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Three sites and one story

What geography separates, history connects. North of central India, Sasaram, Jaunpur and Gwalior are connected by the story of one soldier who almost became a great emperor. A. SRIVATHSAN

Photos: A. Srivathsan

The splendour of symmetry: Sher Shah’s tomb at Sasaram

Sasaram is at its organic best. The main road and bus stand are like a sugar lump that attracts fleas and ants. The town spreads, swarms and wraps around the lines of movement. But all the hectic activities are only one row deep. Behind the road fron t, people trickle into smaller roads and disappear into the distant skyline of tiled houses. The remaining few sit on the main road and wait for the packed trucks to carry them home. But Sasaram about 500 years ago must have been lot more cared for and lot more important. For those who may not believe it, a walk down the less promising smaller road would be surprisingly fruitful. At the end of the road, a large lake unfolds and a magnificent monument in the centre possesses the eye.

The symmetry of Sher Shah Sur’s tomb is impressive. The island-like setting dramatises the monument and one can instantly sense its self-importance. The single causeway leading to it adds to the intrigue. Sasaram (152 km from Patna) was the birthplace of Sher Shah but he could never stay there permanently or for long till he returned dead.

Pursuing an ambition

Sher Shah’s forefathers came from Afghanistan and served the Lodi kings of Delhi and their generals, gained land, power and became influential jagirdars in Bihar. Though his father was a jagirdar, Sher Shah, or Farid as he was earlier known, was not to enjoy wealth and power so easily. Sher Shah had an uncomfortable relationship with his father and stepmother and had to leave Sasaram. He may have struggled to regain his family property but steadfastly nurtured an ambition to be a great ruler. He relentlessly and tactfully pursued it and succeeded at the age of about 54.

The Atala Masjid at Jaunpur

North of Sasaram, on the great Grand Trunk Road, which Sher Shah developed later, is the crowded small town of Jaunpur. A remarkably beautiful bridge with fifteen pointed arches and built in the 15th century brings people to the town. It mills with people and vehicles. There is not much space to leisurely look at either the decorative pavilions strung along or the river Gomti. The bridge continues as a bazaar inside the old town. Jewellers and sari shops front the street while the fort wall behind turns away. The road twists and turns and leads to the Atala Masjid. The slant pylons, the double storied cloisters and the small but proportionate courtyard is clearly pre-Mughal. The columns, along with their brackets, reflect the usage of Hindu architectural elements. In contrast, the Jami Masjid nearby is big with a wide-open courtyard, imposing rectangular pylons and a huge arch opening into the prayer hall. The architecture of the masjids and the hammam inside the fort are Turkish in character. This is understandably so since Jaunpur was the provincial capital created by the Turkish Sultans of Delhi.

Jaunpur (58 km from Benares) was established in the 14th century and was the provincial capital. It grew to be an important city and a great centre of learning. The dejected Sher Shah came to Jaunpur to take up his studies. His pursuit of knowledge was as passionate as his other pursuits. He emerged as a man of letters. This ability, along with his uncanny military skills, gained him access to the Mughal army and later to the Kings of Bihar. He managed to become the tutor of Jalal Khan, the heir to Bihar’s throne. When Jalal Khan’s parents died, Sher Shah became the virtual ruler. Through careful alliance and marriages he was able to strengthen himself and take on the mighty Mughals. When Humayun attacked, he was defeated and chased up to the borders. Sher Shah took over Agra and the Mughal kingdom.

His rule lasted only for a short period of five years. Within this short span of time, Sher Shah was able to put in place an intelligent State structure, efficient administration and gained the reputation of being a just ruler. Everything was in his favour except two things. One was his intolerance towards a Sufi saint and the other was his unexpected death.

Rich and elaborate monument

South of Agra is Gwalior. The imposing fort built by the Tomar kings in the 15th century stands tall on a mountain top. Below the fort, as you cross the lanes and turn past the main road is a large open space. The dense buildings that encircle it exaggerate the openness. The space is unusually active for a monument site. It is filled with people playing, old men in serious discussions, ecstatic singing and incense burning in front of the tomb and many homeless people sleeping on the tombstones. In the centre of the garden is a Sufi monument, dedicated to Sheik Muhamad, that is unusually rich and elaborate. Sufis normally eschew ostentatious display of wealth, but this one is special. The tomb is Mughal in style with a large dome in the centre and chatris around. The verandah that surrounds is adorned with well-carved jallis. The octagonal chatris at the corner, the square chatris in the middle and the chajjas running all around belongs to the classic hybrid style of Akbar’s period.

Sheik Muhammad Gauth’s tomb at Gwalior

Sheik Muhamad Ghauth was not an ordinary Sufi saint. He belonged to the order initiated by Shah Abdullah Shattari and had a great appeal and a large following. For reasons that are not well known, Sher Shah did not favour him. May be, for the orthodox Sher Shah, the popularity of Ghauth was either irritating or unacceptable. Whatever the reason, Sher Shah’s oppression made him uncomfortable and he moved to Gujarat. Ghauth returned to Delhi after the political climate changed and died there. He was buried in the tomb built by his special disciple Miyan Tansen in the 16th century. Ghauth mentored Tansen and was responsible for Tansen’s conversion to Islam. Next to the grand monument of Ghauth is an unassuming marble pavilion that shelters Tansen’s small tomb.

Sher Shah’s death was not as heroic as he would have wished nor dramatic enough. While inspecting the fort of Kalinjar, a loose cannon that was fired accidentally hit and killed him (mid 16th century). This untimely death stopped some of the construction work he had begun in Delhi but the tomb designed by his chosen architect Alawal Khan at Sasaram was fortunately almost ready. Alawal Khan adopted the design of the Lodi tombs and developed architecture of his own. This was not surprising since Sher Shah had an affinity for the Lodis. The tomb was built in the middle of an artificial lake but was not entirely perfect. The first tier of the base was not accurately oriented. When the flaw was detected it was too late. However, the project was not abandoned; instead the tiers above were corrected to face proper orientation. As a result, there is a small twist that is not so easily perceivable. The composition of this many-tiered structure is pleasantly symmetrical. Sher Shah may not have built many great structures like the Mughals but his own tomb is fittingly special and unique like his life and times.

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