The king of fruits, the mango, demands a trip to Malda town (the district headquarters of the northern part of Bengal), in the blistering summer, according to my childhood friend, who had been asking me to visit his ancestral home since long. He promised me a sumptuous breakfast in his mango orchard, alongside a trip through Bengal’s history. Well, the invitation for the mangoes was certainly tempting but my timing was wrong. As a result, I missed the fruits in <g data-gr-id="102">season</g> but got a glimpse into the fascinating history of Bengal. But if you can plan ahead, you could find yourself picking up ripe <g data-gr-id="82">Fajli</g> or Begambhog mangoes directly from the trees. Mulberry plantations and mango orchards occupy large areas; mango trade and silk manufacture are the main economic activities. Malda is also India’s largest producer of excellent quality jute. Malda is the base for a visit to Gour-<g data-gr-id="83">Pandua</g>, <g data-gr-id="101">medieval</g> capital of Bengal.
Rising from the flooded paddy fields of Gaur (355 km from Kolkata) are the glorious mosques and other crumbling ruins of the 13th-to-16th-century capital of the Muslim sultanate of Bengal. But little remains from the 7th-to-12th-century pre-Muslim period, when Gaur was the capital of the successive Buddhist Pala and Hindu Sena dynasties. The twin towns are located north and south of Malda town. Gaur was a major Buddhist city in the 8th century. Recent excavation sites like Jagjivanpur show many Buddhist ruins. These mango orchards have been witness to the rise and fall of many empires, both Gaur and Pandua having seen many dynasties bite the dust. It saw the heyday of the last Hindu rulers of Bengal, the <g data-gr-id="87">Senas</g> in the 12th century till it was plundered by the Turks in 1204. The 14th century saw the Afghans run over the city and shift the capital to <g data-gr-id="88">Pandua</g>. It is reported that the entire population of the city was wiped out in a plague just before the Mughals established their reign there in the 15th century. The Muslim nawabs ruled here till the Battle of Palashi in 1757.
Hiding behind lush mango orchards, the most graceful monuments in this area are the impressive Baradwari Mosque (1526) – the <g data-gr-id="124">arcaded</g> aisle of its corridor still intact – and the fortress-like gateway of Dakhil Darwaza (1425). The Qadam Rasul Mosque enshrines the flat footprint of the Prophet Mohammed. The adjacent tomb of Fatah Khan (1707) startlingly informs you that ‘he vomited blood and died on this spot.’ Lotus-flower motifs grace the terracotta facade of the Tantipara mosque while remnants of colourful enamel cling to the <g data-gr-id="125">Chamkan</g> mosque and Gumti Darwaza nearby.
The monuments now are <g data-gr-id="123">mute</g> testimony to those exciting times. Malda Museum also has a small collection of sculpture and coins from Gaur and Pandua. On the way to Gaur, do stop by at the village of Ramkeli, where the Vaishnav saint Sri Chaitanya is said to have spent a couple of days on his way to Vrindavan. A small temple has been built under tamal and <g data-gr-id="116">kadamba</g> trees where he meditated. His footprints are enshrined in the temple. At Gaur, you can see the Bara Sona Masjid (literally large golden mosque) dating back to 1526. It’s once gilded roof with 44 domes (of which 11 still remain) gives it its name. Built by Sultan Nusrat Shah it is the largest mosque in Gaur, referred to as <g data-gr-id="117">Baraduari</g> Mosque (mosque of 12 doors).
Built between 1493 and 1526, there is also the well-preserved ‘Chota Sona Masjid’, oddly named given that it’s actually jet black with just patches of terracotta brickwork. Despite its misleading name, it’s a fine specimen of pre-Mughal architecture. The chief attraction here is the superb decoration carved on the <g data-gr-id="131">black-stone</g> walls. On both the inner and outer walls, ornate stonework in shallow relief covers the surface. It also features an ornate women’s gallery, arched gateways and lavishly decorated mihrabs. This living mosque draws in large crowds for Friday prayers, but outside prayer time it’s fine for non-Muslims to enter. This mosque is usually just referred to as ‘Sona Masjid’. The bus from Rajshahi stops right beside it. About 100 m beyond Sona Masjid, keep walking until you reach a small complex of ruins overlooking a small pond. The principle building here is the Tahkhana Palace, built by Shah Shuja in the early 17th century and the area’s major Mughal-era building. A large two-storey brick edifice, it once contained more than two dozen rooms as well as a hammam (bathhouse) served by terracotta water pipes. Just beyond this is the attractive Shah Niamatullah Mosque, a three-domed mosque built in 1560 and close by is Shah Niamatullah’s mausoleum.
Gaur is surrounded on all sides by numerous <g data-gr-id="84">darwazas</g> or gates. Kotwali Darwaza now marks the border to Bangladesh. Also worth a visit are the <g data-gr-id="85">Lattan</g> mosque (built for and named after a famous courtesan by the Sultan). Darasbari Masjid is about 1 km beyond Sona Masjid. Turn left down a signposted lane and you’ll come to this palace-like mosque built in 1470. It’s no longer an active <g data-gr-id="95">mosque,</g> and is largely in ruins – the domed roof collapsed some time ago – but its red-brick archways are highly attractive, as is the secluded grassy location. About 750 m beyond the turn-off for Darasbari Mosque, turn right at the bus stand and keep walking for around 250 m until you see a sign directing you off to the right to the gorgeous single-domed Khania Dighi mosque. Also known as <g data-gr-id="128">Rajbibi</g> Mosque, it was built in 1490 and is in excellent condition. It has some ornately decorated walls, embellished primarily with terracotta floral designs, but it’s the domed roof that is the attraction.
Built of thousands of minuscule bricks, it’s one of <g data-gr-id="98">the more</g> arresting mosques in the country. Like the Chhota Sona Masjid, it’s a working mosque, in which Friday prayers are especially animated. It’s fine for women to enter outside prayer <g data-gr-id="96">time</g> but they must be respectfully dressed. The mosque’s position, crouching under huge <g data-gr-id="130">stumpy</g> mango trees (May to June is mango season), beside a large lily- and duck-covered pond, only helps to enhance its <g data-gr-id="92">beauty,</g> and a perfect spot for a picnic.
The typically <g data-gr-id="126">home grown</g> style of mosque construction in West Bengal can be seen in Chamakti Masjid (shining masjid) which is one of the oldest structures, its history dating back to 1478. Our interest, however, lay in <g data-gr-id="127">Pandua</g> and particularly the vast ruins of the Adina Masjid, the largest mosque in the subcontinent. It covers an area of 152 meters by 92 metres. It was built in 1374 by Sultan Sikander Shah who was the second ruler of the Ilyas Shahi dynasty. It typifies the heights to which the magnificent architecture of the period had developed. The famous Jama Masjid of Delhi is tiny in comparison.
<g data-gr-id="113">Unfortunately</g> it is difficult to trace the exact history of the mosque as the earliest records of it <g data-gr-id="111">are</g> found only in <g data-gr-id="112">17th century</g> writings. It typifies the traditional hypostyle of architecture which was used by the Muslim rulers in conquered territories and is the only one of its kind in West Bengal.
Inscriptions from 4 different chapters of the Koran can be found on it. Legend has it that the Shah found his final resting place next to his beloved Mosque. About 2 km away is the Eklakhi Mausoleum, so called because it cost Rs 1 lakh to build way back in 1431.