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.
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.
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.
It was a fine spring morning in Aurangabad and the perfect sort of weather to plan an excursion around the city. So I went to the reception of my hotel to extend my stay for another night. After I had done so, the receptionist smiled and told me that my rickshaw was waiting outside to take me on a tour. This was puzzling. I hadn’t asked for a rickshaw and I sure as hell hadn’t told anyone that I was going anywhere. But when I took a peek outside and looked at the bearded figure of MA striking an elegant pose beside his crummy rickshaw, the pieces began to fall into place.
Even though it got a little quirky and weird towards the end, I had enjoyed MA’s company on the “greatest hits” sight-seeing tour of the city. But I wanted to spend the rest of my time exploring Aurangabad’s surroundings by myself because I just couldn’t afford a private tour every day. So, I told the receptionist that I hadn’t signed up for any tour and to please ask MA to go away. I couldn’t summon up the courage to tell him myself that I didn’t want to have anything more to do with him.
Back in my room, while I was looking at the map and the guidebook figuring out the logistics of getting to and doing the climb of Daulatabad, I heard the door-bell ring. My hotel was too stingy to have luxuries like room service, so I was genuinely surprised that the room even had a bell that worked. I opened the door to find MA’s somber face staring back at me.
“So where are you planning to go today, huh?”, he asked with an expectant look in his eyes.
“Nowhere”, I lied. “I’m planning to get out of the city tomorrow. I’ve seen everything around here. So I might just take it easy.”
“Have you been to Ellora?”, he asked, after inviting himself into the room and sitting down on the wobbly chair lying by the door.
“Yes, I went to Ellora yesterday”, I said confidently.
He crinkled his brows with suspicion, pointed an accusatory finger at me and said, “How did you go yesterday? It’s closed on Tuesdays.”
Caught red-handed in the act of lying, I felt like I was pinned to the wall.
“Yeah, yeah, I went there but it was closed. So disappointing. Haha.”
“Did you go to Daulatabad?”
Sweat was dripping from my forehead and I felt unreasonably twitchy and nervous like I was being interrogated in a maximum security prison. Not wanting to lie anymore, I succumbed to his line of questioning and said, “No, I was planning to go there today but I’m feeling too lazy and tired to go anywhere.”
Realizing that he had me in the palm of his hands, he licked his lips and closed the deal by saying, “Okay, so I will take you there today. You won’t feel so tired if you come with me.”
All I could do was sigh and relent.
On the way to the imposing, unconquered fortress, MA stopped at Khuldabad. He wanted to prove a point. Remembering our little argument about Aurangzeb two days ago, he took me to his tomb, and said, “This is what I was telling you that day. Despite being the richest man alive in his time, he built his tomb with the little money he made out of selling the caps he stitched in the years leading to his death. You may not like the man but you should know that he also had some good qualities and why some people may actually admire him.” I nodded noncommittally, letting MA gloat in victory over winning the argument.
Daulatabad was considerably more imposing than Aurangzeb’s tomb. It was a massive fortress and I was intimidated by its scale even before I entered its portals. Although its history dated back to the Yadava Dynasty, it gained peak importance when Mohammad bin Tughlaq shifted his capital to the fort and made the people of Delhi shift here en masse. Its strategic advantage was too strong for the Sultan to resist but the lack of irrigable food and drinking water meant that the city ran out of resources fairly quickly and couldn’t sustain its population. Having realized the folly of his catastrophic decision, Tughlaq made his subjects march all the way back to Delhi.
It was noon by the time I began the long, arduous climb and the mid-day heat was certainly not kind to people who wished to clamber up steep stairs to the top of the hill. The fort was designed like a puzzle meant to disorient enemies and trick them into taking routes where they could be easily ambushed by soldiers hiding in impossible-to detect niches on its walls. Now these very corridors were used by tour guides to ambush disoriented tourists like myself who were feeling their way up the dark alleys.
As I scrambled up a scree-ridden stretch on what was clearly a wrong route, a large mustachioed man helped me climb up onto a platform. For the ridiculous sum of 50 rupees, he was willing to guide me up a pitch-black, bat-ridden cave. I deliberated on this a good deal because 50 rupees was a large sum of money for me in 2009. As I was thinking of the number of ways I could spend the money – a cheap thali or two, a bug-ridden bed for a night, 10 cups of chai, two trips in a passenger train etc. – an utterly disheveled looking man stormed into the cave making the mustachioed guide run after him. The cheapskate that I was, I ran immediately after the guide hoping to follow his candle-lit path closely until the end and then slip away quietly without paying.
It was not easy. There were stretches in the cave that were darker than I had imagined and the guide’s candle light was too far to illuminate the section right in front of me. In an attempt to keep pace with the guide, I tripped over a boulder I couldn’t see and slid all the way down. This elicited loud squeals from the bats in the cave and peals of laughter from the guide who came scrambling down to help me up. He righteously wagged his finger in my face and told me good-humoredly in no uncertain terms that I had been punished for my sins.
I paid up and made my way to the top of the fort. Like any point at an elevation higher than its surroundings, the view from here was quite amazing. Around me, there were kids running around playing hide and seek between the ancient pillars while their teachers were at pains to educate them about the history of the fort. Lovers were busy etching their presence in history by scribbling naughty stuff on the walls. A group of tourists from Rajasthan were speculating loudly on the number of violent ways the canon might have been used back in the day. But the most interesting sight for me was watching the disheveled man who was responsible for my indignity earlier go about his mad routine.
He went up to people and showed them an ID Card that said he was both a freedom fighter and a volunteer for the youth wing of a political party. When an azaan rang in from the distance, he went down to his knees in prayer and sang the azaan out loudly. Minutes later, he climbed on to the parapet, took out a plastic sword from his duffel bag and yelled “Bharat Mata ki Jai”. Then he went up to a couple romancing in a corner and laughed at them loudly after which he ran up to me and gave me a mighty hug. While the panicked faces around were wondering what the hell was the matter with this madman, he dialed back to normal and began playing hide and seek with the kids. This made the teachers supervising the kids very nervous and they herded them back to the gate and took them home.
The man then, possibly tiring from his exertions, sat down and began to meditate. The sun was setting on the horizon and the whole terrace was empty of people by now. Being the highest point anywhere in the vicinity, all I could see from the top was pure, wild, flatness with the villages and towns in the hazy distance marked by large clutters of little houses the size of tiny matchboxes.
I clambered back down to MA’s rickshaw and told him about the crazy guy. MA just nodded his head indifferently and said, “Tomorrow we’ll go to Ellora. You’ll see even more crazy people there.”
Getting to Tansen from Lumbini was somewhat complicated. I had to hop three buses, one to the Buddha Chowk in Bhairahawa, another from Bhairahawa to Butwal and a third from Butwal to Tansen. Just ahead of Butwal, the Siddhartha Highway which provides the most direct route to Pokhara from Bhairahawa twists and curls into the middle hills through scary rock-fall prone sections, terrifying drops down steep gorges and mesmerizing views of the fertile paddy fields of the Madi Valley flanked by green hills on all sides.
I had messaged DB on Facebook the previous evening about a room at the Horizon Homestay that he runs in Tansen but hadn’t received a reply before leaving the free wi-fi confines of Lumbini. Nevertheless, I was determined to seek it out and try my luck. The lanes in Tansen were immensely steep and circuitous and my sense of direction was so awry that I had done many rounds of the lower parts of the town without ever approaching Shitalpati, the center of the bazaar. BS, a garment shop owner, saw me floundering aimlessly about the town and offered to direct me through its maze of alleys. He was a fast walker and my unfit body felt like it had carried 30 tonnes of coal up Mount Everest when we reached Shitalpati.
I was absolutely out of breath by the time I had climbed the near-vertical lane that led to the Horizon Homestay, sweating profusely, ringing one of the more hopeful bells I had rung in a while. A little boy, a friend of the family, opened the door, invited me in, led me to the cleanest rooms I had seen in weeks, showed me how the gas-powered geyser in the bathroom worked and gave me the password for the wi-fi. DB and his family had gone out for a wedding and the boy had been requested to stay in the house just in case I arrived. DB had left a message for me apologizing for the unavailability of home-cooked food that night. I was already impressed. My room was compact and well-kept. The bathroom was tiny yet spotless. The gas shower was scalding hot, which in the freezing temperatures of Tansen was a godsend. There was a small, sunny double terrace up above with a few potted plants, a roundtable, some chairs and great views of the town of Tansen below.
I was famished and a feast was in order. So I went to the fanciest restaurant in Tansen, Nanglo West, which was a branch of the Kathmandu chain of Newari restaurants. It had outdoor seating, splendid old-fashioned architecture, costumed waiters, a bakery and a good menu. The dal bhat was expensive by Nepali standards and wasn’t very different from what you found in an ordinary teahouse, so I certainly was paying for the ambience here. But it did the job by being delicious and filling. It was at Nanglo that I had my first brush with an expat in Nepal, an exquisitely dressed English gentleman in a broad-brimmed hat who was dining with a Nepali woman in the adjoining table, speaking in perfect Nepali. Later, we met at the bakery while shopping for desserts.
“I couldn’t help noticing that you speak great Nepali. Do you live here?”, I said. He replied, with a wink and a smile, “Well, I couldn’t help noticing that you speak good English. I don’t suppose you live in London, do you?” He looked surprised when he learnt that I came from across the border. “Indians don’t usually travel in these parts, do they? They’re quite happy going to Pokhara and Kathmandu.” We sat outside and had a cup of coffee together. He’d been coming to Nepal since the 70s and been learning to speak the language ever since. Tansen had been among his favourite towns in the country but he’d been falling out of love with it recently. “It was a beautiful town with beautiful buildings all over but after the Maoist strife, people have been pulling down the old buildings and putting up these stupid concrete houses that probably aren’t going to last a decade.”
He had been in the town during the extraordinary attack by the Maoist led PLA (People’s Liberation Army) on the town’s barracks and government buildings. The town’s centerpiece, the Tansen Palace which also housed the police station, came in for a particularly vicious assault where the building was burnt to rubble. It has since been rebuilt but was closed to the public when I was there. He spoke of the harrowing time as a turning point in his utopian view of life in Nepal. The experience made him more cynical of life in the country and forced him to temper his enthusiasm for its people and its mountains.
Despite its tumultuous recent history and concretization, Tansen cast a spell on me. This was largely because of DB and JB’s beautiful hospitality at the Horizon Homestay. I hadn’t planned to spend more than 3 or 4 days in Tansen but ended up living there for two weeks. Many mornings, I went for a walk through the pine forests up to the Srinagar Hill to take in the gobsmackingly spectacular 360 degree views of Madi Valley and the Annapurna Range from the under-construction tower on the hill. I was joined by DB on some of these walks and my appalling fitness levels stuck out like a sore spine as DB, who was at least a decade older than me, sprinted up the steep and slippery slopes of the hill while I stopped every few steps to catch my breath. On one of these magical days on the tower, the Madi Valley was enveloped with clouds to form what the locals called the “White Lake”. DB wasn’t very happy with the formation of the “White Lake” because he thought the clouds were leaking beyond some of the nooks and corners spoiling the effect but to my untrained eyes, it looked absolutely divine, like a massive lather of soap frothing between the hills.
Having spent many months on the road eating restaurant food, I was craving for some genuine home-cooked food and JB’s cooking was simple but absolutely delicious. Dinners were served in the kitchen indoors and breakfasts on the terrace outdoors and both were terrific places to eat. DB inevitably opened a bottle of beer every night and we used to chat away for hours while JB made snide remarks about DB’s expanding belly. Horizon was then the no. 1 listed B&B on tripadvisor in Tansen, so DB had a steady stream of guests from all over coming to his place. One night, it was a group of cheerful Italians on the terrace introducing me to Gogol Bordello and underground psychedelic rock, another night, rounds of beer and arthouse film discussion with a big group of very tall Dutch tourists. It was an easy, compact place to get conversations going with anyone and everyone who happened to be there.
Despite JB’s wonderful cooking, I chose to have all my lunches outside and my favourite place to eat was a little momo cafe right next to the City View Guest House. The cook was a friendly and chatty man who’d worked in Delhi for many years of his life and his momos, lollipops and chai were quite delectable. There were many of these little momo café’s littered around the town and some of them turned out to be drinking dens too. Every once in a while, I would stumble into one of them to ask for a cup of tea only to look around and find everyone else getting inebriated on locally made rum while little boys and girls were running around playing hide-and-seek. The only other real restaurant in the town that was unaffiliated to a big hotel was The Royal Inn, which had copied the Nanglo West template, with a smaller outdoor area and a dankier indoor section and served pretty much the same dishes at slightly cheaper rates.
Holi in Tansen was an amusing affair. There are few things I hate more than rowdy kids splashing me with colour when I’m walking on the road minding my own business but it delighted me to know that such loutish behavior was banned in the town. The ban seemed to be having little effect though as the terraces were full of young kids armed with water balloons ready to strike any unsuspecting passerby. Bikers vroomed around the alleys in colourful face masks and right below DB’s house, a group of young kids had strung a rope across two buildings, dangled an earthern pot in the center and were clambering on top of each other in an attempt to build a human pyramid to bring it down. This was familiar but also strange to Indian eyes because Dahi Handi, as it is called in India, is celebrated during Gokulashtami, which was many months away. Nonetheless, it was good fun to watch, with people from the neighbourhood splashing colours and spraying water at the kids while they were perilously perched on top of each other. Roars of laughter went around every time they tumbled down in a heap.
One day, I walked alone to Bagnaskot, a hill about 2 hours which commanded the best views of the surrounding area. There had been a lot of rain for a couple of days and the air was clear and fresh. One of the best things about Tansen was walking out of it into the country around, a green, expansive and spacious region full of little hamlets. This walk was largely on the road but there was very little traffic on the way. A perennial breeze was blowing in the air and the views were stunning wherever I looked. I climbed a little hillock on the way and was rewarded with a spectacular view of the Annapurna range playing hide-and-seek among the clouds. The sunlight streaked between the clouds to hit the snow mountains in their folds to make them look like bright patches of light hanging in the air. The effect was quite extraordinary and I dutifully plonked myself down on the grass, took the Canon 550D out of the bag and clicked a million pictures. The only other human presence in the vicinity was a shepherd whose herd was grazing in the pastures. He offered me a cup of tea from his flask and a joint from his pocket and we sat together, drinking tea and smoking up, silently looking at the unbelievably beautiful play of light and shadow unfolding in front of us.
After this tranquil moment, I went to the momo place near the point where the road slithered steeply up to Bagnaskot. I had already seen the Annapurnas and the sky was getting seriously cloudy. So, instead of climbing up the hill, I sat at the momo place with an elegantly dressed old man sharing a bottle of rum and some plates of momos to go with. His face was exquisitely contoured like the face of a mountain, with deep wrinkles and folds weathered by a long journey through time. He had spent his entire working life in the Indian army, fought in the 17 day war in 1965 and the 1971 war against Pakistan and had been shot thrice in combat, wounds on his shoulder and legs which he showed me delightfully. Because of the violence he had witnessed, he believed in a Gandhian ideology and wished Nepali politicians had the intellectual maturity of the Ambedkars and the Nehrus and the Patels to pen their own Constitution, a burning issue in Nepal that had been raging ever since the Maoist-led civil war had ended. We walked back to Tansen together and he gave me innumerable tips for things to do, trek to Ranighat, the temples at Ridi Bazaar, a bus to the Palpa Bhairab temple renowned for animal sacrifices, a homestay in the village of Baugha Ghumma, a walk up to the bridge at Ramdi, another hike through the old trade route to Butwal and on and on.
I didn’t do any of the trips he suggested, putting them in a bucket-list for things to do on the next trip. DB had warned of a big tourist group that was going to invade his house and while he offered to put me up in another homestay, it was time for me to leave. After two weeks, I had imbibed enough of Tansen to last many years. Yes, I would have rather left after doing more hikes and seen more temples but Tansen was such a stunner of a town that the opportunities were endless and I was certain to return in the future.