A fine stepwell in Ahmedabad

IN ABOUT 1500, BAI HARIR SULTANI, Chief Officer of the Female Quarters of Sultan Mahmood Begada of Gujarat built a stepwell just outside the city walls of Ahmedabad.

The stepwell (a vav) is in a very good state of preservation and a fine example of this kind of structure. In essence a vav consists of a staircase leading below ground to the mouth of a well. The staircase is open to the elements but descends below an often complex structure of galleries built above it. As the staircase descends deeper, the number of layers of galleries above it increases. The staircase has a number of landinds along its length. Each new layer of gallery beginds above a landing. The result is a beautiful construction with a fascinating division of space. Photography, however good, cannot do justice to what the visitor experiences when descending into a vav. You need to visit a vav like the Bai Harir to understand and enjoy the full experience of this kind of stepwell.

The Bai Harir stepwell is on its own a good reason to travel to it, but there is another. Next to the vav there is a15/16th century mosque of great beauty. This should be visited as well as the elaborately decorated dargah (mausoleum) next to it. This contains the grave of Bai Harir Sultani, who not only established the vav but also the mosque.

One morning in Ahmedabad

A LAZY MORNING IN AHMEDABAD was just what we needed after a long bus ride from Bhuj the day before. The seat I sat in was uncomfortable.

Our newspaper seller and her assistant were sitting in their usual place on the pavement next to the entrance of the somewhat precious luxury hotel, The House of MG. They sit surrounded by piles of newspapers, both current and out of date. When we are in Ahmedabad, which we have visited 6 or 7 times during the last two years, they reserve a copy of the Indian Express for us. When we go to collect it, they have to rummage around to find it amongst the seemingly disorganized pile of newspapers, new and old.

We set off towards the Khwaja Bazaar and the Teen Darwaza, heading towards the Jumma Masjid. Just before we reached the bazaar, we entered a rather run down café/restaurant, named ‘Irani Restaurant’. This was established in 1950 and does not seem to have been redecorated since. The wall of the long rectangular dining hall has several mirrors, all cracked. However, the marble topped tables and the enormous kitchen are sootlessly clean. In addition to hot food items, this place sells freshly baked bun maska. These soft white bread buns have a very slightly sweet taste; they resemble the French ‘brioche’. I had one of these and ordered chhaas (buttermilk). To my surprise and delight, this was served in a used Pepsi bottle.

We proceeded to the Teen Darwaza, a three arched 15th century gate that was built soon after Shah Ahmed founded Ahmedabad in about 1420. Standing amidst a sea of market stalls and noisy traffic, this venerable stone gateway has decorative features that can be found on Indian structures built long before the Moslems arrived in India. This is also true of many if the 15th century mosques built in the early days of the city’s existence.

The Jumma Masjid is enormous and of great beauty. Like other mosques built in the 15th century in Gujarat, this Masjid displays many decorative and architectural features that the Moslems have adopted from Hindu and Jain temples that were in existence prior to Islamic invasions of western India.

The Jumma Masjid has more than 15 large domes and many smaller ones. Like the domes in earlier Hindu and Jain temples, the larger domes rest on eight lintels arranged octagonally. The lintels rest on eight supporting pillars. The interior of the mosque contains a forest of over 250 stone pillars, the bases of which have been decorated with carved stone motifs typically found in Hindu and Jain temples. I do not know why the newly arrived Moslems borrowed so many features from the temples which they found (and sometimes demolished) when they arrived in western India. Maybe, they employed local Hindus or Jains to construct the mosques, but surely the conquerors would have had some say in how the mosques were designed.

We spotted several terracotta pots placed by the bases of some of the pillars. These, we were told, are for worshippers to expectorate into should they need to during the prayer sessions (namaaz). This saves people from spitting on the floor, which is so common outside of holy places in India.
The Jumma Masjid has five carved stone mihrab niches, all facing towards Mecca. Each of these is decorated differently, but each of them is topped with a carving of a lamp, a symbol of the holiness of Allah. The central of these five niches is made of white marble inlaid with coloured stones. It is disfigured by the presence of a modern electric fan, which we were told is used to cool the Imam during namaaz.

There are numerous window around the mosque. Each of these is decorated by decorative jali work (decorative perforated stone screens). No two windows are decorated with the same design.

The mosque lost its two minarets during the earthquak of 1819, which resulted in an inlet of the Arabian sea being transformed into an arid salt desert (the Rann of Kutch).

The outer walls of the Masjid that face a huge space enclosed by arched passageways have several stone carvings depicting trees. I imagine these are depictions of the Tree of Life, such as can be seen in the intricate jali work at the Sidi Sayeed mosque.

After a pleasant hour examining the Jumma Masjid, we wended our way through the increasingly busier bazaar back to the Irani Restaurant. I ordered more chhaas, which arrived in used Seven Up bottles. This watery dairy drink, flavoured with cumin and other spiced, made a good accompaniment to my plate of delicious dal fry (dal to which slow fried onions and spices are added at a late stage in its preparation).

By 130 pm, the temperature had risen above 27 degrees Celsius, and it was time to retreat to our air conditioned hotel room. But before that, I made a trip to a local ATM. As with other ATM places in India, all the customers waiting for machines give each other helpful advice, such as “press this” or “remove card” or “enter pin” or “do that”, on how to use the machines. Unlike in the UK, where using an ATM is a very personal affair, in India it appears to be a group activity.

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.

Shaking minarets

A pair of minarets is all that remains of a mosque. They stand within the precincts of the main railway station of Ahmedabad. The rest of the mosque was destroyed long ago.

Apart from being attractive, these two minarets, the SHAKING MINARETS, are special. They are able to resist earthquakes. They shake or swing instead of falling to pieces during seismic activity.

The large Jumma Masjid in the heart of Ahmedabad lost its two mighty minarets as a result of movements of the earth long ago.

No one knows why the Shaking Minarets are able to resist seismic disturbances. They are not the only minarets in the city that have this ability. When, long ago, British investigators took one of this kind of minaret to pieces, they were unable to discover the secret of its stability. They were also unable to reassemble the structure properly.

Some suggest that the Shaking Minarets are of Persian design and that their stability has something to do with the sand in their foundations.

I cannot offer an explanation, but would like to make an observation. The Shaking Minarets are constructed with brick like stones that are well separated from each other by something like mortar. Most other minarets that I have seen are made with close-fitting blocks of stone, with minimal gaps between them.

Back in the 1980s, a very violent storm hit the southeast of England, where I was living. As the storm buffeted my house, I could feel it swinging from side to side. I feared it might fall down, but it did not. The house, like the Shaking Minarets, was built of bricks separated from each other by mortar. I felt that the stability of my house was due the fact that the latticework of bricks and mortar gave its walls a flexibility, which absorbed and reduced the impact of the forces hitting it. Maybe, it is the mortar between the brick like stones of the Shaking Minarets that allows them to disperse the seismic energy and by so doing causes them to swing rather than collapse.

I am no engineer. I am just ‘thinking aloud’, but as no one can yet explain the ability of these minarets to resist destruction, I offer the above.