Excerpted with permission from A Walk Through Barygaza by Zac O’Yeah, a detective novelist and travel writer living in Bengaluru. His latest novel is Tropical Detective. A Walk Through Barygaza was published in January 2018.
Jama Masjid (no photos; free)
He pushes open a hatch in the gate; I stoop to pass through and suddenly find myself inside what looks like a medium-sized Greek temple ruin! I later read in an architectural handbook called On the Muhammadan Architecture of Bharoch, Cambay, Dholka, Champanir, and Mahmudabad in Gujarat by James Burgess who made an extensive documentation of the Jama Masjid, that these ruins were – one or two centuries ago – in use as a dwelling of sorts. The mosque served as the quarters of British troops at the time Bharuch was conquered by them and, finally, in the 1890s, when Burgess was writing his book, it had ‘fallen into decay, is very dirty, and seems to be used only by Muhammadan mendicants as a rest house where they cook their food with the result that the beautiful carved ceilings are so blackened with soot that it is scarcely possible to recognise the wonderful richness and variety of their patterns – probably unequalled in India’.
A dozen worshippers are engaged in prayer inside the main hall of the mosque, which is again in use after having been cleaned up and restored to its former glory. It is variously said to have been originally consecrated in 1411 CE or perhaps as early as 1065 CE – different sources give different years, but Burgess seems to favour a date around 1300 CE. If the mosque came up earlier, say already in the 11th century, it would not only precede such Ismaili buildings in Kutch that have 12th century inscriptions and are considered to be the earliest extant Islamic structures in India, but would also predate Muslim rule hereabouts and testify to the ancient and peaceful trading relationships with the Red Sea region. However, considering that Bharuch only came under Muslim rule in 1297, and presuming that it was built like Burgess surmised around that same time, it would still signify the presence of a very early Islamic community.
But could it be even older? The pillared hall brings to mind the many ancient temples I’ve seen in Athens. Some of the forty-eight columns are sculpted with pictorial representations of celestial beings, which I’ve never before seen in mosques, but the association to Greece also happens to feel logical due to the mosque’s ‘acropolis’-like hilltop location. ‘Aflatoon’ himself might have felt at home, I think, if he had ever travelled this far eastward. But although Plato did travel extensively and surely took an interest in Indian philosophy, as far as I know he only visited Mediterranean countries like Egypt, Libya and Italy. It is nevertheless easy to imagine that other Greeks, including the anonymous author of the Periplus Maris Erythraei, written c.80 CE, lived in this neighbourhood. ‘The Periplus, a sort of marine guidebook, is the record of an experienced sailor who navigated the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, Malabar and Coromandel coasts, and resided for many years at Barygaza,’ says Radha Kumud Mookerji in his comprehensive book, Indian Shipping: A History of the Sea-Borne Trade and Maritime Activity of the Indians from the Earliest Times.
It wasn’t just a matter of Westerners coming to Bharuch, but Bharuchis going abroad too, for Mookerji continues: ‘It may also be mentioned that the Periplus noticed large Hindu ships off East African, Arabian, and Persian ports and Hindu settlements on the north coast of Socotra.’
Long established as a premier source of aromatic frankincense and myrrh, Socotra is a corruption of the island’s original Sanskrit epithet, sakhadaradvipa or ‘most pleasant island’. Located some 250km from Africa, 350km off the coast of Yemen, and 2,300km from Bharuch, it was a handy stopover and victualling place for ships crossing the Indian Ocean. If one sailed too far without going ashore to ask for directions, there was always the danger of losing one’s way on the oceans, as we are told in the rather amazing and nearly 2,000-year-old story noted by Pliny the Elder (Book II, chapter 67) of some Indian traders who were sailing west to do business, but were driven off course by storms and ended up in Germany!
In the Periplus, which happens to be one of the best source books on ancient India, the anonymous Greek travel writer graphically describes the difficulties of sailing up the ‘Nammadus’ or Narmada (notice how the Greek way of spelling Indian names and words is surprisingly accurate as compared to the colonial British misspelling ‘Nerbudda’), with its dangerous tides and currents that resulted in shipwrecks when ‘the sea itself comes rushing in over the shoals with a hoarse roar’.
While the author’s knowledge of interior India is sketchy, his text indicates reasonable familiarity with affairs in this port town as he enumerates precisely what sort of merchandise was traded. Export goods included precious stones, cloth of various qualities, and of course spices, while imports consisted of metals, especially precious ones, and Italian fine wines, though Gujaratis in those days also tippled on Arabian beverages (made from dates and probably sweeter than grape wine, hence more pleasing to the sweet-toothed Gujarati palate), and he also speaks of a demand for ‘bright-coloured girdles a cubit wide’ and ‘ointment, but not very costly and not much’. Obviously our Greek guide knew what he was talking about or he wouldn’t have been so specific.
The anonymous author furthermore indicates the existence of Greek temples in and around town, which he presumes were built by Alexander the Great who, however, never made it this far. If at all there were Greek temples, they were most likely built by later Greek conquerors such as Apollodotus who was based in Bactria (in today’s Afghanistan) and who may have ruled in this area c.150 BCE. He was also called the ‘Yavana chief’ – the word ‘Yavana’ is presumed to be the Indian spelling of Ionian (ie. a Greek belonging to the Aegean Sea area). Another Greek king of Bactria, Menander (c.119–90 BCE or 160-135 BCE according to other sources), whose rule also may have extended as far as to Bharuch, is remembered in Buddhist tradition as Milinda, according to which he seems to have encouraged Indian philosophers and other cultural personalities. Menander may even have converted to Buddhism and aided its spread in these parts.
It is sometimes thought that Barygaza was the southernmost point of Bactria and that it remained under Bactrian influence for a few centuries, at least until the time when the Periplus was written – who knows, perhaps the nameless author was a Bactrian Greek? Since Bactria (much like present-day Afghanistan) was a landlocked country, it needed access to a port and Barygaza fits the bill. In his epic tome, The Greeks in Bactria and India, historian W. W. Tarn asserts that Greek was a living language in Barygaza at the turn of the Christian Era, ‘and may have persisted for some time as a lingua franca for traders from the West; one may recall that the women of Surastrene [a province of which Tarn presumes Barygaza to be the principal city: Saurashtra?] long continued to use the Greek salutation Χαίρε.’
One young man with whom I chat at the Jama Masjid counters any such notion and claims that Muslims really founded the town, and before them, he implies, there was nothing much – conveniently disregarding the documented history of Bharuch that stretches thousands of years back. For example, the diminutive Muslim burial ground inside the mosque compound is littered with sculpted blocks of stone, evidently older than the mosque itself and which would not look out of place in any Greek archaeological museum. I bend down to look closer at the sculptures.
Suddenly, I undergo a sense of déjàvu, recalling visits to the Mount Abu temple complex which is 400km to the north of here and dates back to c.1031. I suspect that the mosque isn’t Greek at all but rather reconstructed from the remains of a Jaina temple, possibly the onetime seat of the famous 12th century Shvetambara Jaina philosopher Hemchandra Suri who had settled in Bharuch. This notion leads me to consult, after my site visit, the possibly most comprehensive guide to Indian monuments, the Archaeological Survey of India’s, Archaeological Remains, Monuments and Museums, where I read, in Volume II, that ‘the open pillared prayer-chamber is divided into three compartments, each compartment containing pillars from a single mandapa. Its western wall contains niches provided with pointed arches and carved on the general pattern of the niches in Hindu temples, but with motifs characteristic of Islamic ornamentation.’
Confused by what I’ve just experienced, I find my way out of the mosque that could almost have been a Greek temple, leaving through another gate which appears to be the main one, a more royal exit than the backdoor entry I had made. This is a multicultural neighbourhood I find, because the next building I see is the mansion of some Parsee trader, judging from the nameboard at the locked iron gate: Shapoorjee Hormasjee Jambusarwalla. Indeed, the Godrej clan have their ancestral home somewhere in the vicinity. This specific mansion looks uninhabited and I find myself wishing that these historic Parsee quarters, known as Kotparsiwad, were opened up for guided walks so that – assuming that tourism brings in money – the once grand houses could be maintained. There is a municipal plan to restore an assortment of the city’s historical buildings, in collaboration with the Parsee Panchayat, and convert them into schools. Such a plan could easily be extended to include provisions for tourism as well.
Malbari Darwaja (sunrise–sunset; free)
I amble downhill towards what is marked as Malbari Darwaja on a sketchy map I copied from an archaeological report, wondering whether there might not be a darwaja somewhere in the area after all. It suddenly struck me that the gate would, logically, have to be by the riverside and not on top of the cliff where the mosque stands. Such a gate would obviously form a part of the city wall, perhaps the very same that I have been tracking since earlier in the day. Unsurprisingly, there’s a substantial bit of intact wall at the bottom of the road and in it stands an ornate but forlorn gateway. I suddenly understand why the lady by the mosque didn’t think there was a gate here anymore – because this too is a sewage canal now.
As far as I am able to ascertain, out of the nine city gates, the Malbari Darwaja is the only one remaining in perfect condition – as long as one ignores the garbage that fills it – while most of the others are long demolished and exist only as area names.
It is actually quite interesting that this gate was named after Malabar or Kerala. The ancient Greeks of Barygaza knew the city as the point from where ‘the adjoining coast extends in a straight line from north to south; and so this region is called Dachinabades, for dachanos in the language of natives means “south”.’ In this, one recognizes a form of the word ‘Deccan’ which up to today refers to the Indian peninsula south of Bharuch; speakers of Sanskrit-derived languages also know that daksina means ‘south’. If we take the name Malbari Darwaja for what it literally means, the area perhaps had a settlement of south Indian merchants and – who knows – maybe traders from further east. We do know that there were business links with places as far away as China. Anyhow, I deduce, after taking a peek at various maps outlining the historical spice trade routes, the town would have marked a convenient midway halt and transhipment port on the journey from Kerala to the Red Sea. Or to expand the idea a bit: it was possibly the most important hub between the Spice Isles of southeast Asia and Western luxury consumer markets.
This Malbari Darwaja would then, I suppose, be one of the very ancient parts of the entire fort. But today, the platform on top of the bastion towering over the gate is a popular hangout for kite fliers when the afternoon breeze picks up. Sadly, the walkway within the bailey is overgrown and filled with colourful plastic trash bags chucked down the slope from the houses above. Nevertheless, I try valiantly to follow the wall westwards and battle my way through a gang of jolly goats that graze along it, but can’t go into the thickets beyond a hundred metres.
As I walk back to the bastion, I notice boys playing cricket on the riverbed, though how they got there I have no clue – unless they waded through the sewage darwaja. But I decide it’s not worth it. I have just bought new walking shoes before this trip.