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.

Hindu reform in Bangalore

IN AN AREA OF BANGALORE FILLED WITH TRADITIONAL HINDU TEMPLES, I STUMBLED ACROSS A CENTRE WHERE A REFORMED VERSION OF THE RELIGION IS PRACTISED.

FINDING SOMEWHERE THAT I HAD NOT NOTICED BEFORE IS OFTEN FASCINATING. I have often been driven past this particular place in central Bangalore at speed. One day, I walked past this compound, located close to RBANM’s Ground, at a leisurely pace and discovered that it contains three buildings arranged around a rectangular garden. The two side buildings are typical old Bangalorean structures with verandahs and monkey-top woodwork as well as other typical traditional architectural ornamentation. The central building facing the street but separated from it by the garden has a simple facade supported by four plain pillars with Doric capitals. A stone embedded in the outer wall of the compound reads “Brahma Mandir 1879”. This compound contains the buildings belonging to the Bangalore Brahmo Samaj.

The Brahmo Samaj is one of the attempts to reform the practise of Hinduism. Founded in about 1828 in Bengal, it was a monotheistic form of Hinduism. The Brahmo Samaj was not the only reforming movement in 19th century India, but, like Arya Samaj, it became one of the better known and enduring attempts to reform Hinduism.

In my recent book “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets, I have tried to show how the two sets of reformers differ:
The Arya Samaj, in common with the Brahmo Samaj, strove to reform Hinduism, but differed from the Brahmo Samaj in many respects. Members of Arya Samaj had no faith in the goodness of the British Government, whereas the opposite was true for the Brahmo Samaj. Arya Samaj believed in the superiority of Hinduism over other religions, whereas the Brahmo Samaj put Hinduism on the same level as other religions. Another of many differences between the two movements was that Arya Samaj wanted to revive Vedic traditions and to reject modern western culture and philosophy, whereas the Brahmo Samaj accepted western culture and ideas.”

I have yet to stumble across an Arya Samaj place of worship in Bangalore, but I feel sure that there must be at least one in the city. The Brahmo buildings I saw are good examples of beautiful Bangalore architecture, much of which is being callously torn down to make way for ugly new structures.

MARBLE PALACE

THINK OF ANY MAJOR CITY and its most famous land mark will spring to mind: Big Ben in London, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Coliseum in Rome, the Golden Gate in San Francisco, and so on. Calcutta evokes thoughts of the Victoria Memorial and, maybe, the Howrah Bridge.

Yet, Calcutta contains something far more remarkable: The Marble Palace. It was built in 1835 in a European neoclassical style to the plans of an architect from Italy for a prosperous Bengali merchant Raja Ragendra Mullick Bahadur. Set in extensive gardens filled with marble statues mostly imported from Europe, the palace alone is remarkable to look at.

However, step inside and a treasure house awaits you. Mullick and his descendants are avid collectors of artworks. Mullick, who had the house constructed, never visited Europe but employed agents to buy precious works of art for him. The collection of paintings in the Marble Palace make it the first ever art gallery in India. Treasures amongst the large numbers of canvases include paintings by Rubens, Murillo, Reynolds, and Ravi Varma.

Rooms on the palace are filled with antique furniture, marble and other statuary, valuable ancient Chinese porcelain, and much else.

The elaborate wooden ceilings differ in design from room to room. Looking downwards, the floors are made of marble of varying colour arranged in patterns typically found in Italian renaissance buildings. They were created by Indian workers using Italian marble and designed by Italian artists.

There is a large open coutyard in the middle of the palace. One end is occupied by a covered stage-like podium, where Hindu ceremonies are performed for the Mullick family, many of whom still live in the palace. The courtyard is filled with interesting bird calls because at one end of it, facing the podium, there are several large cages each containg a large parrot.

There is a small zoo or menagerie on one side of the gardens. Apparently, it is one of the oldest zoos in India. When we visited it, we saw various types of deer and some waterfowl.

If you do no other sight seeing in Calcutta, the Marble Palace, but not the Victoria Memorial, is a ‘must’.

Note: photography is forbidden in the palace but a small book in Bengali is available for 100 Rupees and it contains a few photos.

She sailed on a leaf

IVES

 

St Ives in Cornwall is one of my favourite places to visit in the UK. This charming, picturesque town straddles a shoulder of land separating two beautiful bays. One of its most endearing features is the quality of the light. The light has the same special quality as that which bathes Venice in Italy. Maybe, it is the extraordinarily light that attracted many artists to St Ives in the past and still in the present. As extraordinary as the light is, so is the story of St Ia after whom St Ives was named.

During the 5th or 6th century AD, St Ia was due to travel from Ireland to England along with several other Christian missionaries, many of whom were later to become saints. When Ia discovered that she had been left behind, she began praying and shedding tears. One of her tears fell upon a leaf floating in the sea near where she was praying. She noticed that the leaf began growing in size. It became so big that there was room for her to stand on it. Putting her trust in God, she set sail on the leaf, which carried her across the sea to Cornwall. 

After landing in Cornwall, she set up a small oratory. Sadly, she was killed at Hayle by a local chieftain. She was buried at what is now the town of St Ives, where the main church in the town is dedicated to her memory. St Ive’s Parish Church is well worth visiting not only to contemplate St Ia but also because it is a fine example of a 15th century gothic church. The church contains many superb features including a lovely café where you can enjoy tea or coffee and home-made cakes in a peaceful environment.

A tingle down my spine

 

I enjoy exploring historical places. Well, I know that everywhere has a history, but what I mean is places which contain tangible remnants of their history like the Regency buildings designed by John Nash, built at the beginning of the 19th century around Regents Park in London. They were built when the future George IV was Regent.

Well, there is nothing surprising about these beautiful buildings. That is what I thought until my wife spotted the street lamp posts next to some of the buildings. Each of their bases has a symbol for King George IV. Seeing such mundane objects that must have been in daily use since so long ago sent a tingle down my spine.

The same thing happened to me once when I was driving along a ring road around Munich and I passed a direction sign pointing to Dachau.

Art gallery

Bangalore in south India is not blessed with many tourist attractions. I will describe one of them, which gives me great pleasure.

Almost 10 years ago, a branch of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) opened in Bangalore. Even if you have little interest in modern art this place is worth seeing. Part of the collection, which changes regularly, is housed in the former Manikyavelu Palace, a 19th century edifice which has been superbly restored.

The palace is linked to an elegantly simple contemporary building in which some of the permanent collection is displayed. The collection includes works mainly by Indian artists but there are also a few by European artists. Most of the artworks were created in the 20th and 21st centuries. There is a good selection of paintings by Bengali artists.

The new building also houses well curated temporary exhibitions. Currently, there is a wonderful exhibition of paintings and drawings by the artist Khanderao, who was born in Gulbarga. His early works were beautifully executed topographical scenes. He is also a superp portraitist. Like other great modern artists, for example Picasso, Khanderao has moved into abstraction, which he deals with beautifully.

A water feature separates the palace and its modern extension from another contemporary complex. This includes an auditorium, a library, a café, and a gallery shop.

The verdant gardens of the NGMA contain several modern sculptures.

The NGMA is, in my opinion, one of the loveliest attractions that Bangalore offers visitors and residents alike.

Arab or Norman, Hindu or Muslim…

The Normans took over Sicily from its Arab rulers. The early mediaeval church architecture adopted by the Norman builders shows the influence of Arab design.

In Gujarat (India), the Muslim invaders began building mosques in the style of local Hindu temples, just as the Normans built in the way that they found when they arrived in Sicily.