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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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