The past is a familiar, composite structure

A mosque built above a temple? A temple found inside a mosque? A mosque made from a temple? A temple adapted to a mosque? Such claims are not new but, of late, tensions over Hindu and Muslim places of worship have begun to consume us like cancer. Even Prophet Muhammad is not spared, leading to violence and international disgrace. With so many self-appointed archaeologists rhetorically digging up the nation’s past, it is time to call a spade a spade.

Perhaps a good place to begin is to perceive a mosque as a kind of temple. Strange as it may sound, this comes from an authority no less than the 12th century Jayaprichchha and 15th century Vriksharnava, architectural treatises (vastu-shastras) from western India. There, a mosque is called a ‘Rahman-Prasada’ or ‘Rahman-Suralaya’ (Temple of Rahman).

This fine synthesis of Arabic and Sanskrit to give the mosque a new name expresses how Hindu-Muslim pasts were perceived by brahmin writers of these vastu-shastras and by local building communities in Gujarat. The shared architectural vocabulary of medieval western Indian temples and mosques are visual documents of such assimilative practices.

Dhaky, veteran scholar of temple architecture, wrote about it, adding to Ziyauddin Desai‘s works on India’s Islamic architecture and epigraphy.

Some of the earliest Indian mosques were built in Gujarat, where trade with the Arab world was an early motivation, and where Islam arrived towards the end of the first millennium CE. We have little information about the earliest dargahs and masitis (mosques) built in port cities such as Bhadreshwar, Khambhat and Bharuch. Most of the early remains belong to the 12th and 13th centuries.

But masitis are well-known to have been patronised and rebuilt by Arab and Jain merchants, Hindu kings, and other elites. The initiatives of Jagadu Sa, a Jain merchant from Bhadreshwar, and minister Vastupala, are famous. From the 14th century, more mosques were built. Some were constructed afresh, while several others were made using the spolia – repurposed building stone – of demolished temples.

The minar of a pre-Sultanate mosque in Khambhat was burnt by Hindus, while some Sultanate period mosques were destroyed during Maratha occupation in the 18th century. Such histories of demolition and appropriation are unfortunately being viewed out of context and misused to incite violent reclamations today.

The Jayaprichchha has an entire portion devoted to the making of a Rahman-prasada. In versified Sanskrit, the text presents a dialogue between the divine architect Vishwakarma and his mind-born son Jaya, about making a sacred temple for the Muslims: ‘O son, …that holy place is called the Rahman-Suralaya… There, the divine idols are prohibited; without illusory layerings (maya) and beyond the three qualities (gunas), only the wondrous unity is meditated upon that the enlightened beings call Rahman.’

An elucidation of the method for mosque-building, with its different elements such as the mihrab, pillars, etc., follows. Often, departures from temple architecture are highlighted, for example, substitution of figural sculpture with floral ornament, making the arch of the mihrab, and so on.

The ‘Maru-Gujara’ temple architecture of medieval Gujarat has left its imprint on the mouldings, wall-surfaces, arches, lattices, and other elements of Gujarati mosques. But even as mosque architecture of Gujarat drew from the local Hindu-Jain building practices, it retained its Islamic spirit and presence, synthesising local elements with mosque traditions of Byzantine, West Asia and Central Asia.

An early 19th century painting by Robert Grindlay shows this coming together of building traditions (see photo). The minars of the Jama Masjid at Ahmedabad (1422 CE), prior to their collapse, can be seen there rising loftily, proudly proclaiming their mixed descent.

Good sense appeals to us to recall the grace of our composite cultures and interpret past religious violence in its period-context. For, what is at stake when mosques are targeted for temples by revenge-seeking majoritarian mobs is not just disrespect for the law, but also the erasure of a collective legacy that is neither exclusively Hindu nor Muslim.

The writer is professor of art history, department of history, Delhi University


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