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.

An Albanian in Gujarat

While visiting the former Portuguese colony of Diu, an enclave on the south coast of the Saurashtrian peninsula of Gujarat, I came across an open space that provides great views of the fortresses.

DIU MON

It contains a tall, bulky, four-sided column with longitudinal striations. Wire hoops serving as simple steps provide a means of reaching the column’s flat square summit. This is a monument built by the Portuguese to honour of the Gujarati General Khadjar Safar (known by the Portuguese as ‘Coge Cofar’).  The Gujaratis and the Portuguese were enemies and a siege occurred in 1546. This siege of Diu was won by the Portuguese, but Safar was remembered for his bravery. I have seen a picture of this column taken in the 1950s, when it bore a plaque in Portuguese that read in translation: “The tomb of Coge Cofar, instigator of the second siege of Diu. Commander-in-chief of the Turkish and Janissary troops from the kingdom of Cambaya, imposers of the siege of this Fort. In May of the year of 1546, he was killed by a stray bullet that came out from the Fort, penetrated the Turkish forces, and blew off his head. He was brave and courageous.”

Kuzhippalli S Mathew writing in his Portuguese and the Sultanate of Gujarat, 1500-1573 relates that Khwajar (or Khadjar) Safar was born in Italy of Catholic parents, probably Albanians. A successful trader, Safar, with his three boats loaded with valuable spices and drugs, was captured by a general of the Sultan of Cairo, who encountered him in the Straits of Mecca. The captive so impressed the Sultan that together they began planning ways to oust the Portuguese from the Indian Ocean trading arena. Portugal’s activities were wrecking the import of spices to Europe via Egypt. The Sultan gave Safar command of vessels to attack the Portuguese in India. By 1508, he had already fought with the Portuguese near both Chaul and Diu. After many adventures amongst which he fled from Egypt, converted to Islam, and even served the Portuguese briefly, he became an important person in the Sultanate of Gujarat. Both Khadjar Safar and his son Muharram Rumi Khan were killed during the siege of 1546.

This is an excerpt from Travels through Gujarat, Daman, and Diu by Adam Yamey.

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