[Pictures and text by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Mecca has Masjid-al-Haram and Istanbul boasts of Blue mosque. The former has its ancient authenticity compromised by Petrodollar-funded air-conditioned renovations and the latter's magnificent splendor pales under the brilliant glow of the much older basilica of Hagia Sophia.
Delhi's Masjid-i-Jahan Numa - the mosque commanding a view of the world - neither tolerates nor suffers such ignominies. Standing erect on a high ground, the grand mosque is the sole custodian of all that is beautiful, commanding, powerful, and historical about Old Delhi.
Welcome to Jama Masjid, so called because of a large prayer congregation that gathers in its great courtyard in the Fridays or Jummas of every week.
Old Delhi - Filth, Stench, and the Muslims
"Are you crazy? Why are you going there? That place stinks of dead chickens and dirty Muslims!" This was the response of a friend when I invited him for an afternoon excursion to Jama Masjid.
For many Delhiites, it becomes necessary to travel to Old Delhi only when there is no option but to board trains from its bustling railway station. True, the historical bazaar of Chandani Chowk -- the moon-lit square -- situated in the same district, is legendary and retains a charm for the tourists, but it is congested and makes for an exhausting experience for the 'natives'.
Modern-day Delhites, belonging to a new and vibrant India, have other preferences. They shop in glitzier malls -- glamorous American bubbles -- situated far away from the depressing third-world reminders like Old Delhi.
Jama Masjid - There It Is
The streets should have been secreted under a haze of languidness and the stone stairs leading to the mosque should have been bare and lonely. After all, it was a Ramadan afternoon. Pious Muslims, keeping fast during the day, remain hungry till dusk when it is time to break fast by feasting on a special meal called Iftar.
Ramadan is always a trying time for the faithful since even water is not permitted to pass through the throat. To conserve energy, long days are whiled away by lying still in bed. It is not a surprise that Muslims chose to stay at home rather than deplete their energy by going about the business of the day.
This was not to be so this afternoon. The streets were crowded. Beggars were crying "Ya Allah" with all their passion. Chirping families were busy buying clothes, bed sheets, socks, sandals, and kitchen utensils. At one corner even kebabs were being roasted. Were people actually keeping fast? Could it be that Muslims have finally started being less conservative?
At The Entrance
In spite of this being the second week of October, the air was uncomfortably warm. After climbing over the final step and reaching the landing, a notice board greeted the visitors asking them to take off the shoes, but there was a problem: There were no guards to look after the shoes. What if somebody stole them?
To make one feel more uncomfortable, there was a thuggish-looking man holding a wooden club with which he was shooing away any ignorant bumpkin stupid enough to sneak by with his shoes on. An old man suggested taking off the shoes and carrying them in the hands. As long as they do not touch the sacredness of the holy ground it would be fine, he assured.
Inside the Mosque
The facade of the mosque had a spectacular dazzle that had the power to stir the senses of an unsuspecting visitor. The great dome appeared to be a giant drop that must have trickled out of Islam's greatest moment when it ruled all of South Asia; when its Mughal dynasty was at the peak of its glory and gleam; when Islam was breathing its best days in the region.
Jama Masjid was commissioned by Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor who had earlier created Taj Mahal in the memory of his departed wife. The poor empress had died during the labor pains of her 14th child-birth.
Toppled by his son and doomed to spend the last days in a prison-cell whose window looked out to a faraway view of Taj Mahal, Shahjahan was a man of colorful personality. It was rumored that he had a romantic relationship with his own daughter, Jahanara. The unfazed emperor had defended his feelings by asking what crime it was to pick grapes from a plant he himself had planted!
Jama Masjid faces another great Delhi landmark built by the same king -- the Red Fort. It is a monument of immense historical character, its relevance still powerful in the narrative of modern India. The Indian Prime Minister annually hoists the nation's flag on its ramparts during the country's Independence Day while Pakistani ultra-nationalists publicly dream of implanting the green flag of Islam instead.
The People of the Mosque
Sunday families, carefree boys, western tourists, and fasting pilgrims crowded the mosque. There were people sitting on the stairs, lying in the balcony, and half-reclined under the shade. Some were gossiping while many looked tired and were quiet. There were beggars too, some without legs and some without arms. Some sat listlessly and one slept peacefully on the cool tiles inside the main complex.
Delhi from the Mosque
While one side of the Masjid was graced by the smart-straight line of the Red Fort, the remaining three appeared to be draped with large wall-papers of Delhi, showing the city in all its chaos: shaky structures, dangling electrical wires, misplaced hoardings, rickshaw jams, and an unmanageable surge of humanity.
Of course, sightseeing is not what most of the visitors come for. Jama Masjid is a destination for those desiring for a momentary escape from the claustrophobic world of Old Delhi. It is a monument of refuge to the world-weary people. It is a grand chamber of solitude that offers private moments of reflection within the silence of its stones. It is a holy house intended to rub the balm of solace to the souls of troubled men. Most importantly, it is a mosque where Muslims are expected to reflect on Allah, angels, and other compulsory vocations.
This stone mosque is welcoming even to non-Muslims. One can sit inside the main complex or lounge against the balcony railings or stretch out on the floor without any Mullah bothering about one's religion. In fact, the place is ideally suited for reading. The book does not necessarily have to be the Koran.
Remnant of a Lost Glory
Every beautiful story has a sad ending. So it is with this mosque, too. Once Old Delhi was the center of the world and Jama Masjid, its crowning glory, shone with glittering lamps, gold-plated doors, and silken curtains. Now, only a sad-looking chandelier limply hangs down from the dome, the corridors are haunted by bats, the stairs are lined by hungry pilgrims, and unemployed Muslim youths play cricket under its shadow.
The truth is that Jama Masjid has fallen from its original royal stature to a mere sad reminder of its former glory. It closely resembles a starving fakeer tightly clutching onto the rags of a used kaftan donated to him by a rich noble.
Indeed, the edges of the stony dome blurs with three-dimensional perspectives. It stands as a relic to the great past of the Muslim empire in India. It serves as a mirror into the pathos of present-day Indian Muslims. It holds out an unpromising peek into the grim future of the Muslims of the Indian sub-continent.