Dot busters

Many women of Indian origin, most but not all of them Hindus, wear a red dot (bindi or tikka) on their foreheads.

Many Indians have migrated to the USA. Some have them have met resentment and even violence against them by their ‘white’ neighbours. From the mid 1980s until 1993, a gang known as the “Dotbusters” operated in New Jersey. They attacked and sometimes murdered anyone, who, in their ignorant eyes, looked “Indian”. Wearing a bindi helped these thugs identify their female victims.

In 2001, some Muslim terrorists destroyed the Twin Towers in Manhattan. This fuelled anti-Muslim sentiments in the USA. Ignorant people assumed that anyone who looked Indian might well be an Islamic foe of the USA. However, many people knew that anyone wearing a bindi was likely to be Hindu rather than Moslem.

In the last few decades, there have been serious inter-communal riots in Gujarat, in which members of one community have massacred members of the other. Although many Hindus have been victims of these disturbances, Moslems have suffered even more.

No Moslem woman would normally wear a bindi. Therefore, anti Moslem rioters can easily recognise a woman bearing a bindi as not being a Moslem, and therefore not one of their potential victims.

Recently, we met an Indian woman in a Gujarati city, which has suffered anti Moslem attacks. We knew she was neither Hindu nor Moslem. However, she wore a very large bindi. I wondered whether she wore this as a fashion statement or for cultural solidarity, or to make it clear that she was not Moslem, to protect herself from becoming a target of anti-Islamic violence.

Ganesh in the graveyard

One Tree Hill Garden is a luxuriant little park on the shore of Kankaria Lake in Ahmedabad. At one end of the park, there is a small graveyard. The graves, which date back to the 17th century, mark the final resting places of some of the Dutch folk who worked in the trading post that the Dutch East India Company established in Ahmedabad at that time.

The graves are crumbling and most of them have lost their inscriptions. A few stones bear the incomplete remains of now barely legible inscriptions.

In about 2000, a Dutch foundation constructed several attractive Islamic looking concrete shelters over some of the gravestones.

I noticed that someone had placed a plastic model of the Hindu deity Ganesh next to one of the dilapidated graves. We showed this to a couple of the garden’s workers, one a Hindu and the other a Muslim, and mentioned that this is a Christian grave.

The Hindu gardener said that whoever had put the Ganesh there had good intentions, but did not understand what he was doing. My wife said that it did not matter because all people respect the same God and Hindus include Jesus as one of their own. The Hindu nodded in agreement. The Muslim looked doubtful.

The Muslim gardener was reassured when my wife suggested that Christianity and Islam share some common roots.

As we left these two fellows, my wife said she could hardly imagine having theological discussions with gardeners in a public garden in England.

Tiny clothes

In markets throughout Gujarat, I have seen shops selling elaborately made miniature clothes, which are often too small to fit the tiniest of human children. At first, I thought that these were toy clothes to dress dolls. But, I was mistaken.

A man selling these tiny garments explained to me that they are for dressing the idols of deities in Hindu shrines. The picture above, taken in central Vadodara, shows such a deity clothed with one of these miniature outfits.

Kites and cyclists

MAKARA SAKRANTI or UTTARAYAN, as it is known in Gujarat, is a Hindu festival held in mid January. It marks the beginning of the lengthening of day length, a month after the winter solstice.

Kite flying is a popular way to celebrate the festival. The kites are either attached to fine nylon strings or other threads sometimes covered with tiny fragments of crushed glass. Some kite flyers like to try to use their glass covered kite threads to sever the threads of other airborne kites.

The trees and ground are littered with paper kites that have escaped their owners. We have seen many of these in Vadodara.

Frequently, kites on long threads descend groundwards. The threads may cross busy roads. They offer danger to speeding motorcyclists. There is a real risk of drivers having their throats and faces severely injured by the almost invisible kite threads stretched across the road.

Prudent motorcyclists attach tall metal hoops from one handle bar to the other. These hoops will sever the hazardous kite threads before they can injure the cyclists’ throats.

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

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.

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. 

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: ).

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.

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

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Travels through Gujarat, Daman, and Diu

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Missing the bus

bus 2

We left our hotel in Porbandar before dawn and joined people waiting in the darkness at a ticket agency on MG Road. Several coaches were waiting nearby, but not ours. Two of them left, partially filled with passengers. Soon after they had gone, a man with baggage appeared. He had just missed one of the buses that we saw departing. The woman manning the desk at the agency hailed a passing autorickshaw, and then hurried the late passenger into it before making a ‘phone call to the driver of the bus that had gone. She told him to wait for the auto to catch up with the bus so that the tardy person could embark. I could not imagine this happening at London’s Victoria Coach Station.

bus 1

Our bus arrived. It was the same model as the one in which we had travelled from Junagadh. Moments before the driver climbed into his seat, a uniformed policeman entered the bus and placed two garlands with yellow flowers close to the steering wheel. Then, he disappeared on his motorcycle. The driver boarded. Before starting the engine, he arranged one of the garlands on two hooks above the centre of the windscreen so that it was draped around the rear-view mirror, and he placed the other around a small Hindu idol housed in a transparent Perspex box on the centre of the dashboard. Finally, he lit two agarbatti, which he stuck in a holder near the deity. A piece of plastic was stuck above the central rear-view mirror. It had words in Urdu script written on it. A sign behind the driver’s seat and facing the passengers was written in Gujarati script. My wife read this, and then told me that the words on it expressed (in Urdu transliterated into Gujarati script) Islamic sentiments of good intent. This bus was owned by the same people who operated the bus on which we had travelled from Junagadh, a Muslim family. Our driver was Hindu. The first aid box on the bus looked familiar. It was dirty and broken and hung at an odd angle from one of its hooks above the driver’s seat. When I saw this …

bus 3

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Style fusion in Gujarat

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.

Cham 2

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



15th century mosque at Champaner

Sun Temple


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.