Rander: Historic Myths, Islamic Essence and Reflections on Urbanism

in Article
Published on: 27 May 2019

Mohan Meghani

Mohan Meghani is a noted historian and former head of the department at MTB Arts College, Surat. He has written several books about the history of Surat since the 16th century.

Rander is a historic town which is older than Surat and whose existence dates to around the 13th century AD. It is said that Arab traders from Kufa overpowered the Jain population of Rander (then a prospering village). The Jains primarily comprise two sects, Digambar and Shwetambar, and are known to have inhabited Rander in the 13th century as confirmed by the manuscripts inscribed on silver patras (plates), which one can still find in the old Jain temples. Dandiya nu Derasar (a prominent Jain temple in Rander), also known as Junu Derasar (old temple), was an important Jain temple, which belonged to Bhatarak Sampraday (a lessor-known Jain sect), whose main seat was in Rander around 1462 AD. Well before this, Katargam (a suburb of Surat) had existed in the 7th and 8th centuries, evidence of which can be found from tamra patras (copper manuscripts), which speak of the presence of the Gurjar community. The trade of Chinese crockery was prominent in those days. Rander in those days was referred to as ‘killa wado sheher’ (city that has a fort) and it had rich trade connections with the Middle East via the sea route. An important Mughal customs house was located here, as a result of which many traders used to halt at Rander. It also brought in a huge influx of money, which was invested in the public buildings and religious complexes. Since people from all parts of the world were coming to Rander, the kind of architecture that came about also had a global face that was in trend during those times. Many buildings were commissioned back then, and the outsiders, the traders, were the major patrons who undertook the tasks.

Rander was historically important because of its geographical setting, which helped it flourish as a port town. The older port of Suvali became redundant as the Tapi (or Tapti) River silted and the new port town of Rander emerged. Its strategic geographic location led to its growth—it lay along the important land route in the hinterland: the route from Agra to Surat via Ujjain and Ahmedabad. Also it had connection with Burhanpur (city in Madhya Pradesh now) via the Tapi River, which had rich produce of cotton fabric and crockery. These connections led to Rander becoming an important node before the goods from the hinterland (Delhi, Agra, Burhanpur and Kolkata) would be exported and certain others were imported. As a result of which Rander developed as an important port town. Spices from all over India were traded to Java and Sumatra through the port town of Rander.

These externalities led to development of Rander as a cultural and economic hub in the western region. It is also said that education flourished in Rander because of Kavi Narmad, who established a school here and travelled daily to teach at the school from across the bank of the Tapi River in a hodi (ferryboat). There are many written records of the 16th and 17th centuries but very less documentation has been found of the times before that. This leaves ones with the idea of knowing about a place through oral traditions, folktales and songs that may not be accurate but are the only way to conjecture the past. There are many such dant kathas (tales passed on from generation to another), one of which says that Maharaja Ashoka and his disciples brought Jainism to Rander and also built Jain Derasar there. There were many viharas (Jain resting places for monks and pilgrims) that were built during the 17th and 18th centuries and during the same time many sarais (resting places for Muslim communities who went on Hajj) were also built. It is said that both Islamic culture and Jainism flourished simultaneously in Rander. Rander also exemplifies principles and characteristics of a medieval fortification town; there is a plan in the Jaipur City Palace Museum showing the square layout of the fortification around Rander. It shows how streets, public and religious buildings and public squares were planned, which represents thoughtful urbane public spaces that were envisaged for the town. Till date the place exemplifies principles of good urbanism, which can be seen in the urban structure of the town and the humane scale public squares which are laid out in conjunction with the prominent public buildings.

There is a central spine, which is now known as the Botawala Marg, on which the Ek Khamba Masjid and other mosques are situated and is bustling with public life and pedestrian movement while there are extremely peaceful and quiet residential neighborhoods close by. The mosques and temples in Rander have been designed very finely keeping in consideration the vistas from the streets as one passes by yet conforming to the religious planning ideas and geometrical principles. These act as pause points and centres of religious activities. The Ek Khamba Masjid is also quite a prominent landmark within the settlement. It can be seen from multiple places in the vicinity, and the towering minarets form the imageability of the mosque, which marks as a point of reference in the locale. There are places from where one can see the mosque and Jain temple in one frame, which identifies and depicts the social harmony this place is known for.

There are multiples tales about the origin of the mosque. There are references to the prior existence of a small shrine here, which dates back to the times before 1200 A.D. when there was no Rander town. These are found in the narratives and praises of the mosque and Rander town that have existed in the form of tales and songs that speak of the glory of the place. With coming up of trade, it was the Arabs who brought with them construction activities and created magnificent architectural edifices. The techniques used in the construction are also not indigenous and the artisans who executed this marvel also came from different places around the world. This can be specifically marked in the lime fresco motifs and the ceilings that are present in the Jamatkhana (prayer hall). Later, these skills became more localized and many artisans trained themselves in these and began to portray the artistic expressions even at the scale of individual houses in the settlement of Rander and even places around it. The façades became a matter of pride for the people and were finely carved and detailed, which exhibited not only influences from around the world but also newer designs that came were regional or vernacular. Many local aesthetic notions derived from different regional influences are observed in the mosques. Also, there are Hindu motifs as well inside the mosque, for example, the arches surrounding the Jamatkhana resemble the arches in the palaces of Rajasthan. This hints at the fact that either the artisans who were involved in the construction were Hindus or that the society was very open to eclecticism and did not conform to a particular religion.

Another tale suggests that the mosque was rebuilt around 200 years ago, as the older mosque had suffered an impact from a fire that was caused because of the Portuguese. Also, the houses that sit just next to the mosque are said to have come up during the same time period as a consequence of large-scale revival and reconstruction of the entire town after the catastrophic event. Much less has been found in written records, religious manuscripts or other sources. Another possibility that many people talk of is that earlier the mosque was just single-storied structure with open ground around it. Eventually, it was reconstructed and other buildings were built next to it. There was then a need for another prayer hall, which was later added to the upper storey and the minarets were constructed, which became the iconic elements. Thus, it was a sequential process—from being a small shrine to a single-storied structure, to this grand mosque—that happened over a period of time. The style in which the mosque has been constructed also suggests this transformation, as it does not confirm to a single era but observes references to multiple time periods, where distinct architectural styles were prominent in Rander as well as in Surat. These styles were heavily influenced by the traders who came, such as the Dutch, Portuguese, Arabs and also the Mughals. There are prevailing Gothic elements in the way openings have been shaped in the façade and the minarets while the embellishments in the form of carvings and lime frescos have Arabic influences. Yet there is a visual balance that is observed in the way the façade has been designed. There is also lattice iron work that is seen in the window grills that came as a regional influence from Saurashtra and Kutch, where the lattice is made with interlocking and not casting of a monolithic piece. There are also old carpets within the Jamatkhana that are from the Middle East, which one can identify from the specific shades of green and the floral patterns that belong to that region and not Rander. 

Rander thus presents its inhabitants with a life that has multiple layers, grounded in a rich past—culturally distinctive and diverse—and in values that view life as a continuum from the past to the future. Thereby, the study of its religious buildings, public buildings and public life that exists within its streets and squares becomes important in informing the way cities and newer habitations can be designed in the present times. 


(The above is a transcript of a conversation with Mohan Meghani; interviewed and transcribed by Nikhil Sanjay Shah.)