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Of Mosques and Minars

June 14, 2011

The Jama Masjid at Mandu. Photo credit: Himanshu Joshi

I can’t really say when I first heard the Aazan  (the call for prayers given by the Muezzin, five times a day) it must have been in the early 50s when I was a little child and lived in Chabi Ganj, next to the Faseel (City wall) near Kashmiri Gate.

The sound of the Azan would have drifted in from one of the nearby Mosques, there were a few not too far away. The practice of using loudspeakers was not in vogue those days and yet the muezzin’s call for prayers travelled quite some distance, primarily because the horrible ambient sounds that assail our auditory nerves were almost non-existent at the time, in place of this cacophony there used to be other ambient sounds, the rustling of leaves, the chirping of birds and others, that have, it would seem, now been lost forever. 

There were very few cars, buses and trucks that plied on the streets of Delhi or anywhere for that matter, the airport was faraway at Safdarjung and in any case flights were few and far between and most importantly we had no television, no 24X7 rehash of last week’s non-news and no FM radio, filled with the meaningless chatter of DJs who love their voices more than the songs that they are employed to play.

The muezzins of those times did not therefore require loudspeakers. It was the same in Temples, Gurudwaras and Churches. You did not make too much noise about your faith, the believers knew the times of prayers and they went to pray when the hour arrived. No one had to cajole them and certainly you did not have to announce to the whole world that you were going to pray. But those were different times.

It was 1954, I was about 4, when Dr Zakir Hussain, the future President of India and the then Vice Chancellor of Aligarh University asked my father to shift to Aligarh and so we went and stayed there till 1964. My childhood memories from Aligarh include the sounds of the azaan, some muezzins had a good voice and there were others whose azans did not seem very inviting. Good or bad, the sounds wafted across to us from the nearby Mosques unassisted by the fillip that a public address system now provides to all religious activities.

Mosque builders wanted the voice of the muezzin to reach as far as possible and since Mosque building activity predates loudspeaker building activity by more than 1100 years, the Minar gradually evolved as an aid to voice projection.  This is what we were told and this is what we came to believe.

The muezzin would climb the Minar to recite the Azan in as loud a voice as he could manage and it would be heard across a much  larger area, than it would have, had the muezzin been done it from inside the Mosque or even from atop the roof of the Mosque.

But the additional cost of building a Minar, especially a Minar with a stair-case to climb to the top, was not something that everybody building a Mosque could afford, in any case small Mosques built in the middle of densely populated areas and serving the local population did not need a Minar, because the muezzin’s voice could easily reach everyone in the locality, even if he was to stand inside the Mosque and exert his lungs. Most muezzins had powerful lungs in those pre-P.A. system days and were trained to project their voices.

The stump above the west wall of the Lodi Garden Mosque. Photo credit: Himanshu Joshi

Now every Mosque has a sound projector and each sect has their own Mosque, the devotional pitch does tend to become a little more than overpowering, especially in congested localities. Because of the loud speaker the Minar is in fact redundant now and yet the Minar is such an intrinsic part of the Mosque that it is impossible to imagine a Mosque without Minars, or is it? All this talk about Muezzins, their voice projection qualities, the presence or absence of loud speakers is aimed at getting to address the issue of the Minar and its relation to the Mosque.

Many people believe that the first Mosque built in India is the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque in Mehrauli.  The construction of the Mosque was started in 1193 and the Mosque was extended in two phases, first by Altamash 1230 and later by Ala’ud Din Khilji 1315. Despite this relative antiquity it is not among the earliest mosques built in India.

The Mosque that is believed to be the earliest Mosque in the sub-continent is in Kodungallur in the Thrissur district of Kerala. Known as the Cheraman Mosque, it is believed to have been built in 629 AD, according to the wishes of Cheraman Perumal, the last Chera king to rule Cheranad (ancient name for Kerala). Cheramal had been introduced to Islam by Arab traders; he travelled to Arabia, converted to Islam and married the daughter of the King of Jeddah. Many years later when on his death bed, he sent letters to several local rulers of Kerala through one of the early converts to Islam, Malik Bin Dinar and his associates. The letters were an appeal to help Malik and his associate in the spread of Islam. Malik and his associates are believed to have travelled extensively, converting people to the new faith and erecting Mosques, including the Cheraman Mosque, named after Cheraman Perumal, Malik became the Qazi of the Cheraman Mosque and his son is believed to have followed him in that position.

This 7th century Mosque was known for combining Arab and Kerala architectural elements in its design. The Mosque has seen several renovations, the first is believed to have taken place in the 11th century followed by another in the 14th century, three major renovations and extensions were carried out in 1974, 1994 and 2110. The wooden interior of the ancient Mosque remains by and large intact but the exterior has been changed completely and it now looks no different from the multicolour Mosques that one now sees all over India.

The Pilasters, flanking the Kalaan Masjid Main Gate. Photo credit: Devendra Chauhan

Fortunately some photographs have survived from the pre 1974 period  and it is clear from those that the Mosque had no domes or Minars, the cement concrete Minars  that ‘adorn’ the modern fascia today are very recent in their look and design. If one were to explore the many old Mosques in Kerala like the Kuttichira Mosque at Calicut, built by the Arab trader and ship-owner Nakhuda Miskal in the 13th century, one would find that they too share the absence of the dome and the Minar with the Cheraman Mosque.  I suspect that one would find this absence to be as marked in the old Mosques in Tamil Nadu as well.

From the oldest Mosque we return to the first Mosque built at Delhi during the Sultanate period, The Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque at Mehrauli, built more than 500 years later but, thanks to the misguiding of the guides on site, believed by many to be the oldest Mosque in India.

The story of its antiquity has stuck probably because of two reasons, one is the, by and large, north centric focus of Indian Historiography, where developments in the south are given a short shrift or totally ignored and the second is the “Muslim Aggressor” discourse, so assiduously, built by the Anglo Saxon school of History writing and followed by many so diligently that they cannot imagine anything to do with Islam arriving into the sub continent without violence. It is this preconceived notion that has led to almost total ignorance of the role of Arab traders in spreading Islam in large parts of South India.

The almost iconic status of the Qutub Minar and its proximity to the Quwwat ul Islam Mosque, has contributed greatly to the idea of the unity of the Minar-Mosque duality.  The Qutub Minar is on the list of world Heritage sites and till a few years ago was the symbol of Delhi, till for no justifiable reason it was replaced by the Lotus Temple, an interesting building in its own right, but certainly not heritage material, not for another 110 years at least. Despite losing pride of place on the stationary of the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi, the Minar is a powerful symbol and continues to reinforce the Minar Mosque association.  The facts however deny this association; construction of the Minar began in 1192, at least a year or more before the construction of the Mosque was begun. These were two independent structures that happened to be adjacent to each other.

The Minar is not a part of the Mosque, in fact it stood outside the Mosque and appears to be part of the Mosque now because when Altamash, the successor of Qutub Ud Din Aibak , began to expand the Mosque, the Minar came within the extended boundary. The Minar was originally erected as a commemorative structure, built to mark the Victory of Mohammad Ghauri over Prithviraj Chauhan. The Minar Mosque association in the case of the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque and the Qutub Minar, is the creation of the fertile imagination of the numerous guides who throng the site and are known more for the colourful yarns they spin in the hope of earning a good tip from the unsuspecting tourists, than for the accuracy of their narratives.

Any Muezzin who climbed the Minar five times a day, even for one day, would lose use of his legs for many weeks and no matter how strong were his lungs; he would not be audible to any one on the ground, even from the first floor. Clearly the Mosque Minar association is nothing more than an old guides’ tale.

So now we have the First Mosque in India and the First Sultanate Mosque in North India, both out of the way, neither of these had a Minar, Let us consider some more Mosques and see if the Minar plays any role in the architectural design of the Mosque

The Jami Masjid at Mandu was built by Hoshang Shah, who ruled Malwa between 1406 and 1432. Hoshang Shah’s Father Dilawar Khan was governor of Malwa but declared independence from the Delhi Sultanate in 1401, His son Hoshang Shah, succeeded Dilawar Khan as the second king of Malwa. Hoshang Shah was s a great builder, the Mosque and his own mausoleum that he commissioned in Mandu are remarkable and awe inspiring structures. Shahjahan was so impressed with the design of Hoshangshah’s Mausoleum that he sent a team of his architects to study the building and the Taj is believed to be inspired by Hoshang Shah’s mausoleum.

The Mosque built on a raised platform with covered verandas on all four sides, topped with a series of domes, typical of 14th and 15th century Afghan architecture is remarkable for its symmetry.  it is a large Mosque and can easily accommodate a few thousand worshippers at a time, but like the other two Mosques discussed earlier, this Jami Masjid too has no Minars.

For almost 83 years between 1394 to 1479, a fairly stable and influential dynasty ruled over parts of central and eastern UP, spreading from Jaunpur to Awadh and across parts of the Indo-Gangetic plains. The founder of the dynasty was a noble called Malik Sarwar, a minister during the 4 year reign of one of the minor Tughlaq kings Sultan Nasiruddin Muhammad Shah (1390–1394) given the title of Khwaja-e-Jahan and appointed to administer the Jaunpur region. He broke away from the Delhi Sultanate, gave himself the title Malik-us-Sharq -the ruler of the East, as a result the dynasty came to be known as the Sharqi dynasty.  Hussain Shah the last of the Sharqi king was defeated by Bahlol Lodi in 1479 and the kingdom annexed back to the Delhi Sultanate. Many remarkable buildings that came up during these 80 years and in the subsequent decades began to be identified as Sharqi Architecture. The famous Jami Masjid of Jaunpur built in 1470, during the reign of Hussain Shah and the Mosque built by Mir Baqi, at Ayodhya in 1527 and demolished 475 years later by religious fanatics, belonged to this style. Incidentally neither of the Mosques had Minars.

Beginning with the Cheraman and Kuttichira Mosques of Kerala and all subsequent Mosques discussed above the Mosque Minar is conspicuous by its absence in all of them, but by the mid 13th century it begins to make its presence felt, though in a very roundabout and understated kind of way.

The Minar, at least in the manner it developed in and around Delhi, from around the middle of the Sultanate period, has borrowed heavily from the design of the Qutub and the fluted design of the first two floors is copied time and again.

The beginning of the twin Minars in the Mosque can be seen flanking the central arch of the Begumpur Mosque, built probably in mid or early 1350s, at the Eastern, Northern and Southern gates of the Khirki Mosque, built probably between 1350-1354, at the main gate of the Jama Masjid of Nizam-ud-Din built around 1370and at  the main gate of Kalan Masjid, near Turkman Gate, built around 1387, the kalan Masjid, popularly known as the Kali Masjid, because of  the dark hue that the stones had taken through centuries of weathering, has now been painted in hideous shades of blue green and pink. The fact that all these four Mosques were commissioned by Khan-e-Jahan Juna Shah Maqbool Telangani, the Prime Minister of Firozeshah Tughlaq might lead one to credit his architect who seems to have started something that was to come to full fruition full 300 years later.

Two Mosque were built in different parts of Delhi during the reign of Sikandar Lodi (1489-1517) The Khairpur(now Lodi Garden) Mosque adjacent to the Bada Gumbad and the Mosque attached to the Rajon ki Bain or Baoli in the Mehrauli archaeological park.  though the latter is unremarkable as far as the presence of the Minar is concerned, the two stunted little stumps flanking the central dome at the rear of the western wall of the Lodi Garden, could well have been  the beginning of the twin Minars that were to later grow into full fledged  free standing Minars.

The Mosque Minar finally makes its presence felt in the shape of narrow pilasters flanking the central arch of the Mosque. The pilasters appear almost simultaneously in two Mosques, the first is the so called Jamali Kamali Mosque in the Mehrauli archaeological park, this is a Mosque built for the renowned Sufi Sheikh Fazl’ullah (also known as Sheikh Jamali Kamboh),  by his disciples in or around 1528. The other Mosque where these pilasters appear, again flanking the central Arch of the Mosque, is the Sher Shahi Mosque at the Old Fort, traditionally known as Masjid Qila-e-Kuhna.

In both these locations the design of the pilasters is an imitation of the fluted design of the Qutub Minar, the pilasters are even at this stage, not fully developed Minars and serve only a decorative, aesthetic purpose of framing and highlighting the central arch.

The growth of the Mosque Minar takes a longish pause here and no new innovation is seen in the evolution of its design or its use, through the reign of Akbar and Jahangir at Delhi, Agra or Lahore and then suddenly the Mosque Minar bursts forth in all its glory during the reign of Shahjahan.

The Jama Masjid built by Shahjahan at Delhi and the Shahi Masjid built by Aurangzeb at Lahore are two most eminent examples of Mosques where the Minar can actually be used for the purpose of the azan

What caused this sudden qualitative transformation, I have no idea, what is obvious however is the rapidity with which this architectural detail became  almost a prescriptive element in Mosque design, so much so that now it is almost impossible to imagine a Mosque without a Minar.  And this is despite the fact that the public address system has made the Minar almost redundant.  In fact I don’t even know whether this whole story of the ‘Need of the Minar in order that the voice of the muezzin could reach a larger area’ is actually anything more than the invention of the guides. Seriously, in the 1300 year old presence of the Mosque in India the Minar, (that could be used as a platform for broadcasting the azaan) which has almost become the stereo typical trade mark of a Mosque, has only been around for the last 350 years.

[First published in the February 2011 issue of Terrascape.]

17 Comments leave one →
  1. June 14, 2011 5:05 PM

    Nice read :)
    One that shook me out of my narrow zone of empathy to go on to read an article I would normally not read about. Kudos to the writing style and especially the way it began…
    Also, I am glad that while humanity will fool itself and fool the coming generations in believing in the foolery… articles like these will come by and show us there is a world outside of our minds and the second hand beliefs we harbor in it without questioning :)

  2. Shazia permalink
    June 14, 2011 5:13 PM

    very informative article..

  3. voyeur permalink
    June 14, 2011 5:15 PM

    Hello sir. I had the good fortune to visit the fascinating Sultanahmet “blue mosque” in Istanbul. There I was told that the convention was that when a mosque was built by a commoner it was to have one or two minarets. When built by a king it would have up to four minarets. And only when built by a Caliph was it allowed to have six minarets as the blue mosque does. I was also told that it is one of the very few mosques to have six minarets. Like you have pointed out in the case of the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque the local guides of any monument have a tendency to twist history to make that particular monument seem so much greater. But please do tell me if you have something to support or against this view.

  4. June 14, 2011 7:29 PM


  5. June 14, 2011 9:34 PM

    A great piece of writing and with loads of information that one would not find in history books.

  6. fakir permalink
    June 15, 2011 3:37 PM

    You just missed all those mosques built on top of plundered hindu temples.

    • Sohail Hashmi permalink
      June 15, 2011 3:53 PM

      you mean the temples built on top of plundered Budhhist shrines,
      that were built atop plundered animist shrines,
      that came up atop the shelter of the primitive humans,
      that were located on the sites where Homo Erectus,
      or Cromagnon orperhaps the Pithicanthropus Eerctus
      first set foot ?

      • bigboss permalink
        June 15, 2011 11:40 PM

        And of course, two wrongs make a right.

        • Sohail Hashmi permalink
          June 16, 2011 11:48 AM

          Two wrongs never make a right, but it is useful to remember that the monopoly of being intolerant of differences does not rest entirely on one side and that all those who have claimed that ‘THEY KNOW THE TRUTH’ have always been intolerant of others staking similar claims on the ownership of truth.

      • Shuja-ud-Daula permalink
        June 16, 2011 12:54 AM

        It is true what Sohail Hashmi says. But though fakir puts it in a crude manner he has something here. The Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque has an inscription on it that says that it was built after destroying 27 Jain temples and the materials were used to build the mosque. If we acknowledge that this happened, we will probably be able to better understand the evolution of Indo-Islamic architecture. We shouldn’t close our eyes to it, at the same time it is not appropriate to say that Mussalmans were barbaric invaders because they did this. In that era everybody used to do the same.

        • Sohail Hashmi permalink
          June 16, 2011 12:03 PM

          When people went to war against other people in medieval times they used all weapons at their command and when they won they tried to ascribe their victory, among other things, to the might of their gods and this claim was sought to be bolstered by showing that the gods of the victors were more powerful than those of the vanquished through the destruction of the places of worship of the vanquished. Places of worship also used to be a rich source of wealth and that was another reason why places of worship were destroyed in wars you did not require people to travel across oceans or mountain passes to do this, this was done regularly to the gods of the neighboring kingdoms as well.

          This stupidity was challenged by Bhakti Poets and Sufis who said that truth was unattainable and that everyone had their own truth and so no one could claim superiority for their faith and fighting over religion was meaningless.

          The sufi and Bhakti poets were talking a lot of sense but not too many paid any heed to them and this stupidity continued. Fortunately it came to an end with the dawn of modernity, accept of course among those who refuse to emerge into modern times.

  7. Shaheen Nazar permalink
    June 15, 2011 5:09 PM

    I read the whole article with interest. Minars are not part of Islamic faith. They were added to mosque nearly 100 years after the first mosque was built in Madina. Yes, minars are considered an integral part of mosques and somehow part of Islamic identities. But if it has lost its relevance I see no harm in doing away with it. In fact Muslim architects should come up with new designs for mosques which are in tune with the realities of the modern world. The money spent on minars may be used for something more imaginative and useful.

  8. naveen jankar permalink
    June 15, 2011 9:37 PM

    nice history of indian mosques and the typecasting thereof. what may have been architectural influences from outside the sub-continent in relation to this issue?

  9. June 16, 2011 9:16 AM

    great piece

  10. June 17, 2011 1:22 PM

    It is true that in South Asia the use of tall minarets is relatively new, the use of this feature in Islamic architecture is almost 1380 years old. Developed first under Umayyad Caliphate. It remained a part of ‘Islamic’ architecture in both the middle east and in North Africa. The Central Asians used it significantly lesser, in comparision to the Arabs and Persians. And perhaps that is the point. It was the period of Jahangir (or more importantly the Persian Noor Jehan) when minarets took centre stage in ‘Indo-Islamic’ architecture. This the remarkable difference between the tombs of Humayun and Jahangir. Although much more grand, Humayun does not have minarets to his tomb, where as Jahangir’s simpler tomb has four! Also other mosques of that time, especially Masjid Wazir Khan (Lahore) and later mosques from Shah Jehan and Aurangzeb’s period continued the minaret feature. If you notive, mosques before that were still in certain elements considerably ‘Indian’ – and Qutub minar comes from the purely rajput tradition of vijay memorials.

    The arrival of minarets as compulsory features may reflect the increased influence and confidence of the “islamic” culture., in the face of ‘Indian” or pseudo-Indian (Sultanate) architecture.

    btw. the 15th-16th century mosques are remarkably a cross-breed between mandirs and mosques

  11. Sohail Hashmi permalink
    June 21, 2011 1:12 PM

    I have a little problem in accepting the term Islamic architecture. One does not use terms such as Hindu architecture in the context of India or Christian architecture in the context of Europe we instead talk of Chandel, Hoysala , Vijayanaga, Parihars, etc architecture and we talk of French, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, etc architecture. The term Islamic architecture was to my mind coined with the specific purpose of presenting Islam as an alien presence. so terms like indo islamic architecture were invented, a whole lot of Churches in India use many indigenous architectural innovations but one does not hear of Indo Christian architecture. The invention of this all inclusive term also helped to brush under the carpet the cultural, social and architectural diversity that was visible within the areas where Islam spread. Mosques were built wherever Muslims lived and they built mosques using locally available building materials and created structures that fitted in with the climatic conditions of the area.

    All mosques in Kashmir for example have sloping wooden roofs, building wooden domes would be a silly idea. The only significant domed mosque in Kashmir is the Hazratbal Mosque, designed by a Delhi architect, also probably the only marble building in all of Kashmir.

    The arch for example began to develop in Greece as the trabeate and reached its true shape in Byzantium, it is only when the arch has been perfected that the perfect dome could be created, the dome evolved in and around Byzantium and found its finest articulation at Constantinople. later to become Istanbul and so the dome passed on through Turkey Iraq and Iran to India and through Turkey Spain and Italy to other parts of Europe. The Minar too travelled like this and just as the arch and dome are not the monopoly of any religion neither is the Minar.

    The very idea of a uniform design and look for mosque is part of an effort to create a stereotype of Islam and of Muslims. A project that eminently suits both the Fanatic and those who have funded the Fanatics.

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