A drive through the stellar highways, and then through the rugged, barren, rough and dusty tracks of Bengal, leads one to Malda, the city that is historically synonymous with ‘Gaur’.
An approximate two hundred and twenty miles from the capital city of Bengal, Malda is a seven hour journey via the Badshahi Grand Trunk Road.
Gaur, the city where heritage resurrects itself alive, was once the pompous capital of the flourishing kingdom of Bengal.
It has seen kings come and go, dynasties rise and fall and kingdoms built and destroyed.
Since times of Panini, Malda has borne an everlasting significance in the pages of the Indian history.
Gaur had always been a major hub for the Guptas whose relics, which include unearthed inscriptions at the undivided Dinajpurs and the mentions in Samudragupta’s Allahabad pillar inscriptions, still appraise its glory. However, talking about the widely known Bengal capital, Shashanka was its first independent ruler.
Malda was popular for being the capital city of the Pala kings of Bengal, extensively known for their Buddhist patronage in the region. The kingdom has seen benevolent emperors which include Gopala, Dharmapala and Devapala. The Palas are also remembered for the Tripartite struggle, which they found themselves jostled into.
Immediately in succession to the Palas, the Senas ruled Bengal. Being orthodox Hindus, the Buddhist chapter had found its closure in the Bengal demography.
Bakhtiyar Khilji, the Afghani General routed the Senas under King Lakshmana Sen, in 1204 CE. The glory that Gaur had brought to the Indian subcontinent, gradually commenced to fade.
The city was thereafter called, ‘Mal Daha’, instead of the earlier ‘Gaur’.
It was one of the earliest kingdoms to have gotten a ruler of the Habshi African ethnicity, Barabak Shahzada, an African eunuch turned noble.
After his assassination, Malda saw a rise in its grandeur and prominence in architectural works of beauty and magnificence. From the secular Feroze Minar, built by Sultan Firuz Shah, successor of Barbak Shahzada, to the colossal Adina Masjid, Asia’s largest mosque then, Mal Daha was rightly renamed Jannatabad (Garden of Heaven), by the mango loving Emperor Humayun, who was stationed here, while raging battles against Sher Shah Suri
A series of invasions led it to fall into the Mughal hands after which the provincial capital was shifted to Dhaka, citing changes in the course of the Ganges. Malda became a forgotten legend.
Today, Malda is one of the most popular tourist destinations for a history fanatic. Almost all of the major religious festivals are celebrated here with grandeur, some dating back their seeds to almost five centuries! The Malda landlords are credited as being the pioneers of establishing the vibrant and pompous atmosphere of the Durga Puja celebrations, as we commemorate it today, in as early as the sixteenth century.
There is also an Eid Fair, held annually at the Pirana Pir Dargah and a Muharram fair held at Sattari, a village locality.
Coming back to the architectural marvels, Adina Masjid, the then largest mosque in Asia, is a mausoleum to the Sultan Sikandar Shah, who carried lofty titles like, ‘The Caliph of the Faithful’ and ‘the exalted Sultan’. The mosque was a conglomeration of the Bengal, Arab, Byzantine and Persian architecture.
What makes it a significant artistic symbol is however, the Buddhist and the Hindu carvings that find prominence among the Islamic structures of the mosque.
This grand, colossal structure was built from the dismantled remains of the Buddhist and the Hindu structures, an instance being a Ganesha idol on its wall.
However, Professor Siddhartha Shankar Manna from the Gourbanga University says, “Although the architecture at Adina highlights secularism, it is an entirely new concept and hence, cannot be put in context to that era. We are however sure of a multicultural existence during the period.”
Besides the Adina Masjid, there is the Qadam Rasul mosque which is said to contain the footprints of the Prophet Muhammed.
Lukachori Gateway, Dakhil Darwaza, Choto Sona Mosque, Mughal Tahakhana, Darasbari Mosque, Gauda pillar, Lattan Mosque, Baro Shona Masjid and Ballal Bati are other historical structures that find thousands of tourists from around the world visiting them, each year.
Tourists have always been familiar to ‘Gaur’. Medieval Portuguese diplomats, Eurasian merchants and travellers from various corners of the world have found their way to Gaur during the medieval centuries.
Stories and couplets of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s processions are well described by Vaishnav poets and contemporaries.
Gaur has always extended asylums to foreign kings, an instance being the King of Arakan, Ming Saw Mon, who regained his territory after repeated offensives launched from Gaur.
Malda probably lost its grandeur and its political importance after the capital shifted to Dhaka. But, talking of its earlier glory and a plausible enhancement in tourism, Naveen Chandra, IAS, Assistant Collector and Additional District Magistrate of Malda quoted, “Malda is a historic city, the former capital of Bengal, the old city of Gaur also being a commercial hotspot. Today, the city is a great tourist attraction. Also, the Adina deer park is a beautiful natural weekend getaway and the newly constructed Eco Park will surely prove to be a hit due to its location and the wonderful way in which it has been constructed. One might see some “Mango-Tourism” Resort come up soon as well. Malda is very conveniently located as well, a Railways division makes it very accessible. I am sure it will be a great tourist destination in the coming years.”
Talking about the grandeur of Malda, Hunter recalls, “Maldah, metropolis of Bengal, with its long line of kings, its gigantic walls and arches, its once stately palaces now the kennels of jackals and the vast -untenanted city which has been left standing as a spectacle of desolation and warning to those who now are to India, what its builders once were…”
The author is a Fellow of the
Royal Asiatic Society of London.