Spiritual Minarets: Reclamation of culture, heritage and public space

Srinagar: Another busy day in Lal Chowk is about to come to an end. As one strolls through Regal Chowk towards Polo View, a candid thought of paying a leisure visit to the famed “Bund” comes to mind.

And as one steps inside the Jhelum View Park after climbing the stairs near the famous Lala Sheikh Restaurant, eyes rest upon what is apparently an old sight but one that now presents a relatively fresh and engrossing view.

The renovation of Masjid Bilal is nearing completion and the renewed architecture of this 3,024 square feet mosque is nothing short of amazing. A main entrance, a sub-entrance and a side entrance on bi-directional sides of the mosque confront four minarets that stand on lofty columns of Deodar (cedar) wood.

The Masjid, that is located on the banks of river Jhelum, right in between the flowing river and the flowing traffic of cars and the pedestrians in the busy street of Lal Chowk, is 72 feet in length and has a width of 42 feet.

Walls made of bricks standing over square stones supporting the timber ahead are a pretty sight when viewed with the steel railing near the main entrance door of the mosque. The Mehrab of the mosque is built with a picturesque arch on which Islamic inscriptions are to be made.

Riyaz Hussain, the chief contractor in charge of the construction of the mosque says that once complete, the ceiling of the mosque will boast of “Khatamband” which is widely considered as the most famous type of wooden ceiling in Kashmir.

The renovation work on the mosque, as per the contractor, started on the 28th of May, 2016 but due to the disturbance last year, the work took way longer than usual, though now the completion is in close sight.

The money for the renovation work and all additional construction was pooled in by the shop owners in and around the area and collections were made by the members of the Intizamiya Committee Masjid Bilal which ultimately made it possible to increase the capacity of the mosque from an earlier number of 500 to double besides the Imam in a single congregational prayer.

Masjid Bilal situated on the banks of River Jhelum.

The money was also used to increase the number of washrooms and Wuzu Khanas (ablution facility) to facilitate the ablution of those that have to offer prayers at the mosque and otherwise.

The people donating for the Masjid shows the community practice of the area. Not only in this case, the Kashmiri community has a strong sense of belongingness and togetherness.

Rebuilding an old mosque is also important because it works as a counter-symbol and reclamation of one’s own space. Reviving the old Kashmiri architecture and designs at a time of imposed uniformity and conformity, is a strong counter symbolism and re-establishment of one’s identity. It is also a way of reclaiming of space.

Even though material space in Kashmir is administered, culture, identity and mental space, along with the art are proudly embedded in the population, and seek ways to be in the public spaces.

The renewed architecture of the mosque is one that immediately catches the eye and is of aesthetic significance. The valley of Kashmir embodies uniqueness when it comes to architectural styles and values.

Wooden architecture essentially takes the center stage primarily on account of the climatic and seismic conditions here and so do the shapes of construction. The roofs, for instance, take a pyramidal shape and facilitate the sliding down of snow in the winter season and at the same time provide an attractive look to the building that they are on top of.

When it comes to the construction of mosques in Kashmir, generally there are two types of construction plans:
• The square plan, examples of which are The Shah-i-Hamdan and the Madani mosques
• The group of squares plan, of which the most notable example being the Jamia Masjid situated at Nowhatta in the middle of Downtown, Srinagar. The mosque is considered to be the most attractive and impressive representation of wooden structures in Kashmiri style of architecture.

The Jamia Masjid was built by Sultan Sikandar Shah Kashmiri Shahmiri in 1394 A.D under the order of Mir Mohammad Hamdani, son of Said-ul-Auliya Mir Sayyid Ali Hamdani. It is constructed in Persian style and has similarities to Buddhist Pagodas. A Pagoda is a tiered tower with multiple eaves finding its origin in historic South Asia and further developed in East Asia. Pagodas were mostly built with an intention to have a religious function, most commonly Buddhist.

Jamia Masjid, Srinagar.

The mosque was designed to hold 33,333 persons and has a total space area of 1,40,000 square feet or 13,000 square meters.
The mosque has undergone major renovations by various Sultans and Shahs over the course of several centuries.
It also has a stone slab with Persian inscription in Nastaliq script. The centre of the mosque is an open space with a large tank or Houz, a fountain in the centre enhancing the beauty of the mosque.

The process of the construction of a mosque undergoes various developments in various stages and historically also, the architectural styles of mosques have changed from time to time and from place to place.

The architecture of a mosque is shaped most strongly by the regional traditions of the time and place where it was built. As a result, style, layout, and decoration can vary greatly. Nevertheless, because of the common function of the mosque as a place of congregational prayer, certain architectural features appear in mosques all over the world.

For instance in the beginning when Islam was spreading in West Asian countries, there was no specific artistic style of mosques.
Gradually over time the mosque design attained specific structure as many important parts were introduced and added such as Mehrab (concave recess), Mimber (Plinth), Sahan (open place), Minar (minaret) amongst Arches and Domes.

Timber is the core building material and an important constituent serving as a striking feature of mosque architecture in Kashmir. The square chamber is covered with a wooden pyramidal roof, rising in tiers that may go up to four in number and then covered with a slender and pointed spire.

Stone was used as the primary building material in two major mosques, the Patthar Masjid and the mosque at Hari Parbat.
Patthar Masjid was built during the Mughal era by Empress Noor Jehan, wife of Emperor Jehangir. The mosque is situated on the left bank of river Jhelum and it has some distinct features that separate it from the rest of the mosques in the Kashmir valley.

Pathar Masjid.

Unlike other mosques it does not have the traditional pyramidal roof. Furthermore, the mosque has nine Mehraabs (arches) with the central one being larger than the others and it is constructed with grey limestone.

Another notable mention is the Mosque of Shah-i-Hamdan better known as ‘Khankah-e-Maula’ or simply ‘Khanqah.’

Khanqah is a shrine of Said-ul-Auliya Mir Sayyid Ali Hamdani located on the right bank of the river Jhelum between the Zaina Kadal and Fateh Kadal bridges. It was built in 1395 A.D and is one of the oldest mosques in the Kashmir valley.

Even a cursory depiction of the architecture in Kashmir is more than enough to highlight the importance of its conservation. One major organization working in this regard is Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).

INTACH’s primary work is to deal with the unprotected heritage of the state of Jammu and Kashmir and a notable mention with regard to the concerned work would be that of the process of digitization that the organization has carried out on a number of mosque structures. It also facilitates inch by inch rebuilding of the mosque in case of any eventuality.


Moreover, the organization continually makes recommendations pertaining to the protection of mosque structures against any unforeseen incidents such as fire.

An instance in this regard would be the recommending of proper wiring of loudspeakers and other electrical equipment in mosques, using fire resistant paints and an immediate connection water point in the immediate vicinity of the mosques so that damage is kept to the minimum.

“A mosque is not only a place where some people gather to perform a common function. Instead, it is a sacred point where heritage meets spirituality. An earnest effort should be made on our part to ensure that the authenticity of this spirituality is not compromised.” said INTACH’s Kashmir Convener Saleem Beg.


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