Since the time of its production, the marble carving of Cambay in Gujarat has been highly sought after. Tombstones were commissioned by patrons around the Indian ocean, from the east coast of Africa to Gresik in Java in Indonesia (Elizabeth Lambourn, ‘Carving and Recarving: Three Rasulid Gravestones Revisited’, in G. Rex Smith, J.R. Smart and B.R. Pridham (eds.) New Arabian Studies 6, Exeter, 2004, p.10). In the 19th century these carvings were coveted by travellers and many found their way back into western collections. The best known of these are perhaps three stones from two original tombs, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. These were recovered from the site of Dhofar in Southern Oman and belong to the graves of al-Malik al-Watiq Nur al-Din Ibrahim ibn al-Malik al-Muzaffar, the son of the Rasulid Sultan of Yemen who served as governor of Dhofar from AH 692/1292 to AH 711/1311 and Sheikh Muhammad bin Abi Bakr who is mentioned in Ibn Battuta’s account of his visit to Dhofar in AH 730/1329 AD (Lambourn, op.cit., p.10). These illustrious patrons demonstrate the high regard in which this type of marble carving was held. Whilst tombstones were the most common export, it should be noted that architectural carving was also in demand. Eight white marble columns from Cambay are in the AH 887/1482 Mansuriyya madrassa at Juban in Yemen and a Cambay marble mihrab was found at Lar in southern Iran (Elizabeth Lambourn, ‘Carving and Communities’, Ars Orientalis, Volume 34, Michigan, 2004, pp.105-06).
Cambay was the premier port of western India between the 10th and early 16th centuries and lay at the heart of a complex trade network. This, combined with the purity of the white marble found there, its fine polish and the skill with which it was carved, were no doubt amongst the reasons behind the strong demand for carved panels from the region. Cambay had a rich tradition of domestic and religious architecture. In the early 1340s Ibn Battuta wrote ‘Khambhat is one of the most beautiful cities as regards the artistic architecture of its houses and the construction of its mosques’ (Ibn Battuta, ‘The Rehla’, M. Baroda Husain (trans.), The Rehla of Ibn Battuta (India, Maldive Islands and Ceylon), 1976, p.172). Little early architecture survives there, but marble panels of various forms and functions do, giving an idea of the rich artistic heritage of which they were a part.
One of the distinct features of our stone, echoed in the others attributed to Cambay, is the mosque lamp that surmounts the calligraphy. Typically used in a funerary context across the Islamic world, its depiction here is distinctive – contained within an architectural structure and flanked by split plantains. The tradition of marble carving in Cambay no doubt grew from a pre-existing tradition for Jain and Hindu patrons, from which this imagery is probably borrowed. It may derive from the representations of temporary structures, such as cauris (wedding pavilions) seen in Jain manuscript illustration. A miniature in a manuscript of the Subahukatha, dated VS 1345/1288 AD depicts a wedding procession of the Jain tirthankara Naminatha in just such a pavilion (Elizabeth Lambourn, ‘Carving and Communities’, Ars Orientalis, Volume 34, Michigan, 2004, p.113, fig.16). Lambourn suggests that they found their place on this group of tombstones by force of habit rather than through a conscious choice of imagery (Lambourn, op.cit., 2004, p.114).
Our stone was made for a certain Kamal al-Din Sulayman bin Ahmad bin Husyan bin Abi sharaf al-Bammi. The nisba al-Bammi suggests that his family originally came from the town of Bam in Iran. This does not, however, indicate that our stone was part of the export tradition associated with Cambay marble. The name al-Bammi is known in Gujarat – first appearing in an important inscription that records the reconstruction of Cambay’s Congregational Mosque in 1218 (Alka Patel, Building Communities in Gujarat: Architecture and Society During the Twelfth Through Fourteenth Centuries, Leiden, 2004, p.50). Iqtidar Husain Siddiqi suggests that the al-Bammi family, as well as the al-Gilani’s and al-Hamdani’s whose names also appear on Cambay tombstones, are likely to have belonged to the mercantile class who were resident in western India for generations (Indo-Persian Historiography up to the Thirteenth Century, Delhi, 2010, p.91).
The fashion for this particular type of tombstone, though widespread, was also short-lived. The earliest recorded tombstones of the group is dated 5 Rajab AH 698/8 April 1299 AD and marks the death of the court official Shihab al-Din Ahmad (W.E. Begley in Monumental Islamic Calligraphy from India, exhibition catalogue, Washington, 1985, nos-.10, p.37). The last records the death of a bint Muhammad Ansari who died in AH 746/1345 AD (Z.A. Desai, ‘Some Fourteenth Century Epitaphs from Cambay in Gujarat’, Epigraphia Indica Arabic and Persian Supplement, 52-53, insc. XXVI and pl.XIII (b)). Ours, which is dated AH 699/1300 AD, is thus one of the earliest recorded.