Heritage,  History,  Travelogues

The Tree of Life insignia and Sidi Saeed Mosque

On my first trip to Ahmedabad, I was at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM-A) for my niece’s convocation ceremony. IIM-A’s logo is the Tree of Life insignia. The insignia is derived from the intricate stone-carved window in the Sidi Saeed mosque. This was my second trip to Ahmedabad and this time my hotel was near Khanpur gate. The mosque was within walking distance from my hotel and I couldn’t resist going there again.

The mosque is often referred to as the “Jaali wala masjid” because of the intricately carved stone latticework windows or jaalis which decorate the side and the rear arches.

The Tree of Life insignia

The “Tree of Life”, rich in mystic and religious representation, continues to find a place in our lives, though we may not always notice it. It is a concept which spans across almost all religions including Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Bah’ai faith, and Zoroastrianism. The mythology surrounding it varies, and the motifs also have variations, but overall, it represents a sacred tree which symbolises the concept of immortality. A variation of this is the “tree of knowledge” which symbolises all creation and connects heaven (good) with the netherworld (evil).

The Tree of Life which in the Garden of Eden with forbidden fruit is mentioned in the Book of Genesis, the Quran and the Torah. It is probably the apple tree. The Buddhist icon is the peepal or the Bodhi tree under which Gautam Buddha attained enlightenment. In Hinduism, there is mention of the Kalpavriksha, but there is no consensus about what kind of tree it is. The possible species are the banyan, the coconut tree, the parijat, the mulberry tree or the Acacia.

The Tree of Life carving in the Sidi Saeed mosque is different. If you look carefully at the red sandstone trellis, you will notice that it depicts a majestic banyan tree with its branches entwined around a date palm tree. The carving is as aesthetic as it is symbolic. The banyan tree is holy to the Hindus, whereas the date palm is holy to the Muslims. It depicts the harmony between two faiths: Hinduism and Islam. The design with its flowering creepers and foliage is said to have been made by 45 artisans taking six years to complete.

The Sidi Saeed Mosque

If you didn’t know its importance you would miss the modest exterior of the mosque as it is located beside a busy traffic signal. The east side of the mosque is an open facade, supported by five arches and pillars. There are octagonal minars on both sides on the front. Women are not permitted inside the mosque, so I didn’t get to click the dome and ceiling. The prayer hall was built entirely with sandstone and is the last example of an Islamic monument built entirely in sandstone in the city of Ahmedabad. The architecture shows a clear shift from the sculptures typical of Maru-gurjari style to the arches to ornamentation seen in Persian architecture. The fusion of the two styles or the “Gujarati arabesque” style (largely developed under Mahmud Begda) can be seen in the construction of the minarets and latticework in mosque.

This mosque is famous for its jaali screens which decorate the rear and the side walls. The central window arch of the mosque, where one would expect to see another intricate jaali, is instead walled with stone. It is believed that in the process of renovation of the mosque, the British administration removed the jaali and sent it to the Victoria and Albert museum (earlier the South Kensington museum) in London.

The mosque was built in 1572 AD by a learned Abyssinian called Sidi Saeed. Sidi is what Gujaratis called Abyssinian slaves from the east African coast. Saeed is an Arabic honorific title. So this was probably not his real name. Sidi Saeed was in the service of Rumi Khan, the second son of Khudavand Khan Khwaja Safar Salmani, the governor of Surat in the reign of the 10th Sultan of Gujarat Mahmud Shah III. Sidi Saeed later joined the personal retinue of Bilal Jhujhar Khan, the famous Abyssinian general in the army of the last Sultan of Gujarat.  Saeed died in 1576 and his tomb lies towards the north near the mosque’s compound wall.

House of MG and the Menstruating Peepal

If you are at the mosque, just across the street is the House of MG which is essentially a boutique hotel. But do go inside to visit their museum of the textiles, handicrafts and embroideries of Gujarat. Two art installations there caught my eye. Both these intend to emphasise the fact that the centre celebrates traditions, and not taboos.

The first is called the Menstruating Peepal. The peepal is considered a holy tree and the abode of Shiva. Some legends say that the roots of the peepal are where Brahma resides, the trunk is where Vishnu lives, while Shiva resides in the leaves. This particular peepal here is decorated with cattle bells from Kutch. The trunk is coloured red. Shakti, Shiva’s consort is an embodiment of all women. It seeks to break the taboo where Hindu women are considered impure while menstruating and forbidden from entering temples to pray. This art installation fights this kind of discrimination.

The second idol is a discarded breast plate of a Jain idol. Damaged or khandit idols are considered inauspicious. This art installation breaks that taboo as well.

It is always a pleasure to explore the nooks and corners of a city and discover little memorable nuggets like these. They keep you awake and alert on long trips!

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