The wind rustles through the palms, as the fans play their almost silent sound-bowl like meditation music. The setting sun shimmers into the castle, illuminating everything with a Midas-gold touch. As if on cue, the muezzin starts to say the Adhan in a mosque at one end of the island, and when he finishes, the next mosque begins. Within the 15 minutes, all the mosques on the island take turns calling the faithful to prayer – this is serenity, this is heaven, this is peace, this is Lamu, and this is Baytil Ajaib, the House of Wonders.
This year Sam and I wanted a different kind of holiday to usher in the New Year – and for me, Lamu has always been the place of wonder, spirituality and rejuvenation. My late parents had a dream to retire on Shela, the beach part of Lamu. So I looked, and thanks to the Universe (also known in this case as TripAdvisor!) I found Baytil Ajaib! There aren’t enough words to describe this space.
We arrived on Manda Bay, welcomed by Wilson and Evanson from Baytil Ajaib. Taking a
boat to Lamu, we walked through narrow streets smelling of spices, marashi (frankincense perfume), sounding of traditional Muslim Qasidas (hymns praising God and his Prophet Muhammed) as the festival of the birth of the Prophet, Maulid was in full force – the town full of visitors of all backgrounds.
On looking from the outside , one would never expect to walk into such grandeur. A rap on the old carved Lamu door, with the door gong reverberating through the house, and the door was opened to paradise! From the corner of this space I heard my name – Welcome Reshma, and walking toward in all his majesty and grace was Malik owner and artistic mind behind Baytil Ajaib. 25 years ago, he came to Lamu on a whim, to see what all the hype was about. He was lucky to come across a prominent member of one of the Arab families who have been on the island for hundreds of years. This gentleman showed Malik the ruins of what is today this splendid home.
Malik estimates that the house is close to 400 years old. He took over a decade to fully restore it, using local materials that had been used in the olden days too. Today, even on the island, most people have turned to using cement to build houses. Malik worked with local teams to mix a concoction of lime, coral and water, to use as the foundation for all the construction, with coral slabs and rocks as the base. When lime meets water, with the concoction, the coral strengthens towards its original being – and so, in the next 200 years, while other buildings break apart because of their concrete being destroyed by water, homes like Baytil Ajaib will only get stronger, and continue to stand majestically.
We were given the beautiful Harem Suite, the largest space in the house, all for us – with our own little courtyard, outer foyer and inner chamber, we really were in heaven! And the beautiful bed – an exact replica of the bed of the Sultan of Kilwa, was unusually high, but this, we are told, is because the Sultan’s slaves used to sleep under the bed to protect their master. At least we had a stepping stool to get on! I did forget how high it was the first night though, and almost fell over!
The building is just one thing – then comes the architectural journey. I learnt so much sitting with the knowledgeable Malik in those three days than I have known all these years of our Swahili history (we even joked that Malik is probably the best option for a Lamu cultural and historical expert!)
Traditional Swahili Arab homes have niches in the walls, and I always thought these were just put there to act as shelves for beautiful porcelain (which this particular house also has – three bowls dating back to 17th Century China). Turns out, these niches are created to put ornate objects to purify the house – by attracting jinns (evil spirits) to them so that the home is pure. A similar thing is done in the toilet, which is built to look intricate and inviting.
The wooden beams that hold up this building are huge, and have three colours – Red, representing the Asians, black to represent the Africans, and White to represent the Arabs and other explorers, all living in harmony.
The intricate carvings on the walls also have deep symbolism – in many spaces one will make out the shape of a turtle – this is done to represent prosperity and fertility. The intricacies of the wooden door carvings represent floral patterns – having been inspired by Hindu artisans, Arabs used these big wooden doors to homes, and rooms. In Islam, however, it is forbidden to have a likeness to any figure, so floral patterns are used instead.
I also learnt that Lamu was matrilocal and matriachal – so the men move to the woman’s house here, and no external male is allowed at all into the houses.
Malik and his team were magic – the New Years Eve five-course dinner was out of this world – cream of tomato soup, tuna carpacchio, mince chicken crisps with soy and rice wine, a salad nicoise, and home-made chocolate mousse! DECADENCE!! Malik has left no coral unturned to make this experience as authentic as possible. There are few in this world like him.
There was no better way to usher in the new year, and I so look forward to going back to what I now consider home.
At Lamu, the sea throws up amber on the shore – Abu al -Mahasin, 15th Century Arab Traveller