Back in Baroda again

I FIND THAT REVISITING PLACES IS often pleasurable. Some might say “familiarity breeds contempt”, but for me gaining familiarity with a city does the opposite, it increases my admiration and enjoyment. Baroda (aka Vadodara) in Gujarat is no exception.

After a frustrating morning trying to reserve tickets from Surat to Bombay at both the railway station and the central bus depot, we sought refuge at the peaceful Hazira Maqbara, the 16th century mausoleum containing the grave of Qutub-ud-Din Muhammad Khan. This large, domed octagonal structure is elegant and deserves to be regarded as one of the most important architectural monuments in Baroda.

Directly across the road from Hazira, there is a large sign for ‘Sunder Baug Towers’, a block of flats. A narrow path next to the sign leads to the Koyal Vav (Nightingale Stepwell). Unlike many of the more remarkable vavs in Gujarat, for example the Bai Harir and the Adalaj vavs in Ahmedabad, that have become protected but unused monuments, the Koyal is a far simpler structure but is still in daily use. Apart from its staircase, the brickwork of the stepwell and another wide diameter circular brick well very close by are in poor condition. A man, who saw me taking photographs, asked if we were tourists or whether we had come to repair the well.

A sheet of filthy corrugated iron barred access to the stairs leading into the vav. Soon after we arrived, a lady turned up. She moved the corrugated iron barrier, explaining that it was placed there to prevent animals from descending the steps and to deter humans from doing ‘sandaas’ (defaecation) in the well.

The stairs led to a brick archway over a rectangular pool containing murky grey water. Once, there had been another arch. It had spanned the staircase about halfway down to the water. It collapsed some time ago, leaving a small projection of brickwork as evidence of its existence.

The lady told us that people bathed in the vav for medicinal purposes. At least ten people bathe every day, and on Sundays many more. She said the water was good for healing skin boils. I looked at the liquid and felt that entering it was likely to cause one to develop boils, if not worse.

From Koyal Vav we drove to the Mandvi, the central point of the old city of Baroda. It is the place where the four roads from the four gates in the now demolished city walls met. The mandvi itself is a building that used to serve as a revenue or tax collecting place. This delightful old building stands in the middle of a busy traffic roundabout.

The popular small Karnatak eating house faces the mandvi. It serves south Indian vegetarian food: idlis, dosas, vadas, etc., but, sadly, not south Indian filter coffee (nor chhaas before March). I ate a tolerable but not brilliant dosa. The Karnatak is owned by a man who comes from Udipi in Karnataka.

We walked from the mandvi towards the Lehripura gate along a bustling street lined with small shops, including many jewellery sellers, and roadside stalls selling useful as well as decorative items.

We walked through a narrow alleyway, passing some slightly dilapidated, but decorative old houses adorned with intricate wood carvings, and reached a street parallel to the one we were on. This street is also full of shops. Overhead, cords stretched across the thoroughfare carried clothes and fabrics for sale.

We entered an attractive Jain derasa (temple), which was no more than 150 years old, but displayed many of the architectural and decorative features of much older temples. The main mahavir idol was made of white marble richly encrusted with shiny jewels.

We visited a Hindu temple nearby. Many of the idols in that temple were dressed in what looks like dolls’ clothing that is supposed to protect their dignity. The ceiling of the large dome above the verandah of the temple was lined with concentric circles, just as can be found in temples built many centuries ago.

The now disused Nyayamandir, a royal palace that once housed the old law courts, stands facing a square. One side of the square is lined with women selling cricket bats in all sizes and colours. One lady was busy sanding bats prior to polishing them.

We returned to our hotel for a rest. On our way we passed the Sursagar, a large man made lake. In the centre of this, there stands a tall metal statue of Shiva holding a fearsome looking trishul (trident).

Much of what we saw we had seen before, but seeing it again was far from repetitive; it was like viewing it with fresh eyes. We recognised places but discovered things we had not noticed before.

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.