“It has not rained in Champaner for 2 years, and then it rains like this. When it rains…” the guide’s voice trailed off mournfully.
About 20 pairs of suspicious, skeptical eyes looked at the muddy, slushy path that seemed to worsen as it wound its way to apparently nowhere. But according to Manoj, the guide, the path led to 2 mosques, one of them with the most beautiful embellishments imaginable on its walls.
Maybe Manoj did not sound convincing enough, or maybe it was the mud, but most of the owners of those eyes decided to forego seeing those two mosques. But some did agree to go with the guide and see the mosques. I was one of them.
Our tour group was in Champaner for a 2-day visit. We had arrived that morning from Mumbai to a cloudy, rainy and wet day, in the wettest rainy season that Champaner was experiencing in a long time. We were to see the ruins of the medieval city of Champaner, which included many mosques in various stages of restoration or disrepair, depending on one’s point of view. I wondered how many we would be able to see with the heavy rains having made the access
roads paths almost impossible to negotiate. (There are reportedly 18 such mosques, and we managed to see about 5 of them.)
With Manoj leading the way, we arrived at the Kevada Masjid after we had slipped, slid, sloshed and squelched our way through ankle-deep mud (nearly losing our shoes in the process) for about 15-20 minutes (it actually seemed like forever). This sandstone mosque complex has a main prayer hall, a cenotaph and a wazu kund. The main prayer hall is double storied and has two tall minarets flanking the main entrance. The central dome of the Kevada Masjid is missing having fallen through some years back. The beautiful windows are like jharokhas and have some exquisite decorations on them as do the minarets.
Nagina Masjid was the next mosque along the same muddy path, and reportedly the mosque with the most beautiful embellishments imaginable. But the path to Nagina was even worse than the one we had walked through, and we had to regrettably give up the idea of visiting that mosque where still jewellers visited to get inspirations for their designs. 😦
We walked back to join the rest of the group who were waiting for us at the Sehar ki Masjid, which is located within the Royal Enclosure of Champaner. The Sehar ki Masjid was exclusively for the use of the royal family. Like the Kevada Masjid, this one too had two minarets flanking the main entrance to the prayer hall.
As I was walking around the Sehar ki Masjid, trying to photograph its unique features, I could not help but think about both the grandness of the first mosque we saw that morning, the Jami Masjid, or the starkness of the next one, the Khajuria Masjid. The latter two mosques that we visited—Kevada and Sehar—fell somewhere in between as they were neither grand like the Jami nor plain like the Khajuria Masjids.
My first sight of the Jami Masjid with its simple, smooth domes, and tall slender minarets and embellished jharokhas was a breathtaking one, and a sight that I will never forget. It had just stopped raining when we arrived at the sandstone mosque, where the earthy red of the stone literally glowed against the dull grey of the skies and surroundings. (PS: I was so mesmerised by the Jami Masjid that I went back the next day, just to take some photographs with the sun out. So you will see that some photographs of the Jami Masjid have a sunny look with bright blue skies.)
The Jami Masjid is considered to be one of the finest mosques of Gujarat, and with good reason. It has some of the most intricate stone screen work that I have seen. The eastern entrance to the Masjid has the stunning porch that you can see in the photograph below. There used to be a dome to cover the porch, but today it no longer exists.
The Masjid has an open courtyard, which is surrounded on 3 sides by narrow, open, pillared, corridors, in front of the closed prayer hall. The main entrance to the prayer hall is an arch, which is flanked by two slender minarets.
The central dome is a two-storied structure and, till a few years back, one could climb up and explore the Masjid from a totally different perspective. But with the threat of vandalism and accidents waiting to happen, this practice has since been discontinued. I wonder if structural damage to the dome in recent years due to the elements also contributed towards the decision to deny access.
The Masjid has 7 mihrabs (or prayer niches), and while 6 of them are made of the same sandstone that the Masjid is built of, the central mihrab is made of marble. All the mihrabs are decorated with chain, pot and flower motifs, with the pots looking very kalash-like. The main prayer hall reportedly has 172 pillars running through its length and breadth. Women have their own section to pray in the Jami Masjid, a section that our guide preferred to refer as “Ladies Compartment”. 😀
The windows are covered with intricate stone screens to let in light and ventilation. There are screens where each unit has a different design; there are also screens with a single design spread out across the different units.
Though the Jami Masjid (or for that matter any of the other masjids we saw) were not active places of worship, I came across an old man offering prayers at a tomb in its courtyard.
From Jami Masjid, we went to see the ruins of the Khajuria Masjid, a mosque, which has almost no walls and almost no roof left; only the pillars and a couple of jharokhas survive. The ruins of the Khajuria Masjid actually helped me appreciate the beauty of the other masjids even more.
The last mosque that we saw was the Ek Minar ki Masjid or the mosque with one minaret. That wasn’t the original name of the mosque, but because it has only one minaret left standing, it is known by that name. The minaret is 5-storeys high and has a unique feature as one goes up: it is square at the base, octagonal on the next level, 16-sided in the next two levels, and circular on the top.
The mosques of Champaner are characterised by a design, which though Islāmic is also strongly, very strongly Hindu. The jharokhas are the most visible manifestation of the Hindu influence, but there are subtler ones as well.
They are present in the geometrical designs of the stone screens, some of which are like the kolam that my mother draws everyday at our doorstep. They are present in the rows of delicately carved flowers on the minarets, flowers which look like the sheuli or parijat flowers, and very holy to the Hindus. They are present in the toran like entrances to the mosques. They are present in the design of the pillars. They are present in the embellishment of the arches.
In my opinion, this Indo-Islamic fusion was possible because Mahmud Begada, the Sultan of Gujarat, and the person who commissioned most of the mosques, thought local. He did not waste money getting builders or building stones from outside the region. The building stone used for all the monuments that I saw in Champaner is the locally available sandstone. Only in one instance has a non-local stone been used—the central mihrab at the Jami Masjid is clad in marble. More importantly, all the builders, sculptors, and other artisans were local. Since they were Hindus, or at least we can safely assume that most of them were, the designs were Indian, but keeping in mind Islāmic sensibilities.
Two days and 5 mosques later, I think I have begun to understand the terminology Indo-Islāmic design that the guide kept using while pointing out to the various design elements in the mosques. It is more than just using the lotus as an element in Islāmic architecture, as seen in the Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur or the Royal Bath in Hampi or even the Balahissar Gate of Golkonda.
It is a terminology that truly combines that best that the two differeing styles have to offer, and the Indo-Islāmic mosques of Champaner are the best possible illustrations of this terminology in the context of architecture and design.
P.S.: This visit was part of a tour organised by Doreen D’Sa of Doe’s Ecotours. She can be contacted at does_ecotours[at]yahoo.co.in.
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