REGAL TO RUINS
Channel Indiana Jones on a visit to an eerie abandoned city
It was the grand capital of successive kingdoms, a walled city of dazzling riches that even had a temple for eunuchs. But it faded into the jungle and today it is hard to find Gaur on a map. It is in West Bengal in India, near the border with Bangladesh and its ruins hint of its former magnificence.
Gaur was the capital of successive Hindu and Muslim kingdoms for centuries including invading Moghul emperors ruling eastern India until the 16th century.
The metropolis of more than one million people was so grand it had an inner walled and gated city for the elite, and an outer walled and gated suburbia.
But the mighty Ganges River changed course to shift far from the city and rulers decided to move to a new capital.
The final nail in the city’s coffin was an outbreak of plague in 1575. The city was abandoned and fear of disease prevented people from returning for generations.
It fell to the jungle, a bit like Angkor Wat in Cambodia, until British travellers stumbled across it. Today, it is a protected heritage site.
A visit during a river cruise up the Hooghly River from Kolkata to where the river branches off the Ganges at Farakka is a bit of an Indiana Jones experience.
The week-long cruise on the river aboard the 22-cabin RajMahal is a comfortable way to see this part of the world.
With 22 airconditioned cabins over two decks including four singles, the 51m vessel has a large dining room, a bar/lounge for evening briefings and presentations, spa and a full-length shaded sundeck with bar.
Launched in 2014, RajMahal (“Royal Palace”) has free Wi-Fi and the cabins have floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors for views of river life, from fishermen in tiny boats to the occasional river dolphin.
After sailing for a week from Kolkata with daily shore excursions, the Gaur visit is a full day out.
It starts with a drive across the barrage at Farakka over the huge Ganges which diverts water between the Hooghly – going to India – and the main river going to Bangladesh.
About two hours of driving follows, where honking of horns seems the national sport and passengers on the minibus get plenty of views of people going about their business in a sort of organised chaos.
Gaur itself appears out of the peaceful forest which gradually engulfed the abandoned city.
While all the houses are long gone, remains of colossal brick outer and inner gates of the city dating to 1325 show this was a city to be reckoned with.
Once patrolled by guards, one substantial brick gatehouse is now home to bats. Remains of mosques, some with the domes still intact while others have collapsed, emerge from further in the forest.
One 1526 mosque, Barasona Masjid – known as the Great Golden Mosque due to its gilded domes – was partially destroyed by an earthquake.
A mausoleum and prison still stand, and among the most well preserved structures is a 25m brick tower dating to 1486, Firoz Minar, with a circular stairwell.
This striking piece of architecture, like something out of The Lord of the Rings, was ordered by Saifuddin Firoz, an Abyssinian slave who rose to be Sultan after killing the ruling sultan. The nearby village carries little reminder of the wealth that once was in the area.
Goats, cows and ponies roam freely, the huts largely are made of thatch, and fires are fuelled by cowpats drying on walls.
Gaur’s grandeur went the way of the eunuchs, fading into history. But if you listen carefully in the forest stillness by its grand entry gates, you might still catch a faint echo of the glory that was.
THE WRITER WAS A GUEST OF INDIA UNBOUND
CITY GATE Gaur was a grand city of more than one million people until the 16th century when it was abandoned. It was so grand it had an inner walled and gated city for the elite, and an outer walled and gated suburbia.