A Sharqi Pit Stop

“This better be worth it!” R muttered under his breath, as we turned into the pockmarked highway leading to Jaunpur. Great clouds of dust obscured the size of the potholes and our heads hit the roof of our vehicle more times than I cared to count.

“Is the Allahabad highway any better?” he asked our equally tense driver, Sanjay. 

“Woh to naya four-lane highway hai Saheb!”

‘Naya’ means new, and that response prompted another “Are you completely out of our mind?” glare. Getting stuck on a remote stretch of road in the UP heartland wasn’t my idea of fun either but nonchalance seemed like the best defense for the moment. 

I hadn’t heard of Jaunpur until it came up in passing while discussing alternate routes to Varanasi from Lucknow since Allahabad had been inundated during the rains. The floodwater did recede before the start of our journey but Jaunpur had taken my fancy by then. And so we bounced along with our hearts in our mouths until the milestone finally read ‘Jaunpur 0’.

One wouldn’t guess from first appearances that this dusty, pathetically underdeveloped medieval town was once the opulent dowry of a Benarasi Princess. It changed hands many times between feuding Hindu princes until the Slave Sultan from Delhi, Qutub ud din Aibak, annexed it en route to sacking Banaras. It remained a fortified outpost of the Delhi Sultanate till the decline of the Tughlaq dynasty when a defiant governor (and eunuch custodian of Feroze Shah Tughlaq’s jewellery!) Malik Sarwar, declared his sovereignty and proclaimed himself Malik e Sharq (Master of the East). Under his successors (adopted sons) Jaunpur flowered into a renowned cultural center, and capital city of a kingdom that extended from Bengal all the way to the foothills of the Himalayas.

Shahi Fort - Jaunpur
Entrance to the Shahi Qila (fort) built in 1360 by Sultan Firoz Shah Tughlaq

The rise of the powerful Lodhi dynasty in Delhi put an end to the glory days of the Sharqi kingdom. In 1489, on the orders of Sikander Lodi, a century’s worth of construction was razed to the ground in a matter of days. It was the second Mughal emperor, Akbar the Great, who finally ushered in normalcy in 1567 and set about restoring the few mosques that survived the Lodhi rampage thanks to pressure from the clergy.

The chief contribution of the Sharqi dynasty was the introduction of a unique regional style of architectural that was a synthesis of the Hindu pillar, beam and bracket construction with Islamic arches. The ‘Jaunpur School’, as it came to be known, was distinguished by the absence of traditional minarets in mosques and the use of solid Egyptian style engraved gateways to screen internal domes.

Precious few examples of the Sharqi tradition survive today. The Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, believed to have been constructed over the remains of a temple marking the birthplace of Lord Ram, was demolished by rioting mobs in 1993 in full view of a dumbstruck nation! Of the three in Jaunpur, the Atala Masjid completed in 1408 is the oldest and most beautiful even if a bit worn around the edges. We didn’t have time for the Jama Masjid and Lala Darwaza.

The terrifyingly narrow alleys to the center of town filled with people and horse carts made for colourful traffic jams. I could see the colour was lost on hubby while Sanjay’s language acquired a distinct hue as we progressed! We managed to reach the fort without incident but he chickened out of the last mile to the royal bridge. So we walked.

Jaunpur Bridge
The 16th century Shahi Pul (Royal Bridge). Guessing the blue paint is of recent origin.

Strangely, Jaunpur never felt the need for a bridge throughout its heydays under the Thuglaqs nor during the construction frenzy under the Sharqi kings. Mass crossings of the Gomti river were apparently accomplished by anchoring boats in a row!

How silly!” declared Akbar and decided to gift them a brand new bridge. The Shahi Pul, with its marble kiosks arrayed on either edge, is said to be one of very few medieval bridges in the subcontinent that has survived intact. Its canopies are a British addition. The shoddy, makeshift shops cluttering the kiosks, twentieth century Indian.

I was ignorant of the existence of this gorgeous 12th century sculpture at the South end of the bridge signifying the resurgence of Hinduism over Buddhism or I would have traversed its length to catch a glimpse. As it was, I was not allowed to forget that we just had time for one last cup of chai from a vendor beside the bridge if we were to make it to Varanasi before dark.

Was the adventure worthwhile? Even R, exhaling with relief as we we hit the main highway, agreed it was! On hindsight, I could have spared him all that stress if I had planned the visit to Jaunpur – just over sixty km from Varanasi – as a day-trip. But I would have wasted another day. Besides, what is travel without a touch of excitement?

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

39 thoughts on “A Sharqi Pit Stop

  1. Reblogged this on Monwar's WordPress Blog and commented:

    When Raja Ganesh came to Bengal’s throne, the head of the Chishtia Sufi Order requested Jaunpur’s Muslim rulers to invade and restore Muslim rule. It didn’t come to that though, Ganesh’s son converted to Islam.

  2. Nice Snaps Madhu. I have never been to Jaunpur but lived in Varanasi for 5 years. Good to know the historical facts to understand Jaunpur and its culture.

  3. Excitement is a must 😀 You have shown us incredibly beautiful architecture, Madhu. I am a sucker for bridges and this one looks particularly interesting.

  4. Love that arches photo, Madhu! India is just choc full of fascinating places, isn’t it? But you like variety and the opportunity to see so much more. Thank you for patching another hole in my ignorance. 🙂

  5. Jaunpur looks so lively, rough around the edges, and with the half-forgotten remains of a glorious past – that makes it just the kind of town I would love to visit! Again, this is a fascinating post on a place very few of us have ever heard of. Thanks for bringing it to our attention, Madhu. 🙂

  6. this is truly a historical gem sadly forgotten and neglected. your photographs are beautiful, Madhu, evocative of its past glory. thank you for sharing along with its interesting history. 🙂

  7. Sometimes, after you get to your destination, you forget just how uncomfortable you were as you bounced over a bumpy road. That happened to us in Costa Rica. Like you, we were glad we made the trip, but we would have been happier if we could have avoided that awful ride. 😉 Love the photos and the story, Madhu.

  8. The bridge as seen from the fort, looks lovely…. I love the shot of the series of arches too! Didn’t know about the existence of Jaunpur, Madhu… thanks for the history. Haha… loved that bit about “twentieth century Indian” 🙂

  9. These pictures are beautiful. Definitely looks like an interesting pit stop! Id say it was worth the hassle and adventure! I think I’ll add this to my list of places to visit. This history behind this town adds a special touch too. Awesome post!

  10. I would have never pictured seeing something like this in India. I know it’s a very diverse country, but I have definite pictures in my head. I need to go there for myself and dispel some of the myths of how I think it looks.

  11. “What is travel without a touch of excitement?”…very well said, Madhu. And on this trip, the excitement was going to a place not a lot of people know or visit. Jaunpur, despite its small size, seems to be a hidden gem just a few hours’ drive from Varanasi. Thanks for the brief historical background, Madhu. This reminds us that India is a big country with a long and twisted history.

    1. Yes, India is huge and no doubt peppered with many such hidden gems Bama. Getting to them is the issue here, with infrastructure being so pathetic. We had earlier put off domestic travel hoping things would improve in a few years. They have, but we still have a long way to go in states such as this.

  12. Many thanks to you, madam: that is my hometown. Next time you go there, buy some perfume on the bridge and eat some imartis’ by Beni towards the west end.

    1. Ah I wish I had known about the perfume and the Imarti! Next time. I am sure to return for an ‘After’ post when Varanas gets cleaned upi! 😀

    2. Since Mashu has managed to put this on my list of must-visit places… I will definitely take note of your advice, for whenever I manage to visit 🙂

  13. The architecture is lovely and your shot of the hallway is fantastic. It is sad that this place seems to have been forgotten by time but it may have saved it from being razed and replaced with modern buildings. However, some cosmetic retouching will go a long way to making this place grand again.

    1. I read somewhere that one of the other Sharqi mosques – the Lal Darwaza – has been painted a bright pink and has cheap tinted glass windows inserted on its upper windows!!! Hoping plans to resurrect Varanasi will spill over into these towns without affecting their authenticity, or they will certainly be better off forgotten.

  14. You had me at “opulent dowry of a Benarasi Princess” …Lovely and oh those Arches Madhu!!!

    1. 😀 Wish I could wipe away that chemical blue on the bridge though. Thankfully they stuck to a single shade. I would have cried if I had found every alternate kiosk painted raspberry pink!

    1. Jaunpur isn’t very well known even to Indians Ian. Makes me want to pore over a map of central India and seek out more such towns. Hubby the worrier, would need to be prepped well in advance though 😀

  15. What a treasure the bridge is (despite it’s modern embellishments!) – eat your heart out, Ponte Vecchio 🙂 Loved ‘our’ visit to Jaunpur, Madhu, and the bumpy, dusty adventure of getting there (that’s the India I remember).

    1. With a little effort that bridge could rival Ponte Vecchio Meredith, but then it wouldn’t be India would it? 🙂 That drive was an eye opener for us ‘Southies’. We have not encountered such poverty and underdevelopment anywhere else. Our new prime minister has big plans for Varanasi. Hope some of that benevolence spills over into Jaunpur and other deserving little towns dotting the region.

  16. Am glad you made the effort to go, although bone jarring. Such a beautiful fort entrance, bridge and prayer hall. Fascinating history and blend of architecture.

  17. The a royal bridge looks like an interesting one. I prefer the look of the older bridges to the more modern ones. It always amazes me that they have stood for so long.

  18. The entrance to the fort looks almost European, I’ve never seen stone that colour in Indian forts, but I suppose that’s because of the limited travel I did there. The prayer hall is stunning and the bridge, just fabulous!

    1. Thanks Gilly. Red (and yellow) sandstone and even marble is indigenous to Rajasthan. The rest of India makes use of dressed local stone, usually granite.

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