A Forgotten Masjid

Son and daughter of Shah Jehan built complete premises for their teacher and spiritual guide on the hills of Kohi Maran within the Mughal city of governance. As historians offer newer details about the impressive monument, Khalid Bashir Gura saw the erstwhile spiritual space abandoned and abused

Mulla Akhoon Shah Masjid in Srinagar KL Image: Syed Ahmad Rufai.

Between Bachi Darwaza and the shrine of Makhdom Sahab, there is a terraced garden where a mosque is perpetually locked. Abandoned for centuries and desolate, the small mosque, according to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), was been built by Dara Shikoh, son of Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan (1628-1658) for his spiritual tutor Akhoon Mulla Shah.

The mosque was a centre to preach and promote Islam. Besides namaz, Mulla used the masjid as a madrassa to teach his disciples. To supplement teaching and praying, as an added facility, the prince got a sarai constructed for his teacher’s disciples. Those glorious days of the living historical monument faded with Kashmir’s Mughal era.

Established history, however, has a contrarian detail. Mullah, originally from Badakshan, had immigrated to India during the reign of Shah Jahan before settling in Kashmir.

The mosque, some historians believe was actually commissioned by Dara’s sister Jahanara Begum. Dara and Jahanara, they believe were disciples of the Mulla. They say Dara’s mosque, a small structure, was located on a lower terrace.

Hakeem Sameer Hamdani, author of The Syncretic Traditions of Islamic Religious Architecture of Kashmir, and Design Director at INTACH Kashmir said Jahanara actually sponsored the construction of this mosque. Preceding her, her brother had constructed a smaller mosque on the lower terrace. Though Dara’s building has lost all traces of its original decoration, its planning is in itself indicative of the unique architecture that the prince experimented with in Kashmir. “Together these two mosques, located as they were within a shared bagh, would represent an architectural undertaking that in sheer size would remain unsurpassed in Kashmir’s medieval history,” Hamdani said. “Under the influence of their spiritual master, the royal siblings helped in expanding the scope of this terrestrial paradise from a royal retreat of sensual pleasure into a setting of spiritual retreat.”

Cost

The Mullah Shah mosque was constructed in 1061 Hijri (1651 CE), at a cost of Rs 40,000. Hamdani said the vast complexity of the mosque comprised a courtyard mosque located on the southern foothills of the Kohi-Maran hillock with hujras (cells) on three different levels constructed at an additional cost of Rs 20,000, which has led to its interpretation as a mosque-khanqahsarai complex.

Further down to the East lies the Hammam mosque of Dara. Both the mosques are located on the same East-west axis, which indicates cooperation in the execution of the project between the royal siblings and their spiritual preceptor.

“As the two mosques were completed within a gap of two years, it is quite possible that the design and execution of both the buildings started simultaneously with the smaller Hammam mosque completed earlier,” Hamdani said.

Architecture

In his Ancient Monuments of Kashmir, Ram Chandra Kak, pioneering archaeologist and former Prime Minister of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir has written that the lotus finial over the pulpit in the mosque is the only example of its kind surviving in Kashmir. Kak touches upon the fact that the only decorations in the mosque are the rectangular panels enclosing cusped arches.

Mulla Akhoon Shah Masjid on the foothills of the Srinagar fort, KL Image: Syed Ahmad Rufai

“Its plan is singular, the design of prayer chamber being repeated on the east side of the courtyard and forming the gateway. On the North and South sides of the courtyard are arcades, treated in the same way as the wings of the prayer chamber,” Kak recorded. According to him, the somewhat cramped proportions of the courtyard may be due to the slope of the hill and the difficulty entailing making it wider.

However, Hamdani believes, the location of the mosque follows the pattern of Mughal gardens in Kashmir, especially those carved out of mountain slopes like Nishat and Pari Mahal, with artificially created terraces retained with masonry walls. “The mosque situated on the top of retaining wall is designed as the central architectural marvel of a bagh, which terraces down to the city walls,” he said.

A series of cells, hujras located to the South of the mosque serve both as the retaining wall and provide a sense of enclosure to the mosque compound. Entrance to the precinct is from this level, beneath an arched opening located on the Northeastern corner of the retaining wall.

In his book, Hamdani elaborates on the architectural planning of the mosque. He writes that the outer mosque quadrangle measures 24.3/21.4 m, with a series of domed and vaulted chambers; one bay deep opening out into small sahn measuring 12.98/12.1 m. The entrance to the mosque is from a pishtaq located centrally in the Eastern wing of the mosque.

An Interesting Entrance

The book further mentions an interesting feature of the entrance pishtaq is the presence of the highly polished stone doorframe, which is also inscribed with two calligraphic panels. The panels bear two Koranic verses ‘O Allah, who opens doors!’, which is found at the entrance of many Arab homes, and ‘Whoever enters is it shall be secure’ (Quran 3:97), which is part of a larger Koranic verse signifying the sanctity of the haram. Both the inscriptions are rendered in extremely fine naskh script,” Hamdani said.

The entrance pishtaq is repeated in the main bay of the prayer hall facing the qibla. Interestingly, just like the Pather Masjid, all three bays of the mosque possess individual mehrabs. Spatially, the mosque belongs to the tradition of imperial mosques built for private use such as the Nagina mosque built by Shah Jahan at Agra fort.

“Yet the stone-paved courtyard with its surrounding arcade, rising to a height of 7.62 m from the floor till the rooftop gives the impression of cramped proportions,” he remarks.

For Solitary Prayers

In spite of its overall size, the arrangement of the building makes it unsuited for larger congregation prayers. The mosque seems more suited for solitary rather than congregational prayers.

The roof of the building, comprising domed ceilings, is externally rendered in the shape of a sloping roof, though with a pronounced curve at the end. Within the sahn of the mosque are located fragments of the lotus-shaped stone finial, part of which still survives over the main prayer chamber. The mosque also poses a finely rendered mihrab projecting out from the qibla wall.

The main eastern entrance façade of the mosque comprises two rectangular openings set within the arches. Of the two arches, the one next to the entrance pishtaq is wider and recessed.

The nature of the experimentation can be seen in the rest of the outer building facades none of which are similar. While the Eastern, Western, and Northern façade comprises plain arches set within rectangular panels; the arches on the Southern façade are designed in the shape of the typical Shah Jahani arch with a series of multi-foliated cusps.

The decorative nature of the façade can also be seen in calligraphic bands that were designed on the façade but never completed. The poetic verses include verses of Shah Jahan’s poet laureate, Abu Talib Kalim, Hamdani informed.

Never Completed

Overall, the building gives more than enough indications of the fact that it was never completed, the work apparently being interrupted by Aurangzeb’s seizure of the throne and Dara’s execution.

“Aside from unrealized calligraphic bands, the entire site is littered with unfinished architectural elements indicating the interrupted nature of work, and in the arcade opening into the sahn, regularly spaced and shaped holes can be seen. What purpose they served remains a mystery and is open to conjecture,” he writes.

Archaeologist Kak mentions the mosque and its lower-level buildings. “On a lower level are the ruins of the arched halls wherein pilgrims used to lodge. A little further off is the hammam, which is now closed up,” he has mentioned. He traces the date of construction of the mosque from its chronogram as 1649 AD. On the lintel of its doorway is the inscription detailing the date of construction of the hammam and the mosque of Sultan Dara Shikoh.

As the mosque was on a foothill, ponds, wells and ablution tanks were constructed in the vicinity for ablution and living purposes, the remnants of which are still present.

The change in the political climate at the imperial court, with Dara’s execution, resulted in the abandonment of this architectural experiment as well as the mosque of Mulla Shah. Soon after, the saint would be recalled to Lahore, and the numerous buildings associated with him in Kashmir would stand abandoned, forgotten, and forlorn.

Conservation

Saleem Beigh, who heads INTACH in Jammu and Kashmir said the protected monument is only part of the overall complex. The mosque is surrounded by a large number of buildings that were supposed to be part of the mosque complex, but only the main mosque was notified by the ASI to be under protection and conservation, excluding the hammam, the mosque at the lower terrace, and the sarai. These three structures stand allotted to the Waqf Board. The mosque built by Dara, which also has a hammam, was partially restored by INTACH, but a part of it remains under the illegal occupation of a Waqf member.

Due to weather vagaries, the architectural wealth is decaying in absence of proper care. The lotus finial over the roof is in shards. Beigh said one of the lotuses on the dome is believed to have been stolen three decades ago and sold by an employee.

After the Mughals left, many of their mosques were less frequented by devotees and did not resonate with locals. He also debunked the myth that the mosque has a tunnel that connects it to the fort. “The fort was built after mosque during Afghan rule in Kashmir in 19th century. It is untrue,” Beg said.

Within The Governance City

Dr Sajad Ahmad Darzi, Assistant Professor, Department of History, University of Kashmir, said that the Hari Parbat Fort and its surroundings remained a military cantonment and a place of royal residences. It was a seat of governance and city within a city. It was fortified and its strategic importance was that it overlooked the city. “It used to be near the seat of governance and once the officials living in the fortified vicinity shifted their residencies and capital it too was abandoned,” he said.

During Sikh rule Kashmir, like many prominent mosques, this mosque was also closed, which signifies its importance in that era. “The Sikhs uprooted the floor stones of this mosque like many other mosques,” Darzi said.

It would have been a marvellous spiritual complex that Shah Jehan’s children made for their guide and teacher, Mulla Akhoon Shah in Srinagar KL Image: Syed Ahmad Rufai.

Grim State

These days, the area surrounding the mosque is frequented by “gamblers, drug addicts, and dogs”, visitors and locals say.

Asked about the closing and dilapidated condition of the mosque, Vinod Singh Rawat, ASI’s head in Jammu and Kashmir, said that the mosque remains open during the day. However, he asked to mail the query regarding the conservation and protection of the monument, which remains unreciprocated.

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