Awed by Sharqi architecture

In Jaunpur’s Atala Masjid, Jama Masjid and Lal Darwaza

November 11, 2018 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

In 1359, Sultan Firoz Shah Tughlaq stopped at a place called Zafarabad on the river Ganga on his way to campaign against the Ilyas Shahi rulers of Lakhnauti in Bengal. Zafarabad was a strategic point on the road to Bengal and the Delhi Sultans had long been fighting with the rulers of Lakhnauti. This probably prompted the Sultan, a prolific builder, to think of building a new city near Zafarabad. The city was built on the river Gomti and was named Jaunpur after the Sultan’s cousin and predecessor, Jauna Khan, who had ruled as Sultan Mohammad bin Tughlaq.

In the confusion caused in the Delhi Sultanate by Timur’s invasion, Malik Sarwar, a khwajasara (eunuch) who had been appointed the governor of Jaunpur in 1394, with the title of Malik-us Sharq (ruler of the east), declared independence. Thus was laid the foundation of the Sharqi kingdom. When he died in 1399, he left a vastly expanded empire to his adopted son, Malik Mubarak Qaranfal, who ruled as Mubarak Shah.

Mubarak Shah’s reign was short-lived and he was succeeded by his brother Ibrahim Shah, under whom Jaunpur rose in such importance that it was known as Shiraz-e-Hind. Shiraz was renowned in the world as the cultural capital of Persia and was one of the most important and famous medieval cities. Sultan Sikandar Lodi finally put an end to the Sharqi dynasty after he conquered it in 1479.

A unique style of art and architecture developed in Jaunpur. The Sultans were patrons of learning and art. My maternal family belongs to Jaunpur district and I have visited our ancestral village several times. But I have somehow never gone on an architectural tour until recently, when I when to visit my sister, Farah Naqvi.

Three mosques

The main feature of Sharqi mosques is the huge rectangular pylon (gateway) with arches. Through these arches, we entered the three main mosques in Jaunpur: Atala Masjid, Jama masjid and Lal Darwaza. They are made of stone and have fine carving and latticework. Unlike the Delhi mosques of the same period, there are no minarets. The mosques at Jaunpur have cloisters for women to pray. In fact, in the Jama Masjid, the oldest in the area, when I asked the person in charge if I could pray there, he responded: “What else are mosques for if not to pray and take Allah’s name?” After being awestruck by the majesty of the Atala Masjid and Jama Masjid, we visited Lal Darwaza, where a seminary functions.

We were tired, but when my host and guide asked me if I wanted to visit Jhanjhari mosque, I was intrigued by the name and immediately agreed. We set off on foot towards the mosque as the roads were too narrow. Farmland and trees hid the mosque, but since the locals had assured us that it was there, we traipsed on the mud road. At a bend we were greeted by an exquisite stone screen after which the mosque is named (jhanjhiri means screen). The mosque is on a high mound, but not much remains apart from this screen.

Destroyed by Sikandar Lodi

Sultan Ibrahim Shah built this mosque for a saint, Saiyed Sadr-e-Jahan Ajmali. According to the 1889 Archaeological Survey of India book, The Sharqi Architecture of Jaunpur, it was probably built by the same architect who built the Atala Masjid and must have been extremely beautiful before Sultan Sikandar Lodi destroyed many of its mosques and secular buildings. Sikander Lodi broke parts of the walls of the mosque court, the stones used for other buildings and, according to the ASI, also the great bridge, which is another famous Jaunpur landmark.

The mosque was also ravaged by floods as it is near the river. All that is left is the central façade with the exquisite screen flanked by carved voussoirs and its inscriptions. Unlike the other mosques where the pylon is rectangular and the arch set inside it, here the arch soars upwards without restriction.

This architectural gem in the middle of fields is worth a visit, for it symbolises Sharqi architecture at its best.

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