Like a chessboard at the end of a game, Jaunpur’s still-standing pieces recount the advances and capitulations that left them where they stand. One sultanate destroyed temples to build mosques; a second sultanate destroyed the mosques; a third did what it could to restore both. Lying halfway out between Delhi and Bengal, Jaunpur began as a fortified outpost protecting the eastern flank of the Delhi Sultanate. When the Tughlaq line faltered at the close of the 14th century, the upstart governor of Jaunpur proclaimed sovereignty and called himself Malik-us-Sharq (Master of the East).
Today’s district headquarters became the capital of the Sharqi kingdom 600 years ago, and Jaunpur swelled with commerce and construction. Then the Lodhis assumed power in Delhi and rode back out east. Jaunpur fell, and its proudest structures fell with it. Sikander Lodhi was so vexed with the Sharqis that he vowed not to spare a single thing they built. Later, Jaunpur twice became the stronghold of renegade Lodhi princelings, and twice it failed them. Its turmoil only ended once the Mughals laid down the peace and began to restore the city.
Throughout two centuries of high politics and war, the heart of Jaunpur remained intact and imposing. The Shahi Fort, built by Firozshah Tughlaq in 1360, still commands the highest point in the city, its bulbous ramparts overlooking the shining Gomti river and the 14-metre high gateway frowning down on a city that no longer heeds it. Inside, the walls enclose a pretty park of hospitable lawns and flowering shrubs, discreetly populated, like all urban parks, by lovers and snoozers. In the forecourt of it is a small but beautiful prayer hall, with a twelve-metre commemorative pillar before it. A.K. Sinha, the asi’s local conservation assistant, says an inscription on the column declares the fort a place for "Hindus to read the Gita and Muslims to read the Koran and Christians to read the Bible".
Behind the prayer hall, a large Turkish-style hammam hunches low in the ground. Inside it is an intestinal jumble of dim corridors and rooms with sunken pools. The pools originally had copper lids and water was heated by refracting sunbeams from the skylights onto it. The hammam is called ‘bhoolbhulaiya’ because of its winding corridors, which the imagination easily fills with perfumed steam and wazirs sighing over the latest military challenge.
Today, the only people vying for control of the fort are Sinha and a band of discontents who, Sinha says, only want to come in to follow girls around. Their turf war involves squabbling about tickets and shouting, "Achcha? What will you do?" through the fence. These, too, are battles that determine Jaunpur’s heritage. The Shahi Fort is the only protected monument in Jaunpur—the only place where you pay for entrance—and Sinha is bitter about the threat of the rest being "whitewashed and modernised". This literally happened to one of Jaunpur’s three most prominent mosques, the Lal Darwaza. A few years ago, it was appropriated by the Hussainiya madrassa, which painted the tall central portal in toothpaste pink (previously, its granite stone would have been painted with vermillion sand) and replaced the carved jaali windows with ’70s-style tinted glass panes. It now looks like the offices of an unscrupulous district collector.
Thankfully, the oldest and the grandest of the Sharqi mosques are still unrenovated and only in slight disrepair. The oldest mosque, and a striking archetype of Sharqi design, is the Atala Masjid. A courtyard is surrounded on three sides by pillared walls, and on the fourth by a high-ceilinged prayer hall. At the centre of the prayer hall is a domed sanctuary, and in front of the sanctuary a tall ornate portal, almost like a gopuram. The portal hides the main dome, a unique feature of Sharqi architecture. In the Atala Masjid, the gorgeous portal rises twenty-three metres, covered with ornate botanical engravings, creepers and flowers rather than the geometric detailing or calligraphy that you thought exhausted the Islamic lexicon of motifs.
A plaque installed by the district administration celebrates this syncretic flourish of Sharqi architecture. Apparently it reveals "the broad-mindedness of Ibrahim Shah Sharqi as it represents the unique ideal of a composite Hindu-Muslim Art of architecture". The asi website has a drier view, noting that "a large number of its pillars, brackets, lintels and flat ceilings were extracted from Hindu monuments". The mosque is itself named after Atala Devi, whose temple once occupied the site.
Holding it all up: The prayer hall inside the Atala Masjid, the oldest Sharqi mosque
The courtyard of the Atala Masjid is full of the sounds of community life: the gurgle and splash of water, little boys singing "jara jhoom, jhoom" in class. In comparison, the Jami Masjid, built in 1470 by the last of the Sharqis, is a proud and sombre place, presaging the fall of the dynasty in less than a decade. The mosque sits atop a six-metre plinth, and the flight of steps leading up to it is steep, underlining your increasing proximity to heaven as you ascend. The courtyard of the Jami Masjid is spacious, plain, silent, with a central fountain and a pair of rustling date-palms, a very desert oasis. The sky above it is an unbroken vault.
Call of the faithful: Evening prayers at the Jami Masjid. The engraved portal, hiding a dome, is distinctive to Sharqi architecture
The Jami Masjid seems to be the only monument that Jaunpur’s citizens have not turned to their modern needs. The most gaily overrun monument of all is the Bridge of Munim Khan, commissioned by Akbar in 1567. Ten handsome, hexagonal pylons throw their arches across the Gomti, each one supporting a cupola, added later by a British-era administrator. Once more utilitarian bridges came up downstream, the Munim Khan bridge was taken over by a colourful and clamorous street fair. It is now flanked by two mosques at street-level, and two temples at river-level, leading down to ghats where rowdy young men dive in and out of the water. The cupolas on the bridge are occupied by displays of underwear and cellphone accessories, but nobody objects if you step over and perch inside to watch the river flow.
Although it is close enough to Benares to make a painless and rewarding day-trip, no tourist ever comes to Jaunpur. As a result, Jaunpuris are diffident and unobtrusive. The town is tangled up in its own chaotic affairs. The monuments lie open to be explored, open to be lived in, open to be prayed in, scarred by every century that has passed over them, including our own.
Jaunpur is about 65 km—a 90-minute drive—from Benares. And best visited as a day trip from there.