Here is something I first noticed when visiting the temple town of Somnath: side steps. I have seen better examples of what I am about to describe in Ahmedabad (see photo).
Staircases take up space. In many older Gujarati buildings, internal staircases are so steep that they resemble ladders. Good examples of these may be seen at the birthplaces of Mahatma Gandhi and his wife in Porbandar.
External staircases linking raised entrance doorways to the street sometimes require many steps. If the treads of the steps are parallel to the external wall, a large staircase would have to project far into the roadway, restricting the usable width of the latter.
One solution to reducing the footprint of an external staircase is often adopted in Gujarat. That is to make the treads of the steps at right angles to the external wall rather than parallel. This works well, and reduces the encroachment of private front staircases onto the public thoroughfare.
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
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.
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.
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/).
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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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.