The rays of the setting sun find their way in through the intricately carved jali, casting spookily geometrical shapes. The patterns come alive as the sun goes down further in the sky, and settles slowly into a dusky kaleidoscope. The natural light-and-shadow show holds me spellbound. At Sarkhej Roza, an elegant architectural complex located in the village of Makarba, about 7 km south-west of Ahmedabad, the elaborate stone lattices take centre-stage.
Jalis have been a part and parcel of architecture in India since time immemorial, be it as window screens, room dividers, or railings for thrones, platforms and terraces. The art of jali craftsmen peaked under the patronage of the Mughals, and they shaped sandstone and marble into filigree-like patterns. Nowhere is it more apparent than at Sarkhej Roza, where elaborate tracery work helps define the transition from the outside to the inside.
Famously dubbed “Ahmedabad’s Acropolis” by architect Le Corbusier, Sarkhej Roza is frozen in time. Apart from small palaces and pavilions, the complex houses the final resting place of Sufi saint Hazrat Shaikh Ahmed Khattu, revered as the patron saint of Ahmedabad. The monument is largely off the tourist track, and allows moments of leisure and calm amid the worn grandeur. The world outside — the traffic, chaos and dirt — ceases to matter once you’re inside. The chaotic city surrounds you, but you’re in a parallel world all your own.
Centuries ago, Sarkhej Roza was the site of a village populated by Hindus, mainly weavers and indigo dyers. Khattu, born in New Delhi in 1338 CE, was a close friend and advisor to Sultan Ahmed Shah and later moved here. He died in 1445, after which the Sultan ordered the construction of a mausoleum and a mosque in his memory.
As I walk around Sarkhej Roza, which seems to be deserted most of the time, I have to admit that I’m looking at sheer poetry in stone. The architecture of the mosque — built by Qutubuddin Ahmed Shah II between 1451 and 1458 — is credited to two Persian brothers, Azam and Mu’azzam. The next sultan, Mahmud Begada, went on an expansion drive and completed the complex; he added palaces and pavilions, and his own tomb. Spread over 72 acres, the complex is built around a great stepped tank. Surrounding it are a mosque (with 120 pillars), a tomb to the saint (topped by a 12-m-high dome), the tombs of Begada and his queen, and a palace and pavilions. The imperial necropolis was once surrounded by elaborate gardens on all sides.
Centuries later, the town is remarkably well-preserved. Like the Sufi saint it was built for, it celebrates co-existence. The buildings exemplify the Indo-Saracenic style by bring-ing together Islamic elements (profusion of pillars and brackets, and ringed domes) and Hindu (ornamentation and motifs) ones. All structures are built in stone, quarried locally, and are remarkable because of the complete absence of arches, which are a staple of Mughal architecture.
In its heyday, the Roza stood tall as a ‘people’s place’. The palaces were where royals converged; the pavilions and tank were open to the common folk. They were all brought together by the religious thread: the mausoleum and the mosque.
Forgotten for long, the structure seemed condemned to a life in the doldrums. Things changed when the Sarkhej Roza Committee took up the onus of preserving the Roza’s past and present for the future. The Rediscover Sarkhej Roza campaign, launched 10 years ago, has helped revive the monument.
The complex was the venue for a music festival during the World Heritage Week celebrations. The idea was to reconnect Ahmedabad with the Roza, giving it a new lease of life and a new relationship with the community. The committee is now eyeing extensive restoration work, which may boost Ahmedabad’s chances of entering the prestigious Unesco World Heritage City club. But there’s a lot more to be done. Perhaps Amitabh Bachchan’s new Khushboo Gujarat Ki ad campaign, focussing on the state’s Islamic heritage, may do the trick.
The change is apparent. I stand in a corner pavilion, looking down at the once-dry Ahmed-sar. The water body, which stood dry year after year, is brimful with water after the rainy season, courtesy new storm water pipes. Around me, the expansive courtyards and umpteen corridors with arches create a feeling of solitude and tranquility. The ethereal calmness sets the stage for numerous interactions — between the sky and the earth, the water and the land, light and dark, and dawn and dusk.
Most buildings only have a ‘body’, but Sarkhej Roza is said to have jism (body) and rooh (spirit). I understand why. The complex is kind of dead on the outside: there are hardly any visitors or signs of human life. But inside, it thrums with a spiritual energy all its own.
Ahmedabad is extremely well connected to Mumbai and Delhi. Jet, Indigo, Go and Air India offer flights through the day. If you’re looking to travel by train, opt for the Gujarat Mail or Duranto from Mumbai, or Rajdhani/August Kranti or Ashram Express from Delhi.
When to go
Ahmedabad has an innately Indian climate: the summers are scorching, winters are mild. October to March is the best time to visit.
Where to stay
Check out the new Hyatt (from Rs 7,000; ahmedabad.hyatthotels. hyatt.com), Radisson Blu (from Rs 6,000; radissonblu.com), Four Points by Sheraton (from Rs 5,100; starwoodhotels.com), or the Courtyard by Mariott (from Rs 7,000; marriott.com) and Pride (from Rs 5,300; pridehotel.com/ ahmedabad-hotels). For budget options, try The Fern (from Rs 4,400; fernhotels.com), Lemon Tree (from Rs 4,000; lemontreehotels.com), Sarovar Portico (from Rs 3,300; sarovarhotels.com), or Cama Hotel (from Rs 3,000; camahotelsindia.com). If you’re looking to explore the heritage nature of the city, check into the restored House of MG (from Rs 8,000; houseofmg.com) or Divan’s Bungalow (from Rs 4,000; divans-bungalow.neemranahotels.com).
What to see & do
Explore the Bhadra Fort, built by Ahmad Shah in 1411. Stop a while at the Dali-esque Husain Doshi Gufa and enjoy a cup of coffee at the aptly-named Zen café in the premises. Sign up for a heritage walk to explore the city’s living heritage and landmarks. Don’t miss stopping by Gandhi Ashram, from where Mahatma Gandhi planned the Dandi March, and Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya, a museum designed by master architect Charles Correa. The revitalised Kankaria Lake is ideal for families. Don’t go back without picking up fabric and knick-knacks at Rani no Hajiro, Dhalgarwad and Law Garden.