Delhi's masjids... beauty in stone

IT IS fascinating to observe femininity in architecture, with the architect imparting womanly grace to his creations. The Taj Mahal is the ideal personification of this genre of art, so truly eulogised by Sir Edwin Arnold. It is Mumtaz herself with the minarets standing as her minds of honour. As one conceptualises the total impact, the image erected in the mind's eye is of "a woman fair, exceedingly beautiful" to whom one feels like bending the knee, for such is the Taj - "not architecture as all others are but the proud expression of an Emperor's love wrought in stone".

Etmad-ud-Daulah, on the other side of the Yamuna, is like a woman who has lost her bangles, or so the minarets seem to convey in contrast to the "sada suhag" (forever in nuptial bliss) impression imparted by the Taj. Delhi too is not devoid of such examples like the Moti Masjid and Ghata Masjid, though their architects did not get a scorching kiss - like the one Taimur's wife gave or got from the man who built a marvellous mosque for her in Samarkand.

The Moti Masjid in the Red Fort looks like a woman in purdah whose beauty is revealed at close quarters. You sit on the tin chairs to watch the son-et-lumiere with daylight petering out and the "Voice of Time" calling you to pay heed to the events witnessed by the fort in its long history. You get the feeling that Macbeth must have got when he saw the show put up by the witches - of a long line of kings that came and went like the sultans in Omar Khayyam's Rubaiat. The voice tells you of the time when the site, where now stands the fort, was marked by the ruins of an old fortress of the Afghans, with jackals and wolves howling away the night.

Then came Shah Jahan with the intention of building his Qila-e-Muala and the construction of the Red Fort began. The Peacock throne was set up in the Diwan-e-Khas to excite awe and wonder after the completion of various palaces, including the Emperor's sleeping quarters and the Rang Mahal, where the evening stayed young till midnight. Came Aurangzeb and dance and song ceased, because he had music buried deep. But he added something that the fort, with all its splendour lacked - a mosque. Shah Jahan was in the habit of strolling across to Jama Masjid for prayers, the gate through which he made his entry, known as the Shahi Darwaza even now. But the Moti Masjid or Pearl Mosque built by his son in 1662 was a gem of its own, enclosed by red sandstone walls and crowned with gilded domes. Was it only for the purdah ladies? Perhaps not.

The `voice' goes on to inform you of the kings who came after Aurangzeb and the revival of dance and music under them, specially Rangila Pia in whose reign Nadir Shah invaded Delhi and, besides other things, carried away the Peackok Throne. An orthodox man like him must have regretted leaving behind the Pearl Mosque for that was one pearl he could not usurp though the domes were later deprived of their gold. Came the British and the destruction of most of the palaces inside the Red Fort after the fall of Bahadur Shah Zafar in their place came up the Victorian barracks, but the Pearl Mosque stayed intact. They thought of doing away with it but desisted, not only because of its beauty but also because of the fact that it added it to the symmetry of the fort. With all his prudishness, Aurangzeb was also a lover of beauty and architecture. The positioning of the mosque is noteworthy. From the royal hammams, after a bath under the cold or hot fountains and the fountain of perfumes, the ladies of the harem, purified in body and mind, could step into Moti Masjid with ease and offer their prayers - five times a day or once a week.

Ghata Masjid in Daryaganj, is a gift from a princess to the people of Delhi whom she loved dearly as she was a spinster and did not have children of her own. Zinat-un-Nisha was the daughter of Aurangzeb who spent her life looking after her father and did not have the time to bother about a husband. It is said that Aurangzeb, being despotic by nature and a religious fanatic on top of it, did not want his daughters to get married. But this allegation is not true because two of his daughters did get married. As a matter of fact, Thomas Moore in his famous poem of 1817 describes the marriage of Lalla Rookh to the king of Bucharia in Kashmir, and not to the prince of Samarkand.

Lalla Rookh is believed to have been another daughter of Aurangzeb who was exceptionally beautiful. The king sent his emissary to bring his bride home after a marriage by proxy. The emissary was a poet who entertained the princess on the long way back and by the time they reached Bucharia the two were madly in love with each other. But the biggest surprise was still in store for the princess when she learnt that the lovelorn poet was none other than the king himself, who had come in disguise not only to win her hand but also her heart. But Moore got his bearing wrong. Kashmir was a part of the Moghul Empire and couldn't have had a king of its own. The older story that Lalla Rookh married the prince of Samarkand seems more plausible, though history doesn't record the marriage.

Zinat Begum, after whom was named Bahadur Shah Zafar's wife more than two centuries later, was however a historical personage born in 1643, while Shah Jahan was still on the throne. She was a mystic like her uncle Dara Shikho. The absence of a husband was made up for by her intense love for God.

In the zenana, where she passed many years in the company of her aunts, Jehanara and Roshanara, who were also spinsters, there were so many cloak-and-dagger intrigues that princesses sought protection in spiritual pursuits.

Zinat built the mosque in 1707 on the banks of the Yamuna, but the river has since changed its course. After 1857 it was used as a bakery by the British troops, who uprooted the grave of the princess. But for the people of Delhi Zinat Begum is still very much alive because of the mosque she bequeathed to them. It looks like a woman huddled in prayer. Maybe the imagination is playing tricks, but the femininity is obvious to the discerning eye.