A new monumental architecture of MosquesDr Rabah Saud University of Ajman
Being the first mosque to be built after the independence of Jaunpur from the Islamic caliphate in India, the Atala Mosque was given royal treatment setting up a new monumentality to the traditional jami’. The majestic pylons of the portal of its main prayer room, the three unequal domes above its roof and the large court with its two storey porticoes, all expressed a new grandeur never seen before, adding more mystery to the skill and imagination of the medieval Muslim architect.
The end of the 14th century was a troublesome time for the Muslim caliphate in India mainly due to the considerable increase in internal disputes and fighting between various princes and tribes composing its social fabric. Amidst this turmoil, Timur invaded Delhi in 1399 leading to the final downfall and the fragmentation of the Caliphate into independent provincial states including; Bengal 1336-1576, Kashmir 1346-1589, Deccan 1347-152, Gujarat 1391-1583, Jaunpur 1394-1479, Malwar 1401-1531 and Bijapur 1490-1686. The Timurid rule (15th 16th centuries) brought with it the central Asian architectural and artistic traditions, thus shaping much of the 15th and 16th centuries architecture of this region[i]. Tile work, mostly green and blue, from central Asian centres such as Afghanistan, Samarkand and Bukhara became the main ingredient of decoration for most mosques, palaces and gateways in Punjab and in the Deccan (Bijapur). The other major element of this influence was the introduction of the four centred arch (known as Tudor or ogee arch) substituting the long established use of the pointed arch.
Jaunpur remained an eastern provincial state of the Sultanate of Delhi until late 14th century when Mohammed Thughlug granted the title of Malik-as-Sharq (King of the East) upon its governor Malik Sarvar. The governor gradually became independent and founded the Sharqi dynasty with Jaunpur being its capital. Jaunpur enjoyed a good deal of prosperity becoming an important cultural centre, thus numerous construction projects were undertaken in a patriotic fashion. Such endeavour can be seen in the towering portals which dominated their mosque facades. The city was later destroyed by Sikandar Lodhi, the Sultan of Delhi, when he conquered it in 1480 sparing only five of its mosques.
Atala Mosque plan and architecture
Most typical of these majestic facades is the Atala Mosque, built in 1408. This was the first mosque to be built after the independence of this state from Delhi and the establishment of the Sharqi dynasty. Historical sources indicate that the initial building of the mosque began with Thughlug Sultan, Firuz Shah (1351-1388), who laid the foundations in 1356. The construction was somehow abandoned or possibly the mosque was destroyed as same sources also reveal that Sultan Shams Al-Din Ibrahim (1401-1440) was the one who raised the mosque in 1408 CE.
As illustrated in figure 1, the mosque has a square plan consisting of three main sections. The sanctuary is a long rectangular prayer hall of three aisles deep running from north to south. The hall is ordered around a central iwan which is a square area containing the main mihrab and carrying the largest dome of the mosque. The dome itself is raised on octagonal drum supported by squinches. Its size and location signify both the sanctity of this area as well as a representation of the heavenly dome. A third level of symbolism is seen in the context of the prayer hall and the mosque as a whole. In the former, the central dome is flanked to the north and south by two smaller domes which adorn the roofs of two side mihrabs. The three dome composition, a feature widely spread in India, refers to the trio companionship of prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) and the two first caliphs; Abu Bakra Al-Saddique, and Umar Ibn Al-Khattab. Such companionship is also found in Madina’s Mosque where the trio is buried. In reference to the whole mosque complex, one can extend this symbolic significance to the remaining two caliphs; Uthman and Ali, which are represented by the two small domes of the northern and southern portico galleries. The deliberate absence of the dome in the eastern wing of the portico can only emphasise this meaning.
The central mihrab, of stone with ribbed niche and ogee arch, was fixed in the western wall of the central room and accompanied by a stone minbar (figure 2). The two wings flanking the prayer hall are two-storey high arranged around the side domes and their mihrabs and having separate access to the courtyard. The exterior of the qibla wall is distinguished by three projections flanked in their corners by tapering three-quarter round turrets denoting the position of the three domed areas and their mihrabs (figure 1). Two Larger turrets of similar form support the northern and southern corners of the wall. According to Jairazbhoy, these buttressing features belong to the Tughluqid architecture in Delhi[ii].
Figure 1. Detailed plan of Atala Mosque.
Source: Michell, G. et al. (1980), ‘Architecture of the Islamic World: Its History and Social Meaning’, Thames and Hudson, London, p.272.
Figure 2. A view of the prayer hall showing the mihrab and minbar.
The Monumental Portal and its origin
The prayer hall of the mosque is accessed through a large stone portal, the dominating feature of the mosque. The portal consists of a huge pointed arch recess flanked by pylons of a gigantic size reaching up to a height of 23 meters. The façade of these pylons is divided into five sections separated by horizontal mouldings; a blind ground section and four upper sections adorned with panels containing a blind arch decorated with buds and vegetal designs. Similar treatment has been applied to the central recess which was equipped with mouldings dividing the height of the wall and blind arches inserted in rows on intervals along its surface (figure 3).
Figure 3. The Main portal showing its unique design with the pylons flanking the central arch and its recess.
The origin of the Muslim adoption of the monumental gateway goes back to the Abbasids who introduced the use of ceremonial gates which the princes used to appear before their subjects in festivities[iii]. Historic sources indicate that such practise came from the Sassanian tradition[iv]. In addition to this functional feature, the symbolic significance of these gates cannot be overlooked as they were often employed as reminders of authority and personal achievement helping in gaining support and allegiance as well as enhancing the legacy of the prince or the dynasty. Among these gates one can refer to the gates built by Al-Mansur (754-775) in Baghdad (a total of four gates) and Raqqa (Syria). Al-Mtuawakkil built another gate, Bab Al-Amma in Samra between 836-837, which served as palace entrance (Jusak Al-Khaqani) as well as public audience hall. By the 10th century, the monumental gate entered the mosque architecture in Mahdia Mosque which was built by the Zirids in 916 CE in Tunisia. However, the Seljuks in Persia and Anatolia were by far the chief architects and developers of this feature. Some of the earliest Seljuk portals were the iwans of Masjid-i-Jami in Isfahan which were framed by the famous Persian “Pishtaq” and highly adorned with tiles and muqarnas[v]. From here, the Seljuks spread the iwan style portal in Anatolia and central Asia, to reach later India through the Timurids and Moguls. The Atala example, also repeated in Jaunpur’s Friday Mosque, has undoubtedly introduced an unprecedented dimensions to this architectural element.
As for the use of the colossal pylons, it remains a unique example limited to Jaunpur, nowhere in the Muslim world has such a feature been reported before or after the above example. However, there are some academics who believe the origin to date back to the pylons of Pharaohic temples in the Nile Valley[vi].
The prayer hall and its distinctive portal open into a large courtyard bordered from three sides by two storey hypostyle porticoes five aisles deep, surprisingly two aisles wider than the prayer hall. Three iwan type gates of mediocre size were pierced in the middle of these porticoes allowing separate access to these wings from the exterior. Their flat roof is carried by piers seemingly of indigenous Indian character, especially in the nature of their carved motifs[vii]. The upper story of these galleries was fitted with screen walls (mashrabiya) providing intimate privacy for the interior, a scheme which suggests that such space must have been reserved for the use of women (figure 4).
Figure 4. Details of a screen wall of the upper floor galleries reserved for the female worshippers.
Published with the permission of the author. First appeared in www.muslimheritage.com on Jan. 21, 2005,
[i] Brown, P. (1968) `Indian Architecture (Islamic Period)’, Taraporevala’s Treasure House of Books. Bombay.
[ii] Jairazbhoy, R. A. (1972), ‘An Outline of Islamic Architecture’, Asia Publishing House; Bombay and London, p.300, see also Michell, G. et al. (1980), ‘Architecture of the Islamic World: Its History and Social Meaning’, Thames and Hudson, London, p.272.
[iii] Kritzeck, James (1959) ‘The world of Islam : studies in honour of Philip K. Hitti’, Macmillan, London.
[iv] (Scerrato (1980, p.32).
[v] See our article on Masjid –i-Jami’s Mosque of Isfahan.
[vi] John T. (1955), ‘The Charm of Iudo-Islamic Architecture’, London, 1955, p. 12
[vii] Jairazbhoy, , R. A. (1972), op cit., p.301