REGAL TO RU­INS

Chan­nel In­di­ana Jones on a visit to an eerie aban­doned city

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Escape - - CRUISING INDIA - BRAD CROUCH

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

PIC­TURE: BRAD CROUCH

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.

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