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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
A famous Swiss-French architect, artist, and writer designed several fine buildings in Gujarat. They are worthy of a visit.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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/).
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.
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
Before setting out on our recent extended travels through Gujarat, I booked accommodation via a well-known travel website. The hotel I chose for Ahmedabad was the aptly named ‘Hotel Goodnight’. Its address, ‘Opp. Sidi Saiyed’s Jali, near Electricity House…’, intrigued me. What is a ‘Jali’, I wondered, apart from being an anagram of ‘jail’.
The word ‘jali’ (or ‘jaali’) means ‘net’ in Hindustani. As an architectural term, it refers to stone (usually) grille window screens. These screens are carefully intricately carved in stone. A flat stone is carefully perforated to produce an elaborate lattice of spaces surrounded by the remaining strands of stone. In India, they are found in temples (Hindu and Jain), mosques, and secular buildings. They are usually very attractive. These carved stone window coverings, that simultaneously provide shade and the passage of light, can be seen outside India. For example, there is at least one church in Palermo (Sicily), which contains jali work. In this case, it was created by Moorish craftsmen who remained in Sicily after it was conquered by the Normans.
Jali work can be found not only in buildings constructed many centuries ago, but also in more recently built structures, such as the Arts Faculty Building in Baroda and the Vijay Vilas Palace in Kutch Mandvi.
Baroda (19th century)
Kutch Mandvi (20th century)
The best places in Gujarat for seeing jali, which we visited, were Ahmedabad and Baroda. If you don’t wish to travel so far afield, The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has some very fine examples in its South Asian galleries.
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Returning to Sidi Saiyed’s Jali in Ahmedabad, here is an excerpt from my new book (for Kindle, click HERE ; for paperback,click HERE ):
“Opposite our hotel and across the busy Relief Road, which one should not cross without first saying a prayer, is one of the city’s many architectural treasures. It is the Sidi Saiyed Mosque (aka: ‘Sidi Saiyed’s Jali’), which was built in 1573 during the last year of the Gujarat Sultanate. It was constructed by Sidi Saiyed, an Abyssinian general in the army of Sultan Shams-ud-Din Muzaffar Shah III. A learned man with a great library, he had served with Rumi Khan, a son of Khwajar Safar, who died at Diu. The Sidi’s grave lies in a wire mesh enclosure near the north east corner of the mosque. His much-revered gravestone is usually covered with beautiful coloured silk cloths.
Sidi Saiyed Jali, Ahmedabad
This mosque is a long rectangular open-fronted pavilion. It is entered through any of five wide arches with pointed tops. The mosque’s domed ceiling is supported by four rows of pillars each supporting arches, which together form an arcade. The stonework is decorated in places with floral motifs that are not especially Islamic. The lower part of the rear wall facing the entry arches is plain stonework apart from a centrally placed mihrab. The upper third of this wall has five almost hemi-circular stone arches. The central one is solid stonework. It is flanked on either side by pairs of exquisite, intricately perforated stone lattice screens, exceptional examples of jali work. They allow light to filter into the mosque from the west. The screen at the south end of the mosque is carved to represent a Tree of Life with swirling, tangled branches…”
Looks like a Hindu temple, but it’s actually a mosque!
Hindu temple ceiling at Somnath
Turkic forces of the Muslim Delhi Sultanate began conquering parts of Gujarat in the 14th century. Even before that, Muslim forces had invaded the region. In the early 11th century AD, Mahmud Ghazni (971-1030) arrived at Somnath, and ordered the destruction of the great temple he found there. Zafar Khan (Muzaffar Shah I, died 1411), a Hindu who converted to Islam, later destroyed another temple built on this site. At least one Muslim ruler was tolerant of the Hindus and Jains living in Gujarat. According to Satish Chandra, author of History of Mediaeval India, Firuz Shah Tughlaq (reigned: 1351-88) encouraged the Hindu religion and promoted the worship of idols. Generally, the 14th and 15th century rulers of Gujarat were unlike Firuz with regard to tolerating Hinduism and its temples. Yet, the mosques and mausoleums they built show many influences of Hindu temple design.
When the Muslim regimes began to be established in Gujarat, they faced a problem, which is well put in Architecture at Ahmedabad by Theodore C Hope (1831-1916): “The problem which the Mahomedan dynasty and its newly-converted adherents set themselves to solve was extremely similar to that presented to the Christians in Italy some ten centuries earlier. In both cases the object was to convert a Pagan style of architecture to the purposes of a religion abominating idolatry.”
Could be a Hindu or Muslim building: actually, it’s a mosque at Champaner
What resulted is what we found in Gujarat: 15th century mosques and Islamic mausoleums with significant architectural similarities to the local style of Hindu temple architecture of that era and before. What distinguishes Islamic buildings from the Hindu structures that influenced their design is the lack of figurative sculptures and decoration, and the presence of minarets and mihrabs. This fusion of styles is nicely put on a placard we saw at Sarkhej Rauza, a collection of Islamic buildings near Ahmedabad: “… the early Islamic architectural culture of the region, which fused Islamic influences from Persia with indigenous Hindu and Jain features … The architectural style of Sarkhej Rauza is a precursor to the Mughal period in a true amalgamation of Hindu, Jain, and Islamic styles. Hindu craftsmanship and construction know-how was overlaid on Islamic sense of geometry and scale”
The Surya Mandir near Somnath is on top of a small but steep hill about 300 metres south west of the Gita Mandir. Along with a cow that bounded athletically up the uneven steps, I climbed the staircase up to the temple. It was well worth the effort. The Surya (means ‘sun’) Mandir was constructed during the era when one of the mediaeval reincarnations of the Shri Somnath Temple was built. Although the Surya was also attacked by invaders, much of it remains standing even if not in the best condition. It gives a good idea of how splendid the Shri Somnath Temple must have been before the Muslims began damaging it. Well-preserved fine carvings cover the walls of the Surya and extend upwards even covering the lower half its broad-based shikhara. Untrimmed foliage sprouts between some of these sculptures giving the temple an unintended appealing organic appearance. Much of the stonework has a pinkish tinge, which was accentuated by the light from the late afternoon sun. A small boy living in a house facing the temple asked me for a pen. I gave him one. This reminded me of the time when we visited Bijapur in northern Karnataka. Wherever we walked, groups of small boys in the street asked us not for sweets or money, but for pens. This youthful quest for pens is a symptom of a general desire for education in India.