Kannauj was the centre of northern Hindustan
until it was destroyed by Muslim invaders

5. Waterloo of Aryavarta

It is strange that what a writer on Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti and the Dargah Sharief at Ajmer has said about the role of Raja Jaichand should have precipitated our visit to Kannauj on August 2, 2001. Equally strange is the fact that our interst in this great capital city of ancient Hindustan was first aroused in 1983 by Dr N.K. Bezbaruah, the versatile grand old man of Assam. He then told us how proud he was to claim direct lineage from one of the chosen Kannauj Brahmins, who were invited specially to introduce Hinduism amongst the Ahoms who had captured power in Assam and had set up their capital city at Sibsagar in the 13th century. Incidentally, the Ahoms belonged to the Shan race whose base was in Thailand. The doctor was bemoaning the paradox of his clan being, on the one hand, so proud of its Hindu ancestry and, on the other, a few sons of the same proud families taking to guns and terrorism, as it were, against the rest of Hindustan.
At Elphinstone College, Mumbai, during 1955/56, the author had ancient Indian history as one of his honours subjects. Although he was an average student, he had certainly read enough to be aware of the old glory of Kannauj. If there was anything to obliterate one’s memory of Kannauj, the infamy of Raja Jaichand certainly would not permit it. It is believed that but for the treachery of Jaichand, Prithviraj Chauhan would not have lost the second Battle of Tarain. The trend of Indian history might have been different. Yet, see how inert we have remained that the author should have to wait till he was 64 years old before visiting Kannauj!

Only recently he came across a biography of Hazrat Chishti by Maulana Garib Nawaz Ajmeri. At some stage, Moinuddin Chishti appealed to Allah for guid-lance. The divine answer reportedly came in a vision whose message was that Prithviraj Chanhan would be captured alive and his kingdom snatched away.  The biographer then implies that moves were initiated which resulted in Raja Jaichand Rathod’s withdrawal from the Rajput alliance. The resulting disunity opened an opportunity for Sultan Muhammad Ghauri to come back to Hindustan and defeat Prithviraj.

Before we recall the glory of ancient Kannauj, let the author tell you what he and his colleagues saw that day. As it were, to portray the historical humiliation of the vanquished, the city’s main temple is situated in the valley, if not quite a ravine,on the outer edges of the Ganga. It is the Gauri Shankar mandir. To visit every Muslim edifice of significance, we had to climb to a peak beginning with the dargah of Balapir Saheb. We then climbed further to another peak which was called the Ahmed Tola on the crest of which stands the Jama or Dina masjid.
What struck us immediately, was its spick and span whitewash. Evidently, the masjid was carved out of a large square pavillion standing on innumerable square pillars. Approximately, half the square is still covered with a flat roof standing on 68 pillars. In the walls, both of the masjid and its compound, are embedded more pillars. Those which must have stood in, what is now, the compound are no longer there. The ceiling is also flat just as in the Ataladevi masjid in Jaunpur as well as the Adhai Din Ka Jhopra in Ajmer.
The difference here was that at the centre above the mimbar, from where the imam reads the kbutba on Fridays, is a small shallow dome. Evidently, the roof at that spot was cut in a circle to accommodate the dome. This is not merely the author’s guess; it was confirmed when we visited the Makhdoom Jahaniya dargah half an hour later. It is now a tomb cum masjid. There, a similar circle over the mimbar has been cut into the roof but not covered. It is therefore possible for the imam to see the sky right above him while he is delivering the khutba.
To get back to Jama masjid, even the bright young man Qamar Ali, a member of the local palika or municipality who was kind enough to show us round, confirmed that he could not talk much about the history of the masjid. Looking at the sky’ he said it could have been anything. The milkman or rather a small dairy owner, Saughat Khan, was surprisingly well informed. But for him, history began with the arrival of Muhammad Ghauri and not at the dawn of civilisation. Since he was unable to read Persian, he felt he could not tell us enough. He only wished that a Chaturvedi Saheb of Hardoi was available. He knew four languages and was therefore called Chaturvedi! Nevertheless, Saughat was happy to have brought us to the peak of the city, and give us the benefit of the cool breeze that was blowing despite it being noon on a hot day. This, he said, was a great advantage of the masjid being on a high peak of the city.

The author’s colleagues felt that he was being unduly mild while describing a major molestation of Hindu civilization. They promptly showed the author Volume I  of Cunningham’s’ report. The author cannot help quoting, however sparingly, from what the most outstanding archaeologist of India reported:

The Jama or Dina Masjid of Kanoj is cited by Fergusson (JamesFergusson was a British architect who surveyed many buildings in north India during the 19th century) as a specimen of Hindu cloisters, which has been rearranged to suit the purposes of Muhammadan worship; and in this opinion I most fully concur… it must originally have been the site of some Hindu building of considerable impartance. This conclusion is partly confrmed by the traditions of the temple, who, however, most absurdly call the place Sita-ka-Rasui, or “Sita’s kitchen ‘,… When I first visited Kanoj in January1838, the arrangement of the pillars was somewhat different from what I found in November 1862. The cloisters which originally extended all round the square, are now confined to the masjid itself that is, to the west side only. This change is said to have been made by a Muhammadan Tahsildar shortly before 1857. The same individual is also accused of having destroyed all the remains off gures that had been built into the walls of the Jama and Makhdum Jahaniya masjids… Also, the inscription over the doorway is said to have been removed at the same time for the purpose of cutting off a Hindu figure on the back of it. I recovered this inscription by sending for the present Tahsildar.

The Gazetteer of Farrukhabad district edited and compiled by E.R. Neave, ICS, 1911, is even more forthright. To quote:

The iconoclastic fury of Mahmud Ghazni swept away all the Hindu religious edifices of dates anterior to the tenth century, and later buildings of any size or importance are almost exclusively Muhammdan… A luckily preserved copy of the much obliterated inscription over the entrance doorway shows that it was by Ibrahim Shah of Jaunpur that the building was regenerated in 1406 AD.

An observation or two about the surviving Makhdum Jahaniya is necessary if an archaeological highlight is not to be missed in our report on Kannauj. The mosque cum-tomb is situated on a lofty mound or a peak, in what has come to be known as the Sikhana Mahalla. Apart from what has been briefly mentioned earlier, there is little that is noteworthy except what Cunningham reported. When he visited, the.was inscribed on a panel on the back wall the name of Allah on a tablet suspendsby a rope. He goes on:  

The appearance of the tablet and rope is so like that of theHindu bell and chain that one is almost tempted to believe that the Muhammadan architect must have simply chiselled away the bolder points of the Hindu ornament to suit his own design. Incidentally, he goes on to say that during his 1838 visit: It had found a broken figure of Shasti, the goddess offecundity, and a pedestal withy a short inscription, dated in Samvat 1193, or A.D. 1136. The people also affirm that a large statue formerly stood under a tree close by. All of these are now gone, bu the fact that two of them were built into the entrance steps is sufficient to show tied the mound on which the masjid stands must once have been the site of some important Hindu building.

Moved by the rampant destruction that he saw as well as surmised, towards the end of his report on Kannauj, Cunningham says:

The probable position of these Brahmanical temples was on the high Round of Makhdum Jahaniya, in the Silhana Mahalla which is about 700 feet to the south of the last mentioned mound in the Bhatpuri Mahalla. That this mound was the site of one or more Brahmanical temples seems almost certain from my discovery of a figure of Shasti, the goddess of fecundity, and of a pedestal bearing the date of Samrat 1193 or AD 1136.

Kannauj was indeed the capital of Aryavarta or ancient northern India. Its glory is best described by several foreigners who visited it, beginning with the Greek, Ptolemy around 140 AD, to the Persian Farishta, who left behind his account of 1016 AD when Mahmud Ghazni invaded Kannauj. All these accounts have been succinctly covered by Cunningham in the course of one paragraph which reads as follows:

In AD 1016, when Mahmud of Ghazni approached Kanoj, the historian relates that he there saw a city which raised its head to the skies, and which in strength and structure might justly boast to have no equal. Just one century earlier, or in AD 915, Kanoj is mentioned by Masudi as the capital of one of the Kings of India, and about AD 900 Abu Zaid, on the authority of Ibn Wahab, calls Kaduge, a great city in the kingdom of Gozar. At a still earlier date in AD 634, we have the account of the Chinese pilgrim Hwen Thasang, who describes Kanoj as being 20 li, or three and a quarter miles, in length, and 4 or 5 li, or three quarter of a mile, in breadth. The city was surrounded by strong walls and deep ditches, and was washed by the Ganges along its eastern face. The last fact is corroborated by Fa Hian, who states that the city touched the River Heng (Ganges) when he visited it in AD 400. Kanoj is also mententioned by Ptolemy, about AD 14O as Kanogiza. But the earliest notice s of the place is undoubtedly the old familiar legend of the Puranas, which refers the Sanskrit name of Kanya-Kubja, or the hump-backed maiden to the curse of the sage Vayu on the hundred daughters of Kusanabha.

Having said what was said by Cunningham as well as Neave, it would be useful to also see what Stanley Lane-Poole, wrote:  

Sultan Mahmud Ghazni fought his greatest campaign in 1018, and pushed it rather east than ever before. He marched upon kanauj, the capital of the Tomara rajas and then reputed the chief city of Hindustan. The march was an orgy and an ovation… Kanauj was reached before Christmas. The raja had already fled at the mere bruit of the sultan’s coming, and the seven forts of the great city on the Ganges fell in one day. Of all its gorgeous shrines not a temple was spared. Nor were the neighbouring princes more fortunate. 174 years later came another cataclysm this time perpetrated by Muhammad Ghauri in 1192. The Rathors fled south to found a new principality atMarwar, and Kanauj and Benares became part of the empire of Ghor.

Lane Poole’s thesis iterates that in most cases, the destruction perpetrated by the invaders on the Hindu capital cities was conclusive enough to see their permanent end. Kannauj is an outstanding example. So was Ujjain, Gaur, the ancient capital of Bengal, and Ajmer. The ruling elites, Rajputs or others, evidently saw no future in a revival and migrated to other areas. Rajputana offered an useful sanctuary because of the Aravalli hills as well as stretches of desert which made defence against Islamic aggression possible. The arrival of Raja Jaichand’s grandson in Marwar is an example.
The author prefers to quote either British authorities or Muslim chroniclers so that neither authenticity nor objectivity is questioned. However, before moving on to the next monument, he wishes to iterate that additions and alterations of such historic edifices are still taking place. He was quite put off by the white-washing, however fresh or glistening, that had been done on the granite pillars and ceiling of the Jama masjid. The Makhdum Jahaniya fortunately has not suffered this ugly transformation. On the other hands the Jami masjid at Etawah, only about a hundred kilometres away, which we visited the previous day, was also a casualty of white washing. What should be the role of the Archaeological Survey is best answered by its directors and, perhaps, the Ministry of Culture.
The Jami masjid at Etawah is an even more interesting example of sweep under the carpet and conceal. In fact, it is more illustrative. Not only is the masjid white-washed, a number of pillars have been subjected to several coats of alumioium paint. This was applied to a surface made smooth perhaps by the use of plaster. The pillars that had white lime on them, were plain granite.
On balance, perhaps Etawah was not very different from what we saw the following day at Kannauj. It was basically a pavillion with a flat roof standing on pillars. Only a small dome had been constructed over the mimbar. The architectural adviser of the invaders was evidently the same individual. The antecedents of the edifice are best described in the words of C. Horne, Judge of  Mainpuri district:

The Jama masjid is the principal place of Muhamdan worship in the city. If it situated on some high ground to the right of the Gwalior Road proceeding toward the Jamuna and is curious as having been originally an old Hindu structure. He goes on: It would appear to have originally formed part of a cloister and that there were four round chapels each with sixteen pillars and a large chapel in the middle, intended for the idol. The courtyard is enclosed by a mean brick wall and now contains a small Chaitya, about nine feet square covering a Musalman tomb, where four pillars support a flat roof with eavestones of red sandstone projecting some two feet out on each side.