Gujarat’s Visual Past vis-a-vis Religious Harmony

A couple of days back I had posted a few photographs of Rani Sipri Mosque in Ahmedabad in facebook under the Monuments of India series with an intention to show my friends the aesthetic aspect of Gujarat’s visual past. (https://www.facebook.com/indiadiversity). In the album I had also briefed about the monument with a small note. It was not the purpose to write in great detail its art, architecture and other aspects as many academicians do.  As expected many liked and a few also commented.

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With respect to comments, one of my friends wrote: “it becomes very clear that the various parts of the tomb were obtained by demolishing certain Hindu structures”. I did not agree with him as there is no evidence. First of all a dome is an Islamic idea and has nothing to do with conventional Hindu architecture.

For a while, I became angry and replied him back with these words: “We must talk about the compositeness of Indian architecture and see them from a shared heritage perspective”. Once cooled down I realized that it was not his mistake. It is generally believed and trapped in the mindset of people that Islamic architecture evolved in India over the dismantled Hindu temples. I don’t deny that it had not happened.  May be it was grounded over the Hindu and Jain temples’ architectural fragments at the beginning, but eventually it evolved of its own. But the beauty of Islamic architecture in India, and especially in Gujarat is that it intermingled with existing Hindu and Jain architectural tradition, bringing a unique fusion of religious architecture. Such fusions are best represented in the mosques scattered throughout the old city of Ahmedabad, and in Champaner, Khambat, Dholka and other historical cities.

Today all that is forgotten in the public perception and instead hatred has cropped up for Muslims. This has further led to the rise of misinterpretation and biased opinions for our visual past. This has become more prominent in Gujarat. I do not want to dig the reasons behind this as it involves complex issues. Instead I am highlighting here the richness of Gujarat’s visual past which is based on shared ideas (Hindu, Islamic and Jain).

When I look closely at religious buildings of Gujarat, especially Hindu temples, both from the past and present, I find surprisingly many Islamic architectural features. From the time of the Islamic rule till now in a large number of Hindu and Jain temples, one of the striking features is the use of Islamic domes in the construction of temple mukhasala or mandapas. Here I would like to mention about Taranga Jain Temple. Though originally built in the 12th century, the various temples in its complex were constructed in phases. When I visited Taranga last year I saw one of the temples has a mandapa designed in the architecture of Islamic dome.

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Two other interesting features I noticed were the Islamic arches and jalis.

Islamic arch is unique to Islamic mosques, but both Hindu and Jain temples have extensively used them. Similarly jali, a unique Islamic innovation – though jali is found in earlier temples and Buddhist monasteries, but their variations were limited. Inspired by Islamic architecture, the jali is a screen that filters light but more interestingly it create a visual barrier between the inside and out.

In Gujarat, Hindu and Jain religious buildings developed floral and geometric motifs in jali, prior to the Islamic rule. It seems that the trade with West Asia had partly influenced the jali pattern in Gujarat which later developed and adapted to into Islamic structures.

With these backgrounds it is clear that how in Gujarat religious communities exchanged and adapted to each other’s cultural symbols thus bringing a unique architectural tradition in the Subcontinent.

Yes, it also disturbs me while looking at religious vandalism in the past, especially by the Islamic invaders. But I console myself saying that it was in the Medieval Age with limited maturity and information flow. And we are in 21st century living in an era where there is so much of information flow and maturity.

Another problem I see – the way the education system has moulded us. History learning in schools hardly gives us scope to look at human creations holistically. We often visit monuments and explained about their artistic remains, history, but all in isolation. We miss the patterns and the similarities of these features found in other monuments both within the region and outside. This trend of learning has deprived us to look and appreciate our visual past holistically and hence such misconceptions.

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