Seeing through stone

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Champaner

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’.

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Ahmedabad

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.

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Palermo, Sicily

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.

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Baroda (19th century)

 

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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.

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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…

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Style fusion in Gujarat

Looks like a Hindu temple, but it’s actually a mosque!

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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.

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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

 

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15th century mosque at Champaner

Sun Temple

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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.