A fine stepwell in Ahmedabad

IN ABOUT 1500, BAI HARIR SULTANI, Chief Officer of the Female Quarters of Sultan Mahmood Begada of Gujarat built a stepwell just outside the city walls of Ahmedabad.

The stepwell (a vav) is in a very good state of preservation and a fine example of this kind of structure. In essence a vav consists of a staircase leading below ground to the mouth of a well. The staircase is open to the elements but descends below an often complex structure of galleries built above it. As the staircase descends deeper, the number of layers of galleries above it increases. The staircase has a number of landinds along its length. Each new layer of gallery beginds above a landing. The result is a beautiful construction with a fascinating division of space. Photography, however good, cannot do justice to what the visitor experiences when descending into a vav. You need to visit a vav like the Bai Harir to understand and enjoy the full experience of this kind of stepwell.

The Bai Harir stepwell is on its own a good reason to travel to it, but there is another. Next to the vav there is a15/16th century mosque of great beauty. This should be visited as well as the elaborately decorated dargah (mausoleum) next to it. This contains the grave of Bai Harir Sultani, who not only established the vav but also the mosque.

One morning in Ahmedabad

A LAZY MORNING IN AHMEDABAD was just what we needed after a long bus ride from Bhuj the day before. The seat I sat in was uncomfortable.

Our newspaper seller and her assistant were sitting in their usual place on the pavement next to the entrance of the somewhat precious luxury hotel, The House of MG. They sit surrounded by piles of newspapers, both current and out of date. When we are in Ahmedabad, which we have visited 6 or 7 times during the last two years, they reserve a copy of the Indian Express for us. When we go to collect it, they have to rummage around to find it amongst the seemingly disorganized pile of newspapers, new and old.

We set off towards the Khwaja Bazaar and the Teen Darwaza, heading towards the Jumma Masjid. Just before we reached the bazaar, we entered a rather run down café/restaurant, named ‘Irani Restaurant’. This was established in 1950 and does not seem to have been redecorated since. The wall of the long rectangular dining hall has several mirrors, all cracked. However, the marble topped tables and the enormous kitchen are sootlessly clean. In addition to hot food items, this place sells freshly baked bun maska. These soft white bread buns have a very slightly sweet taste; they resemble the French ‘brioche’. I had one of these and ordered chhaas (buttermilk). To my surprise and delight, this was served in a used Pepsi bottle.

We proceeded to the Teen Darwaza, a three arched 15th century gate that was built soon after Shah Ahmed founded Ahmedabad in about 1420. Standing amidst a sea of market stalls and noisy traffic, this venerable stone gateway has decorative features that can be found on Indian structures built long before the Moslems arrived in India. This is also true of many if the 15th century mosques built in the early days of the city’s existence.

The Jumma Masjid is enormous and of great beauty. Like other mosques built in the 15th century in Gujarat, this Masjid displays many decorative and architectural features that the Moslems have adopted from Hindu and Jain temples that were in existence prior to Islamic invasions of western India.

The Jumma Masjid has more than 15 large domes and many smaller ones. Like the domes in earlier Hindu and Jain temples, the larger domes rest on eight lintels arranged octagonally. The lintels rest on eight supporting pillars. The interior of the mosque contains a forest of over 250 stone pillars, the bases of which have been decorated with carved stone motifs typically found in Hindu and Jain temples. I do not know why the newly arrived Moslems borrowed so many features from the temples which they found (and sometimes demolished) when they arrived in western India. Maybe, they employed local Hindus or Jains to construct the mosques, but surely the conquerors would have had some say in how the mosques were designed.

We spotted several terracotta pots placed by the bases of some of the pillars. These, we were told, are for worshippers to expectorate into should they need to during the prayer sessions (namaaz). This saves people from spitting on the floor, which is so common outside of holy places in India.
The Jumma Masjid has five carved stone mihrab niches, all facing towards Mecca. Each of these is decorated differently, but each of them is topped with a carving of a lamp, a symbol of the holiness of Allah. The central of these five niches is made of white marble inlaid with coloured stones. It is disfigured by the presence of a modern electric fan, which we were told is used to cool the Imam during namaaz.

There are numerous window around the mosque. Each of these is decorated by decorative jali work (decorative perforated stone screens). No two windows are decorated with the same design.

The mosque lost its two minarets during the earthquak of 1819, which resulted in an inlet of the Arabian sea being transformed into an arid salt desert (the Rann of Kutch).

The outer walls of the Masjid that face a huge space enclosed by arched passageways have several stone carvings depicting trees. I imagine these are depictions of the Tree of Life, such as can be seen in the intricate jali work at the Sidi Sayeed mosque.

After a pleasant hour examining the Jumma Masjid, we wended our way through the increasingly busier bazaar back to the Irani Restaurant. I ordered more chhaas, which arrived in used Seven Up bottles. This watery dairy drink, flavoured with cumin and other spiced, made a good accompaniment to my plate of delicious dal fry (dal to which slow fried onions and spices are added at a late stage in its preparation).

By 130 pm, the temperature had risen above 27 degrees Celsius, and it was time to retreat to our air conditioned hotel room. But before that, I made a trip to a local ATM. As with other ATM places in India, all the customers waiting for machines give each other helpful advice, such as “press this” or “remove card” or “enter pin” or “do that”, on how to use the machines. Unlike in the UK, where using an ATM is a very personal affair, in India it appears to be a group activity.

A mosque in Ahmedabad and Hindu temples

DURING VARIOUS VISITS TO AHMEDABAD, we have often driven past the Ahmed Shah Masjid, but never visited this venerable mosque. Close to the great Bhadra Fort and built in about 1414 AD by Ahmed Shah, the founder of Ahmedabad, this is the oldest extant mosque in the city. Today, we entered this exquisite mosque and its garden and discovered a perfect example of Indo-Islamic architecture.

When this mosque, and many others built in western India up to at least a century later, was constructed its creators incorporated many design features that can be seen in Hindu and Jain temples that were constructed centuries before believers of Islam entered/invaded India.

The grounds of the Ahmed Shah Masjid are entered through a small stone pavilion. The step inside it is just like the entrance steps to Hindu and Jain temples in that it includes a centrally located semicircular projection.

The patterning on the exterior stonework of the mosque and the many pillars within it would not look out of place on pre Islamic places of worship in India. However, the presence of figurative carving found in Hindu and Jain temples is completely absent in mosques. One small exception, which I saw at the Ahmed Shah Masjid and others in Ahmedabad, are carvings of trees, the Tree of Life.

The Ahmed Shah mosque and many other medieval mosques in Gujarat are topped with numerous domes. Seen from the outside of the mosques, they do not look exceptional, but viewed from within, the influence of Hindu/Jain temple architecture is obvious.

The domes are usually supported by 8 pillars arranged as a regular octagon. Neighbouring pillars support horizontal lintels, which together form an octagon. The dome rests on these lintels. The internal surfaces of the domes, when seen from below, consist of a series of concentric rings that decrease in circumference as they approach the top of the dome. The stonework of the rings can be either plain or elaborately ornamented. The design of these domes and their supporting supporting pillar systems are identical to what can be seen in Indian temples built long before Islam arrived in India.

Unlike the non-Muslim temples that inspired their design, medieval mosques contain features that are unique to mosques, such as elaborately decorated mihrabs, niches in the wall of the that worshippers face when they pray.

The Ahmed Shah mosque has an elevated internal chamber, where the king could pray separated from the rest of the congregation.

Having at last visited this fascinating mosque, I would reccomend all visitors to Ahmedabad to visit it first before exploring the other wonderful 15th and 16th century mosques that enrich the city.

The Ahmed Shah Masjid is a fine example of how conquerors can be conquered by the culture of those whom they have invaded. Just as the Muslims were bewitched by the wonders of Indian culture, so were the British many years later, as well exemplified by the Brighton Pavilion.

Bricks for business

BRICKS FOR BUSINESS

Ahmedabad is rich in exciting 20th century architecture, designed both by Indian and non-Indian architects. 

The prestigious, highly-rated IIMA (Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad) was founded in 1961. Apart from being one of the world’s most respected business schools, its  vast campus is home to an architectural complex designed by the American architect Loouis Kahn (1901-74), who was born in Estonia, when it was part of the Czarist Russian Empire.

His work at the IIMA is a set of brick buildings elegantly designed with archways, circular apertures, and shady walkways.Kahn worked on this project from 1962 until his death. The Ahmedabad-based architect BV Doshi, who studied alongside Le Corbusier and was influenced by Kahn, was also involved in the design, although the greater part of the credit for the design should be given to Kahn. 

We were lucky to have had a contact who was able to get us permission to visit IIMA, which is usually not open to visitors, who have no business with the institute.

 

 

Side steps

Here is something I first noticed when visiting the temple town of Somnath: side steps. I have seen better examples of what I am about to describe in Ahmedabad (see photo).

Staircases take up space. In many older Gujarati buildings, internal staircases are so steep that they resemble ladders. Good examples of these may be seen at the birthplaces of Mahatma Gandhi and his wife in Porbandar.

External staircases linking raised entrance doorways to the street sometimes require many steps. If the treads of the steps are parallel to the external wall, a large staircase would have to project far into the roadway, restricting the usable width of the latter.

One solution to reducing the footprint of an external staircase is often adopted in Gujarat. That is to make the treads of the steps at right angles to the external wall rather than parallel. This works well, and reduces the encroachment of private front staircases onto the public thoroughfare.

A useful book

If you are planning to visit Ahmedabad or even if you live there, here is a really useful pocket sized book to get to know the city better.

Published in 2017, A Walking Tour. Ahmedabad is by M van Oostrum and G Bracken. Easy to follow walks take you through the history of Ahmedabad. If you do not wish to follow the walks, this is no problem because the book is well indexed. The book is illustrated with lovely delicate line drawings.

I bought my copy at the excellent bookshop at the Gandhi Ashram on the bank of the Sabarmati, where I was charged 595 Rupees. If you buy it in Europe or the USA, expect to pay far more!

I strongly recommend this book as a very readable and practical guide to the endlessly fascinating city of Ahmedabad.

ISBN 9789385360176

Published by Mapin in Ahmedabad

An architect in Ahmedabad

There are many elegant moderns buildings in Ahmedabad designed by the architect BV Doshi. He worked with Le Corbusier in Paris. I feel that his buildings bear the sculptural influence of the famous French-Swiss architect, but they are far more user-friendly. We visited Doshi’s studio, Sangath Studio, in Ahmedabad in late March 2018…

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The air temperature had exceeded 40 degrees Celsius when we arrived at the Sangath Studio, the offices of the architect’s firm led by BV Doshi. It is open for the public to view on guided tours conducted at 1.30 pm during the company’s lunch break. We were guided around the buildings by a young intern, not a trained architect. She explained to us that Doshi was influenced by what sounded to us like: “Lecobu and Lukhan”. What she meant was ‘Le Corbusier’ and ‘Louis Kahn’, whose buildings in Ahmedabad help make the city a ‘Mecca’ for enthusiasts of 20th century modernist architecture.

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There were many architecture students and architects from other firms on our tour around Doshi’s studio. The students and architects asked no questions but made copious detailed notes. The architectural offices are set in a lovely luxuriant garden with piped music playing. The offices are beneath long white hemi-cylindrical concrete roofs, covered with irregularly-shaped white mosaic pieces like those on the outer surface of the Gufa, a man-made cave which he designed in Ahmedabad. The offices are below ground but lit from windows in the hemi-circular ends of the roofs. Unlike the Gufa, which is only suitable for artistic enjoyment, Doshi’s subterranean offices and studios are beautifully functional. Like Le Corbusier, Doshi designs using modular systems. This is exemplified by a conference room lined with cupboards and drawers whose dimensions vary according to a strict ratio. Doshi also plays with light and shade. Brightly lit rooms are separated by shady ones. The idea being that those who work and design with Doshi should be constantly aware of the importance of light and shade. Sangath Studios provides a visually intriguing and practical environment in which to work.

 

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Le Corbusier in Gujarat

A famous Swiss-French architect, artist, and writer designed several fine buildings in Gujarat. They are worthy of a visit.

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Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (1887 1965), better known as ‘Le Corbusier’ is amongst my favourite 20th century architects. Over the years, I have visited many of his buildings in France, my favourite being his organic, sculptural Chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut at Ronchamp. Le Corbusier is well-known in India, which he visited regularly (starting in 1951). In India, he is best-known for designing the city of Chandigarh in northern India.

Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarat is home to four notable buildings designed by Le Corbusier. They were built at various dates between 1951 and ’56.

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During my recent visit to Ahmedabad, I managed to see two of them. The Sanskar Kendra Museum (1951-56) and Mill Owners’Association Building (1951). Sadly, I was only able to see their fine exteriors, but they confirmed my admiration for their famous architect.

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Le Corbusier enjoyed India and her architecture. After visiting the extensive 15th century royal complex at Sarkhej Rauza (on the edge of Ahmedabad), wrote: “You don’t need to travel to the Acropolis. You have everything here.”

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Lovers of Le Corbusier’s architecture and of other adventurous 20th century architecture would be well-advised to visit Ahmedabad because many notable modern architects, both Indian and foreign, have designed buildings that now help to adorn the city. I will write about some of these in the future.

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A village in Kutch

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When the land dried up

and the crops failed,

 prosperity left Durgapur

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The village of Durgapur is 5 kilometres northwest of Mandvi. In the past, when the water table was higher, the land around this place was very fertile. The farmers who lived in Durgapur became quite affluent. Nowadays, the ground is unproductive, but the elegant, richly decorated houses of the village attest to its inhabitants’ former prosperity. Many of the houses have first floor balconies which project over the roadways. These balconies have lovely carved wooden balustrades and are shaded by canopies supported by carved wooden pillars and fringed by delicately carved strips of wood. Many of the older houses have crafted stone window frames and intricately decorated wooden entrance doors.

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Today, many houses in the village have been bought by wealthy folk from Bombay, who have also built new homes there. Recently, a large new health centre has been built by members of the Jain community for their own use.

 

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Gujarat and Sicily

Invaders adopting the architecture of the invaded

I have just returned from a trip to Palermo, the capital of the iskland of Sicily. This island has been invaded by different peoples numerous times. Visiting it made me reflect on aspects of my recent visit to Gujarat

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The Zisa Palace built by the Normans near Palermo (Sicily)

In the 9th and 10th centuries (AD), Sicily was ruled by Muslim Arabs. They were displaced by Christian Norman invaders in the 11th century. Little remains of buildings erected during the Arab occupation, but people of Arabic origin remained behind in Sicily when the Normans arrived.

The Normans built castles, churches, and cathedrals in Sicily. Many of these may be viewed today. What interested me about them is that these structures contain many architectural features typical of Arabic architecture. I suspect that the Normans must have employed Arabic craftsmen during the construction of their buildings.

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The Norman church of St Cataldo in Palermo

Moving eastwards to India, let us consider the architecture in Gujarat. Gujarat began to be invaded by Muslim forces (Turks, Mughals, etc) in the 14th century. Some Muslim rulers respected the Hindu religion they found when they arrived there; others did not. Hindu temples, like that at Somnath, were vandalised and destroyed. 

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Recovered remains of an 11th century Hindu temple at Somnath (Gujarat)

Despite a prevailing prejudice against Hinduism, the Muslim invaders were content to borrow the architectural features of Hindu temples when they constructed their new (15th century, mainly) mosques. I have written more about this in an earlier blog article (see: https://gujarat-travels.com/2018/08/04/style-fusion-in-gujarat/ ).

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A 15th century mosque at Pavagadh (Gujarat)

The invaders of both Arabic Sicily and Hindu Gujarat made use of the local architectural features they found when they arrived as conquerors, but they also introduced new architectural styles that they brought with them. The Normans brought northern Gothic, and the Muslim invaders of Gujarat imported Persian architectural ideas. Later, the British, having invaded India, managed to fuse features of gothic, Persian, Mughal, and Hindu architecture to create what is sometimes called “Indo-Saracenic”architecture. Many public buildings in Gujarat are fine examples of this Victorian era fusion.

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Inside a 15th century Muslim mausoleum at Sarkej Rauza (Ahmedabad, Gujarat)

Discover more about Gujarat in the new book by ADAM YAMEY:

Travels through Gujarat, Daman, and Diu

It is available on lulu.com, Amazon, bookdepository.com, and Kindle