Everything, barring the intensely turquoise waters of the Indian ocean, felt startlingly familiar. The sultry weather, the spicy coconut infused curries, the colorful attire, the ornately chiseled doors. Even the traditional game of Bao.
My Indianness, and the fact that I had grown up watching monsoon winds billowing the lateen sails of Arab dhows and dreaming of following in the wake of mythical adventurers, diluted much of Zanzibar’s cliched otherness for me.
And yet my fascination wasn’t diminished.
For the labyrinthine alleyways of Stone Town, the historic urban centre of Zanzibar island or Unguja, evoke a history of cultural confluence like no other. A common, cosmopolitan identity forged over centuries by the melding of indigenous tribes with early Arab settlers, Persian Shirazis, Portuguese conquerors, Omani sultans, Indian traders and British colonialists. Along with a number of European explorers lured by the wealth of the archipelago and the mystique of the dark continent.
The name, redolent of hype and romance, is believed to be derived from the Persian Zanj – a corruption of Zinj – for ‘Black’ (people) and Bar for Coast. The religion is largely Muslim. Unlike Mangalore or Goa, where Portuguese surnames are common, colonial influence on culture, speech and attire appears minimal. The imprint of the Indian merchant community however, is hard to miss. Especially in Zanzibari cuisine.
Most people come for the languid, pearl white beaches of the many islands that make up the archipelago. With just three nights on hand at the end of our long safari, we opted to spend all our time in Stone Town. Apart from one blissful afternoon at the Rock.
Our frustratingly inefficient receptionist at the Kisiwa House somehow teamed us with a surprisingly capable guide for a three hour walk around town. Abdul filled us in on the nuances of local culture while deftly walking us through the narrow souk like alleys and bustling markets teeming with life and produce and people. All familiar versions of the grander bazaars of Cairo or Istanbul.
Post independent socialist leanings aside, Zanzibar clearly lives off its former opulence and the sustained appeal of its decaying palaces and mansions. The exquisite coral rag structures with ornate wooden balconies hark back to a time when the city was the hub of Indian ocean maritime trade in spices, gold, ivory, animal skins and yes, human beings. The nicest have been fashioned into hotels. The Anglican Cathedral Christ Church marks the site of one of the largest open slave markets in this part of the world.
The most elaborate edifices in town line the waterfront recently restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. They are best viewed from across the water on a dhow ride. Preferably at sunset. Chief among them is the Beit el Ajaib also kown as the House of Wonders, the first building in Zanzibar to have electricity, and also the first building in East Africa to sport an elevator. The Beit el Sahel or Sultan’s Palace next door is now a museum evoking the opulent lifestyles of the sultans. One room is dedicated to the memory and romantic legend of Princess Sayyida Selme, an Arab/ Zanzibari princess who eloped with her German neighbour.
The ornate facade of the Old Dispensary down the road, disappointingly conceals tacky shops. While the Old Custom House nearby, houses the Dhow Countries Music Academy, where we attended a lovely amateur Taraab performance.
The Forodhani gardens right on the seafront, once the landing point for the Sultans, transforms each evening into a lively food market. We were wary of the grilled meats, but returned two evenings in a row for delicious ‘Zanzibari Pizza’ (essentially a stuffed paratha with a wonderful assortment of sweet and savoury fillings) and Babu’s spiced tea!
A map we picked up from a bookshop near our hotel on our last evening, set us off on a photo hunt of Stone Town’s old carved doors.. One of the doors graced the Capital Art Studio founded by Ranchod Ojha, the sultan’s royal photographer, and now owned by one of his sons.
“Are you Hindu?” inquired Ranjit Ojha, as we pored over the fascinating sepia chronicles of the island’s political history. “Would you like to attend the Vijayadashami celebrations tonight?”
We hiked up to the temple later that night through hushed, dark alleys, accompanied by the lilting muezzin calls of “God is Great”, hoping to capture a colourful and noisy Indian festival in full swing. But with festivities showing no signs of taking off until well after nine, and an early flight to catch the next morning, we returned disappointed.
Still, who could have imagined we would be paying obeisance to Durga on the ‘tenth day of victory‘ in a Hindu temple in distant Zanzibar?