Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Gaur as 'Monument': The Making of an Archive and Tropes of Memorializing

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Gaur as 'Monument': The Making of an Archive and Tropes of Memorializing

Article excerpt

In his book The Ruins ofGour Henry Creighton, one of the first among a series of early English explorers to the site describes Gaur as 'an uninhabited waste', 'concealed in deep jungle, and situated in one of the least civilized districts of the Bengal Presidency'.1 Describing the ruins in hyperbolic rhetoric, Creighton writes:

In passing through so large an extent of formal grandeur, once the busy scene of men, nothing presents itself but these few remains. Trees and high grass now fill up the space, and shelter a variety of wild creatures, bears, buffaloes, deer, wild hogs, snakes, monkies, peacocks, and the common domestic fowl, rendered wild for want of an owner. At night the roar of the tiger, the cry of the peacock, and the howl of the jackals, with the accompaniment of rats, owls, and trouble-some insects, soon become familiar to the few inhabitants still in its neighbourhood.2

A similar rhetoric may be found in Fanny (Parlby) Parks's description of Gaur in her memoirs. Parks travelled extensively in India during the 1830s. On visiting Gaur, she appears to have been delighted by these 'picturesque' ruins amidst a 'country' 'remarkably beautiful', and enamoured by the site,

covered with the silk cotton tree, the date palm, and various other trees; and there was a large sheet of water, covered by high jungle grass, rising far above the heads of men who were on foot.

On the clear dark purple water of a large tank floated the lotus in the wildest luxuriance; over all the trees the jungle climbers twisted and twined; and the parasitical plants, with their red flowers, were in bunches on the branches.3

Exactly 100 years after Creighton, Abid Ali Khan, an employee working in the Public Works department under the British Government, claiming descent from the 'ancient family of Pathan rulers of Gaur...' whose 'ancestors came with King Firuz Shah from Delhi and settled in Gaur',4 was granted the title of 'Khan Sahib', in recognition of service to the government. At the time, he recorded the event in his memoirs as follows:

I entered the P.W.D in 1899 and was put in charge of the special repairs to the old buildings at Gaur and Pandua. Since then I have been discharging these duties besides carrying out other Civil works of the Department. In recognition of my services, Government was pleased to confer upon me the title of 'Khan Sahib' in the year 1917.5

For me, the above declamations mark two very different concerns and set of engagements with the 'monument' in the second half of the nineteenth and the early twentieth century in British India. While Creighton's and Parks's claims may be said to be part of a larger history of colonial exploration which, in the second half of the nineteenth century, sought to produce India as an exotic landscape, Abid Ali's claim, despite his location as a 'servant' employed by the British Government, shows how monumental heritage becomes central to the process of production of religious/nationalist pasts. Creighton's claim is representative of an earlier moment of encounter between the European explorer and the colony's ruins. The rhetoric deployed by both Creighton and Parks is characteristic of early colonial writings on 'Oriental' monuments, before the beginning of a more systemic and institutionalised engagement with these sites. It sees the monument as part of a larger 'picturesque' landscapewild and overflowing with flora and fauna, which seems to seduce the European explorer's gaze. Abid Ali's response to the site of Gaur, on the other hand, marks a different moment of encounter with the site, where the subjective claim is fore-grounded in order to link the monument to the very process of formation of a nationalist and Islamic past.

This paper thus sets out to address a series of claims and concerns which emerge in British India around the monuments of Gaur and Pandua, the capital cities of the Ilyas Shahi and the Husain Shahi dynasties of Sultanate Bengal. …

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