SPEAKING STONES | COLUMNS
A unique blending of ideas, art and architecture created the Saracenic forms
MARCH 16, 2019 16:22 IST
Who doesn’t know of the tree of life, carved as a lattice in a stone window of the Sidi Saiyyed Mosque in Ahmedabad! It’s a symbol of the city, and the logo of IIM Ahmedabad. It was this tree of life — or kalpavriksha — that had drawn me to Ahmedabad. It was my first visit, and I was very excited.
The kalpavriksha is a dominant artistic theme in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist mythology and cosmology as a wish-fulfilling divine tree. Little wonder, then, that after Muzaffar Shah had established the Sultanate of Gujarat in 1403, the local artisans and stone carvers incorporated the tree into the mosques they built for their new rulers — just as the lotus would appear in the mosques and tombs of north India. Indo-Islamic architecture was born of this fusion of ideas and themes.
James Fergusson, in his 19th-century History of Indian and Eastern Architecture, writes, “Of the various forms which the Saracenic architecture assumed in India, that of Ahmedabad may probably be considered the most elegant, as it certainly is the most characteristic of all. No other form is so essentially Indian, and no one tells its tale with the same unmistakable distinctness.”
It was but natural that the Sidi Saiyyed Mosque should be my first port of call. This 16th-century mosque was built by the Ethiopian Sidi Saiyyed in the reign of the last independent ruler of Gujarat before the Mughal conquest, Muzaffar Shah III (r.1560-1572 CE).
Like everyone else who has visited the mosque, I stood captivated under the semicircular stone screens with the tree of life and its intricate intertwining branches and delicate foliage.
I was, however, unprepared for the tree of life as the dominant and recurring motif in every mosque in Ahmedabad and Champaner (the two cities I visited), but it made so much sense to me. This is what blending of ideas, art and architecture does to create India’s unique syncretic culture. And in this case, the fusion of local and Islamic architecture had produced the most outstanding and exquisite minarets with the tree of life symbol.
Speaking of minarets, the other abiding image from Ahmedabad is that of its two sets of ‘shaking’ minarets. One set, next to the railway station, was built as part of the Sidi Bashir Mosque, which is attributed to a slave of Sultan Ahmed Shah named Sidi Bashir, or alternatively to a Malik Sarang who was a slave of Sultan Mahmud Begada. The original mosque was destroyed in a battle between the Marathas and the khan of Gujarat in 1753 CE. Now, only the 69.5 ft tall minarets and the arch of the central gateway remain. The locals have built a small mosque behind it, and it’s in use.
It was the minarets’ earthquake-resistant construction that gave them their ‘shaking’ character — any slight force exerted on the central archway or other minaret would make them vibrate. It goes without saying that the tree of life adorns these intricately carved sandstone towers. .
At the other end of the station, right next to the platform, is a nearly 100 ft tall pair of brick minarets, probably from the same period, and these are also missing a mosque. The niches are now empty, but it would be safe to presume that they too once hosted carvings of the kalpavriksh.
In the Champaner Jama Masjid there is an elaborately carved tree of life on the ceiling.
As my attention was on the mihrab design, I wasn’t looking at the roof, and would have missed it had not my guide told me to slow down. He pointed it out and told me to stand still, close my eyes and feel the peace. I did indeed.