Malda—the Mango Garden of Bengal

Malda—the Mango Garden of Bengal
Malda—the Mango Garden of Bengal

It may sound strange, but mangoes—the succulent fruit we are privileged to eat in summer, appears to be inseparably linked with the town of Malda in Bengal. Its fortuitous location at the meeting of the rivers Mahananda and Kalindi, has helped in making Malda among the best developed areas in Bengal. Malda’s most famous produce are mangoes, much of which is exported to many parts of the world. The most popular and craved for mangos that grow in this fertile soil—Him Sagar being a hot favourite!  Needless to say the Mango Festival in season is a great draw.

But there is much more to Malda than its delicious mangoes. The history of Malda is connected to the ancient city of Gour, mentioned by the 4th century scholar Panini. Later in 1204 AC, it was conquered by Muslim rulers and was renamed Malda. In 1757, it came under British rule, when a district was formed. The old Malda is now part of English Bazaar. Malda may be considered one of the oldest cities in West Bengal, dating back to the 7th century. Its known history begins with the twin cities of Pandua and Gour, now part of the Malda District, which were successively the capitals of the independent Sultanate of Bengal— Pandua was the capital from 1342 to 1432 and Gaur from 1432 to 1538. The architecture of these capitals, are known to have received patronage from various rulers of various origins— Indo-Turkish, Arab, Habshi elites and Muslims of Bengal. The structures that remain are surprisingly well maintained and with their massive walls, curved parapets, octagonal corners and terracotta ornamentation, show a variety of styles—referred to as ‘a regional interpretation of Islamic architecture’. Its prominence as a trading centre in ancient times, continued well into the British era, the district’s weaving of silk and cotton textiles prospered particularly well from the 18th century—evolving steadily till today.

The District of Malda is also popular for the folk art form Gombhira (seriousness), a type of song performed by two performers—personifying a man and his grandfather, discussing topics to raise social awareness. The Gombhira masks originally made out of neem and fig trees during the Pala reign, are now also made of clay. However, like so many folk art forms of India, the Gombhira performance of song, dance and satire is a dying art.

Armed with a basket of mangoes, I set off to see the two most important sights in Malda - the two mosques in of Gaur and Pandua. The Lottan Masjid (also known as Lattan Masjid) is one of the important mosques of Gaur and was built by Sultan Yusuf Shah in the 15th century. It consisted of a single domed square chamber and a verandah with two domes. The mosque was famous for its unique glazed brick work on the walls. As per legend, the structure was supposed to be named after a dancer of the royal court named Lottan.

While much of the original beautiful colour has faded away, we can still see some of the turquoise, green, violet and blue used in the mosque’s exterior, telling us how splendid it must have been. Unfortunately entry is barred so we have to remain satisfied with walking around the mosque and enjoying its well-kept garden and taking a mango break!

The Adina Mosque in Pandua, was built during the reign of Sikandar Shah, the second Sultan of the Ilyas Shahi dynasty of the Bengal Sultanate.

The building of this huge structure, was begun and  completed in 1373. The ruler was keen to show his supremacy and his aim was to display the kingdom’s imperial ambitions, after its two victories against the Delhi Sultanate in the 14th century. Inspired by the Great Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, the Adina Mosque is considered one of the largest mosques built in India and is located north of English Bazaar on a major highway to North Bengal.

The design of the mosque appears to have incorporated Arab, Persian, Byzantine, as well as Bengali architecture. Built with brick and stone, the mosque measured 172 m by 97m and was a rectangular structure with a large open courtyard. There were several hundred domes and the mosque’s western wall seems to evoke the imperial style of pre-Islamic Persia. The mosque is said to have had 260 pillars and 387 domes. The interior of the courtyard is a continuous facade of 92 arches surmounted by a parapet.

The mosque’s most prominent feature is said to be its monumental vault—the first such vault built in the subcontinent. One can also see the elevated platform inside for the Sultan and his officials. The Sultan’s tomb is attached to the western wall. Inscriptions on the walls of the mosque, proclaims Sikandar Shah as ‘the Exalted Sultan’ and the ‘Caliph of the Faithful’. Pandua a former capital of the Bengal Sultanate, fell into ruins during the British rule and was damaged by earth quakes in the 19th century.

However, despite being in ruins due to the earthquake, the Adina Mosque as well as the Lottan Masjid are exceptionally well maintained and a visit is a real pleasure. Do remember to carry a basket of mangoes!