Gour PE Wrap-up – The Baishgazi wall and the Gour landscape

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The Baishgazi wall was a massive brick wall built by Sultan Nasiruddin Mahmud Shah to protect and encircle the main palace area of Gaur. Much of the palace now lies in ruin where just the foundations remain. 

 

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The archaeological site is still being excavated by the ASI but the caretakers here appeared to be pessimistic about the possibilities of uncovering anything worthwhile in the future. On a quiet day, you find more goats than people wandering about the brick foundations.

 

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The site is reached by walking through a verdant green landscape of mango orchards and photogenic pools of water. It’s worth coming all the way to Gour just to experience what a true rural hinterland in Bengal could be like.

 

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Languid fishing poles loll in stagnant pools of water while fishing boats float by to inspect the catch. It feels as if these scenes couldn’t have played out very differently in the 15th century to which many of the monuments that dot the landscape belong.

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Gour PE #3 – The mango groves, Chika mosque and Gumti Darwaza

Kids ought to be playing with toys and not selling them. This is not a perfect picture by any means (it’s somewhat out of focus and not exposed perfectly) but it’s a moment that moved me. It’s heartbreaking to see kids working around these tourist sites when they should be playing and going to school.
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The ancient landscape of Gaur is peppered with mango groves. They probably look more beautiful in summer when they are in full bloom.
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It was a school picnic on one of the days I went to Gour and the little brats were all over the place running around, screaming, livening up the sombre landscape of the ancient capital
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This imposing Mughal era brick and stone gateway called Lukochuri Darwaza is said to have been built in 1655 AD by Shah Shuja, the brother of Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb.
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The Chika Mosque (aka Bat mosque), built possibly in the 15th century could have served to house the tomb of Sultan Jalaluddin Muhammad. It fell into ruin centuries ago and was taken over by colonies of bats.
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The Gumti gateway, built by Alauddin Hussian Shah in 1512 AD, still retains some of the colourful cornice decorations around its walls. It’s a small, unimposing, yet beautiful building to stare at for a few minutes.
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Here I distract the kids with my big camera while they parade around the walls of the Chika Masjid
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Gour PE #2 – Firoz Minar, Qadam Rasul Masjid and Fateh Khan’s tomb

Just down the road from the Dakhil Darwaza and the Baroduari mosque, you find a tall tower said to be built by Saifuddin Firoz Shah to commemorate a military victory. 

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And a 2 minute walk from the minar will get you to the Qadam Rasul Mosque, which is said to contain the Prophet’s footprints. Built by Nusrat Shah in 1530 AD, the compound also hosts the tomb of Fateh Khan, who was a commander of Aurangzeb’s army. A caretaker ferries you around if you’re interested and admonishes you if you take pictures inside. It’s a rather sombre site if you manage to ignore people taking group pictures and selfies outside the tomb and while the site is ruinous, it does retain a little architectural glory in its marble columns and the brick engravings on its walls.

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Fateh Khan’s tomb, remarkable for its architecture which is completely different from the shells of other buildings around
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One of the guardians of the Prophet’s footprint
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Because group pictures are a totally done thing when you’re near ancient walls
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The old walls of the Qadam Rasul compound
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A caretaker at Fateh Khan’s tomb
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Around these ancient structures, the bucolic life in the old capital continues like it always has
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Gour #1 – The Boro Shona Mosque

A few kilometers south of Malda and Ramkeli, close to the Bangladesh border, one finds the ruins of the ancient seat of power at Gour. It’s not a particularly difficult place to get to – autorickshaws from the WBTDC Hotel in Malda charge a quite reasonable 400 Rs. for a full day trip to the monuments here.

Although its early history is unclear (it is said have been an important cultural center during the Pala dynasty and the Senas before them but there isn’t a lot of archaeological evidence that points to either), Gour came into historical prominence with the Sultans of Bengal who made it their capital for over 3 centuries from the 12th century AD.

The Boro Shona Masjid (The Big Golden Mosque) is also known as the Baroduari Masjid aka the 12 door mosque (though the structure only has 11) was commissioned by the then Sultan of Bengal Alauddin Shah and built by his son Nusrat Shah in 1521 after his death. Alauddin Shah became Sultan after he ended the brief rule of the Abyssinian Habshi synasty by overthrowing then ruler Muzaffar Shah. This mosque, the largest of all monuments in the Gour area, is supposed to have been his masterpiece. While much of it lies in ruin, its scale and architectural excellence is still imposing. It’s walls were once gilded in gold (giving the mosque its original title) and was built to commemorate the 15th century Sufi saint Nur Qutb e-Alam. Some of the doorways still serve as gateways to get in and out of what is now a peaceful, bucolic village.

The first three pictures are of the Dakhil Darwaza, the magnificent gateway which serves to provide access to what was once a fortified citadel.

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Two evenings in Darjeeling

img_5260On the top floor restaurant of my hotel in Darjeeling, P looked decidedly more upset and downbeat than I had ever seen her. She was fiddling with her phone at the payment desk in an attempt to look busy. The group of brash, young Australian backpackers had tested her patience with their disrespectful comments and crude behavior. They had pretended not to like the soup and momos they had ordered and were complaining incessantly like spoilt little brats about the lack of heating in the space. In response to their diatribe, she had provided them with additional hot water bags, given them a generous post check-in discount on their room and hadn’t charged them for the food they finished. On the way down to their rooms, when they thought she was out of earshot range, they laughed and hi-fived each other for having duped the woman into giving them a deal. But the wooden floors and the silence of the night had carried their voices all the way to the top floor.

I approached her desk tenderly on the pretext of getting some tissue paper to wipe my hands. She looked at me with a distressed look on her face and said, “My father would have thrown them out, you know. But I am not like my father.”

I had been staying in the hotel for over 3 weeks and we had seen each other every day at breakfast and dinner but had never interacted beyond the obligatory smiles and greetings. She was comfortable in her own shell and I was in mine, reading some book or staring vacantly at the Kanchenjunga. So I was somewhat shocked to see her open up to me the way she did.

Her father, I learnt, was an ex-Gurkha who had fought for the British Army. He was also a bibliophile who was responsible for decorating the restaurant with a sprawling library. He was an extrovert who liked to entertain his guests by talking to them as long as they wished and was meticulously attentive to their needs. But now, he was an old man living in their house in Siliguri leaving the business to his younger daughter. Being heavily introverted and completely disinterested in the whole business of running hotels, P was nothing like her father. She didn’t like interacting with guests and was happy doing her stitching, cooking and skyping with her daughter.

This brought her to the matter of her divorce. Her ex-husband was a powerful man in Gorkhaland and like some powerful men, he liked to throw his dick around. One day, after she had protested strongly, he broke all the furniture in the house, left and never came back. The divorce proceedings were messy and though he hardly attended any of the hearings, he was excused from paying alimony. Her daughter now lived in London with her brother’s family who had settled there and squeaked in a British accent whenever she came to visit her.

Considering all this, she found it thankless of her father to be so adamant on keeping the hotel a family-run business instead of leasing it to somebody else like most of the other hotels had done in Darjeeling. “It’s expensive, full of cheating and I don’t know accounts. So we lose money also. But he never listens!”, she said angrily. To cheer her up, I told her a few of my travel tales like the time I lost a phone in a train making the other passengers frantically look for it only to find it safely hidden away in a dark corner of my bag and the time when my big rucksack inadverdently bumped into an idli stall at a railway station spilling all the contents on the floor and being labeled a “bulldozer” as a result.

“I’m happy we are finally talking”, she said, “I see you every day but we never talk. You’re always busy in your book. These westerners are very artificial. My father loved talking to them and used to be a little rude to Bengali tourists because they were so demanding. But I think the Westerners are even worse. I feel they’re always making fun of you in their mind. At least, Bengalis are more honest. They will tell you what they think to your face.”

She had to interrupt her anthropological analysis when she realized that I hadn’t eaten dinner and made me a big plate of momos with generous bowls of soup. It was freezing inside and she brought a hot water bag to put under my feet to keep me warm. I felt less like a hotel guest than a close family friend who had come by for a visit and I told her that. She laughed and said, “If all guests were nice, I would have no problem running this hotel. It’s not that I don’t like this business but many people who come here speak rudely and that affects me. I don’t know how to handle that. My father never bothered about those things. No one spoke rudely to him because they were scared of him. I’m not scary. He would just throw people out if he didn’t like them.”

img_6024The next day, after a long exhausting stroll around the hills, I came back to my room to take a nap in the afternoon. I dozed off for a far longer time than I had planned to and woke up with a start when I heard someone banging at my door. It was the manager who manned the reception downstairs. “Didi wants to see you upstairs”, he said. Not knowing what to expect and expecting the worst as I’m always won’t to, I got dressed quickly and rushed upstairs.

She asked me to come over to the terrace where she lived. There, she had set up a table with a pot of hot tea and two mugs. It was one of the best vantage points in Darjeeling to see the Kanchenjunga range and the city below and I had come here innumerable times to take pictures. But today, it was a special evening.

“How could you stay in your room when the day is so beautiful,” she said, while pouring me a cuppa, “I thought you had gone for trekking but the manager told me you were back in your room. I was worried for you. I hope you are okay.”

The sky that day was truly special. Cirrocumulus clouds extended above us as far as we could see and in the distance, unobstructed, rose the Kanchenjunga. It’s five peaks could be clearly discerned and while we were quietly sipping away our cuppas, the entire spectrum of colours were seen reflected on the clouds and the Himalayan mountains in harmony with the setting sun. The scale of such a grand visual spectacle is impossible to capture in a photograph. Everywhere we looked, the colours were mixing, connecting, blending with and bleeding into each other, on the clouds, in the city below and the snowy peaks in the distance. It was like watching a giant abstract invisible paintbox at work and along with the pot of tea, the landscape, the warm hospitality, it became one of the most memorably beautiful evenings of my travels.

I thanked P profusely for waking me up from my slumber. She said she would have done it even if the sky wasn’t as spectacular as it was. She was leaving for Siliguri the next day and would be away for a few weeks leaving her managers to handle the business. “I don’t know when I will meet you again. You should come home and meet my father. He will like you very much because he also likes reading books like you. Give me a call if you come to Siliguri. You can come to my house and eat momos.”

In the weeks immediately after I left Darjeeling and traveled through the heart of West Bengal, people (both travelers and locals) appeared perplexed every time I waxed rhapsodies about what had become (and still is) my favourite place in the hills. And even though I have always recognized the indisputable fact that travel was that most subjective of life experiences, I found it hard to accept the way a lot of travelers I spoke with ran the place down as too crowded, polluted and chaotic to love. Maybe they didn’t see the sunsets I had seen or met the people I had met. Maybe the hotels were awful and they stayed in the crowded and noisy tourist area downtown but how could anyone not be exhilarated by the sight of Kanchenjunga, whose snow white peaks on some misty days appear to be suspended in the air high above the town.

I became so used to seeing the mountain every day that I took it for granted until the day I left when I caught a final glimpse of its magnificent architecture on the way down to Siliguri and as the road wound down towards the plains of Bengal, the lump in my throat got bigger and bigger.

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