The once great imperial Hindu Capital of Northern India of Harshvardhan, Rashtrakutas and Jaychandra has simply vanished from the historical landscape of the country
You think of Kannauj often. Kannauj, along with Thanesar, was the place to be in the Classical Age just like Delhi was in Medieval Age and later. Alexander Cunningham describes the great city of Kanoj as the Hindu Capital of Northern India for several hundred years. Harshvardhan, (reign 607 – 648 AD) the legendary Emperor ruled from Kannauj and was one of the few Classical Age rulers whose court accounts survive in the form of the beautiful Harsa Charita written by Banabhatta.
Plate 7 from the third set of Thomas and William Daniells' 'Oriental Scenery.' Kannauj, the ancient city of Kanyakubja, the capital of the Emperor Harshavardhana and later of the Pratihara dynasty, had by the early 15th century become an important Muslim city, part of the Sultanate of Jaunpur. The Jami' Masjid or Congregational Mosque in Kannauj was converted from former Hindu buildings in the period 1400-06 by Sultan Ibraham Shah of Jaunpur. The Daniell print shows the relatively unadorned front of the half ruined prayer hall with its pointed arches and polygonal columns typical of Muslim architecture in India before the arrival of the Mughals, although the richly carved corbels supporting the mostly vanished chajja or heavy eave are typically Hindu. Facing the mosque is part of a tomb.
Hwen Thsang, the great Chinese itinerant pilgrim, remembers Kanoj in 634 AD as surrounded by strong walls and great ditches and washed by Ganga on its east. He notes that Harshvardhan’s empire extended from Kashmir to Assam and from Nepal to Narmada. There is the famous battle at Narmada when the Chalukyan King Pulakeshin II halted Harsh’s southern march. Later the Parmaras, Gurjar-Pratiharas, Chandelas, Rashtrakutas and Palas would wrangle among themselves to wrest control of Kannauj. The story of Rashtrakutas of Manyakheta (Gulbarga in Karnataka) is especially inspiring as a kingdom of south of Vindhyas would come this further up North to control Kannauj. You always wondered why did the kings of those times fought so much. And when the crunch came, the invaders would roll over all these kingdoms in a matter of few decades. So much for all their bravura and all their legends.
Later the Tomars of Delhi also would have their capital in Kannauj according to Cunningham. Mohammd Ghori would first defeat Delhi’s King Prithviraj Chauhan in 1191 and then will march to Kannauj to rout King Jaychandra, who was Prithviraj Chauhan’s father-in-law and had decided not to help Prithviraj. We all have heard the story how the Chauhan King Prithviraj took off with the daughter of the Rathore Jaychandra This was one of the main reasons why all these kingdoms were demolished one by one in a brief span of time. About 150 years later, Ibn Battuta would describe Kannauj as a small town – the same city which Ferishta describes as being seen by Mahmud Ghazni raising its head to the skies and which in strength and structure might justly boast to have no equal.
Gahadwals, the dynasty whose signs you see in the museums in form of all these bewitching sandstone images in museums, would rule Kannauj later. So, the logic says Kannauj would have at least 800 years worth of temples. But where are they? You have not been to Kannauj and you haven’t seen any Sultanate time photos of monuments there, so what happened?
So, you are still thinking. Everyone co-existed in Kerala peacefully. Temples, churches, mosques, synagogues all were built within metres of each others. No demolitions, nothing. And then came the Portuguese and everything changed. Those idiots were worse than the Delhi Sultanate. But that is another story.
In Spain, Moorish era monuments still survive when Christianity returned. In Iran, pre-Islamic monuments from dynasties like Sasanian still survive. In Turkey, the Byzantine structures still survive even when Ottomans took over. Bamiyan statues and stups survived in Afghanistan.
So, what happened to these Turks and Afghans and Persians when they came to India? Why did they unleash this new brand of total annihilation of cultural symbols? What were they trying to prove? Why couldn’t they have just built their own mosques like it has happened in Kerala in the past centuries. Not only they would demolish but they would boast too in their inscriptions; like the one at Qutb Minar.
Henry Cousens and others were as affected by this practise even as they tried to be objective. He notes: “We know, and they have exultingly recorded the fact, in many of their inscriptions, that the Muhammadans when they first overran the country, made a practise of destroying the chief temple at most places they visited and building their first Jami Masjid upon its site.”
Photo Credit - wallyg - NY Met Museum - early 12th century UP (looks totally like Gahadvala)
Cunningham is equally aghast when he visits Kannauj. He laments, “I am obliged to confess with regret that I have not been able to identify even one solitary site with any certainty; so completely has almost every trace of Hindu occupation been obliterated by Musalmans. Cunningham notices the triangular citadel that occupies the higher ground with few Muslim structures. The only remains of interest are the palace ruins of Rang Mahal, Hindu pillars of Jama Masjid and the Masjid of Makhdum Jahaniya and the Hindu statues in village Singh Bhawani.
The Dina or Jama Masjid was built in 1406 by Jaunpur ruler Ibrahim Shah on a commanding position in the middle of the old fort. Cunningham surmises that simply looking at its position one can be sure that a Hindu Temple of significance existed at the site. The Jonpur rulers in the template of Delhi Sultanate would raise similar mosques from Hindu temples in present Jaunpur (you have not visited Jaunpur yet). Cunningham visited Kannauj first in 1838 and then in 1862. He reports the placing of the pillars in the Jama Masjid was changed probably done by the Muslim Tehsildar before 1857. The same individual also destroyed all remains of Hindu figures on the walls of the both the masjids. Cunningham is getting angrier – the whole of these made up pillars must have been obtained after the usual cheap Muhammadan manner – by the demolition of some Hindu buildings – either Buddhist or Brahmanical.
|Photo credit: 123rf.com|
Since the city was visited by Hsieun Tsang so it should have a large number of Buddhist structures. Zilch. Cunningham rues that the Muhammadan spoliation is so complete that there is not a single piece standing to give a faint clue towards identification. There was a great 200 feet high Stupa of Asoka; another Asoka Stupa in the north-west. There were three monasteries and vihara that had a tooth of Buddha. There was another lofty 200 feet high vihara with Buddha Statue. There were two majestic temples, one dedicated to Shiva, and built of blue stones.
There would have been scores of more temples; you are pretty sure.
|Cannoge (Kannauj) on the river Ganges|
Plate 12 from the fourth set of Thomas and William Daniell's 'Oriental Scenery,' which they called 'Twenty-four Landscapes.' The views progress northwards from the far south at Cape Comorin to Srinagar in Garhwal in the Himalaya mountains. Kannauj was an important centre under Harsha, the most powerful ruler of Northern India in the early 7th century, and it later became the capital of the Pratihara dynasty. Looking at the ruined tombs in the distance the artists lamented that '...It is impossible to look at these miserable remnants of the great city of Cannoge without the most melancholy sensations, and the strongest conviction of the instability of man's proudest works.'
|Photo credit: 123rf.com|
Pen-and-ink drawing of the mosque at Kannauj by an unknown artist between 1780 and 1820. Inscribed on the front in ink is: 'Mosque in Canouj.'
Kannauj is an ancient city in Uttar Pradesh, formerly situated on the banks of the Ganga River but now several kilometres to its south. It was the capital of a great Aryan kingdom which peaked in the 6th century and was later sacked by the Turkish ruler, Mahmud of Ghazni, in 1018. In 1540 it was the scene of the Mughal ruler Humayun’s (1508-1556) crushing defeat by Sher Shah. The Jami Masjid or congregational mosque at Kannauj was converted from a Hindu temple by Ibrahim Shah of Jaunpur in the early 15th century.
You have a theory. As opposed to say, Ajmer, Mehrauli, Mandu where the Delhi Sultanate demolished the temples to build mosques using the pillars, in Kannauj Ghazni paid a prior visit to the city, ransacking the city and scooting away in 1016 AD. In the intervening period, the temple parts would have been pilfered away. Some would have been used in the later Gahadwal period who would have built newer temples. And then Ghori came. Large scale ransacking would have taken place. But why didn’t they build their Ghurid hypostyle mosques in Kannauj? The answer is that the city was simply abandoned. The local Sultanate capital was moved to Badaun, 160 kms northwest to Kannauj.
The Daniells apparently saw the Jami Masjid built by the Jaunpur rulers much later. Is it still there? Just like Mathura, Kannauj apparently too has an overflowing museum with images that would have survived and some that keep popping up from the fields around the city. And yes, the Jami Masjid with a tomb still exists.
Some Questions: Why Kannauj did not become a place of prominence like Mandu or Chanderi in the Delhi Sultanate Days and why Kannauj is not popular subject of discourse today?
Next Step: Visit Kannauj, and Badaun and Jaunpur and whole lot of places in Uttar Pradesh; a state that you have not explored at all considering it is just next door.
Four Reports Made During the Years 1863-65 by Alexander Cunningham, Volume I, Page 279
Kannaui - The Scent of Ittar
Govt Museum in Kannauj
History of Kannauj
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