An Indian patriot from Kutch

My new book “IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS” explores the brave exploits of Indian patriots living at India House in London between 1905 and 1910. They dedicated their efforts towards gaining independence for India – complete liberation from British imperialist rule. India House, which was in north London, was purchased by Shamji Krishnavarma, a barrister and leading scholar of Sanskrit. If his origins in Mandvi (Kutch, now Gujarat) were humble, his academic acheivements were quite the opposite as these excerpts from my book explain:

Shyamji Krishnavarma[1] (‘Shyamji’) was born in Mandvi, an estuarine seaport in Kutch, in 1857. Until June 1948[2], Kutch, a largely arid desert area, was one of the semi-autonomous Indian Princely States controlled by the British Government in India. Sandwiched between Sindh (now in Pakistan) and the Saurashtra peninsula, Kutch is now part of the State of Gujarat.

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Mandvi was an important trading centre. It was surrounded by a long wall, constructed in the 16th century and now mostly demolished. The old heart of the town and its bustling bazaar area remains picturesque with many houses displaying intricately carved wooden structural and decorative features. One bank of the mouth of the River Rukmavati continues to be a thriving centre for the construction of traditional wooden dhows, which are favoured for transporting goods mainly between the Arabian Gulf and East Africa. Fishermen mend their nets and maintain their colourfully decorated small vessels on the opposite bank. Mandvi is probably best known for the Vijay Vilas, a Maharao’s palace built in the 1920s in a Rajput architectural style. It was used to film some of the scenes in the highly popular Bollywood movie Lagaan, which was released in 2001 and depicts the struugle between the Indians and the British.

Shyamji was born into a poor Bhanasali family. The Bhanasali community comprises mainly poorer farmers and traders, who are Vaishnavite Hindus, worshippers of Vishnu (an avatar of Krishna) [3]. Krishnavarma’s first name, Shyamji, can mean: ‘dark complexioned’, ‘dark blue’ (as Krishna is often portrayed), and ‘Krishna’[4]. It was an obvious choice for a son’s name by worshippers of this god. The ‘Varma’ suffix on his surname was questioned by members of the Indian police in British India, who became very interested in Shyamji’s activities after 1905. A police report dated 27th September 1905 suggested Shyamji:

“… added the title “Varma” to his name in order to pass himself off as a Kshatriya[5]…”

This might have been a defamatory act of the authorities against someone they feared. If this was really the case, it might have been added because the Kshatriya (warrior) caste is believed to be superior in status to that of the Bhanasali people and some members of Shyamji’s family’s caste claim to be of Kshatriya descent[6]. Fischer-Tiné wrote that despite his name Shymaji was not a Kshatriya[7]. Regardless of whether he was a Kshatriya, Shyamji’s educational successes allowed him to mix with men from backgrounds more prosperous than his.

Young Shyamji attended the local primary school in Mandvi from 1870 onwards[8], and continued his education in the Alfred High School in Bhuj (60 kilometres northeast of Mandvi). The language of tuition in Bhuj was English. He was an excellent student and topped the school in academic achievement. His father, who had a small business in Bombay where he lived, may have given news of Shyamji’s prowess to members of a group of reformers based in Bombay[9], with whom he had business relations. Some of them had family members in Kutch, who might have also heard about the child prodigy. In any case, news of Shyamji’s scholastic excellence reached the ears of men who were prepared to help bright young Hindu men.

The reformers in Bombay were followers of the Arya Samaj movement (see below). Led by men such as Vishnu Parsaram Shastri, Madhavdas Raghunathdas, Karsandas Mulji (sometimes called an ‘Indian Luther’[10]), and others, the Arya Samaj reformers fought against pillars of Hindu Brahminical tradition such as: untouchability, child marriage, enforced widowhood, sati (widows’ self-immolation by burning), and worship of idols. One of these gentlemen, a Bhatia merchant and philanthropist from Kutch called Mathuradas Lavaji[11], paid for Shyamji to enter the Wilson High School in Bombay to continue his studies…

… As in Bhuj, Shyamji became a first-class student in Bombay. His academic ability and knowledge of Sanskrit won him the Seth Gokuldas Kahandas Parekh[12] scholarship, which paid for him to study at Elphinstone High School, a much more expensive and prestigious establishment than Wilson High School. His great knowledge of Sanskrit allowed him to use the title ‘Pandit[13]’.  Elphinstone’s pupils were mainly the sons of Bombay’s wealthy elite. It was here that Shyamji became a friend of a pupil Ramdas, son of Chhabildas Lallubhai, a wealthy Bhanasali merchant of Bombay. Chhabildas was impressed by Shyamji. He asked Shyamji, then aged eighteen, to marry his daughter Bhanumati with her approval[14] (possibly unusually for the period), then aged thirteen. They married in 1875.

The year before his marriage, Shyamji met Swami Dayanand Saraswati (‘Dayanand’; 1824-83), who became important in his life. The Swami had come to Bombay to meet members of the reforming movement, with which Shyamji had become associated.

Dayanand[15] was an influential reformer of Hinduism and the founder of the Arya Samaj movement. He was born in Tankara, which is now in the Morbi district of the State of Gujarat…

… While visiting Bombay, Dayanand met Shyamji, who then received private lessons in Sanskrit from him. Shyamji and Dayanand rapidly became friends and corresponded with each other. Their friendship might have been enhanced by the fact that Dayanand’s mother came from Kutch, as had Shyamji[16].  Shyamji provided valuable assistance in the editing and distribution of Dayanand’s Vedic publications…

… The arrival in Bombay of a scholar from Oxford in 1876 was a turning point in Shyamji’s life. The scholar was the orientalist Monier Monier-Williams[17] (1819-99), an Englishman who was born in Bombay. He had become Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford in late 1860. In 1876, Monier-Williams had come India to elicit donations from Indian princes to help finance his project to create an institute dedicated to furthering studies of Indian culture at Oxford. His Indian Institute was established in 1883, and finally opened in 1896[18].

During his visit to India in 1876, Monier-Williams wanted to find a man who could read and write Sanskrit in the Devanagari script[19], in which, for example, the Vedas were originally recorded in writing (after having been transmitted from one generation to the next orally and learnt by rote). Judge Gopal Rao Hari Deshmukh (1823-92), a social reformer belonging to the Chitpavan[20] community of Maharashtra, introduced Monier-Williams to Shyamji, the brilliant young scholar of Sanskrit…

… Shyamji travelled to England on the SS India. He was admitted to Balliol College, Oxford, in April 1879 and was awarded a BA in 1882[21].

 

A house cover

IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS (ISBN: 9780244203870)

is available on lulu.com, bookdepository.com, amazon, Kindle, and can be ordered from bookshops.

 

NOTES IN THE EXCERPTS

[1] For a readable, informative biography, see: GL Varma: Shyamji Krishna Varma The Unknown Patriot, publ. by Ministry of information and Broadcasting Government of India, New Delhi: 1993

[2] Rushbrook Williams, LF: The Black Hills, publ. by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London: 1958

[3] See: http://www.bhanushalisamaj.in/ , accessed 22 March 2019

[4] See:  http://www.indianchildnames.com , accessed 22 March 2019

[5] Bose, AC: Indian Revolutionaries Abroad: 1905-1927, publ. by Northern Book Centre, New Delhi: 2002, first publ. 1998

[6] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhanushali, accessed 23 March 2019

[7] Fischer-Tiné, H: Shyamji Krishnavarma: Sanskrit, Sociology and Anti-Imperialism, publ. by Routledge, New Delhi: 2014

[8] See: https://www.krantiteerth.org/about-shyamji-krishna-verma.html, accessed 22 March 2019

[9] Yajnik, I: Shyamaji Krishnavarma, publ. by Lakshmi Publications, Bombay: 1950

[10] See: Barton Scott, J: Journal of the American Academy of Religion, March 2015, Vol. 83, No. 1, pp. 181–209, and Motiwala, BN: Karsondas Mulji: A Biographical Study, publ. by Parbhudas Ladabhai Mody, Bombay: 1935

[11] Yajnik, I

[12]He was Gujarati. See Fischer-Tiné; Yajnik, I adds the ‘Parekh’ to his name

[13] Pandit: ‘learned’ or ‘wise’. See: Johnson, WJ

[14] Yajnik, I

[15] For a succinct biography of Dayanand, see Johnson, WJ

[16] Varma, GL

[17] DNB: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edition, accessed 24 March 2019

[18] http://www.oxfordhistory.org.uk/broad/buildings/east/old_indian_institute/index.html

[19] See: Bose, AC

[20] Many Indian freedom fighters and reformers of note belonged to the Chitpavan community.

[21] DNB

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

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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

 

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

Read more about Adam Yamey’s adventures and discoveries in Gujarat, Daman, and Diu, either in  a lovely paperback (buy a copy HERE) or on your Kindle (download a copy HERE )

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Style fusion in Gujarat

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

somn

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

 

cham

15th century mosque at Champaner

Sun Temple

surya

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.