suspending the structure as if it weighed nothing.
Once known as Muhammadabad, Champaner enjoyed its moment of glory between 1484, when the Sultan of Gujarat made it his second capital, and 1534, when it was attacked by the Mughal ruler Humayun and the capital was shifted to Ahmedabad. A brief, but obviously very busy half-century, in which an awful lot of stone was heaved about a small area. It doesn’t look like a lot has happened since then, except for a relatively recent flurry of restoration work.
Normally I’m at best a one-mosque-a-day man, but a visit to Champaner has its own logic, and the overpowering weight of that logic takes you to not just one, but at least four mosques. Each is a revelation. The jewel in the crown is the Jama Masjid, raised on a high plinth behind reconstructed walls. As well as all the things that make the Sahar ki Masjid such a wonder, there is a cloistered forecourt with a lush lawn and a garlanded tomb, a clerestory ceiling shedding light and air throughout the building, and a succession of windows divided into squares, each carved in individual geometric patterns through which a dappled light shines.
After an hour or more drinking in this glory, we meander up a dirt road, past fields of corn and forest creeping with lantana, to a couple more mosques, the Kevda Masjid and the Nagina Masjid. Each features a cenotaph out front, gorgeously carved and, in the case of the Nagina Masjid, flaunting impeccable proportions. Hoop-like openings to the sky, where domes have collapsed, add an unintended dimension of drama.
The remarkable thing about Champaner, though, is that nobody seems to know about it. Let the lantana grow back, and it would revert to lost city status within a season. Although the site was inscribed on the World Heritage list in 2004, it falls in a state where business is the all-consuming concern, outside a city that is better known for banking than for historic sites. Tourists just don’t seem to go to Gujarat much, but any who do will find it well-run and happily hassle-free. Baroda, or Vadodara as it is now known, is on the main Delhi-Bombay railway line, so a trip to Champaner is not difficult to organise.
Ending the day with a look at a pleasure pavilion by a lake where a slick-haired boy canoodled with his girl as the sun set behind Pavagadh, it was time to head up the hill. Machi, halfway up, is host to that rarest of things – a clean, well-designed, affordable, state-run hotel with decent food. In the morning the plains below were spun with a light mist which clung to the trees like a cobweb.
If the plains of Champaner are the place for architectural refinement, then the flanks of Pavagadh are about sheer muscle. I wandered through a succession of gates and the remnants of massive walls, stopping at the appropriately named Atak Gate where the remains of a gigantic catapult base stood as a reminder of long ago battles. Bits of forts lie scattered across the hillside, most only accessible on foot and too numerous to see in a single morning. To have a few days to explore the area would be wonderful, and would surely yield a few Indiana Jones moments.
Instead I took the ropeway up to the top of the hill, where Hindus and Muslims both worship at the Mahakali temple, and there are fine views of the surrounding country. You then descend via a long stone staircase, along with hundreds of pilgrims, through medieval gates and past lakes and ancient temples, back down to Machi. The hilltop temples attract pilgrims by the lakh, while the historic sites at the bottom get a handful.
Driving back down to Champaner, there was time to visit a few more sites before heading back to Baroda. The customs house and a cell block only reinforced the impression that there really wasn’t much to see within the city walls, but a succession of little gems lined the road back out of town.
First was the tomb of Sakar Khan, a cube topped by a dome built from a patchwork of multihued sandstone. Almost opposite lay an elegant well in the shape of a keyhole, with a staircase that spiralled round one edge to the bottom, its distinctiveness belied by its prosaic name – the Helical Step Well. Finally we visited the Ek Minar ki Masjid, with its single surviving tower thrusting dramatically against the backdrop of Pavagadh. No more than a minar, a plinth and a scattering of carved stones, the mosque somehow still possessed the same magic as its intact neighbours.