The road we drove on was dark, the darkness clogging up the space in front like cobalt-coloured muck in an underground sewer. A half moon beamed through intermittently when the dense canopy of trees arching over the road from either side turned spare. We had left Ghaziabad early in the morning and were driving on terrain which felt like one was jumping on a trampoline. At 9.30pm, we decided to stop.
Confluence: Kannauj has been won and lost many times by overlords; and an idol in the archaeological museum. Photographs: Chitralekha Basu
The next morning, a lost world unravelled itself as we stood near the Gaurishankar temple on the expansive plateau, a misty breeze from the Ganga—invisible from where we stood—rifling through my hair. This raised, slightly crinkly table, covered with wild and unrestricted growth, was actually made of bricks, the base of a city built 1,500 years ago. The remains of the brick fortification—part of a crenellated gate, a stubbly pillar base, a fragmented wall, a whole temple (spared miraculously, or probably rebuilt later)—appeared, a chilling reminder of the near-total annihilation of history.
The foundations of King Harshavardhan’s capital (he ruled from 606-647 AD) were perhaps laid earlier, around the time of Chandragupta Maurya II (circa 400 AD), or possibly 800 years earlier than that, when the Nanda dynasty of Magadh held sway. A thriving, bustling metropolis that found mention in the Hindu epics, it was touched by the spirit of the Buddha and finally became an alternative power centre to Delhi under Afghan rulers in the 16th century. Today, it is a sleepy small town caught in a time warp, still dreaming of its exalted moments in history.
“Harsha was a visionary,” says Suryashankar Sharma, a local perfume merchant who noticed us trying to get a fix on the town’s layout and adopted us immediately. “We talk of global peace summits, but this man organized his own G-8 centuries ago. Fa Hien wrote about it.”
“But Sharmaji, didn’t Fa Hien come here earlier, in the early fifth century?”
“Oh, maaf kijiye (forgive me), now I remember, it was Ptolemy.”
“Sharmaji, I believe it was Hiuen Tsang who visited the Sarva Dharma Sammelan held at Harshavardhan’s behest in 637 AD.”
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“Right you are. Hiuen Tsang said it would take 150 years to build such a magnificent city as Kannauj. It was good while it lasted and then Harsha himself, apprehending defeat at the hands of Mohammad Ghori, planted landmines and blew up his capital—preferring to destroy it rather than surrender.”
Sharmaji, who rather coyly let it slip that he was also a writer-editor, went about mixing history with fantasy, going back and forth with various events in the tale with practised ease, splicing characters separated by several centuries in the same frame, as if they rode full throttle on a time machine. For, the razing of Kannauj probably happened much later, around 1539, when Afghan chieftain Sher Shah, having driven away Mughal emperor Humayun’s troops from the area, decided to leave his mark on the newly acquired territory.
The Gourishankar temple, where Harshavardhan would offer prayers every morning (I hope he did stop by a few times, for Sharmaji’s sake!), wears a fresh coat of paint—a repulsive shade of strawberry ice cream. A trickle of devotees troops in all day, ringing the temple bell continuously, filling the compound with ambient sound. A broken-nosed marble bust of King Harshavardhan stands passively against a backdrop of a crude map of India, demarcating the area under his rule. A stone’s throw away is the temple of Chimkoli Devi, its courtyard paved with mosaic tiles. There is a cluster of stone tablets, coated with ketchup-red vermillion, almost obscuring the vague lines of the face and figure of the Devi carved on them. This, apparently, was princess Sanjukta’s favourite haunt (her father, King Jaichand, ruled the place in the late 12th century) until Prithviraj Chauhan swept her off her feet.
Not too far away, on an elevated red-stone platform, are two mausoleums. The first, constructed by Ibrahim Shah of Jaunpur in 1406, and the second, in memory of a local pir (Muslim saint), comparatively recently. The two don’t look that much different from each other in terms of style and antiquity. The place looks like a hang-out for the local boys, coming as it does with a panoramic view of the town.
We almost miss the archaeological museum tucked away in a nondescript alley. We stand knocking on the door for 15 minutes till the curator at this one-man, two-room establishment returns from an errand and ushers us in. This is his lucky day (the last entry in the visitors book is nearly two months old) and he is determined to give us a guided tour of the premises, stepping sideways between rows of exhibits through a passage so narrow and constricted that we could easily have toppled or shattered something. Coins, pottery and metallic ornaments excavated from the ruins of one of India’s earliest civilizations are on display inside dusty glass cases. Too many sculptures have had their heads bludgeoned. But it is still easy to identify the Sun god, says Mr Curator, as the god always wore a pair of sturdy, sensible shoes.
Fragrances in the city market come with no such pointers. “Hold on, the perfume’s not for applying,” says Mr Tiwari, the proprietor of one of the many ittar shops in the labyrinthine Vijay Market. He extends a dropper, asking me to lick its contents and hold it under the tongue. About 2 minutes later, a cooling emollient glides down the throat, its aroma overwhelming the senses. This is ittar made from baked clay picked up from a local lake. The essence is extracted through a process of hydro-distillation in giant copper handis (vessels) in traditional perfumeries.
A city with at least two millennia of history behind it, Kannauj might appear no better than a dusty small town to one who is passing through. Like a fine piece of poetry, though, its appeal lies in its missing links, in being able to suggest rather than show and let the viewer conjure up the rest.
Chitralekha Basu works with The China Daily.
Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint
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