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Do people in Baroda understand how lucky they are? Maybe not all. But one person certainly does. Sameer Khera. My friend, Baroda-wala and an eternal traveler. Photographs from his frequent visits to Champaner-Pavagadh, filled me with travel-ache. So, when I was in Mumbai during Diwali holidays and started looking, Corona-eyed, at places within driving distance, C-P was an obvious choice. I called Sam to see if we could go together. But, as expected, the man had a travel plan on those very days. Then he did the next best thing and sent me a detailed itinerary of places I must see, along with the best times of the day to see them! Hurrah!

C-P is an 8 hour drive from Mumbai and we left very early. On the way, we took a short detour to Udvada, a place I had been meaning to go to since some time due to its significance as a Parsi spiritual center. By 3pm we reached Baroda and took the turn-off to C-P. These last 30 kms. were astonishing, as the plains opened up to the Pavagadh hill. Even from a distance, we could see the temples and old structures around its summit. And as we passed the city of Champaner, located at the base of the hill range, we felt we had entered a region of special historic significance. And it is. This is the Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park, a vast area dotted by ancient monuments making it an important UNESCO world heritage site.

Our hotel Champaner Heritage Resort was a bit beyond the city of Champaner, in Bhamaria village, by the backwaters of the Kada dam. From a small island here, where we watched the sun going down that day, dazzled by the golden water and the silver bracelets of our boatman.

And we watched the sun come up again the next morning. Near the top of the Pavagadh hill, at the Saat Kamaan or the Seven Arches.

The hillside is strewn with monuments from the time of the Muslim rule of Sultan Mehmud Begda and earlier Hindu rulers, notably the Khichi Chauhan Rajputs. At the very top is the revered temple of Kalimata, attracting hordes of worshippers from all over. We did not visit the temple as the cable cars ferrying people to the temple were quite crowded. We meandered around the ruins, just below the jump off point for the cable cars. And discovered that we could have actually walked up the hill along a sheltered walkway that no one seemed to use.

A little while later, down in Champaner city, we sought out a guide. The rest of the day we tramped through the wilderness and saw a bewildering array of mosques. The One-Minar mosque, Shaher ki Masjid, Nagina Masjid, Kewada Masjid, Kamani Masjid. It appears that Sultan Begda, who made Champaner the capital of Gujarat in the 15th century, spread his troops and families all across the area. Where they settled, they built a mosque. Once the city went into decline, these mosques were taken over by the forest. All the mosques are similar in architectural style – a masterful blend of Hindu and Islamic. While the domes and minarets make you completely certain you are entering a mosque, the Hindu motifs and carvings inside, throw you off totally. Our guide told us that Sultan Begda did not have access to any Islamic artisans and he basically had to rely on local ones. These artisans went wild making what they knew best. And the result is that the Champaner city is “the only remaining complete and unchanged Islamic pre-Mughal city”, as quoted by UNESCO.

With the sun following us, we went from one awe-inspiring monument to another, covering mosques, step-wells, and fortifications. We spent many delightful moments just watching trucks, trams, rickshaws, people crossing the gates of the walled city.

Finally, we saw the sun setting from the Vadatalav Lake in a majestic glow of light behind the Pavagadh hill. We could not get a very good photograph, so I am using Sam’s below from his earlier visit.

This ‘follow the sun’ itinerary was really a wonderful gift and guide from Sam. It gave us a compass and companion, even when he wasn’t around. We felt also the presence of many other people who had invested time and energy in preserving this unique place. Our guide Manoj Joshi’s father Ghanshyam Joshi, has passionately recorded the monuments, contributed to archaeology books and played an important role in lobbying for UNESCO status for the area. They can be contacted at 9879542611/02676245611. Rahul Gajjar whose name came up several times, has photographed and organized events to highlight the importance of the monuments here. And the Sarvaiyas, affable owners of Champaner Heritage Resort, who are restoring their property and making it possible for more people to stay a few days and take in its beauty.

As Manoj ji told us, the Pavagadh hill range has many more monuments to behold. But we had to leave the next morning. So, as the sun rose, we pottered around the mango groves and village ponds, leaving the boat people to their centuries-old rituals. We are, after all, only passers-by. But this treasure remains, a breath away, for the people here and I hope they forever take care of it.

Picture credits: Hardeep Singh.