Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Sultans and Mosques: The Early Muslim Architecture of Bangladesh

Taken from a friend's Facebook entry on Dr. Perween Hasan's publication, made earlier this year, on Muslim Architecture in Bangladesh .

Dr. Perween Hasan, professor in the Department of Islamic History and Culture at Dhaka University, recently published her book Sultans and Mosques: The Early Muslim Architecture of Bangladesh (London: I.B.Tauris and Co Ltd). Though the book originated as her doctoral thesis and is fairly technical in nature, with architectural terms and plans not easily accessible to the layperson, it is on a subject that is inherently interesting to Bangladeshis. How can we not be interested in the mosques around us, not be curious about their origins and history, not wonder about the ideas and environment that shaped them ? What do they reveal about the arrival of Islam in the delta from north India and beyond, about its impact and spread, about our own evolution as a nation and state? Dr. Perween Hasan, by focusing her study on the independent Bengal Sultanate period, has written a study that zeroes in on the formative era of mosque-building in the eastern part of Bengal that is now Bangladesh.

Below is a conversation between The Daily Star and Dr. Hasan:

DAILY STAR: Would you please give us a brief overview of your life, i.e. where you were born, your education, your academic career.

PERWEEN HASAN: Born in Kolkata where I started school, my family moved to Dhaka in 1953. Here I started going to St. Francis Xavier's Convent School (now Green Herald), in Lakshmibazar, and took my 'O'levels from there. I studied English at Dhaka University, and started my career as an English teacher in Central Women's and Government Intermediate colleges, before joining the English department at DU in 1969.

After moving to the USA with my husband and two sons in 1973 , I was admitted into the Ph.D program at Harvard University, from where I earned an MA in Regional Studies, and subsequently a Ph.D in 1984 (Thesis: Sultanate Mosque Types in Bangladesh: Origins and Development). Later that year I joined the Department of Islamic History and Culture, Dhaka University as Assistant Professor. Being also associated with the Women and Gender Studies Department of DU, I offer a course on Women in the Visual Arts, and co-teach a Women and Religion course. Under the Fulbright program, I have been a visiting professor at American universities (Oberlin College, Ohio; University of Southern Maine, Portland). My publications are mostly on the Islamic architecture of Bengal, on aspects of artistic and cultural continuities.

DS: Could you give our readers an idea what your book is about, the subject matter, your particular approach to it, why the Sultanate period, etc.

PH: My work is a survey of mosques built during the rule of the Independent Sultans of Bengal (1338-1538). Fifty-five mosques were surveyed (as many as I could find) and each one is reproduced with photographs and floor plans.

During the period in question, the frontiers of Bengal were variable, and usually included both East and West Bengal and at times even extended to beyond that. However, I have covered only the geographical limits of the state of Bangladesh, because (a) I felt that the large number of monuments situated here seemed adequate for a single study, and (b) there were practical difficulties involved in carrying out similar extensive fieldwork in India. However, the Indian monuments are discussed whenever relevant.

The mosque was singled out as a building type because, (a) it is architecturally representative of Islamic culture by its association with collective ritual prayer; (b) of the various types of buildings that must have been part of the architectural landscape from the 14th to the 16th centuries, mosques have survived in the largest number; and (c) buildings with a common function are well-suited for historical investigation, as their architectural features can be readily identified as imported or indigenous. These Sultanate mosques form a homogeneous group of monuments in the area, and contrast sharply with those of the Mughal period that followed.

My interest in cultural continuities led me to investigate into the origins of these monuments. They were built in a very regional style that borrowed much of its vocabulary from the thatched huts of Bengal. Always made of brick and decorated with terracotta plaques or sometimes veneered with carved stone, Sultanate architecture clearly formed a continuum with both pre-Islamic Buddhist and post-Sultanate Hindu temples, which were also mostly built of brick. In addition Sultanate mosques also copied the chala (roof) of the hut. Therefore we see here a style that is rooted in local architectural traditions. The trend was started by Sultan Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah (1415-32), the converted son of Raja Ganesh who was the first Muslim king of native Bengali origin.

In the Sultanate period, the leaders of Muslim society, although foreigners themselves, were concerned with presenting Islam in an idiom that was within the experience of the common Bengali. Even today, a Muslim who may not be very well versed with the finer points of Islam is emphatic about her/his Islamic identity. Perhaps the cultural identity and psychic mould of today's Bengali Muslim is rooted in the liberal attitudes of the Independent Sultans of Bengal who permitted Bengali culture to flourish and combined it with Islamic influences brought in from the central Islamic lands.

DS: Reading your book one would get the overall impression that after Bakhtiyar Khilji dispatched Lakshmana Sena in 1204, the basic impulse of the new political authority was towards syncretism, towards accomodation, as expressed in Bengal Sultanate mosque architecture. Yet, this new political dispensation, in order to establish itself, had to uproot the orthodox Hindu ruling Senas. Richard Eaton, in his The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier 1204-1760 (a book that you like) writes that the Senas' vision of a Hindu cosmos found expression in their "monumental royal" temples. You write in your book that "the central mihrab (of the Adina Mosque) shows that, although much of the stone was taken from the earlier temples, it was used with a good understanding of how it worked, in contrast to the helter-skelter manner in which plundered material had been used in the early Muslim architecture in both Bengal and elsewhere."

Is it possible to say that, then, there was a period, until, say, 1415, when the Bengali Hindu convert to Islam, Sultan Jalal al-Din Mohammed began his reign, the battle was between the mosque and the temple, and that this history is somewhat ignored amid all the 'syncretic' history-writing of Bengal?

PH: Have I given the impression that from 1204 the Muslims were benevolently trying to accomodate the culture of the conquered, and every thing was idyllic? Initially there must have been a lot of destruction of temples and edifices of all kinds. Again, that was one of the ways to assert power in those days.

But my period of investigation is from the Independent Sultanate that starts from 1338. By this time the Muslims had settled down, a minority ruling over a majority of non-Muslims, and for this to continue for over 200 years, there must have been some spirit of accomodation. According to Eaton (and I agree with him), Sena influence was very much restricted to north and western Bengal; central and eastern Bengal remained beyond their religious and cultural influence. Perhaps this is one reason why conversion (or accommodation) to Islam was easier in central and eastern Bengal, because these areas had never been properly Hinduized. Moreover I think that really monumental stone temples of the scale described in the quote by Eaton could not have been many. Most temples were of modest size. The Buddhist monasteries in Paharpur and Mainamati are truly monumental structures, but they are exceptions and there must have been many small Buddhist temples (a few of their foundations have been excavated by the Dept. of Archaeology) being built simultaneously.

The weather in Bengal is not favorable to buildings at all, especially those built of brick and mortar. From the first 200 years of Muslim rule only three mosques remain, all in extremely ruined state (including the ones in Tribeni and Adina). We know that there were Muslim traders and settlers in south-east Bengal even before the conquest, yet there is no architectural evidence of their presence. Also, early temples were of brick or wood, rarely of stone, because there is no stone in this delta. Therefore, destruction was, up to a great extent by nature also.

Sultanate mosque architecture, on evidence of mosque-building materials alone, cannot be termed as a 'battle' between the temple and the mosque. My whole argument is that both temples and mosques were ultimately derived from the forms of the hut, and Jalaluddin sort of iced the cake by curving the cornice. Rather than syncretic, (which I feel is a very strong word), I would like to call this process 'cultural adaptation, or accomodation' which anyone with long-term plans to stay must do.

DS: What about the relative size and grandeur of the mosques in West Bengal of this period, and the far more modest stuff here on the eastern side. Is it is a question of form following function, in this case political function? The Bengal Sultanate, in Pandua Gaur and Lakhnawati, uprooted both the Senas and their temples since the latter, like mosques, had a political legitimizing function. The eastern half of Bengal, by contrast, was sparsely populated, with rudimentary communities expanding eastwards through land grants with wet rice cultivation. Here, mosques were built according to community needs, not due to state imperitives. If one therefore studies only the eastern mosques (for whatever reason) isn't it possible to advance the thesis of 'spirit of accomodation' than if one studied the whole?

PH: For most of Muslim rule, the main capital of the Muslims was Gaur or Pandua (both in West Bengal). The first building with the curved hut eave (the tomb of Jalaluddin of early 15th century, known as the Eklakhi Tomb) is also situated in Pandua; so the complete Bengal style fashioned after the hut originates in West Bengal. The eastern part of Bengal was settled after the north and west and it was only during the Independent Sultanate that most of it was brought under Muslim purview. The point is that after the Eklakhi, all mosques, tombs, as well as gateways (at least from the evidence that we have), both in East and West Bengal were made in the Bengal style.

There are some very large mosques in East Bengal too: the mosques at Mahasthan (on a Buddhist site of a much earlier date, but where a Hindu temple could have existed during the time of the conquest), Shaitgumbad, Shatgachhia, Bagha, Kusumba, Pathrail. Four of the mosques that I have included have platforms on a mezzanine level which were reserved for the king, governor, or other very high official, so these were not all small, single-domed mosques, although the majority were; several were medium sized with several domes. Although I have not done a survey, from what I have seen, I would suspect that even in W. Bengal the majority of the mosques would turn out to be small or medium-sized with single domes. I have argued that whether large or small, it is the square, single-domed unit that became the basic component of all mosques. These units were simply multiplied when a larger space was needed, perhaps for the needs of a larger community but most often to express the power of the builder. The Adina mosque expresses only the power of Sikandar Shah, who had just repulsed an attempt by Sultan Firuz Shah Tughluq of Delhi to take back Bengal, so he does not hesitate to call himself khalifa and express his affiliation to Arabia and Persia, not mentioning either Bengal or India. There are several such mosques in W. Bengal.

Again, there are more monuments, some with more elaborate decoration that survive in West Bengal than in the east. This is not only because the capitals were there but because of the relatively drier climate. Also Buddhist manuscripts as well as Buddhist/Hindu sculptures recovered from E. Bengal indicate that there were some well-known sites with temples even in the east (though perhaps not as many as in the west). So there must have been a period of destruction in both east and west. To come to any kind of overall conclusion, there must be a similar survey of the monuments of W. Bengal, just as this one is for the east. Until then I don't think we have enough evidence to make a judgment.

DS: There is talk presently about how multi-storied madrassah construction is ruining the 'setting' of these Sultanate mosques, making them look ugly. Can we possibly posit two differing creeds at loggerheads here: one the westernized, educated middle class impulse that values historical conservation (and thereby perhaps a certain reification), and the other that sees a mosque as a living organic being, which traditionally has not been a single unit but a complex of masjid, madrassahs and khanqas? How do you see it?

PH: These old mosques had been left alone in their settings for all these years. The orphanages and madrassahs are very recent phenomena, and they have taken over the ancient monuments with no regard to their value as antiquities. They have bored holes through their terracotta plaqued walls so that RCC pipes can be inserted on which shamianas are hung during Friday prayers. The old mosques have always been used for prayer and no one ever objected to that. But they were not vandalized like this. Is there a shortage of mosques anywhere? There are several mosques in the same neighborhood which can accommodate many more jamaats, why does the old one have to be sacrificed? If this goes on, nothing of historic value will be left. Instead of taking over the few heritage sites that we have, we could educate our people to respect and look after them even while they are used, as they have been for so many centuries.

DS: It is quite evident that an extensive, and arduous, fieldwork undergirds your book. Is there any memorable experience from those days that you would share with us, a lasting impression that you have with you?

PH: I have plenty of memorable anecdotes from my fieldwork, but let me just say that I was amazed at the kindness and hospitality that we received in the villages when we traveled. As we measured and photographed buildings in the hot sun, chairs and 'daab's would appear and people would be ready to lend a helping hand. Walking through a homestead I remember hearing, 'ashen, boshen, ektu paan tamak kheye jan', and as we excused ourselves, reminding us 'jabar shomoy kheye jeyen'.

DS: Thank you very much for your patience and time.

PH: The pleasure was all mine. Thank you. Cheers


fugstar said...

Funky study and lady.. and interview, DS journo being a freak as per usual.

I love her serenely put answer to the 'sycretic' charge.

"Rather than syncretic, (which I feel is a very strong word), I would like to call this process 'cultural adaptation, or accomodation' which anyone with long-term plans to stay must do."

Unfortunatly i dont think the answers to my questions have been inscribed in the mosques :-(

What did the adhan or the qirat sound like then? Thats a subset of the big question of what did angel jibreels recitation sound like.. youknow, the FIRST time. and Sayyedina Bilal.

What duas were they used to reciting?

What was religious practice really like? and thought?

Do you mean liberal with an 'L', friendly, dawah focused or just plain lax when you mention islamic attitudes back then?

And do you think the ancestors would have been impressed with the secularism and islamism we possess today?

asikha said...

I'd love to own this book. (Eids coming up people!)

But yeah funky study indeed. I have a thing for architectural plans - like to collect them (yes). I have a great picture of the palace of the Nawab of Murshedabad - ok, not a Mosque but very mosque-like. It's a 1858 print from the Illustrated London News which, reminds me I should blog on it!

As for the adhan stuff - I would imagine those things would come out of current Muslim practices in Bangladesh? History is passed through orally as much as artifacts and books. It's also an ancient ('common') form of preserving languages - that's how they got the sacred Sanskrit texts - from keeping the oral traditions with the Quran. (Heard that the Quran was the first written text of the Arabs...?)

In any case, syncretistic is a bad word but also I think the man who made it famous, Asim Roy, is misunderstood on his notion of the Bengali Syncretistic traditions - he was talking about literature not practices - unless you knew that already...