by Zoyab Alihussain Kadi
The Dawoodi Bohra Qubbas (mausoleums) of Yemen and of western India are, by far, the most revered and visited buildings by Community zaireen (visitors) from all across the world. These qubbas are a unifying bond, and are valued as living monuments. They are parental umbilical cords that not only attach the Dawat to the Community but provide rich spiritual nourishment. It is essential for them, therefore, to project a distinct and unmistakable identity; an architectural language that speaks with one voice and exudes continuity; a language that radiates an aura of purity from the gleaming brilliance of its sparkling white exteriors.
Domes and minarets have always been powerful architectural features in the Islamic world, except perhaps in Sub-Saharan Africa and in western China where they have their own distinct regional styles. What is fascinating about them is the manner in which they have been adapted seamlessly into the regional building lexicon; creating an amazing variety of domes, arches, minarets and iconographies that mark them out, both as being Islamic and at the same time being faithful to the vernacular.
In basic geometry, to fit a circle onto a square, one needs to successively keep breaking up the square into multi sided figures by a process known as „squinching‟. On a building site, this creates a barrel or a drum with corbel arched surfaces on interior walls with small terraces above them, which builders get a license to treat in several different signature ways.
The domed mausoleum of the Qubba Izziya at Surat is about 200 years old, a decade or two younger than its twin, Qubba Najmiya. It is the resting place of five illustrious Du‟at Mutlaqeen RA and several of their respected kin. Located cheek by jowl in a dense urban setting of a bustling city, the Qubba complex is an oasis of calm.
The spacious sehn (plaza or court) allows the viewer to retreat and appreciate the craftsmanship of the domes, sliced into precise pods, with their golden pinnacles shining ever so brightly. They rise above cleverly proportioned drums, like offerings resting on petalled curlicues.
Next it‟s the buttery exterior walls that rivet the eye; satin smooth and water repellent. The bas-relief arches with carved ventilators above give a misleading impression of having been bricked up. While the ornamental columns at the four corners, despite making no structural contribution, give each facade a visually contextual framework.The entrance doorways in the four cardinal directions, with their lustrous silver shutters, are at once dignified and majestic. Framed by cusped arches, they are fit enough for regal entry. The design of a cusped arch (sometimes referred to as scalloped or multi foliated arch) involves complex geometry and is, by far, the most difficult arch to design. But once completed there are hardly any other architectural features that can compete with it from an aesthetic viewpoint.
The tight fit jaunty canopy, with its array of brackets, serve both as a shading device against the ferocious heat of the summer months, as well as an umbrella against the onslaught of the monsoon rains. It contributes a subtle flavour to the composition that can neither be ignored nor taken for granted. Both the bracketed canopy and the cusped arch are Mughal influences.
External wall surfaces have been selectively and elegantly treated with friezes, motifs and iconography, with proportions that are so mathematically pleasing they cannot be accused of having been contrived.
The interior features the qubur mubaraka (hallowed graves) of five Du‟at Mutlaqeen RA, unmistakable in their railing enclosure, and of some of their respected kin; thirty one graves in all and all marble clad. Oriented perpendicular to the direction of the Ka‟ba at Makka al- Mukarrama (north-south in India), the interior is a picture of serenity, faith and calm repose.
The interior walls have the same buttery and smooth finish and colour as the external walls; with a niche here and there in the massive walls to accommodate little lamps. The effect of the squinch, mentioned earlier, can be seen in the drum above. Each of the eight corbels have an elegant Mishkat lantern strung from its soffit.
The climax is certainly the underside of the dome that has the final word. In a pristine white setting it comes as a complete surprise. For a fleeting moment it appears as if a resplendent Iranian carpet has been laid on the ceiling. Once the incongruity passes, an overpowering feeling of awe takes over at the sheer precision and symmetry of the patterns.
Design Purists may ostensibly find much to critique in the architectural symbolism, as exhibited in certain Dawoodi Bohra community buildings – that these symbolisms are caught in a permanent state of stasis; that they disregard geographical context by exhibiting an unwavering uniformity; that the choice of materials they employ is driven by a singular vision to maintain and preserve this particular imagery and that these materials owing to their naturally inherent qualities are unable to offer an alternative model. There is also the argument that the various community buildings, spread across the world, appear to be clones that could easily be interchanged and no one would be the wiser.
On the surface, these arguments may carry some heft, but upon contemplation, they stand meagre and inadmissible. A closer look beyond this thin veil of visual imagery reveals the efforts and the research that go into creating the right mix. There is a deeper underlying philosophy that needs to be understood; subtle references to Dawat lore and texts, lineage, tradition, historical continuity, relevance of a trajectory, a clear flight path that does not flounder, confuse or send conflicting messages. In the same breath, it must be emphasised that this design approach has no intention to “museumise” a tradition; rather it is meant to keep it vibrant and relevant.
One needs only to observe these sacred spaces for a short span of time to realise the profound impact they have on visitors of the Dawoodi Bohra community. Without doubt, Qubba Izziya and its sister mausoleums stand vibrant and relevant by reflecting Community ideals and beliefs, expressed through architecture and design in brick and marble. Thus, material form and intangible belief complement each other and therein, perhaps, lies the secret of why this honoured tradition, be it the architectural or the faith-based, endures and continues to thrive over the course of generations.
Surat, the second largest city of Gujarat, has earned a few deserving sobriquets over the years – the Sun City or Suryapur, the Silk City and the Diamond City. Located on the banks of the Tapti River, and more or less midway between Mumbai and Ahmedabad, its ease of accessibility has been the key to its development and the bedrock of its history. Chastened by a plague during 1994, the city has now climbed the summit as one of the cleanest in India.
Surat is of special significance to the world-wide Dawoodi Bohra diaspora; and for several reasons. Historically, till about a century ago, it was the seat of Dawat-e-Hadiyah, the nerve centre from where the affairs of the community were conducted. The locus of these affairs was the iconic Devdi Mubarak, where the Qasr Mubarak of Du‟at Mutlaqeen SA is located. It is home to the prestigious Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah, the Community‟s premier educational institute and Mahad al Zahra, an exclusive institute for the study of Quranic Arts and Sciences. Surat is also the final resting place of seven illustrious Du‟at Mutlaqeen RA in Qubba Najmiyya and Qubba Izziya, which nourish a regular stream of Community zaireen year-round.
Disclaimer–Viewpoints in blog posts do not necessarily reflect those of RadiantArts.
Zoyab Bhai Kadi is a senior architect and planner by profession. Apart from being a mentor to Triple O Studio, he has a keen interest and knowledge in architectural conservation. He has over 35 years of experience in the field and worked with Louis Kahn on the IIM-A project. He has vast experience in the educational field and has been a member of inspection teams of the Council of Architecture, AICTE and the Board of Studies, Andhra University. He completed his Bachelor’s in Architecture from the School of Architecture and Planning, Anna University and his post-graduation in Town and Country Planning from the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi. He has been at the forefront to document the heritage houses of the Dawoodi Bohra Community in Sidhpur and has published three titles and several journal articles on Sidhpur.