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“Are you sure”, we were asked by the car rental agency we went to for hiring a car to Champaner. Champaner Pavagadh Archaeological Park is a UNESCO world heritage site which apparently no one had heard of! We had a little squabble with the car agency when I decided to drop the call and hire from the Indian branch of chauffeurservicelondon.com.
And yet, the Champaner Pavagadh Archaeological Park is the first monument in Gujarat to be inscribed with the UNESCO World Heritage status. These monuments, whose construction period goes way back to the 8th century attained this status in 2004.
We had read that walking through the Champaner world heritage site would feel like retracing the footsteps of our ancestors. All of this added to the intrigue and gave Champaner a sense of being a hidden treasure. On a short holiday to Vadodara in Gujarat, we decided to spend a day exploring Champaner.
“Shahar ki Masjid” – First mosque of Champaner
Champaner is part of the Champaner Pavagadh Archaeological Park which was declared a part of UNESCO world heritage site in 2004. The place is rich with monuments that are a confluence of Islamic and Hindu architecture from the 15th and the 16th centuries – the pre-Mughal era.
We got to Champaner by sunrise and were greeted by the Shahar ki Masjid resplendent in a golden light. However, a big black gate blocked us from entering its premises (we somehow managed to sneak in!). Unlike other UNESCO sites in India (which open at sunrise), the monuments at the Champaner world heritage site open only at 8 AM.
We literally drove through history, as we entered the arched gates of what must have been the walled “city” of Champaner.
Shahar ki Masjid translates to the Mosque of the city. It was used by the members of the royal family of Champaner to offer their prayers. It is surrounded by dilapidated walls of the palace of Champaner.
It was past 8 AM by then. Life in the village had started in full force. Youngsters were seen monkeying around. Few of them were stepping out on their bikes for work. Women were cleaning the front yards of their houses, which were more like huts. Men were taking their cattle out to graze through these gates.
Walking further ahead we saw the post office, police station and also one dharamshala (guesthouse). This must be specifically for devotees who come to visit the temple on Pavagadh, the hillock next to Champaner, another site for the Champaner Pavagadh Archaeological Park.
Following the Citadel Wall, we reached the star attraction of Champaner. It is the biggest and the most beautiful monument here.
Jami Masjid of Champaner
The unique characteristics of the Jami Masjid were the main reasons for Champaner coming under the UNESCO banner.
On the east side, there is porch with some delicate perforated stonework. It looks like jaalis or lattices carved out of stones. This kind of welcome gate is an architectural element usually seen in temples, in the form of Gopurams. The Jami Masjid is the only mosque where you find a front gate like this.
This was the main mosque of Champaner, where everyone came to offer their prayers, especially on Fridays. The crowds that would gather here is evident from the number of prayer pillars inside. There are 176 pillars here for people to offer their prayers.
The royalty had their separate entrance and a dedicated section for them to offer their prayers at the Jami Masjid.
It is built from the locally sourced limestone and has shades of pink and yellow. Every corner of the Jami Masjid is a piece of art. The exterior pillars, walls, windows – all are covered in intricate stone-carved designs.
The speciality of Jami Masjid is the dizzyingly beautiful domes and ceilings.
These open-aired galleries in the centre of the Jami Masjid are another unique architectural feature. These open galleries provided a better flow of air. Even when the Jami Masjid got full to its capacity, it would still not feel suffocating inside.
Even the lawns of Jami Masjid we impeccable. It was refreshing to see such a well- maintained heritage structure in India, not hampered by any modernisation.
The only sign of modernity was the ramp built at the main entrance of Jami Masjid. Though, even back then, there was provision made for rainwater harvesting in the form of a pond, right behind the Jami Masjid of Champaner.
After spending a couple of hours at Jami Masjid, we headed to the outskirts of Champaner. It is an industrial town named Halol. We had our lunch here. Several monuments of the UNESCO world heritage Champaner Pavagadh Archaeological Park are on this Champaner-Halol route.
Tomb of Sikander Shah on the Champaner-Halol road
It is a circular structure, with the tomb inside. The whole structure had an airy feel to it. A young guy was sitting inside the structure, surrounded by his books. We started chatting and realised he was preparing for the police entrance exam. He said the place is calm and peaceful. And since no one ever visits, it’s a good place to study!
A heritage structure, well used, we say!
Ek Minar ki Masjid, One column mosque of Champaner
The next stop was this eerie sort of place called Ek Minar ki Masjid – the mosque with one pillar. It is nestled amidst the mountains and all there is is one pillar standing tall surrounding by nothing. The gate of the pillar is now locked permanently. There is some exquisite carving under the balconies of the pillar on each floor.
The sides of the pillar increase on each storey, with 4 on the first. The pillar on the next storey is octagonal, followed by a hexadecagonal pillar. On the last storey, the pillar becomes circular.
There is a deep well next to the pillar, thankfully it’s covered. There is also a tomb in front of the pillar. It looked like somebody had offered prayers to the tomb, we saw a flower and an incense stick next to it.
Kevada Masjid, back in Champaner
From here, we headed back to Champaner and turned in the direction of the Kevada mosque. It is at the end of a pretty rundown lane and difficult to spot or get to. The lane is lined with thorny shrubs on both sides and the branches come well onto the road. So approaching it, you either risk your car breaking down or if you decide to walk, getting scratches on the hands and legs. We chose to take the car in!
The main structure of the Kevada mosque is similar to Jami masjid – two minars (columns) flanking the main entrance. Here too, the blend of Hindu and Islamic elements in the design was unmissable.
The distinguishing part of Kevada Masjid is the Cenotaph in front. Cenotaph is a tomb without the actual grave, built in honour of the person whose grave is elsewhere. There was also some excavation work happening on this site.
Though not as intricate as the Jami Masjid, the Kevada Masjid has some fine carvings on the pillar and the windows.
It was evening by the time we left Kevada Masjid. We decided to leave the sites on Pavagadh – like the Jain caves, Hindu temples and a few more mosques for another day.
Our day in Champaner Pavagadh Archaeological Park really did take us back a few centuries – for the heritage monuments as well as the village life and its surroundings. It indeed felt like walking the footsteps of our ancestors!
Tips for visiting Champaner Pavagadh Archaeological Park:
- Champaner is situated in the state of Gujarat in western India, around 50 km to the east of Vadodara.
- One can travel to Champaner from Vadodara as a day trip. It’s also an easy place to visit from Ahmedabad.
- Photography tip: Try to reach Champaner early in the morning, preferably by sunrise to take advantage of the golden light on the pink and yellow hues on the monuments.
- If you plan to visit Pavagadh as well, you will have to hire a local vehicle to take you up the hillock. Vehicles from the rest of Gujarat, outside of Champaner aren’t allowed up at Pavagadh.
- A guide book on Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park is available at Jami Masjid. It has a map which gives you an idea about where all the heritage monuments are located.
- Tourist facilities like local transport, food and refreshments are not available at Champaner. Carry enough supplies. Wear comfortable shoes.
- The best time to visit Champaner is in the winter months. November to January is a perfect time.