The four mosques discussed in this post are among the earliest royally-sanctioned mosques in north India, dating from the last decade of the 12th c and first decade of the 13th c (1190-1210 AD). All four were built in the wake of the conquest of north India by the armies of Mohammad Ghouri, and are said to be built at the sites of remains of earlier Hindu temples.
These four mosques were discussed by Finbarr Flood in his essay “Islam, Iconoclasm and the Early Indian Mosque” in the Sunil Kumar edited “Demolishing Myths or Mosques and Temples?” (2008, subtitled “Readings on History and Temple Desecration in Medieval India”). This short collection addresses the issue of Hindu temple desecration by Muslim armies in India, and provides very interesting ways in which popular imagination on the subject can be rethought in less communally divisive ways.
In fact Finbarr Flood’s article combined with Richard Eaton’s article “Temple Desecration in Pre-Modern India” in the same volume provide both a quantitative as well as qualitative rethinking of temple desecration, which I will address in this post, before I give in to a visual exploration of the four mosques.
Flood’s article inspired me to visit all four mosques, since they were all close enough to Delhi to visit on short notice. The first is the Qutb Mosque in Delhi itself, part of a world heritage site (the site that is most famous for the Qutb Minar); the second is the deliciously named Adhai-din-ka-Jhompra (literally “two-and-a-half-day-shack”) in Ajmer, close to the dargah of Moinuddin Chisti. These first two are famous monuments in Indian architectural history, but the other two are much more obscure, both in location and repute.
The third mosque is the Shahi Masjid in a small town called Khatu, about 100km north-west of Ajmer, and the fourth is a mosque known as Chaurasi Khamba (literally “84 pillars”) in another small town named Kaman, just across the Rajasthan border near Mathura. Both Khatu and Kaman are really interesting towns as well, with evidence of being much more important urban centers in centuries past than they are now. So one of these mosques is in Delhi, and the other three are in Rajasthan. I’ll get back to these mosques after discussing the aspects of temple desecration I had noted above.
Rethinking Temple Desecration both Quantitatively and Qualitatively
Firstly, looking at desecration quantitatively, or simply put: the number of temples that have been desecrated, Richard Eaton lists out eighty (80) examples, verifiable “by relying strictly on evidence found in contemporary or near-contemporary epigraphs and literary evidence spanning more than five centuries”, of temple desecration by Muslim armies between 1192 and 1729 AD. While the actual number is in all probability higher, this is the number of instances of desecration that can be accurately verified as having taken place. Eaton also gives a list of these desecrations, indicating the location, year, ruler responsible etc.
This number is immeasurably more modest than the innumerable instances that are assumed to have taken place over the centuries. Most of the more academic sources that indicate wanton destruction of temples by Muslim armies have relied on courtly accounts that greatly over-exaggerate the temple destruction wrought by the ruler who patronized them, and for which there is mostly no other supporting evidence.
Even though this figure of eighty instances of temple desecrations is probably more indicative that accurate, it still gives a ball-park figure that is a starting-point for discussion. More importantly, what it does for me in terms of an architectural history viewpoint is convert the act of temple desecration from being the wanton and ubiquitous act of a marauding iconoclastic army into a much more sedate feature of historical and architectural significance.
What I mean by this is that when I now approach a site that is known to have had a verifiable instance of temple desecration, I will approach it with the understanding of it being one in a finite and known list of desecrations, along with an understanding of the details of that desecration. For me, it is now a historic fact that goes along with a host of other facts about the structure, another layer of the history of that structure or site.
The second aspect – the qualitative one – is that of the quality of desecration. Eaton suggests that almost every instance of desecration had a socio-political motive behind it. Usually, only temples that were specifically associated with defeated Hindu rulers were desecrated, as a symbolic rupturing of that ruler’s divine right to rule, a rupturing of the association between king and deity. More local temples, or temples that were no longer patronized by or associated with ruling families, were not just left untouched, but even actively maintained. Thus not only were the number of desecrations limited, but there were very specific socio-political reasons for most instances of desecration. This is a far cry from the innumerable desecrations indicated, but hardly ever listed, in the accounts written by courtly poets and chroniclers.
Another qualitative aspect, pointed out by Finbarr Flood in his article, becomes evident in instances when Hindu “spoilia” from desecrated temples were used in the construction of mosques. As he points out, there wasn’t just random reuse of elements such as columns, beams and corbelling from Hindu temples in these mosques. Also, it wouldn’t have been that time-consuming to create new columns, beams etc for the mosque, devoid of the decorative sculptures found on Hindu temple components. Instead, there was very deliberate and specific reuse of these components, taking into account their aesthetics and how they would fit together, fit with newly sculpted elements, and with the overall aesthetics of the mosque.
This indicates a certain respect for the components used, and a respect for continuity with local aesthetic and socio-cultural mores. Most of the defacing done on these reused elements were restricted to human figures, in order to “neutralize” any religious symbolism that they might convey. Even then the defacing was often kept to a minimum, with the outlines of the human figure clearly visible. In contrast, other decorative shapes and figures were kept completely intact. In the case of the Delhi and Ajmer mosques, beautifully sculpted and monumental screens were constructed in front of the main mihrab arcade (just a few years after the original mosque was constructed), thus creating a sculptural continuity with the elements reused from the temples. So, as opposed to the iconoclastic reputation of these armies, there was a genuine appreciation for the sculptural traditions of local culture and craftsmanship.
In fact Flood takes this careful reuse of sculptural elements beyond concepts of aesthetic “hybridization” and “syncretism”, with their possible implied notions of the resulting works being inferior to the “original” material temples and conceptual mosques. He refers to this reuse as examples of visual “translation”, where the new creation “contains traces of earlier meanings”, but then transcends them. Thus the mosque built out of reused temple parts contains meanings and symbolisms from both those reused temple parts as well as the earlier mosques that the new mosque is designed after, but transcends both to create “a new work with it’s own distinctive aesthetic”.
Personally I find this explanation very satisfying because it is in harmony with my own impressions when I visit such mosques that reuse temple parts. Apart from the four mosques discussed in this post, I recently also visited the mosques of Dilawar Khan (early-15th c) and Malik Mughith (mid-15th c) at Mandu, which employ similar construction techniques.
The Four Ghurid Mosques
Moving on to the four mosques mentioned in the Flood article, I did not visit these mosques to see the evidence of desecration and reuse per se, but instead because these were all mosques that shared a common history and typology. Also as I noted above, I think there is something very appealing in these mosques due to the element of “translation” that allows them to transcend the two distinct socio-cultural influences that constitute the aesthetics and forms of these mosques. These are some of the first architectural examples of the mingling of Hindu and Islamic artistic cultures, which led to the creation of a complex new aesthetic and culture of it’s own, one which has informed art and aesthetics in India and South Asia ever since.
Qutbi Masjid, Delhi
The Jami Masjid at the Qutb complex in Delhi is (along with Ajmer’s Adhia-din-ka-Jhompra) among the two earlier and larger mosques among the four, and also the most famous. Also known as the Qubbat-ul-Islam mosque, it’s large courtyard is surrounded by arcades, and the main mihrab arcade is fronted by a large arched screen that was constructed a few years after the mosque itself.
Mosque exterior, showing the surrounding walls
Main entrance to the mosque
Screen wall in front of mihrab arcade
Screen and courtyard
Arcades using columns from Hindu temples
Column sculpture – even though the human figures have been disfigured, the overall column still works sculpturally
Arcade corner with raised platform
Mihrab arcade behind the screen wall
Joinery between columns and beams and the screen wall
Beam sculptural details
The qibla wall, much ruined, with the actual mihrab missing
Screen wall sculptural details
The walls of this mosque probably enclose the most space, though the main feature inside is the mihrab arcade, as it does not have arcades on all sides, as in the Delhi mosque. The mihrab arcade is in a much better state of repair than in the Delhi mosque though, and we can get an idea of what the Delhi mihrab arcade would have looked like behind the screen wall. However, the mihrab arcade in this mosque is double-heighted, with multiple columns placed one over the other to create a high ceiling. In the Delhi mosque the ceiling appears to have been much lower.
Enclosing wall of Adhai-din-ka-Jhompra
Mosque main entrance
Screen wall with mihrab arcade behind
Screen wall sculptural details
Mihrab arcade behind screen wall
Joinery between screen wall and arcade
Double-heighted mihrab arcade
Ceiling sculptural detail
Corbelled-domes on the ceiling
Side view of the arcade
Sculptural details on the side walls of the mosque
Shahi Masjid, Khatu
This mosque is much smaller than those at Delhi and Ajmer, but is really interesting nonetheless. It was probably my favourite mosque of the lot, since it is obscure and unvisited, but still holds a lot of architectural interest. The mosque has a monumental entranceway, which is raised and protruding from the facade as in all the other mosques. There is no screen wall in front of the mihrab arcade, and like the Ajmer mosque there are no side arcades around the courtyard. We can see traces of a surrounding wall made of large stone masonry as in Delhi and Ajmer, though most of the wall does not exist anymore.
Because of the missing screen wall, we get an idea of what the mihrab arcades of the the Delhi and Ajmer mosques would have looked like without their screen walls.
Khatu’s Shahi Masjid from the outside
Side view of mihrab arcade
Fenestration on the outer wall
Corbelled-dome ceiling and columns
Columns and ceiling work
Structure above the entranceway
View of mihrab arcade
Qibla wall from rear
Chaurasi Khamba, Kaman
This is a smaller mosque like the one at Khatu, and it seems to have undergone considerable alterations either during Mughal times, or possibly by the British to give it a Mughal feel. This is conjecture on my part, because the feel of this mosque is different to the other three, it has a more “finished” and uncluttered aspect to it, and because the wrap-around sloping canopy with small parapet above is a prominent Mughal-era design feature.