Saturday, January 28, 2017

Zanzibar: Cosmopolitan Integration, not Invasions


Zanzibar, a minute archipelago off Tanzania, East Africa faces India across the Indian Ocean.   It passed from the hands of local Swahilis, into Arabs, Oman and British hands over centuries; but, the earliest reference to the Indian Ocean trade hub was written in a commercial guide to oceanic trade by an anonymous sailor from Alexandria in 1st century CE.
By the 8th- 10 centuries the Zanzibar Swahili combine with Mombasa, Kilwa, Lamu and Bagamayo, was trading goods from the interior with visiting merchants from not only India, but also Indonesia and China; effectively making the Swahili civilization the meeting point of the diverse East African and West Asian cultures.
No political invasions happened but a cultural footprint did evolve in food, dress, religious, costumes and most, architecture – telling a story of constant change and cosmopolitan integration, not invasion.   Foodgrains, cloves, ivory, mangrove poles and slave magnets drew first the Arabs, then Oman and finally the British.
Each invader left physical traces of its architectural ideology; in true Swahili tradition, it was fused with the deeply rooted local and Indian philosophies that led to the famed Stone Houses, magnificent edifices of ancient rubbly limestone coral reef building blocks in place of earlier mud and cocoanut palm shanties.  Interiors often boasted of poroits bowls carved into walls to hold light.
The interiors with internal courtyards framed in wide verandahs and balconies were reminiscent of the Indian architectural style dictated by ventilation and weather needs. Doors and frames were intricately carved, semicircular on top; doors studded with pointed nails to resist charges. 
After the Arabs came, the Muslim influence saw inscriptions from the Quran atop the door lintels. In 1883, Sultan Barghash built the House of Wonders, and the Chuini Palace atop a river so that the flowing water could be used for the bathhouses in the palace!
In the commercial arena, the bazaars began to take the shape of Indian bazaars with narrow long shops opening into the street, with barely any space in between.  Residences were either stacked on stop or tucked behind the shops.   In fact, Omani quarters boasted of long narrow residences with rooms one behind the other for the privacy of the womenfolk in the lavishly decorated inner most rooms.
The Europeans introduced their own Gothic architecture in churches, hospitals and other public spaces. In the 1800s, religious competition saw 4 painted Hindu temples vie with mosques and churches.
While many of those were preserved, older ones languished when the African revolutionaries unceremoniously swept the British out.   Arab and Indian traders too exited precipitately and rural migrants took over their lavish establishments, ruining those luxury settings.
Socialist developments took place in suburbs, away from the city centers; by the time heritage concerns arose around the1980s, neglect and damage had defaced ancient heritage considerably.
Again uncomfortably close to Ahmedabad’s own neglected ancient walled city, while development happens in far off suburbs.

Zanzibar’s city planners laid legal foundations for urban planning to include heritage conservation then; we struggle yet that elusive ‘heritage’ tag.

Monday, January 02, 2017


Almost half a century before Micheal Cremo’s trilogy, Forbidden Archaelogy, The Hidden History of the Human Race and Human Devolution challenged Darwin's theory of human evolution, Senegal’s Dr. Leopold Senghor held that man evolved from animal almost 2.5 million years ago; pinpointing South India as the first host of a civilization, where Man evolved into himself, and then Africa.

Civilization in Africa reached its zenith in Egypt. Building upon historical research identifying ancient Egypt with black Africa, he argued that sub-Saharan Africa and Europe are in fact part of the same cultural continuum; in the fifth century BC, the torch was passed from Egypt to Classical Greece; then through Rome to the European colonial powers of the modern age.  Meanwhile India conserved her civilization through to the present times.

Senghor held that the Dravidian and Sumerian (precursor of Mesopotamia) languages are clearly related to each other, indicating early contact and influences.      Hinduism was a large and perfect symbiosis, a fusion of the civilizations then prevalent here, led by the Dravidians and Aryans; with the Brahma, Vishnu, Shiv trilogy in which Brahma was an abstract idea of Albo-European influences, while Vishnu and Shiv were “profound realities of the Indian sub continent.”

Coming to Senegal, groundnut country in the hump of Africa’s West, Senghor saw a unique rhythm between India and his country.  “Madras and Dakor (capital of Senegal) are on the same latitude,” he pointed to certain similarities:  similar people with the same brown skin; the physical features of the cows, camels and elephants in his country were identical to that in India, whereas the African elephant had larger ears.  Mango, our favorite fruit, he claimed was native to Senegal and may have come from there.

The brown complexioned women of North Senegal resemble Indian women. The only difference is that Indian women have flat hair and Senegalese ladies have straight hair.
The music and arts of Africa and India are based on symbolic images, rhythm and melody.   Dravidian, Aryan and Senegalese poetry had impressive passion and sentiment in common; while African music had its own unique beats, Indian music was more Asiatic in feel.  (Recall the Dravid feel of the female sculptures found in Harappan digs).

On a recent trip, I discovered a book of candid conversations by a Delhi journalist, Ms. K P Bhanumati.  Particularly interesting were the articulations of this African scholar, Dr. Leopold Senghor, the first President of Senegal; reputed as one of the most important African intellectuals of the 20th century, he first enunciated the early 1900s’ concept of “Negritude” to promote African culture against the institutionalized racism in Western values, especially the literary and artistic black expressions in a hostile society.  Rather than anti-white racism, Negritude emphasized the importance of dialogue and exchange among different cultures, European, African, Arab, etc. His avoidance of Marxism and anti–colonialism is seen as a contributing factor in Senegal’s political stability, that is unusual for Africa.