Kazan: Confluence of East and West

Gazing at the architectural wonder that is the Kul Sharif Mosque, you chance upon a couple celebrating their marriage, the bride resplendent in the white bridal dress — typical of a Western setting. The sight is no more surprising than to see the recently-build mosque sharing space with an Orthodox Christian church, both in Kremlin, the seat of government of Tatarstan. Then there are smiling people who ask to be photographed with you…stereotypes shatter…welcome to the reality of Russia.
Tatarstan is a part of the Russian Republic. It is where Islam was adopted by the Bulgars, and from where it spread in Russia. Kazan, meaning cauldron, is one of the major cities, albeit lesser known than Moscow or St Petersburg. This city of 11 lakh people is located at the confluence of the Kazanka and the Volga rivers. It is in Europe, at the edge of Asia. It is a modern metropolis, complete with its own stadia, trams and metro, which has devoted a remarkable amount of energy to its cultural heritage.
Kremlin means a citadel and it is traditionally the seat of government. The Tatar Khans ruled from here till Tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible) destroyed it. These days the President of Tatarstan lives here, even as major effort has been made to turn it into a cultural centre. It is now a Unesco World Heritage Site. Touring Kremlin, we see how a remarkable integration of historic structures that date back from the 10th to the 19th centuries. As Unesco acknowledges, “The site and its key monuments represent an outstanding example of a synthesis of Tatar and Russian influences in architecture, integrating different cultures (Bulgar, Golden Horde, Tatar, Italian and Russian), as well as showing the impact of Islam and Christianity.”
The Kul Sharif Mosque is named after the last Sayyid of Kazan. It has been built at the Kremlin. The Annunciation Cathedral (originally build on the orders of Tsar Ivan IV on October 4, 1552, and completed in three days) has seen many ups and downs. It was extensively renovated and today these both stand near each other as symbols of a religiously tolerant Kazan. The two magnificent buildings were inaugurated within days of each other in 2005, as our knowledgeable and friendly guide Zulfiya Ahmadullina points out. Marriages between adherents of both faiths are not rare, and many families have someone from the other faith in them.
The infrastructure for sports and holding sporting events in Kazan is impressive, given the tremendous success of the Universiade or the World Student Games earlier this year. Over 10,000 athletes from 162 countries took part in the event. The World Aquatics Championships are planned for 2015 and it will be one of the host cities for the FIFA World Cup in 2018. The city takes great pride in its Rubin Kazan Football Club. Ivan Kadoshnikov, Chairman of the Committee for Foreign Relations and Tourism, says he expects these events to help increase the number of tourists exponentially.
Kazan is also major educational centre. It has 29 universities that also attract Indian students, especially those seeking medical education. It has many modern malls and common international labels abound. A pedestrian zone is Bauman Street is where you get souvenirs and go for a cup of coffee. 



The local food is interesting. The traditional chack-chack has similarities with the Indian gachak. Russian meals comprise a salad, soup and main dish, often a meat (fish is often given to vegetarians or those who want to ensure Halal food). Potatoes play an important role in the main dish, as do season’s vegetables. Often there is a sweet pastry dish. Chai, as they too call tea, served without milk, accompanies every meal.

People either speak Tatar or Russian, and it is uncommon to find English-speaking people, although mouthing and sign-language allow for a limited degree of communication. The original Bolgar-Tatars have used various scripts, including Runic writing, till the ninth century when Arabic was used, Latin-based Yanalif in 1927 and a new Cyrillic-based alphabet since 1939. The last two are still commonly used.
Staro-Tatarskaya Sloboda provided refuge to Muslims after the capture of Kazan by Ivan the Terrible in 1522. It is here that we find the Mardjani mosque built in 1766-1770 on the orders of Empress Catherine. It is the only mosque that was allowed to function uninterrupted during the Soviet era. An attempt has been made to keep alive the crafts of the times by literally embedding the tools that the workmen who lived in the area used for their livelihood. The entire area has been extensively and beautifully resorted, all a part of the Kazan’s Millennium which was celebrated in 2005. The National Museum of the Republic of Tatarstan showcases the rich history of the region.
As the crow flies, around 4,000 km separate New Delhi and Kazan. The journey exposes you to a world that is distinct and exotic; one that reflects a unique mixture of architectural styles, cultures and cuisines. The destination makes the journey worth it.

This article by Roopinder Singh was published in the Spectrum magazine section of The Tribune on September 29, 2013. He visited Kazan at the invitation of the Government of Tatarstan.

Elabuga in Tatarstan, where the enthusiasm of the museum staff impressed me, is featured in another article titled Museums and keepers of heritage.

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