Monday 13 July 2020

M is for Mosques

The divided modern states of India and Pakistan were born out of the age-old tensions between Hindu and Muslim. The latter did not relish being a minority in a country ruled by the former. But whatever the political realities, the balance of spiritual power surely lay the other way.

Hinduism does not proselytise: since caste cannot be altered during this life, only by it, nothing can be done for those whose previous lives condemned them to be re-born outside Hinduism, and hence outside all castes. It is a religion of temporal stasis. For the Muslim, on the other hand, there is the siren call of the jihad, the holy war to defend the faith and convert the infidels - against their will if need be. It is the epitome of spiritual dynamism.

The same extroversion is manifest in their religious architecture, faith made stone. Everywhere the Muslims went, they built mosques. Not just one, but several, preferably greater than ever before. Paradise was to be won by action. Hindus often veered the other way, towards the abnegation manifest in Buddhism; you must desire nothing, strive for nothing, do nothing. Which is hardly conducive to piling up ever-higher stones.

And so it is that Hinduism remains a dominant yet invisible religion, while the departed Moghuls have left their indelible stamp on northern India in a string of massive forts and soaring mosques, Together these represent the twin aspects of their warlike faith. Delhi itself has fine examples of both. The Red Fort stands rock-like at the corner of the old city, its huge red walls an unarguable statement of imperial and religious intent. A little across from it is the Jami Masjid, the main mosque of the town. Open to the skies and to Allah, it can hold 25,000 souls and is the largest in India.

Unlike Delhi, which now lies in the Hindu heartlands, Kashmir has remained staunchly Muslim. Geography apart, perhaps this is not surprising. Nowhere else in India does the muezzin's call to prayer carry as distinctly as through that thin mountain air. In Srinagar, the frail reedy cry can be heard for miles as it floats across the still Dal Lake.

Like all the greatest artists, the Moghul architects of the mosques took the circumscribing restrictions of their faith regarding ornamentation and form and made it the springboard for inspiration. Particularly in their intimate monuments to the dead. The tombs are austere in their geometric patternings, stern and formal in their inlaid quotations from the Koran. Yet their perfect proportions and simplicity are moving for any faith.

Of no building is this more true than of the Taj Mahal. Too often it is regarded simply as beautiful architecture, or as a postcard symbol of India. But as well as a personal testament to the unassuageable grief of the Emperor Shah Jahan at the death of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, it needs to be understood as a religious monument. To enter, you must remove your shoes as well as your cultural prejudices. It forms a fitting memorial to the Moghuls' enduring passion for architecture, and the apotheosis of their legacy to India.

A Partial India A to Z

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