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Sarkhej Roza, the Living Monument

Sarkhej Roza is one of the most original architectural complexes of Ahmedabad and Gujarat. It is an example of the early Islamic culture of the region, fusing Islamic stylistic influences from Persia with the Hindu and Jain architectural features to form the ‘Indo-Saracenic’ style of architecture. It is one of the largest historic complexes of monuments located 8 km. outside Ahmedabad and can be now approached through the Sarkhej-Gandhinagar highway. The monument complex is unique in ways more than one, as till today both Hindu and Muslim communities living in the nearby areas visit the dargah of Sheikh Ahmad Ganj Baksh Khattu. The extent of the campus of Sarkhej Roza is 32 acres with the Ahmed Sar lake itself being 17 acres.

 

The time the city of Ahmedabad got founded, Sarkhej was majorly inhabited by Indigodyers and weavers. Sarkhej became renowned when Sheikh Ahmed Khattu,the much revered Sufi saint and advisor to Sultan Ahmad Shah, settled there. He lived up to the age of 111 and upon his death in 1445, the then ruling king Muhammad Shah called for the construction of a mausoleum (roza) along with a mosque to commemorate him. These two monuments got completed in 1451 by his successor Qutb’ud-din Ahmed Shah.In the latter half of the 15th century, Sultan Mehmud Begada added to the grandeur of the complex by constructing a 17-acre large lake with stone steps leading to it on the sides. A number of small pavilions along with a mosque, a supply sluice gate, and king’s and queen’s palaces were added to the south and west corners. This led to Sarkhej becoming a place for leisure and meditation and a summer retreat for the royal family. A mausoleum opposite to that of the saint’s was also built for Mehmud Begada and his family, where his son Muzaffar II and wife Rajabai were buried eventually.

 

The last set of additions to the complex, a country house and a garden, was made in 1584 to mark the event when Muzaffar III, the then ruler, was defeated by the Mughal army led by Akbar. This makes the complex an important remembrance in the socio-political history of Gujarat, primarily Ahmedabad. 

 

Conceived as the ‘khanqah’ (a place for spiritual retreat) of the saint, the Roza complex was built in many phases and eventually completed by Mehmud Begada. This is an appropriate example of Indo- Saracenic architecture, where Hindu techniques of construction were infused with Islamic sense of scale and geometry.A sandstone trabeated structural system with corbelled domes and non-structural arched panels as infills testify to its stylization by Hindu craftsmen, while reference to square geometry and rectilinear structural grid, floral or geometric patterns as filigree remain the consequence of Islamic aesthetic traditions. The eventual fusion and spatial organization remain very Indian.

 

The campus can be explained in three perceptive worlds—first, being the royal realm, having the king’s and queen’s palaces and the water tank, second comprising the tombs of saint, kings and queens and the last and innermost being the religious one. The mosque space (liwan) to its west and the colonnaded riwaq (an arcade open on at least one side) on the other three sides retaining a rectangular courtyard (sahak) in the middle characterize it. These three apparent worlds mutually coexist in the same premises with each having its own set of activities and ambience. The built fabric on the northern edge of the tank, including the summer pavilions of the king and the queen, give the tank a sense of volume and containment. The lake is harvested by natural rain water, providing cooling effect and offering scenic views.

 

Although these three distinct worlds exist on their own entirely, on a larger level they complement each other. The projecting balconies, jharokhas, and openings in a continuous long wall along the tank while holding the water edge creates a streetscape as a familiar backdrop and reminder of city’s skylines with domes and their silhouettes. The facade which appears to be a continuous one when viewed from the lake side, entails different spaces on the inside performing, a very different function. This can be seen in the wall which is a perforated stone jali (a perforated screen) in the king’s tomb, which in the mosque acts as a liwan. A similar example can be seen in the eastern wall of the mosque which in the tomb area contains the void of the forecourt. The dome, which is monolithic and the largest one on the campus, acts as a perceptual centre, which brings together the three worlds, itself acting as the point of reference. The use of courtyards and dual-edged built interfaces has facilitated in achieving the high quality of spaces in Sarkhej. The principle of organization played a vital role in facilitating the expansion and growth of the complex at various stages. After the expansion, each phase continued to function cohesively as an independent entity, with the new development and at the same time honoring the sanctity of the whole.

 

Louis Kahn, the architect of Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad, is said to have taken inspiration from Sarkhej and introduced similar waterbodies on the campus.

 

Sarkhej is primarily a structure of Islamic faith, which is well reflected in the principles of the architecture of the complex. It abides by the canons of the religion, the most prominent one is seen in geometry and symmetry. Independent structures have been conceptualized on the basis of the different combinations achieved on the rotation of the square plan form and are symmetrical along their own central axis. Since representation of living beings is prohibited in Islam, the ornamentation is primarily in the form of square jaalis carved in floral and geometric patterns. In the mosque, surrounded by the riwaq on three sides, the emphasis is achieved on the fourth side, physically and objectively as the axis to god, by the thickened wall mass of the liwan, the pronounced domes over them and particularly the small recess of the mihrab (a niche in the wall of a mosque, pointing towards the qibla, the direction of God or Mecca).

 

The monuments at Sarkhej Roza complex can be best understood if divided into the following groups:

The first group is the central courtyard, the entrance to which is from the parking area. The central courtyard has recently become the venue for conducting cultural programmes.

  1. Entry
  2. Baradari
  3. Dargah
  4. Jama Masjid
  5. Lake
  6. Tombs of queens, currently works as the museum and the administrative office
  7. Royal tombs of the kings

                        

 The secondgroup of monuments are the ones located at the periphery of the lake:

  1. Qalandari Masjid
  2. Tomb of Habshinoblemen
  3. Unknown monuments
  4. Palaces
  5. Tomb of Ghizhali Mash-hadi, court poet of Akbar
  6. Sluice gates

 

The third group:

  1. Tomb of Ghiasuddin Ali Kazwini
  2. Prayer chambers of the saint

 

 

Buildings in the Monument Complex

 

Baradari

On entering the central courtyard from the entrance, a neem tree with dense foliage is seen pointing towards the right to a high pillared structure, the Baradari. Located in the centre, in direct line of the axis of the dargah,it is a 16-pillared structure upholding nine domes and a flooring of colored stones. It has undergone a stage of restoration by the Archaeological Survey of India, as it faced massive destruction during the Gujarat earthquake in 2001. Baradari is the highest structure in the campusand, with its central location right across the dargah, is an indication of the saint occupying the highest place. There is a flight of steps leading to the dargahon the white-marked pathway between the Baradari and the Wazzoo Khana (water body for ablutions). The colonnade, arrested by the protruding pavilion, defines a suction space, a node and a clue for movement towards the royal tomb.  The colonnade provides transition from the outdoors, inviting into the royal tombs,a framed view of the colonnaded pavilion as a pivot relaying further movement towards the saint’s tomb.

 

 

Dargah (mausoleum) of Sheikh Ahmed Ganj Bakshkhattu

This dargah is the largest of its kind in Gujarat with each side measuring upto 105 feet. A large central dome makes the roof of the dargah with a peepal leaf at the highest point of the dome. A peepal leaf was used as an emblem by the kings of the Sultanate Dynasty. A verse in Persian is written on the marble over the main entrance to the mausoleum, which reads:

 

When the ocean of Ahmed’s palm pours forth its pearls,

The skirt of hopes, becomes the treasure of Parvis:

No wonder, if in order to bend before his shrine,

The whole surface of the earth raises its head.

 

Brass perforated screens surround the sanctum sanctorum, which is the resting place of the saint. Trellis windows of perforated stone works in multifarious designs adorn the walls of the dargah. Many small tombs seen within the dargah premises have been believed to be of the saint’s followers or disciples. The spiritual heir of the saint, Sheikh Salahuddin, is buried near the entrance to the right. Situated 30 feet away from the spacious compound of the dargah at the south west corner is the Jama Masjid.

 

 

The Jama Masjid

Constructed alongwith the mausoleum of the saint, the mosque is a simple pillared hall with domes of uniform height and no arches and minarets. From the style of architecture, it can be deduced that the masons and sculptors would have been of local origin and had not yet imbibed the nuances of the Islamic features of architecture such as arches and minarets, which were seen in buildings built later.

 

The masjid has been built in a total area of 4300 square yards with an open court in the middle flanked with corridors on three sides. There are rainwater harvesting structures on its right side, where rainwater was collected and stored under the floor of the masjid to be used during summer months when there was no availability of water. The primary entrance to the masjid is on the east with another opening in the south into the Wazoo Khana. This entrance is used by the members of the royal family to access the special apartment for them, in the shape of a loft. Even today, the masjid remains a living mosque, which sees full assemblies on Fridays and festive occasions.

 

 

The Lake

Built by one of the greatest kings of the Sultanate Dynasty, Sultan Mehmud Begada, the lake was named Ahmed Sar by him, after his grandfather, Sultan Ahmed Shah. The lake is 17 acres in size with palaces on its southern and western banks. Three ducts of the sluice gates connect the Ahmed Sar lake to the Makarba lake. This rectilinear man-made lake has ghat-like stone steps and platforms on three sides and the mosque and tomb walls on the fourth.

 

The main source of water supply for the lake is the overflow of water from the Singarva Talaav, also known as Makarba Talaav. Although it’s a man-made lake, it was linked to a natural system of waterbody interlinking that was based on the topography and contouring of the land. It is also believed that Makarba lake also received overflow of water from lakes in Pantij and Saltej, which are villages near Ahmedabad. However, at present the lake often dries up, which could be a threat to the monument.

 

 

Sluice Gates

The sluice gates are the entry points for the overflow of water from the Makarba lake into the Ahmed Sar lake. The gates and the adjoining half minarets are symbols of celebration of water. The sluice gates are an engineering marvel as they allow for water filtration without the use of electricity. The water overflows through a jaali wall into an open courtyard,which also has two spiral staircases on each side for the purpose of maintenance. Long and tall grasses were grown in this courtyard for filtering the physical impurities in the water. It was only after being filtered in this courtyard that the water was allowed to flow into the main lake from the courtyard.

 

 

The Royal Tombs (Queens)

Three queens are said to be buried in this dedicated space built for the queens. The only identified queen is Queen Rajabai, wife of Muzaffar Shah II. This complex, however, is now being used as the office of the Sarkhej Roza Committee and also as a museum and library. This committee is mainly responsible for managing the administration of the religious complex, taking care of its welfare and also of the facilities that need to be provided to the visitors, who come to offer prayers and perform rituals.

 

A museum, set up for the interest of visitors to the complex, keeps on display the artefacts from the Sultanate Dynasty. Two cloth pieces that have been embroidered with choir thread and were given to the saint by the Caliph on his visit to Mecca have also been displayed. Old coins prevalent during the rule of the Sultanate Dynasty have also been displayed. Hand-written copies of the Quran are also available there.

 

Bilingual panels have been put up on the walls talking about the history of Sarkhej Roza, for the awareness of the visitors. A library is also gradually being built up for readers interested in the history of Sarkhej.

 

 

The Royal Tombs (Kings)

Some of the important kings of the Sultanate Dynasty are buried here at Sarkhej:

  • Sultan Mehmud Begada (1458‒1511)
  • Sultan Muzaffar Shah II (1513‒26), son and direct heir of Mehmud Begada
  • Sultan Mahmud III (1536‒54), grandson of Sultan Muzaffar Shah II

The rest of the kings from the Sultanate Dynasty have been buried in Raja ka Hajira in Patan, the capital of Gujarat before Ahmedabad. The entry to the tomb of Sultan Mehmud Begada is to the left as soon as one enters the Roza complex. The walls on the outer periphery of this tomb are adorned with intricately carved jaalis. An interesting mosaic pattern is seen on the floor when there is a play of light on the jaalis.

 

The separation between the king’sand queen’s tombs is in the form of a patio-type space, which directly opens out into the central courtyard.  There is a flight of stairs from here providing direct access to the lake. The patio is often used for holding small gatherings and music performances.

 

 

The Qalandari Masjid

It is situated on the western banks of the lake, a short distance away from the main gate of the dargah of Sheikh Ahmed Ganj Baksh Khattu.  Maulana Meer Abul Qasim, the mutawvali (manager) of the wakf was responsible for building the mosque.

 

Maulana Meer Abul Qasim was a learned man, well-versed in religious and rational science. He became a part of the saint’s establishment as leader of prayer (imam) before being admitted as the saint’s circle of disciples. He continued to stay with the saint for the next three decades until his death in 1447. He has to his credit many vital pieces of literature from that period, importantly the book Mirqat-Ul-Wasul, an account of the saint’s life and his teachings.

 

 

The Palaces

Added at a later stage by Sultan Mehmud Begada, the king’s and queen’s palaces are situated on the south-western banks of the lake. Built as the summer palace of the royals, both the palaces add to the splendour and grandeur of the Roza complex. They were strategically placed to fall in the direction of the cool breeze. A large arched pathway sloping down to the lake is known as the Haathi Khaana. The king’s elephants and horses often used this path to come down to drink water. There was a direct access to the lake from the king’s palace through a staircase which has now been closed down by the ASI. A personal mosque for the king has also been provided in the palace.

 

The king’s palace in the current scenario has become a popular venue for hosting cultural programmes as it offers a magnificent open space for such occasions in the premises of Sarkhej.Many brick structures in the vicinity of the palace have been assumed to be the quarters of the soldiers and attendants to the king and his queens during his stay at Sarkhej for half of the year.

 

 

Tombs of Ghizhali Mash-hadi and Qasim Arsalan

Positioned beside the queen’s palace, these tombs have a direct view of the saint’s tomb on the west-facing banks. They open towards the sky and do not have any ornamentation. These are the less popular structures at the Roza complex due to their location that does not get them in direct public view.

 

Ghizhali Mash-Hadi was amongst the courtiers of Emperor Akbar and one of the renowned poets of his times. He died on one of the conquests of Ahmedabad of the Mughal army and was thus buried in the precincts of Sarkhej. Qasim Arsalan was also a well-known Persian poet, chronogram writer and calligrapher. He wrote Persian chronograms at the time of the death of Akbar’s chief of army, Behram Khan, and Ghizhali Mashadi, when he died in 1572. He belonged to Tous in Iran and had come to India during the reign of Akbar.He was buried next to the tomb of Ghizhali Mashadi when he died in Ahmedabad in 1586.

 

 

Khwaja Ghiasuddin Ali Asaf Khan Qazwini

Qazwini was a loyal noble and adept general in the court of the Mughal king Akbar, who died in 1581. He won accolades in the Gujarat region when he fought the mutiny wherein Muhammad Kokahad been attacked in Ahmedabad. For this reason, he was honoured with the title of ‘Asaf Khan’ and graduated to the post of the bakhshi (administrator) of the province of Ahmedabad. Said to be related to queen Nurjahan’s mother, it was the Mughal kings’ patronage for art and literature that drove talented people such as Qazwini to India. His prominence is illustrated from the positioning and dignified scale of his grave right behind that of Sheikh Ahmed Ganj Baksh Khattu. The grave is a modest brick structure without any ornamentation.

 

 

The Tomb of Siddi (Habshi) Noblemen

Before Akbar’s conquest of Gujarat, the two Habshi noblemen ruled here for 25 years. People of African descent were referred to as ‘Habshi’, many of whom were brought as slaves by sultans of Gujarat. However, their allegiance and prowess in the battlefield led to the rise in their stature in court.There are four of these noblemen buried in this structure, located on the banks of the lake. The rule of the Sultanate Dynasty ended with the rule of Bahadur Shah, after which the state of Gujarat was divided by the nobles between themselves.

 

 

The Prayer Chamber

This is one of the oldest structures on the campus and was used by the saint to offer prayers in seclusion. It is a small underground structure.

 

Important People Buried at Sarkhej

Sheikh Ahmed Khattu ‘Ganj Baksh’ (1336‒1447)

One of the most important personalities of medieval Gujarat, Sheikh Ahmad Ganj Khattu was one the few Sufi saints to have come to Gujarat in 1400. He was born in 1336 in a respected family in Delhi and passed away in 1446 AD at the age of 108. Separated from his birth parents by a cyclone, Baba Ishaque, a saint of the Magribi order, brought him up. His name is associated with the cultural and religious history of Gujarat in the 15th century. He received patronage and respect from various rulers and upon their insistence stayed back in Gujarat, settling in the village of Sarkhej, situated on the banks of river Sabarmati outside the city of Ahmedabad. He played an eminent role in the founding and development of the city of Ahmedabad. He had both Hindu and Muslim followers and hence there has existed a tradition of celebrating Janamashtami, the birth of Lord Krishna, in Sarkhej Roza complex. His priory became one of the largest religious centres of medieval Gujarat.  The sheikh was fluent in many languages, which made made it easy for him to interact with people of all ethnicities. Sallahuddin, the sheikh’s spiritual heir, has also been buried in proximity to him in the dargah premises.

 

Rani Rajbai

She is one of the only known queens buried in the space for queens. She was the wife of Muzaffar Shah.

 

 

Sarkhej as Architectural Marvel

Sarkhej is a unique example of a monument complex of such a large scale. It is thus observed that inspiration for the planning and construction of Fatehpur Sikri could have been taken from Sarkhej. As the stepwells are said to be a celebration of the low-lying sources of water in subterranean regions, the enormous waterbody in Sarkhej can be taken as a celebration of surface water.The connection of the water tank with the complex, hence the relationship between the landscape and water in Sarkhej, is much in tandem with the Islamic style of architecture, as also visible in Mandu. The sluice system here has served as a model for the construction of a similar or even better water control system of sluices, inlet channels and filters used in the waterbody in the Kankaria lake. These kinds of water bodies have made the routine places of water collection communities’ filigree of Gujarat.

 

The Sarkhej complex was strategically placed according to the contour of the area. The Makarba lake is the catchment area of 17 acres channelizing water through sluice gates; hence, the Sarkhej lake was constructed in such a manner that the water from the Makarba lake filled the Sarkhej Roza tank. This water was used for daily purposes by people all round the year, the rainwater also contributed to the tank water. Slowly, over a period of time, the tank started drying up before the onset of next monsoons due to excessive usage and reduced rainfall. Recently, due to increased construction activity in the area,the municipality ordered to open up the storm water pipes into the Makarba  tank, which has brought the tank back to life, even though the water is not clean.

 

The vast landscape flows inside and transforms into laterally extending spaces of the complex. There is a symbolic and harmonic relationship between the earth, water and sky. The tomb becomes the intense point of convergence, reflecting to the sky above through the dome. The building establishes a meaningful correspondence between natural conditions and the morphology of the complex. It does so by visualizing the potentially present foci and strengthening the actually present conditions of the landscape.

 

 

Current Scenario

While speaking to Bhavna Ramrakhiani, the founder of Ahmedabad Community Foundation, which is an NGO working on Sarkhej Roza and the development in that area, there has been a better understanding of the current situation in Sarkhej. There are six entries to the monument out of which three have been rendered inaccessible due to illegal parking in front of the gates. Most visitors do not end up going to the king’s and queen’s tomb since that area has not been maintained properly.They have helped revive many cultural activities in the monument complex to revive the memory of Sarkhej Roza in people’s minds. The Roza is known to have very strong Sufi traditions; hence, a renowned Sufi festival is established here. It has a 500-year-old tradition of celebrating Janamashtami. Qawwali and bhajans are also often performed in the precincts of the Roza. A traditional festival of Rajjab, which is very close to the Shravan month of the Hindu calendar, is widely celebrated in Gujarat. The monument experiences a lot of pilgrims on all the four Thursdays of this month as a part of the ritual of this holy month. It has also started to be used as a venue for many cultural programmes and Heritage Week is also celebrated here. These cultural events are effective in drawing people to the monument and also help in keeping the monument alive, reinstating its image of being a living monument.