A little greater than 20 per cent of Kolkata’s residents are Muslims and the city has more than 450 mosques. Like other religious structures, the mosques of Kolkata are important contributors to its history and offer important leads about how its character and neighbourhoods have changed.
Which is Kolkata’s oldest mosque? Janice Leoshko in her piece The Mosques of Calcutta in the book Calcutta through 300 years argues that this is the Basri Shah Masjid of Chitpur
Although the mosque’s original plaque detailing its construction is now missing, Leoshko notes that it said that a certain Ja’fir Ali had built the mosque anew in 1219 Hijri, which corresponds to 1804 C.E., implying that an earlier structure existed at the same place. A further clue to the mosque’s age is its style of construction. Basri Shah is the only mosque in the city to follow the pre-Mughal Bengal style, which had been established during the days of the Bengal Sultanate in the capital city of Gaur. But even if the original Basri Shah masjid dates back to the 1700s, it is one of the only mosques in the city of such age. The vast majority of Kolkata’s mosques are from the 19th century when there was large-scale migration to the city in search of work.
Immigrants have left their mark on Kolkata’s religious architecture and Muslim immigrants are among the most prominent. The Memons of Kutch are a race of seafaring traders who once had a large presence in the city. This was, after all, the biggest eastern port in India and the capital city until 1911. The mosque built by the Kutchi Memon Jamaat (gathering or group), was rightfully known as Nakhoda Masjid or the Sailor’s Mosque. Also located around the central Kolkata Muslim quarter of Chitpur and still surrounded by markets, the Nakhoda Masjid was once a much smaller mosque than what it is today. Two smaller mosques stood on the corner plot where the Nakhoda Masjid stands today. Construction of one large mosque was proposed by Maulana Khairuddin, father of freedom fighter Maulana Azad. Construction began in 1926 and was completed in 12 years. The first caretaker of the new mosque was Haji Nur Mohammed Zakaria. In his honour, the street in front of the mosque is today known as Zakaria Street. Nakhoda Masjid is the largest mosque in Kolkata today and can accommodate 10,000 people. Its architectural style is modern with multiple domes and minarets.
The entrance to the mosque, however, is styled on Akbar’s tomb in Sikandra. Nakhoda Masjid is also one of the only mosques in Kolkata that has successfully resisted the installation of air conditioning. Its open architectural style allows cross ventilation which keeps the mosque cool even on the hottest of days.
Among migrants to the city were also members of the Dawoodi Bohra community. The Saifi Masjid on Brabourne Road has served the Bohras since 1920. In 2011, the Bohras inaugurated a new mosque in Topsia. The Burhani Masjid is a unique blend of modernity and tradition. The 1,50,000 sq ft mosque contains a hi-tech audio system, a 500 kg crystal chandelier and many other technological marvels. The mosque’s designs were influenced by Fatemi architecture, which was in vogue in Egypt almost 1,000 years ago.
But it is not just the working classes who moved to Kolkata and made the city their home. There are also two royal families, one of whom was exiled to Kolkata. In 1799, Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore was killed in the siege of Srirangapatna. Tipu’s family was initially sent to Vellore. But when there was an uprising there, it was suspected that Tipu’s sons were behind it. Eager to cut off their influence, the East India Company authorities moved the family to Kolkata, sending them into exile in the jungle that was then Russa Pagla — today’s Tollygunge. The family lived in dire financial straits for a long time until Price Ghulam Mohammed Shah was able to secure their pension and arrears. In gratitude, he built Dharmatala Crossing’s Tipu Sultan Masjid in 1842. With the Tipu family, the “Dakhani” style of mosque building came to Kolkata. It is a style that makes any mosque built by the Tipu family easily to identify. This includes the Zohra Begum Masjid on Tollygunge Circular Road and the Shahani Begum Masjid on Diamond Harbour Road.
The other Muslim royal family to have made Kolkata its home was the family of Wajid Ali Shah, the former Nawab of Oudh or Awadh. When the East India Company deposed him and took over Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah travelled to Kolkata, intending to travel to London to appeal to Queen Victoria herself. However, illness prevented him from travelling further, and the mutiny of 1857 prevented his return to Awadh. The former Nawab was granted an estate in the area, known as Metiabruz today, where he proceeded to build a mini Lucknow to make up for the one he had been forced to leave behind.
The Shahi Masjid on Iron Gate Road was built around 1856-57. This was probably the first structure to be constructed by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah and was meant for his personal use. Legend says that before the foundations of the mosque could be laid, Wajid Ali Shah made a proclamation, inviting anyone who had not missed even one of the five daily prayers since he became an adult to lay its foundation. When no one came forward even after a month, the King laid the foundation himself. The Shahi Masjid is devoid of any domes or minarets. One unusual feature of the mosque is its Mihrab — a semi-circular niche found in the Western walls of mosques which serves three purposes; first, it indicates the Qibla, the direction of Mecca, which Muslims are supposed to face when praying; second, even if the mosque is filled to capacity, the Imam, seated inside the Mihrab would remain ahead of the Jamaat or congregation; and third, the architecture of the Mihrab creates acoustics which magnify the Imam’s voice, ensuring that he can be heard even without amplification. Shahi Masjid’s Mihrab is probably more for ornamental purposes but is made entirely of marble while the walls are otherwise of masonry and hence it stands out.
Glancing through the files of the Waqf Board on Madan Street, the documents offer a fascinating insight into both the lives of Muslims in Kolkata and the history of the city itself. In many neighbourhoods, old mosques remain standing even when there are no Muslims living anywhere near them. These are signs of migration that happened in the wake of the Great Calcutta Killings of 1946. Across the city, in many neighbourhoods, what used to be small, personal prayer rooms have now become mosques. Among them is the tiny Garcha Masjid whose prayer room can accommodate a maximum of four people. There is also the Lake Masjid, which is Kolkata’s only island mosque.
Kolkata’s historic mosques today are threatened by two aspects. The first is a lack of proper documentation and information in the public domain. Many people who have lived in the city their entire lives have never visited her historic mosques and apart from a few slim volumes, no one has attempted a comprehensive documentation of the city’s mosques. The second and perhaps more pressing is that of arbitrary renovation, which changes the very character of historic structures. It is time that the government took steps to both preserve the architecture of historic mosques as well as make more information about them available in the public domain.