Seduced by style

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.

High flyers

Today, 7th January 2020, we bought tickets for onwards bus journeys at Ahmedabad’s Geetamandir bus station. The young man at the ticket counter was an excellent salesman.

We stopped at the Raipur Gate, one of the several gates on the now demolished city wall. Only the gates remain as mementos of this wall.

Next to the gate, there were several spinning kite cord winders. They were preparing the cords that would be attached to the kites flown to celebrate the festival of Uttarayan (end of winter), which is celebrated all over Gujarat.

White thread is fed through a basin of coloured dye and then coated with finely ground glass and glue before being wound onto large spinning bobbins. The thread, when dried, is wound onto smaller bobbins that are sold to kite flyers. The ground glass is added to the thread so that kite flyers can use their kites to cut through the strings of other kites while they are airborne. The men making the threads were not Gujaratis, but from outside the state, from Bihar and UP, for example.

Ahmedabad now hosts an annual International Kite Festival.

The kites, made mostly of paper, are sold along a street leading away from the Raipur Gate. Kite flyers need to buy their kites and reels of thread (to attach to them) separately. We spotted numerous small stalls selling adhesive tape. One of the vendors of these explained that pne wraps this tape around fingers to stop them being injured by the very abrasive glass coated kite threads. Masks were also on sale. These are worn during the kite festival.

When we asked someone where we could watch the kites being flown, we were told: “In the air, up in the sky”. On further questioning, we were told, as if we were idiots, that the kites can be seen flying in the heavens.

Some years ago we visited Ahmedabad in late March. Even so long after Uttarayan, the branches of trees were filled with the remains of kites that had been caught in them.

BUS TO MOUNT ABU

WE SPENT MUCH OF NEW YEAR’S 7 Its driver was a friend of our driver. They were pleased to meet and wanted to chat. The other driver suggested to ours that he drove alongside ours so that he could chat with our driver. This did not happen but I liked the idea. Locating which bus we were to travel on proved a bit hair raising because everyone we asked suggested a different part of the bus station from which our bus might depart.

Much of the first half of the bus journey involved travelling northwards through flat cultivated terrain liberally sprinkles with small factories and large villages. We had a ten minute stop at Himatnagar, a small busy city in northern Gujarat.

Beyond Idar, the road began climbing out of the plain. We had a 30 minute break in Ambaji, an important temple town on the Gujarat side of the border of Rajasthan, which we entered immediately after lraving the town.

After Ambaji, our road climbed steadily and with increasingly tight bends through a mountainous landscape with plenty of trees. I was glad we were on a bus rather than a smaller vehicle like a car or jeep because many of these were driven as if their drivers had a suicidal tendency.

After about seven hours we arrived at the ramshackle, seemingly abandoned bus station at Mount Abu. There have been settlements in this area since time immemorial. It is mentioned in ancient Hindu texts, the Puranas. In the 19th century is was the summer capital of the Rajputana State. Many of the Rajput royalty built summer palaces in Mount Abu.

Our hotel is close to the still used polo ground. A beautiful late Victorian polo pavilion built in 1894 overlooks the vast polo playing field and is now used as a library.

The temperature at Mount Abu, which is about 4000 feet above sea level, dropped dramatically as the sun set. The air became icy cold and we were forced to purchase warm jackets. These are sold at stalls at the so-called Nepali Market, which is also called the ‘Tibetan Market’. Nepali or Tibetan, whichever it is, is situated amongst trees to which are attached strings of colourful Buddhist prayer flags such as we have seen fluttering in Darjeeling and Sikkim.

We dined at a simple halal restaurant. My wife asked for a soup listed on the menu. At first, the restaurant owner did not seem so keen on serving it. After a while, he said reluctantly : “If you really want it, I suppose I will have to make it for you”

Familiarity does not always breed contempt

FAMILIARITY BREEDS … CONTENTMENT. We have just landed in Ahmedabad. It is our third visit to this city in Gujarat within less than two years. We received a warm welcome from the staff at the small hotel where we have stayed twice before.

After settling into our room, we ate a good meal of Mughlai food at the Food Inn, which is opposite the 16th century Sidi Sayeed Mosque. Then, we travelled to the Gita Mandir bus station, where a very helpful booking clerk arranged tickets for various intercity trips we are planning to make soon.

The noisy, bustling traffic in Ahmedabad is typical of the city’s general feeling of vibrancy and exciting vitality. So bad was the congestion on the roads that our autorickshaw driver suggested that we abandoned our plans to visit the Jumma Masjid near the Manek Chowk. He explained that being the 30th of December, everyone was in a holiday mood and out on the streets spending money.

We disembarked at Khwaja Bazaar, a frenetic market place between the three arched Teen Darwaza and the Badra Fort, where the early rulers of Ahmedabad had their headquarters. We strolled along a street leading away from the market, admiring occasional old looking buildings along it. I imagine that the oldest of these is about a hundred or so years old.

Eventually, we reached a post office just across the road from an ageing Parsi ‘dharamshala’. Apart from a vigilant watchman, who looked at us suspiciously, the place looked rather dead. We took tea at a pavement stall. Typical of the kindness of people in this city, the ‘chaiwallah’ specially prepared tea without sugar for us instead of the very sweet beverage that is usually served. We sat on a bench, sipping tea and watching the world go by. It felt good to be back in Ahmedabad, a city, where kite flying is a popular pursuit. A city that is becoming familiar to us and makes us feel content.

First published on http://www.gujarat-travels.com

Urban animals

Romulus

Exactly when great cities were founded is often unclear. However, sometimes there is a myth involving the animal world that is associated with the genesis of a great city. In the case of Rome (Italy), the story of Romulus and Remus and the wolf that suckled them is too well-known to be repeated here. If you do not know it, read about it HERE .

The great city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat (India) was founded in the 15th century AD by Ahmed Shah, who governed the Sultanate of Gujarat  from 1411 until  1442. According to the writers Achyut Yagnik and Suchitra Sheth in their book Ahmedabad: From Royal City to Megacity:

One popular myth says that Ahmed Shah went hunting one day on the banks of the Sabarmati and saw a hare chasing a dog. Amazed by the the unusual role reversal and interpreting it as an auspicious omen, Ahmed Shah decided to found a city at that spot by the river“.

This kind of myth in which a predator is chased by its prey is shared by several other cities including Malacca (now in Malaysia), Chandrapur (in Maharashtra), and the ancient city of Vijaynagara (in Karnataka). In the case of Malacca, a mouse deer being chased by a dog managed to push its pursuer into a river (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chandrapur) . As for Chandrapur, there was a hare chasing a dog. In each case, a city was founded on the spot where these unusual occurrences were reported.

Vijanagara on the banks of the River Tungabadra thrived from the 14th century until the 16th century and was during its heyday one of the largest and richest cities of its time.  Today, its extensive, impressive, and attractive ruins can be explored by visitors to Hampi (near the city of Hospet). According to Robert Sewell (1845-1925) in his A Forgotten Empire (first published 1900), a chieftain Deva Raya (aka ‘Deorao’) was:

“… one day hunting amongst the mountains south of the river when a hare, instead of fleeing from his dogs, flew at them and bit them…”

When Deva Raya told the sage Vidyaranya about this incident, the wise man told him to build a city on this spot. That was in 1336 AD, and the city became Vijaynagara. In another version of  this story, as related by Ratnakar Sadasyula in his recently published book City of Victory says that the hare attacking the dogs (at the place Vijaynagara was started) was seen by the brothers Harihara and Bukka, who were the first two rulers of the Empire of Vijaynagara (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harihara_I). It matters not who actually witnessed this extraordinary attack of the dogs by a hare. What is interesting  is that the locations of several cities has been ascribed to the siting of  prey pursuing its predator(s). 

 

Picture source: wikipedia

Some know, others don’t

I know it is not a good idea to make generalisations, but it is quite fun to do so occasionally. So, here goes! This time, I am going to generalise about taxi drivers’ knowledge in London, Bombay, Bangalore, and Ahmedabad.

The drivers of London’s characteristic black (usually) cabs are only allowed to work when they have “The Knowledge”. That is, they have passed an examination that requires the candidate to have a very detailed knowledge of the streets of London. A London cabbie only very rarely does not know the way.

London’s minicab and Uber drivers do not have to be tested on The Knowledge, but they are usually very adept at using GPS systems.

In Bombay, there is a huge number of yellow and black cabs. In my experience, the drivers usually know their way around the city. Some of them raise all kinds of objection s before they give in to your wish to hire them, but once aboard they will take you where you want without requiring navigational assistance.

I find the best way to get around Bangalore is to travel in an autorickshaw. Their drivers often know the way, and if they do not, they will ask fellow autorickshaw drivers, who can point them in the right direction. Uber and it’s competitor Ola exist in Bangalore, but their drivers, often from out of town, are often clueless about the city’s geography and find GPS hard to understand.

It is our experience with autorickshaw drivers in Ahmedabad that prompted me to write this blog. We have made many trips in their vehicles. An enormous proportion of the drivers will tell you that they know how to reach a place, but in reality they have no clue. They will not admit their ignorance and are often reluctant to stop and ask for directions from bystanders.

One driver in Ahmedabad, who was completely lost, got annoyed with us, his customers, and said: “Why are you going somewhere if you don’t know how to get there? I should leave you here, and you can find your own way.”

I did say that I would be generalizing. In all fairness, I must record that some of the autorickshaw drivers in Ahmedabad have been very knowledgeable about their city, but these have been in the minority.

So, when you visit the truly wonderful city of Ahmedabad, you will find it helpful to be able to access Google maps on your mobile phone while travelling around.

A lovely discovery

I always enjoy finding bookshops that are out of the ordinary. Although bookselling chains such as Waterstones in the UK and Crossword in India are well stocked with popular titles that are likely to sell well, it is the quirky or niche bookshops that I particularly seek out. The one-off bookshops usually keep a far more interesting range of books than the chains.

Here is a short description of a lovely specialist bookshop hidden away in a residential district of Ahmedabad, not far from the River Sabarmati, on whose bank Mahatma Gandhi set up one of his famous ashrams.

This small gem of bookshop, the Art Book Centre, in Ahmedabad is a wonderful discovery. It was recommended to us by Mr Shukla who is the General Secretary of the Ahmedabad Textile Mill Owners Association, which is housed in a masterpiece by the architectural genius Le Corbusier.

The bookshop, a true life Aladdin’s cave, is on the first floor of a residential building. It is reached by a steep ladder like staircase typical of those found in houses all over Gujarat. The steps lead to a balcony which is festooned with colourful folkloric items. A doorway leads from there into the shop itself.

The walls of the small, cosy shop are lined with neatly stacked book cases. Piles of books rise from the floor. On the walls and in between the book cases, there are numerous folkloric artworks and practical items including beautifully embroidered and printed textiles. We were welcomed by Manarbhai and Ketan, one of his two sons. They invited us to sit down.

Manarbhai worked for many years as a typist in the Mathematics Department of the University of Gujarat. He was no ordinary typist. He was able to type mathematical equations, which was no easy feat in the era before computerised word processors became available.

Manarbhai began his book business as a part time enterprise. In 1970, he converted part of his home into what is now his shop. At first, he only opened his shop on weekends. Now, it is open every day between 10 am and 6 pm.

The shop specialises mainly in books on art and architecture. It contains many books about textiles. Many of the volumes available are rare editions. If what you wish is not stocked, Manarbhai and his sons will do their best to source it, and then send it to you anywhere in the world.

It soon became apparent to us that Manarbhai and Ketan are extremely knowledgeable about books in the fields on which they specialise. They are also sensitively intelligent salesmen. Very quickly, they assessed our particular interests and began showing us books that were in harmony with them. We came away with a valuable selection of books that will help satisfy our curiosity about the fascinating history of the city of Ahmedabad.

This is a bookshop for true book lovers and collectors. It should be on every bibliophile’s itinerary. What Manarbhai cannot find for your bookshelf is probably not worth having.

Address: near Jain Temple, Madalpur, Ellis Bridge, Ahmedabad 380006

 

This article is adapted from http://www.gujarat-travels.com

Indian way of worship

Over and over again, I am impressed by the “Indian-ness” of worshipping in India. I will illustrate what I mean by this by describing a small Orthodox Christian chapel I visited on Bazaar Road in the Mattancherry district of Cochin (“Kochi”) in Kerala.

Outside the chapel, there stands a carved stone stand with indentations for oil lamps (diyas). It looks just like any diya stand that you could find in a Hindu temple, except that it is surmounted by a Christian cross.

The crucifix that stood above a small high altar within the chapel was draped with flower garlands (malas). Again, these are commonly found draped around effigies of Hindu deities.

I saw a brass diya stand with burning oil lamps directly in front of the crucifix. Like the lamp stand by the entrance, this one was also topped with a Christian cross.

If one were to replace the crucifix with an effigy of a Hindu deity and were to remove the crosses from the diya stands, the chapel would become identical to a Hindu temple.

The use of diyas and also agarbati sticks (incense sticks) is not confined to Hindu temples. I have seen them used in Christian as well as Islamic (especially Sufi) and Jain places of worship.

At a Sufi shrine at Sarkej Rauza on the edge of Ahmedabad in Gujarat, I have seen tulsi leaves being sold. These are commonly associated with Hinduism, but the vendor in the Sufi shrine told me that they were also used by worshippers who came to the shrine.

I have seen threads tied around the trunks of peepal trees by pious Hindu women hoping to have their wishes granted. I have also seen threads tied by women around pillars in Moslem shrines for the same reason.

Hinduism was probably one of the earliest religious belief systems to become evident in the Indian subcontinent. Christianity and Islam were relatively recent arrivals. Many Hindus converted to these two religions, but, I imagine, they were reluctant to abandon their Hindu heritage completely. Hence, the Hindu-ness or Indian-ness of some aspects of other religions in India.