Babban Gwani, Architect of 19th Century: Life and Times of an Icon


Babban Gwani, Architect of 19th Century: Life and Times of an Icon

Babban Gwani, Architect of 19th Century: Life and Times of an Icon

In many ancient cities and towns of Northern Nigeria where this gentle man erect his building either mosque a palace people still believe that Babban Gwani possessed extra ordinary talents from Almighty God at constructing stage which brought him fame, the attention of Kings to his magnificent architectural nature of his building always surprised common man.

Many traditional rulers in Northern Nigeria today believe that if someone builds a house for them, if such a person is not a descendant of Babban Gwani, ”it will be as though a house has not been built”. Such is the reverence with which the man is held.

Babban Gwani built mosques and palaces in Kano, Katsina, Bauchi, Zaria, to mention a few. He built the Zaria Juma’a Mosque.

Zaria Mosque picture

In a feature article in 2012 by Daily Trust quoted a writer who visited a mosque built by Babban Gwani in Zaria city saying “It was an amazing experience. This is a 19th century architectural masterpiece which has many arches, pillars and columns, which stretch all the way to the ground.

”The mosque is silent just as the visitors are quiet, stunned by the sheer power of the extraordinary interior. Something in the architecture seems to shut out the 21st century sounds outside.

Thus, one could in a sense go back to the 19th century during the visit in a perfect and complete sense. The effect of the mosque was so sublime; I had to request to go back in when we were leaving, just to take in the powerful impressions once more. This was granted.

Palm Imprint

At a point above an arch is an imprint of a palm, said to be that of Babban Gwani. It is rather large, and seems to show that the genius must have had extremely large hands.

He might have needed these massive palms as an aid in the light of the physical tasks he had to carry out on earth”.

Entrance into main hall of Madakin Bauchi palace at Kafin-Madaki, Ganjuwa Local Govt of Bauchi State, built in 1858 .

Kafin Madaki’s Entrance

Historians explained that Babban Gwani had many unique habits, one of which was that he built his houses or mosques only at night. This may be indicative of a certain profundity of spirit which functions best in moments of great silence. In his case, silence is not just golden; it is the sublime hearth for creating enduring works of great beauty. His labourers, who were said to be a hundred slaves, would spend the whole day gathering mud and thatched clay.

When Babban Gwani arrived in the evening, he would dismiss them and then settle to work fashioning masterpieces in mud and clay of such uplifting beauty and power.

Babban Gwani possessed unique mind, he would build a house without any visible plan or drawing, so say the accounts. One tradition holds that on one occasion, his slaves threw a hundred mud blocks for him to catch and lay. He is then depicted as catching all at once and promptly laying them.

Babban Gwani’s era, which coincides with the reign of Sarki Abdulkarim of Zaria (1835-1846), is regarded as the classical period of Hausa architecture.

Another account states that Sarki Abdulkarim once intervened while the construction of the Zaria Juma’a Mosque was going on. He pointed out to Babban Gwani that the mosque was not directly facing the East. At this point Babban Gwani took the Emir’s hand, the accounts state, and showed him the Ka’aba in Mecca from that very point. Sarki Abdulkarim also looked and saw the Ka’aba and was deeply moved, so the account indicates.

The story seems to show that Babban Gwani might have been clairvoyant, and it seems to present the Emir as becoming temporarily clairvoyant on that occasion. The fact that Babban Gwani held him by the arm before the Sarki saw the Ka’aba may be significant. His clairvoyant nature allowed him to see correctly and perfectly, where others thought he might have made a mistake in his gross material calculations.

Muhammadu Waziri, Wazirin Magina, told Daily Trust in 2012 “ The Emir, upon seeing the Ka’aba turned to Babban Gwani and said ‘I agree. I have seen the Ka’aba. You know more than me.’ It is also held that even as a boy Babban Gwani had already exhibited traits which showed he would be great in the future. As a boy he moulded toys and forms out of mud and clay and did these so well that people then began to call him a ‘Gwani’ meaning an expert in the activity.

Later when his talent manifested in the creation of buildings of sheer beauty, he was now addressed as ‘Babban Gwani’. At this time the story spread of the speed at which he put up buildings”.

Some accounts say that a building could be completed by Babban Gwani in the space of one night. This may be indicative of the fact that he could construct a house within a short period of time, perhaps doing so in a period shorter than that used by any other builder who was less endowed and did not have the many gifts of the ‘big expert.’

According to Muhammadu Waziri, “He (Babban Gwani) will arrive at night to build. The following day the people will see the building nearly finished .”

In December 2012 , the descendants of Babban Gwani told Daily Trust that their forebear was very popular all over Northern Nigeria, and was much sought after by the emirs and the nobles.

According to Galadiman Magina, “Many emirs used to invite him to build for them, and whatever he built was done to perfection. If he couldn’t go to construct the building himself, then he would send one of his workmen.

Muhammadu Durugu built the reception hall at the palace of the Emir of Bauchi, the hall at the palace of Madakin Bauchi and Districts Head of Ganjuwa in Kafin Madaki, and a mosque in Birnin Gwari.

The main hall of Madakin Bauchi, It is well designed and decorated with different traditional architectural designs that suit the culture, traditions,norms and values of people of Ganjuwa District.

The most exciting and interesting aspect of the hall; it has well- ventilated windows, well designed archs and frames that are being projected from the floor to the roof, it is well design in such away weather condition either summer or winter period the comfortability is well there.

Custodian of Madakin Bauchi Palace, the ‘Yan Kwana says: “ Babban Gwani flourished 150 years ago. No builder could do the designs he was skilled in doing. There was no designer of mud buildings like him. Even when he was not the builder, he would be invited to do the design. People generally deferred to him when it came to matters relating to his work.”


Babban Gwani Architect of 19th Century: Life and Times of an Icon

This article was first published by Imrana Garba on December 3, 2017 in Arewa Affairs Blog.
Credit: Daily Trust/ Asiri magazine and Custodian of Madakin Bauchi Palace

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