On the banks of the Tapi (or Tapti) river is located the city of Surat, the ‘sun city’, earlier referred to as Suryapur. In the heart of the most ancient settlement of the Surat city—Rander—stands the magnificent mosque Masjid-e Quwaat-e-Islam, colloquially referred to as Hari Masjid, Ek Khamba Masjid or Variav-Oli Masjid, which is famous for the fact that it stands entirely on a single pillar. It is not only a structural marvel but also a cultural anchor for the Muslim community residing in the historic sub-city of Rander.
Rander is known for its enthusing, winding narrow streets and alleys that reveal a journey through different past eras, with finely crafted homes and public buildings offering a unique sense of place, almost frozen in time. It is surrounded and in a way engulfed by the urban sprawl that has sprung up extensively and haphazardly. There are mosques located on almost every corner of the street, such as the Nagina Masjid, Badi Masjid, Tab-e-Tabein Saheb Dargah and many more, and located on the central node within the settlement, with a Jain temple (Manibhadra mandir) in its vicinity, is the Ek Khamba Masjid, which exemplifies social cohesion and harmony within the setting. It is believed that the Jain settlement dates back to earlier than 1200 AD when Rander was a small prosperous village that formed the hinterland of Suvali. Suvali was a thriving port town back then that had connections with the Middle East owing to the trade of crockery, silver articles, wooden artefacts and furniture.
Later, Rander became a principal commercial centre, which had trading connections with many countries in Africa, the Middle East and Burma. These influences can still be seen in the wooden screens made up of blinds in house facades and in the interiors of the houses that have elaborate drapery, carpets and old antique crockery, which people proudly cherish as their legacy. The shifting of commercial centres was guided by the manner in which the river changed its course and navigability; its impact is eventually observed in the way the entire city has evolved and transformed with time. The river has been a vital determinant that has shaped and guided the growth of the settlement along with the traders and merchants who belonged to affluent class and, hence, were patrons, who accomplished important public and religious buildings. The merchant class also brought with them their cultural affiliations that were eventually reflected in the built environment and social lives of the people, which includes all spheres such as food, language, literature, poetry and other ethnic manifestations. There was a cosmopolitan culture that was ephemeral in nature and in a constant state of flux, which can be deciphered from the eclectic influences one observes in the stylization and planning of the built form. As recorded in a travelogue The Book of Duarte Barbosa (Livro de Duarte Barbosa) in 1514 by the Portuguese traveller Duarte Barbosa, who travelled extensively in the Indian subcontinent:
Ranel [Rander] is a good town of the Moors, built of very pretty houses and squares. It is a rich and agreeable place.... The Moors of the town trade with Malacca, Bengal, Tawasery [Tannasserim], Pegu, Martaban, and Sumatra in all sort of spices, drugs, silks, musk, benzoin and porcelain. They possess very large and fine ships and those who wish Chinese articles will find them there very completely. The Moors of this place are white and well dressed and very rich, they have pretty wives, and in the furniture of these houses have china vases of many kinds, kept in glass cupboards well arranged. Their women are not secluded like other Moors, but go about the city in the day time, attending to their business with their faces uncovered as in other parts.
Thus, according to Barbosa, Rander was an extremely free and prosperous society where creative ideas flourished and art and religious creations were at their peak. Prior to this era, Rander used to be a prosperous village with huge agricultural produce such as ber (Ziziphus mauritiana) and grapes, which used to be exported around the world. It was in 1225 A.D. that the Arabs came from Kufa, overpowering the existing Jain population whose traces can be observed in the old temples such as Manibhadra temple, Kanch nu Derasar (Mirror hall temple). This was when Rander started becoming a prominent port town that was gradually and finely urbanized.
The arrival of the Arabs led to the beginning of the confluence of cultures, which is observed till date, and as a result of which Rander portrays a strong sense of solidarity among various communities such as Jains, Vakan, Kharua, Machi and Soni. The Arabs marked their presence with the nature of monumental architecture that they brought about in the region, which also brought into focus the work of brilliant craftsmen and artisans who accomplished a multitude of architectural marvels. The era further witnessed many accomplishments of magnificence in the form of construction that started to come up. The Rander Gamtal (town) has many religious centres, mosques, temples and dargah shrines, some of which have strong influences from the Middle East, as reflected in embellishments and plan forms of the mosques. These accomplishments include marvels such as the Nagina Mosque, which is also one of the oldest mosques in the region, known for the rare gems and jewels used in its embellishments and carvings. As mentioned appositely by Duarte Barbosa, Rander had an important customs house and was a prominent port that brought lots of wealth to the region and also an influx of people from different parts of the world. He also mentions that Rander prospered much more than the city of Surat, which came about much later around the 15th century. It also became an important centre when it got connected to the other side of the bank to the city of Surat by the Hope Bridge in 1874, leading to an influx of Hajj pilgrims who halted in Rander and Surat, which led to development of sarais (resting places) for the pilgrims. During that time Rander and Surat were known as Bunder-e-Khubsurat, beautiful port towns.
Although Rander has an exceptional and rich history, there are very few written records available. Most of the cultural notions exist only as part of a rich repository of oral traditions, as part of folklore, tales and songs. Built in the 1800s (as conjectured from various talks with the mosque trust and other scholars, yet uncertain), the Ek Khamba Masjid has been central to the Tabligi Muslim community that settled around it. In present times the mosque is open to all the sects of the Muslim community and people who wish to offer prayers or just visit the mosque. Although the Ek Khamba Masjid is believed to have been built in the 1800s, some locals speak of the existence of a small dargah shrine in the same area in place of which this exquisite architectural edifice was later erected, which they say was made roughly around 200 years before the present structure came into being.
There are many tales that have been passed from one generation to another regarding the mosque, where some say that the mosque was built during the time when Arabs came, which can be evidenced from the kind of arches, gateways and the fine carvings seen in each and every corner of the mosque. Some say ‘Ye masjid jannat saman hai’, referring to its equivalence or its creation as an image similar to that of a paradise, heaven, which was crafted by the Arabs. It is believed that even Tabe Tabein Saheb (a sage) has offered namaaz (prayers) in this mosque; the title Tabe Tabein is conferred to a person ‘one who has witnessed Hazrat Mohammed Paigambar Saheb is known as Sahebi, and the one who has witnessed Sahebi is known as Tabein, and the one who has witnessed Tabein and spreads his words, is known as Tabe-Tabein’ as described in the verses of holy Quran. There are references in the oral tales and songs to the fact that even the great emperor Jahangir had offered his prayers at the Ek Khamba Masjid and appreciated its splendor, which people fondly recall.
The mosque is essentially an architectural edifice that reflects amalgamation of various styles that the invaders and traders brought with them: the Arabs, Mughals, Portuguese, and Dutch. It has withstood several catastrophic events that occurred over time: floods, earthquakes, cyclones and occasional fires, which validates its structural resilience and the wisdom behind its construction techniques. It is a two-storeyed structure with three minarets, exquisite carving and details that make it a landmark. As one looks closely, the architectural styles identified are as follows: vernacular, colonial, baroque and Arabesque, an eclectic mix which has been carefully designed with visual harmony and proportions that appropriate the building within the setting.
The vernacular is reflected in the floral motifs that are said to be inspired by the flora in the region, which comprised Ziziphus mauritiana (Ber) and Tabebuia Rose, the flowers of which find resemblance in the motifs. Also, the mosque observes other broader principles of vernacular construction forms in the region, with regard to geometrical layout, its positioning over a higher terrain with reference to the settlement around. The colonial influence is observed in the way repetitive arches (arcades) have been used in the façade as well as to demarcate the interior space. The gateway to the mosque also has raised steps with finely done lamp posts (fanas) demarcating the entrance, which were peculiar to colonial buildings. Its Arabesque nature can be seen in the way minarets have been designed, which have pointed arches (Gothic influence) with floral carvings, and domes that have grooves flanked by ornate edges. Even though this mosque is geometrically laid out, unlike other mosques it has minarets only on three sides. The fourth corner has a kitchenette on the floor above it. This also runs counter to the accepted architectural norm and exhibits unique response to its surroundings.
Inside the mosque there are many chambers, which comprise Hoju, a place for ablution, cleaning ones hand and legs before offering prayers. This ablution tank is also connected to a well below and till date receives sweet groundwater, which people consider to be pristine and of immense religious significance for purifying one’s body spiritually. Then there are two subdivisions within jamatkhana (prayer hall), which is around 15 feet away from the street: one is for the public and the inner chamber is meant for the imam (the person who leads prayers in a mosque), maulana (person who is revered for his religious preaching) and special people and includes the mihrab (a niche in the wall of a mosque, at the point nearest to Mecca, towards which the congregation faces to pray). There is also a beautifully carved marble minbar, a pulpit, where the imam stands and delivers sermons. This prayer hall also has an exquisite lime-fresco ceiling and chandeliers that are lit up during the prayers, which makes the experience of the place even more profound. The outer prayer hall (jamatkhana next to the inner prayer hall) is surrounded by Rajasthani arches, which again reflect the local architectural style and the artisans that might have been involved in the construction. The prayer hall also receives natural skylight throughout the day, which makes the environment inside more lively and ecstatic.
The mass gatherings on Friday and special occasions happen in the jamatkhana and the prayer hall above it. Below the jamatkhana is located a dark inner chamber that houses the kabar (shrine of the prophet to whom the mosque is dedicated) that has a pillar next to it (the Ek Khamba) with four kamaans (arches) emerging from it, on which the entire mosque is believed to be supported. This shrine is at times made open to public and can be directly viewed from the street. The prayer hall on the floor above the Jamatkhana and the kitchenette becomes open to the public only on Fridays, festivals and special days. There are occasions when daawats (special feasts) are also held on the floor above. The prayer hall can be viewed and accessed from the street as well, and on special occasions, the crowds can spill over to the streets to offer namaz. There are processions such as the Tajia, which happen on the streets and are exuberantly celebrated.
The mosque also has a small madrasa within, which is an educational centre serving the local Muslim communities, usually for small kids who are taught about religion and other basics. The madrasa has now also become actively involved in collecting and maintaining historical records and photographs that were found in some of the houses around. In stark contrast with the other mosques in the region (in Surat and even prominent mosques such as the Sidi Sayyid mosque in Ahmedabad), which are situated in vast open spaces and usually comprise an open ground in conjunction usually meant for the purpose of mass gathering and prayers, this mosque in terms of its form is like a house in the streets. Yet the architectural language of minarets and the massive gateways create a sense of monumentality and lend it the character of a public building of crucial value.
Rander is a place that observes festivity throughout the year and is especially astonishing during the season of Ramzaan, when all the streets (the Botawala Lane: which is the major street along which most mosques, temples, important public buildings and public squares are located) around the major mosques turn into Eid Mela (fair), where lots of eateries and small vendors surface. All the lanes become vibrant with vivid array of colours of food, clothes, tarpaulin sheets, which shade the streets and lights that illuminate during evenings. During this time one can observe people from the entire city coming here and savoring delicious delicacies such as khawsa (a special Burmese soup), kulfi (local Ice-cream made in earthen pots), Rangooni paratha, aloo puri, chicken and mutton barbeque, and much more. The market is open the entire night during Ramzaan. As part of the rituals, the Muslim community observes fast the entire day and after the sunset they have food in the streets. Places like Rander are cultural nodes within the city that finely weave the lives of people around mosques, squares and streets, which quintessentially define its everydayness and become pivotal to urban existence as celebration.
 Janaki, Geography—Research Paper Series No. 7.
 Barbosa, The Book of Duarte Barbosa.
 Singh, Towns, Markets, Mints and Ports in Mughal Empire 1556–1707.
Barbosa, Duarte. The Book of Duarte Barbosa: An Account of the Countries Bordering on the Indian Ocean and Their Inhabitants. Translated by Mansel Longworth Dames. London: London, Printed for the Hakluyt Society, 1921.
Janaki, V.A. Geography—Research Paper Series No. 7: Some Aspects of the Historical Geography of Surat. Baroda: Department of Geography, M.S. University of Baroda, 1974.
Singh, M.P. Towns. Markets, Mints and Ports in Mughal Empire 1556–1707. Delhi: Adam Publishers, 1985.