By K D L Khan
Ahmedabad the capital of Gujarat completed its 600 year in 2011. Yet, there is complete silence on the subject.
Even the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC), which has grand plans to herald ‘Swarnim Gujarat’ in 2011 commemorating 50 years of Gujarat as a separate state, is skipping this important landmark, as it was felt that, as a city the older metropolis of Karnavati had pre existed on the location of Ahmedabad.
In 1411 when Sultan Ahmed Shah shifted his capital from Patan, he decided to set up a new city on the banks of river Sabarmati with the name of Ahmedabad. According to legend, Sultan Ahmed Shah, while camping on the banks of the River Sabarmati, saw a hare chasing a dog. Impressed by this act of bravery, the Sultan, who had been looking for a place to build his new capital, decided to locate the capital at this forest area close to Karnavati right on the river bank and christened it Ahmedabad. The incident is popularly described in a one liner saying “Jab kutte pe sassa aaya, tab Badshah ne shaher basaya”. When the hare chased the dog, seeing that act of bravery then the Emperor built the City.
In 1487, Mehmood Begada, the grandson of Ahmed Shah transformed it into a fortified city with a ten-kilometre long boundary wall with twelve grand gateways. Some of these gates that still exist today remind us of the city’s glorious past. In 1573, Mughal emperor Akbar took control of the city. Since the Sultanate period, assimilation of Hindu and Islamic sensibilities is already pronounced from the city’s architectural traditions. Many parts of this architecture were destroyed due to the war between the Peshwas and Gaikwads in 1630.
But one item all historians agree is that the symbol of Ahmedabad is the famous jali screen of the mosque of Sidi Saiyad Jali in the centre of the city, created by Gujarati craftsmen, built in 1573 by Sultan Sidi Saiyad. The mosque has ten screen windows (jalis) on the side and rear arches. The rear wall is filled with square stone pierced panels in geometrical designs. The two bays flanking the central aisle have network of stone slabs carved in designs of intertwined trees and foliage. This intricately carved stone window is called the Sidi Saiyad Jali. The complex designs in this jali are a combination of geometric forms and shapes derived from nature, showing strong Islamic influences. They are said to create the impression of unending repetition believed to be associated with the infinite nature of God. Although geometric designs were common during the Mughal reign, it is unusual to find so many different variations of geometric designs together in one jail, as in the Ahmedabad jali.
This screen was basically made so that the mosque remains fully lighted from inside at all times of the day. The size of this artistic jali is around 16 feet and is in semi circular shape. It is situated at the height of around 20 feet above the ground level. The art work on these jails is so fine that a magnifying glass is required to view its internal intricate design in detail. The design consists of the flowers arrangement in various symmetrical shapes. They are made of smooth white stones and the fine engraving is done with human hands. Sadly, there does not seem to be any information about the actual craftsman who designed the jali. But it took around six years to get each of these jalis completed. Around 45 main artists worked on it, day and night. And the result, what we see is simply out of the world. It is a unique Indo-Islamic architectural piece. Its replicas have been displayed in various famous museums at Ahmedabad, Delhi, Hyderabad and Ajmer.
The two semicircular screens high on the western wall are the most spectacular, with floral designs exquisitely carved out of the yellow stone so common in Ahmedabad’s mosques. The eastern face is open, revealing a host of pillars that divide the hall into heroes and animals from popular Hindu myths - one effect of Hindu and Jain craftsmanship on an Islamic tradition that rarely allowed the depiction of living beings in its mosques. The gardens around it afford good views of the screens. Women are not allowed to enter this mosque.
There has been a long-standing mystery about the central window arch of the mosque, which is walled with stone. The jalis on either side are of such artistic quality, that it is only natural to wonder what masterpiece might have been intended for the central position. Archaeologist Commissariat noted that a historian Henry George Briggs had visited in 1847 and commented on this arch being already plastered up. Briggs’ reference serves at least to dispose of the tradition which has persisted for many years that the screen was removed from the mosque and transported to England some time, about the end of the last century. On the available evidence, it seems unlikely that the British removed any screen, but there were once wooden copies of the jali in museums in South Kensington, London and in New York. Records at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London show that they acquired a life-size wooden copy in 1883 at the cost of British pounds 70 of one of the two important jalis, the one with three trees and four palms. It was described as a balsa teak copy of an arched window, from the Sidi Saiyad mosque. Unfortunately, the documentation also records that it was ‘de-accessioned’ in 1949, probably destroyed following damage. The British museum also used to have plaster copies of several jalis that were made in the nineteenth century but these were similarly disposed of in 1939 and 1949. It seem reasonable to suppose that the second wooden copy said to be in New York was a life-size copy of the other screen, with a single tree and palm, but the Metropolitan Museum in New York does not have it now and was unable to locate any record of its present-day whereabouts.
Commissariat observed that a more likely explanation for the absence of the central window screen and also of three further window arches on the northern side is that the mosque was still under construction when the Mughals invaded Gujarat, and was therefore never completed.
Like the Taj Mahal has been taken as the logo for the city of Agra, the jali screen of this mosque is the logo for the metropolis of Ahmedabad. After Independence, in the time of the Indian National Congress rule, silver reproductions of the jali used to be given by the Gujarat government to important visitors.
Silver reproductions of the jail mounted in painted wood, of rather doubtful quality compared to their price tags, are quite widely available in jewellery shops in Ahmedabad. It is reported that, on request at the Ahmedabad GPO, letters can be stamped with a special jali cancellation mark. This mosque and the fine art work are maintained by The Archaeological department of India, falling under the Central Government of India. It remains open on all week days except Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. for the public view. MF