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Volume 48, Number 4July/August 1997

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City of the Sultan

Written by Caroline Stone and David H. Wells

The Ahmadabad they were admiring was a relatively new city then, founded and named only two centuries earlier by Ahmad Shah I, sultan of Gujarat. His city displaced the town called Ashaval that had long stood on the banks of the Sabarmati River where Ahmadabad now stands. Ashaval was a prosperous and lively town, well known for its textiles, when it came under the rule of the Muslim sultan of Delhi in 1298—and Ahmadabad remains famous for textile crafts in its own right today.

Even at the end of the 13th century, Islam was not new in Gujarat. Traders had crossed the Arabian Sea for centuries, landing at Diu, Surat, Cambay—"The Arabian Gates"—and settling in small communities all over the area, often earning their livings as merchants and skilled craftsmen. There had also been waves of invaders, mostly of Turkic Central-Asian origin. But it was not until Ahmad Shah's accession in 1411 as the first independent sultan of Gujarat that the region acquired a capital of a strongly Muslim character.

The earliest surviving mosque in Ahmadabad seems to have been built in 1414 by Ahmad Shah himself, for his private use. The outside is very plain and—perhaps not surprisingly—very Turkish-looking, reminiscent of the Seljuk mosques of central Anatolia. It is almost a copy of the mosque at Cambay that was dedicated in 1325—one of the oldest in India. The inner columns are heavy and splendidly carved in a very Indian style, though entirely lacking in figurative elements.

It is probably true that Ahmad Shah began construction of Ahmadabad's congregational mosque, the Jami Masjid, at about the same time, for although it was not completed until 1424, it must have taken a number of years to build. It is among the loveliest mosques in the entire subcontinent, and for a couple of centuries was also the largest, although it was subsequently surpassed by Lahore and, more recently, by Bhopal and Islamabad. (See Aramco World, January/February 1992.) Today, the Jami Masjid is no longer in its original form: Its famous "shaking minarets" were toppled by the great earthquake of 1819, which damaged so many of Gujarat's monuments, and were never replaced. A drawing by a British army captain done 10 years before that disaster shows them very well: solid, as one might expect from examining the bases surviving on either side of the main portal, but with something almost pagoda-like about the top. Like many of the city's mosques, the Jami Masjid is a particularly beautiful golden color; presumably the vast slabs of sandstone were brought into the city by caravans of oxcarts, just as they are today.

The Jami Masjid was part of a whole plan for the center of Ahmadabad. The Hindu Bhadrakali Temple gave way to the Badr Qil'a, the Castle of the Full Moon, the citadel that housed the royal palaces. In front stood the Maidan-i Shah, or King's Square, a large open space used, among other things, as a parade ground. This has vanished today, taken over by the busy small streets of the Manek Chowk, one of the main market areas, but its triple-arched entrance, the Tin Darawasa, still stands, the finest of Ahmadabad's surviving gates. There were originally 14 of them. The Islamic rulers of Gujarat seem to have been especially active in sponsoring hydraulic projects, and there is arche-ological evidence that underneath the Maidan-i Shah ran a complicated system of pipes intended to supply the royal enclave and the mosques with pure water, and perhaps also for use in case of siege.

Two other buildings begun at the same time are Ahmad Shah's own tomb and the Rani-ka Hazira, or Tombs of the Queens. The former is next to the Jami Masjid and is interesting because of its plan, which was to become typical of Gujarati Muslim structures: a cloister built around a domed central chamber, from which it is separated by elaborately carved screens.

In the Rani-ka Hazira, on the other hand, the tombs are in the open air, allegedly in conformity with the wishes of Ahmad Shah's queen. The enclosure stands high above the surrounding streets and once again the galleries are screened by beautifully wrought stone jalis, reminiscent of the wooden mashra-biyyahs of the Middle East. The tombs themselves are exquisitely carved, and covered, most appropriately, by brilliantly colored pieces of the brocade for which the city was famous and which lent it much of its prosperity. On top of the graves are scattered fresh flowers, renewed daily by the old lady who cares for the building and by the market women from the shops all around.

Ahmad Shah's descendants all shared his taste for architecture. His son, Qutb al-Din Ahmad Shah, built a handsome mosque with lovely bases to the minarets—the pinnacles probably shared the fate of those of the Jami Masjid—and his mother, Bibiji, also built one, much prettier and lighter in design, on the outskirts of the town.

It was during Qutb al-Din's brief seven-year reign that the great Kankariya reservoir was excavated—yet another example of the Muslim rulers' awareness of the importance of good water supplies. Kankariya, roughly 1600 meters (one mile) around, is an irregular shape with 34 sides. It has stone steps that lead down to the water, and the sluices are elegantly carved. Although intended primarily as a reservoir, the place was so agreeable that it has generally been used as a pleasure garden as well. When it was commandeered as a camping ground under the Mughals, it is said that the locals resented being deprived of the amenity and petitioned for its return. It is not certain if the little island in the reservoir, with its pavilion reached by a causeway, was actually built by the Mughal emperor Nur al-Din Jahangir, but tradition associates it with him and his beloved wife, Nur Jahan, and it is locally claimed that they spent part of their honeymoon there. Today, Kankariya is still much appreciated by the Ahmadabadis, who go there to walk, picnic, enjoy the breeze and visit the zoo—an addition of which the Mughals would surely have approved.

The queens of Ahmad Shah's dynasty were also not slow to endow their city with fine buildings. Two of the loveliest and most peaceful mosques in Ahmadabad are those of Rani Rupavati and of Rani Sabrai, Mahmud Shah's senior wife. Both are small mosques with fine carving. Rani Sabrai's, which is raised above street level, also has a garden, an ablution tank and her tomb, all perfectly harmonious.

Also dating from the early 16th century is the Bai Harir complex, again built by one of the ladies of Mahmud Shah's court—some say by the official nurse of his children. The complex consists of a small, eye-pleasing mosque, the tomb of Dada Harir. Once again the tops of its minarets have been lost in an earthquake. It is adorned with attractive calligraphy and is also one of the finest baolis, or step-wells, in all of Gujarat. (See Aramco World, September/October 1993.) Originally, the whole mosque would have stood surrounded by a garden, but that has now vanished. The complex was dedicated, according to an inscription, in 1500 and, as is the case with most of the carving in Ahmadabad, the stonework is as crisp and the detail as sharp as if it had been carved yesterday.

Although the dynasty founded newer cities in other places, generation after generation continued to embellish Ahmadabad. The last great complex of buildings is the Shah Alam Roza, begun in the 1530's. It remains one of the most popular mosques in Ahmadabad, always thronged with visitors, some )f whom still stay in the guest house, which is of slightly later date. The mosque itself is large and handsome, but more like those of Delhi than Gujarat. Under the courtyard, there is a great vaulted reservoir that supplies the ablution tank. There are also a number of tombs, in particular that of the early-16th-century ruler Shah Alam, standing to the south of the mosque.

One of the most charming of all the mosques is that of Sidi Sayyid. Although at first glance it appears to be little more than a traffic island with a used-clothes market along the back, this mosque has preserved its ablution tank and garden as well as the atmosphere of tranquillity so remarkable in the mosques of this extraordinarily busy and noisy city. Sidi Sayyid was a descendant of one of Ahmad Shah's habashi, or Abyssinian, retainers, who became very powerful. The mosque has great arched windows all around, filled with the most delicate stone tracery. Some is purely geometric, but looking into the prayer chamber from outside, what strikes the attention most, glowing in the darkness, are the splendid, soaring "trees of life."

The arrival of Vasco da Gama at Calicut in 1498 began a century of decline for Ahmad Shah's line. The Portuguese diverted into their own hands much of the Indian Ocean commerce that had passed through Gujarat, and commercial and military conflict fractured the unity of the sultanate. Toward the end of the 16th century, the Mughal emperor Akbar was called in, and at the death of the last Gujarati sultan in 1593, Gujarat became part of the Mughal empire.

With the new rulers came new ideas, including new concepts in architecture. Mosques were built in the Mughal manner, as were palaces and pleasure buildings. The future Shah Jahan began his architectural career here, while viceroy of Gujarat, by building a palace and laying out a garden much admired by Western travelers, the Shahi Bagh, which still survives in a reduced form. There, it is said, his young wife, Mumtaz Mahal, bore the first of her 10 children. The last of them caused her death, thus leading Shah Jahan to his greatest architectural achievement, the Taj Mahal.

Another Mughal viceroy of Gujarat, Azam Khan, was known not for his romanticism but for his industry—his nickname was "The White Ant." He spent his years in Ahmadabad, from 1636 to 1642, building and improving the city. He built a caravanserai next to the citadel as well as a handsome market, or qaysariyyah. The caravanserai, an attractive building strongly suggestive of a Mughal palace, originally had a water wheel in the courtyard that drew water from an underground cistern, as well as ornamental cisterns and a fountain. Many of its beauties were destroyed when the British turned it into a jail, but it is still possible to appreciate how attractive it must have been. Probably Azam Khan would not have been displeased by its present use as the public records office, with rows of scribes and official letter writers sitting on the raised platforms outside.

In 1757 the Hindu Maratha confederacy took the city. They raised the basic tax from the 2.5 percent zakat (religious tax) that Muslims had paid and the five percent jiziyah (personal tax) that non-Muslims had paid to 25 percent for everyone. Within a decade, Ahmadabad became a ghost town. The city that had survived flood, earthquake, famine and invasion was finally abandoned and left to ruin. Quoting another source, the author of the Mir'at-i Ahmadi, one of the main chronicles of Ahmadabad, writes:

"Here there were at least one thousand shops, and in all of these were traders, artisans, craftsmen, government servants and military people, both Hindu and Muslim, until quarrels and mismanagement ruined them. The present author has observed these quarters in flourishing condition, and stately buildings in them, but now they are in ruins; perhaps they will soon be forgotten, save for a few mosques and gates."

Fortunately, this gloomy prediction was not fulfilled. In 1817 the British seized the city. They restored prosperity by guaranteeing law and order and reducing taxes to the levels that had prevailed under Mughal rule. The skilled population, the merchants and the bankers returned. Once again Ahmadabad became one of the liveliest places in India—and the first to industrialize. Architecture continued to be patronized and now, across the Sabarmati River, Le Corbusier's Villa Shodan can be compared with the works of the nameless architects of Ahmad Shah and his descendants.

Historian and writer Caroline Stone lives in Seville where she teaches for the University of Wisconsin. Her latest book is Mantones de Manila (Manila Shawls).

Free-lance photographer David H. Wells works with the Matrix agency in New York. He is teaching photojournalism this fall at Syracuse University's London center.

This article appeared on pages 14-23 of the July/August 1997 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1997 images.