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.

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.