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.

Shrouded in shame

This tale is based on a true story related to me

Life has not treated Zafar well. Even his wife Zubeida feels that her burqa is barely sufficient to hide her shame. The couple scrimped and saved to pay to educate their daughter Rubina so that she was qualified sufficiently to be able to enter a college in Ahmedabad.

And, what made their beloved daughter do what she has done? And, why did she run off with her Hindu neighbour’s son Rajesh? And, what came over her to marry Rajesh, who is little more than a dunce with no prospects whatsoever? Did she not trust her parents to choose a suitable grroom for her? Only He above might possibly know.

By choosing a ‘love marriage’, that selfish Rubina has not only shunned her parents but has also caused her family to be ostracised by the rest of their community. And, there is more woe to relate. The imam of Zafar’s community has instigated a case against his family, a case to be tried under Shariah law. Zafar is already facing a hefty fine imposed by his community and, even worse, he has already had to pay the hospital’s huge fees required to recover his wife from a paralysis brought on by Rubina’s selfish act of folly.

And, with sorrow, there is yet more to relate. Zafar has since lost his good job. Who would want to employ a man who has lost control of his daughter, you might well ask. Ask you might, but whatever the answer might be, life has not treated Zafar well.

Around the market with Mansour

I CANNOT COUNT the number of times I have passed Johnson Market on my way between Koramangala, where my in-laws live, and central Bangalore. The market building stands close to the busy intersection of Hosur Road and Richmond Road. Recently, I went on a guided walking tour of the area around Johnson Market. It was led by my good friend Mansour Ali, who runs a great organisation called “Bengaluru by foot” (www.bengalurubyfoot.com). I had visited Johnson Market several times before on my own, but Mansour’s tour enhanced my experience of it and its surroundings.

Johnson Market was built in an indo-saracenic style in the early 20th century on the site of stables that housed horses, which were imported into India in 1824 from Persia by Aga Ali Asker who was born in Shiraz in 1808. Some of the stables still exist, incorporated into the structure of the market halls. Ali Asker was one of several brothers. While the rest of ghem returned to Persia, he stayed in in Bangalore where he died after carrying out much valuable public work. One of his grandsons, born in Bangalore, was Sir Mirza Ismail (1883-1959), a great Indian statesman.

Johnson Market is for selling food. In addition to vegetables (including exotic vegetables like Chinese pak choi), there is a wonderful fishmongers shop and a beef market.

Near to the market, stands ‘Koshys Automatic Bakery’, which was the first mechanised bakery in the city. A stall beside it sells bread, cakes, and delicious filled puffs.

At both ends of the long building housing the Islamic Educational Board of India on Richmond Road, there are gateways leading to Muslim shrines well hidden from the road. One of them is a Sunni shrine, and the other is Shia/Sufi. Soon after the birth of Islam believers in this religion split into two main groups: Sunni and Shia. The majority of Muslims in India are Sunni, a small minority are Shia. It happens that there is a concentration of Shia establishments close to Johnson Market. This might be because Ali Asker and his descendants, many of whom had homes in the area, were Shias. Each of the shrines or ‘dargahs’ are peaceful enclaves, which although close to the main road, feel far away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

The leafy shaded Mysore Tobacco Company compound is across Richmond Road facing the two dargahs. Surrounded by trees and luxuriant foliage, the main building is a delightful example of colonial Bangalorean domestic architecture. Its windows are partially covered with monkey top woodwork. The large front porch is rich in wooden latticework and rustic carving that hints of idealised quaint country cottages in far-off England.

All Saints Church, founded by the Reverend Pettigrew (founder of Bangalore’s Bishop Cotton School for boys) and designed in Victorian gothic style by the English architect Robert Fellowes Chisholm and consecrated in 1870. It stands at the intersection of Richmond and Hosur Roads, and must have brought feelings of homesickness to Britishers living in pre-independence Bangalore. Stepping inside is like entering a village church in England. The garden surrounding the church contains a rich variety of plants, including a rather spindly olive tree, reflecting Pettigrew’s interest in botany. Tragically, part of this garden is under threat because the municipal authorities want it for use in the construction of a new metro line.

After visiting the church, Mansour took us to see another Shia dargah in a lane leading off Hosur Road. This shrine is connected with the battle of Karbala (600 AD) during which Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was slain by the caliph Yazid I. The shrine, which is revered by Shias, contains fine glass lamps and chandeliers which were probably made in Turkey over a century ago. Unlike mosques, where worshippers of different genders are kept separated, males and females can pray together in dargahs.

The Masjid e Askari is the only Shia mosque in Bangalore. Adjoining it, there is a recently built replica of a mosque in Karbala, the city close to where Hussain, sacred to the Shias, met his death. The replica, which is smaller than the original, is a beautiful construction with amazing mirror work mosaics in which words from the Koran are inserted in black tiling.

After spending three hours with Mansour, I felt that I had learnt much about the Shia branch of Islam and a great deal about a part of Bangalore which I have passed often without realising how interesting it is.

What is in a name?

PETERSBURG

 

An old mosaic adorns the facade of the big Apple store on London’s Regent Street. It harks back to the time long ago when the building housing the store was a London Branch of a big insurance company. The mosaic was assembled and installed long before the great Russian Revolution of 1917. Various cities are named on the mosaic. One of these is St Petersburg. After the revolution , St Petersburg was renamed ‘Petrograd’ and then ‘Leningrad’, which remaine dits name until the 1990s when the city reverted to being ‘St Petersburg’. During my childhood and early adulthood, St Petersburg was ‘Leningrad’. Whenever I passed that mosaic, I used to marvel that the city’s old name remained unchanged on the facade of the building. It was a memory of historic times. Now, by chance, it is up to date.

Many of the readers of this blog will have realised that I visit India regularly. Most people know that Bombay is now known as ‘Mumbai’. Actually, speakers of Marathi and Gujarati have always called it that, but often still call it Bombay when speaking in English.

Madras has become Chennai. So what should one ask for when ordering Chicken Madras, which appears on many menus in Britain’s Indian restaurants?

In Karnataka, Bangalore has become Bengaluru, Mysore is now Mysuru, and Halebid is Halebidu. When I bought a bus ticket to Gulbarga in northern Karnataka, I was puzzled to see I had been issued with a ticket to Kalaburgi. This turns out to be the new name for Gulbarga.

Allahabad is now Prayagraj, a name that removes the Islamic flavour of its former name. There are moves afoot to de-islmamicise the name of Ahmedabad in Gujarat. The proposed name for the city founded by Ahmed is ‘Karnavati’, but the change has not yet been enforced.

Whether these changes of Indian place names will stick remains to be seen. Who can say whether they will revert like Leningrad that became St Petersburg again?

It has its uses

Psychedelic headscarf_240

 

In the UK, unlike some countries in Europe, we have a fairly liberal attitude towards Moslem women covering their heads and faces to a greater or lesser extent. In the last dental practice where I worked until I retired, our patients came from all over the world. A not insignicant number of our female patients were Moslems who wore some kind of head covering. A few of them insisted on being treated by female dentists, but most of them did not mind seeing one of the male dentists.

One of my female Moslem patients came to the UK from a north African country. She always wore a loose-fitting headscarf, but did not cover up her face. One day, she needed to have a front (incisor) tooth removed. I explained to her that the situation was such that she would have be without any replacement for it for 24 hours – I cannot remember why. 

Will you be able to cope without that tooth for a day. The gap will show every time you speak or smile,” I said.

Picking up the end of the scarf she was wearing, she covered her mouth with it, and then said humorously:

This has its uses!

And with that comment, she allowed me to remove the troublesome tooth, and then left the surgery with her face covered. She looked like a typical Moslem woman wearing a face-covering. Nobody would have guessed that she was missing a front tooth.

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.