global travel shot: champaner, a 500-year-old indo-saracenic poem in stone

“Look up, at the ceiling.” I am broken from my reverie, as I drift through a forest of 172 stone pillars, by my guide Manoj’s voice prodding me to halt in my tracks and raise my eyes, heavenwards.

High up, inside a dome above the main mihrab is the most exquisitely carved sculpture I have seen to date. And I find myself gasping in awe. Is this for real? I am not too sure what stuns me more. Its immense size, the fineness of the swirling leaves, or its incongruous placement—I am in a 500-year-old mosque in Champaner in Gujarat, 50-odd kilometres outside Vadodara, and the sculpture is Hindu-Jain in style and content.

For those new to the eclectic mix of religion and spirituality which makes up India, Jainism, along with Hinduism and Buddhism, is one of the major religions which developed in ancient India.

Built in 1484 by the Sultan of Gujarat, Mahmud Begada, and abandoned in 1535 with the advent of the Mughals, the medieval city of Champaner [Mahmud called it Muhammadabad] is one of India’s finest representations of this eclectic mix. A mix, however, created more by accident rather than any calculated design to propagate secularism.

So how did this happen? Whilst the orders for the mosque’s construction came from a foreign Muslim ruler [the Gujarat Sultans were of Turkish descent], the masons, sculptors and artisans who gave shape to his architectural vision were indigenous Hindus and Jains. The latter, familiar only with their own art, used their personal artistic sensibilities to embellish the structures. The result is a unique style typical to Champaner, later imitated by the British Raj under the name “Indo-Saracenic.” Hence, we have domes and minarets decorated with swastikas and diyas.

The deserted city is now, together with the nearby Pavagadh hill, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its prized centrepiece, Jami Mosque, once the main public mosque crumbles around me under the withering sun, suspended in time, whilst a couple of baboons shriek out at me for trespassing into their home.

With much difficulty, I tear myself away, this time taking a piece of a Hindu-Jain heaven in an Islamic place of worship back with me, promising myself I will blog about it for another kind of posterity. ❤

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You may also like to read Champaner—The Muslim part of the Champaner-Pavagadh UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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30 thoughts on “global travel shot: champaner, a 500-year-old indo-saracenic poem in stone

    • Hello Shaun, what a lovely comment! The pleasure is mine. 🙂 Champaner is like a fairytale, a deserted forgotten fairytale replete with towering minarets and laced stonework which lived for just 51 years and was then buried under time.

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    • Yes, and that was my first reaction too. Manoj, my guide, the ex-sarpanch of Champaner village, and whose father, a professor, has carried out immense research on the site including authoring a book on the Champaner-Pavagadh archaeological site, explained it very easily.

      A large portion of Gujarat’s populace has historically been Jain. Most of the artisans were, thus, also Jain. The transposition of their highly ornamental style of filigree in stone into a mosque during the Gujarat Sultanate was a rather natural outcome under the circumstances. The Indo-Saracenic style, as we all know, was inspired by the architecture of the Gujarat Sultanate. In conclusion: the evolution of art and architecture is often times very logical. 🙂

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      • That’s quite logical. Its true that there were large number of Jains in Gujarat like Rajasthan. So this angle seems to fit in very well. Happy to come across this piece of information. Thanks Rama for this input. 🙂

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  1. Pingback: global travel shot: champaner, a 500-year-old indo-saracenic poem in stone — rama arya’s blog – efanc

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  3. Pingback: global travel shot: champaner, a 500-year-old indo-saracenic poem in stone | aadildesai

    • Champaner is a photographer’s delight. I hope you make it to the archaeological site some day. And yes, I visited your blog. Good luck with it. 🙂 PS. The picture of the mountain girl is lovely.

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