Ambling in Ahmedabad

A LAZY MORNING IN AHMEDABAD was just what we needed after a long bus ride from Bhuj the day before. The seat I sat in was uncomfortable.

Our newspaper seller and her assistant were sitting in their usual place on the pavement next to the entrance of the somewhat precious luxury hotel, The House of MG. They sit surrounded by piles of newspapers, both current and out of date. When we are in Ahmedabad, which we have visited 6 or 7 times during the last two years, they reserve a copy of the Indian Express for us. When we go to collect it, they have to rummage around to find it amongst the seemingly disorganized pile of newspapers, new and old.

We set off towards the Khwaja Bazaar and the Teen Darwaza, heading towards the Jumma Masjid. Just before we reached the bazaar, we entered a rather run down café/restaurant, named ‘Irani Restaurant’. This was established in 1950 and does not seem to have been redecorated since. The wall of the long rectangular dining hall has several mirrors, all cracked. However, the marble topped tables and the enormous kitchen are sootlessly clean. In addition to hot food items, this place sells freshly baked bun maska. These soft white bread buns have a very slightly sweet taste; they resemble the French ‘brioche’. I had one of these and ordered chhaas (buttermilk). To my surprise and delight, this was served in a used Pepsi bottle.

We proceeded to the Teen Darwaza, a three arched 15th century gate that was built soon after Shah Ahmed founded Ahmedabad in about 1420. Standing amidst a sea of market stalls and noisy traffic, this venerable stone gateway has decorative features that can be found on Indian structures built long before the Moslems arrived in India. This is also true of many if the 15th century mosques built in the early days of the city’s existence.

The Jumma Masjid is enormous and of great beauty. Like other mosques built in the 15th century in Gujarat, this Masjid displays many decorative and architectural features that the Moslems have adopted from Hindu and Jain temples that were in existence prior to Islamic invasions of western India.

The Jumma Masjid has more than 15 large domes and many smaller ones. Like the domes in earlier Hindu and Jain temples, the larger domes rest on eight lintels arranged octagonally. The lintels rest on eight supporting pillars. The interior of the mosque contains a forest of over 250 stone pillars, the bases of which have been decorated with carved stone motifs typically found in Hindu and Jain temples. I do not know why the newly arrived Moslems borrowed so many features from the temples which they found (and sometimes demolished) when they arrived in western India. Maybe, they employed local Hindus or Jains to construct the mosques, but surely the conquerors would have had some say in how the mosques were designed.

We spotted several terracotta pots placed by the bases of some of the pillars. These, we were told, are for worshippers to expectorate into should they need to during the prayer sessions (namaaz). This saves people from spitting on the floor, which is so common outside of holy places in India.
The Jumma Masjid has five carved stone mihrab niches, all facing towards Mecca. Each of these is decorated differently, but each of them is topped with a carving of a lamp, a symbol of the holiness of Allah. The central of these five niches is made of white marble inlaid with coloured stones. It is disfigured by the presence of a modern electric fan, which we were told is used to cool the Imam during namaaz.

There are numerous window around the mosque. Each of these is decorated by decorative jali work (decorative perforated stone screens). No two windows are decorated with the same design.

The mosque lost its two minarets during the earthquak of 1819, which resulted in an inlet of the Arabian sea being transformed into an arid salt desert (the Rann of Kutch).

The outer walls of the Masjid that face a huge space enclosed by arched passageways have several stone carvings depicting trees. I imagine these are depictions of the Tree of Life, such as can be seen in the intricate jali work at the Sidi Sayeed mosque.

After a pleasant hour examining the Jumma Masjid, we wended our way through the increasingly busier bazaar back to the Irani Restaurant. I ordered more chhaas, which arrived in used Seven Up bottles. This watery dairy drink, flavoured with cumin and other spiced, made a good accompaniment to my plate of delicious dal fry (dal to which slow fried onions and spices are added at a late stage in its preparation).

By 130 pm, the temperature had risen above 27 degrees Celsius, and it was time to retreat to our air conditioned hotel room. But before that, I made a trip to a local ATM. As with other ATM places in India, all the customers waiting for machines give each other helpful advice, such as “press this” or “remove card” or “enter pin” or “do that”, on how to use the machines. Unlike in the UK, where using an ATM is a very personal affair, in India it appears to be a group activity.

With strings attached

 

During my wanderings through India, I have often noticed trees with thin threads tied around their trunks. These are peepal trees with heart-shaped leaves. They are held to be sacred by devout Hindus. Women wrap threads around the trunks in the hope that their prayers will be answered satisfactorily.

On at least one occasion, and this was in an Islamic mausoleum (dargah) in Baroda (Gujarat), I have seen threads tied around pillars within the dargah. Some of these threads had bangles attached to them. We were told by the guardian of the dargah, that Muslim women tie these threads, hoping that their wishes will be fulfilled.

Statues of Christ, the Madonna, and saints in churches in India are often draped with flower garlands. This is done more likely to honour the persons depicted in the statues than to have wishes granted. I have not yet seen any examples of threads tied in churches like I have seen in Hindu and Muslim shrines in India.

Yesterday, I visited St John the Baptist Church (Church of England) in Holland Road, Shepherds Bush, London. At the entrance to this magnificent Victorian Gothic building, there is a wooden crucifix. I was surprised to see that it had something that made me think of India. Two threads, each bearing a small metal medallion with some prayerful words on them, were wrapped around the heads of the nails penetrating Christ’s feet. I have never seen anything like this in a church in the UK. Is this a chance finding or the beginning of a new trend?

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.

Bare your feet

In India, I prefer to wear sandals because in so many places it is necessary to remove footwear, and putting on and off sandals is so much easier than doing the same for lace up shoes.

Just in case you are wondering why there is the requirement to bare one’s feet, the reason is to prevent bringing dirt from outside into the place being entered. It is also a mark of respect when entering a religious place such as a mosque, church, temple, or gurdwara.

In some homes, footwear is left by the entrance. This is also the case for some homes that I have visited in the UK. When I went to a junior school in London’s Belsize Park, The Hall School, we left the shoes we had arrived in at the entrance and then replaced them by another pair reserved for use within the school.

When we visited Gulbarga (in North Karnataka, India) recently, we visited what purported to be an Arabic restaurant, Al Makki by name. Its floor was covered with carpets, and guests had to sit on cushions that surrounded very low tables. The owner took one look at my wife and me, and took pity on us. He provided us with a normal height table and chairs. The food was delicious. We ate a mutton “handi”, which is a pilaff flavoured with dried fruit, fried onions, nuts, and mild spices. By now, if you are still reading this, you might well be thinking that I have strayed from my topic. But, you are mistaken. We were not allowed to enter Al Makki until we had removed our footwear.

To conclude, my advice to people visiting India is: wear footwear that is easy to remove and replace.

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.