A beginner’s guide to Islamic Architecture in Serendib

Like all tales – meaning stories inevitably personalized in their telling – this one too has to start with a backstory: It goes back to the memory of myself standing, at the age of nineteen, in front of the Taj Mahal stunned into silence by its architecture. Born to a nominally Buddhist family and educated in a Convent, nothing had prepared me for the splendour of Moghul India. And the intricacy of Islam.

Visiting the Taj Mahal on a scorching midsummer day with throngs of annoying tourists is hardly a romantic experience. With all due respect to the legendary couple, one needs to get over the mortal love story to see the true romance that lies at the heart of this iconic building, and perhaps at the heart of Islam – the romance between art and geometry, between faith and science. “This interplay extends from what can be experienced directly with the senses, into religious, intellectual, mathematical and poetic ideas, writes Ebba Koch, Architectural Advisor to the Taj Mahal Conservation Collaborative. So yes, for the refined eye, there is romance everywhere in this edifice.

Taj Mahal, the iconic mausoleum in Agra, commissioned by the Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan for his Queen Mumtaz, who died giving birth to their fourteenth child

As I write this, decades later, I must return to the Taj Mahal to recall some of the main features of Islamic architecture I have now learnt – the majestic onion dome; the guarding minarets; the iwan – a vaulted space with an arch-like gateway. This feature found its way across the Mediterranean Sea with the Crusades and became the famed ‘Gothic’ arch in European cathedrals; The pishtaq is the portal that frames the iwan, adorned with arabesques of interlocked lianas, mosaics and calligraphy quoting Qur’anic verses; The ‘Paradise Garden’, with its perfect four-quartered symmetry,  alludes to the many references from Islamic texts – ‘Paradise is a Walled Garden’ full of bloom and abundance, (the layout of which I also recognize in the royal gardens of Sigiriya, though one can only speculate about a connection). It has it all, the Taj Mahal, especially for the beginner. I have now found the word for it: ‘Perfection’. It’s a perfect structure – pure in its marble essence, utterly symmetrical in its geometry and heavenly in its transcendence of life.

To call a set of features found in Moghul buildings ‘Islamic’ architecture isn’t the perfect way to set about the topic, though. The quintessential courtyards were there, way before Islam, in Mesopotamia. “The arch they borrowed from the Roman aqueducts,” expounds Sohail Hashmi, Delhi-based historian and memory-keeper, debunking what he calls, ‘the myth of Islamic Architecture’. “Judaism and Christianity both held their congregations under domes. In fact, Muslims didn’t use the dome for a very long time. The first mosque was built by Prophet Mohammed. It had no arches, no domes, and no minarets.” In fact, the Holy Qur’an offers no description of a mosque. If there is a distinct style that can be identified as Islamic, it evolved gradually, building on myriad elements of cultures that came before it.

“There is no uniform ‘Islamic’ style,” notes Sri Lankan architect Murad Ismail. “As Islam travelled across time and space, it adopted and got absorbed into local traditions. Islam blended in.” So the Great Mosque of Xi’an in China has an octagonal pagoda as its minaret. In Mali, the Great Mosque of Djenne is built with mudbricks, not marble, in the vernacular style of the African peoples of Sahel and Sudanian grasslands.  One just has to look at the breadth of the Islamic world to know how well it has weaved itself into the mosaic of many cultures.   

Granite tombstone from Puliyantivu, Mannar with the script identified as Kufic Baghdad, dated CE 900, currently displayed at the National Museum, Colombo, registered as No.

Serendib is no exception. As we know from the 10th century writings of Al-Masudi and 14th century chronicles of Ibn Battuta, the island was an oasis in the sea, a safe haven in the Maritime Silk Route for the Arabian travellers and traders; legendary sailor Sinbad included!  

Illustration of Dharga Town mosque, Alutgama, by Barbara Sansoni in 1963 indicates that, similar to a church, the surrounding garden served as a cemetery.

“Legend connects one town to another with mosques and shrines being the markers along a long-forgotten map of Sufi’s (saints) along the southern littoral,” writes historian Ramla Wahab-Salman. Some of these early mosque builders would have employed local craftsman, material and design to suit the tropical climes. Thus, the inward-looking courtyards of the Mediterranean mosque transformed into outward gazing verandahs in the tropics. “Unfortunately, these early mosques that so freely embraced the vernacular are now being replaced by a new wave of mosques built in the last 40 years,” Murad Ismail points out. What is being erased as a result is a fascinating tale of confluence of cultures.  

The Jumma Meeran mosque stands proudly in front of the new lighthouse, very much a part of Galle’s historical legacy.

All the more reason to make this a tale of three, four, five, six, or more masjids, but for a start let’s begin with my favourites:

Unlike my homage to the Taj Mahal, discovering the Jumma Meeran Mosque inside the old Dutch Fort in Galle was a moment of serendipity. As you stroll along the ramparts, you see this unusual construction facing the lighthouse on Point Utrecht, glowing gently in the evening light. For a moment I think I am standing in front of a baroque cathedral in Lisbon. But nay, I am in Galle, in front of a mosque that captivates me as equally as the Taj Mahal. 

Galle, or Qali, as Ibn Battuta referred to it, has long been an important port, eyed by all colonial powers that roamed the region in the 16th century. But the Arab traders had been around for much longer. And they hadn’t come with guns to conquer. In Qali, they had settled, married, and blended into the community by the time the Portuguese arrived and started building a fort in 1588.

Though there’s a claim that the mosque has been around for 300 years, the present structure dates from 1909. Life was tough for the Muslim community under the Portuguese. Some even left to the central highlands, welcomed by the Kandyan monarch. It was only under the Dutch that they managed to build their own place of worship in Galle. “The numerals painted on the front wall of the mosque facing the sea state the year 1325 Hijri which probably denotes the existence of a prayer space much before the 20th century.” writes Ramla Wahab-Salman. The exact dates, we may have lost to history, but the building that stands speaks for itself.

The Meeran mosque has an eclectic touch, with a dash of Portuguese Baroque, British Victorian and ever so slight Islamic detailing, ringing true to the ground it stands on.  Galle has passed through three colonial powers and the building carries the signs of all of them. The façade is framed by paired towers as in any Gothic cathedral (think Notre Dame), with deep-set windows. Slender turret-like minarets tipped with small crescents are the only giveaway that it is indeed Islamic. But the perceptive eye will notice that the mosque faces the sacred direction of Quibla, as does every other mosque on earth.

Inside, one is treated to beautiful mosaics on the floor (imported from Italy, I am told!) and stained-glass windows. The simplicity of the mirhab and mimbar are heightened in the roomy prayer hall full of sunlight.

The present-day structure is  said to have been commissioned by a resident of Galle Fort, Ahmed Haji Ismail, who also built mosques in Weligama and Poruwa. One has to wonder at the understatement of its identity. In a time where Islam is often accused of standing apart, one is immediately struck by this mosque. Becoming one with its colonial setting and history, this house of prayer displays an uncommon level of self-confidence. Whatever the physical form, it is the essence that matters, and in essence, a house of prayer, it is.

Meeran Masjid is not the only mosque that comfortably negotiates the ebb of history. The famous Dawatagaha Mosque in Colombo is another such example of fitting neatly into the jigsaw puzzle of time and space. Situated right on the Lipton circus besides the Town Hall, a landmark colonial building, it again straddles British Victorian while remaining elegantly Islamic. It also combines an interesting legend of saints and miracles while cosily fitting into an urban landscape, almost immune to the ruins of time. The pigeons and the creepers growing out of its stylish minarets? No threat, they just add to the ambience.

To bring this tale to its destined finale, I must end with another mosque of surpassing beauty. Situated amidst the bustling markets of Pettah, no one can miss the Jami Ul-Afar Masjid, lovingly called the Red Mosque and arguably the most famous masjid of the island. No matter how exotic or loud the colours of the Pettah streets are, the Red Masjid easily out does them all.

Reading the anthropological map of Pettah is an interesting exercise, particularly if you wish to understand the provenance of the masjid. The area north of Colombo Fort was called ‘Pita Kotuwa’ which literally translates into ‘outside the fortress’. “This area from the clock tower near Hunter’s Raleigh Bicycle shop at that time through Main Street was dominated by businessmen, mainly Muslims: Jezima’s, Zitan Stores, W. M. A. Wahid. Some South Indian Hindus like Hirdramanis and Kundanmals, were also some of the big names that have been mentioned as having stood tall on both sides of Main Street. The roads crossing the Main Street were called ‘Cross Streets’ – First Cross Street, Second Cross Street, Third Cross Street etc. On the east of Main Street, South Indian traders were said to have stored their merchandise, while the opposite side was the domain of the North Indian Borahs and Memons. Historically, it is important to understand this mix, because although they were all Indians, they had culturally different practices and were of two different sects – the South Indians were the followers of the Shafi’e school of theology while the North Indian Memons were followers of Imam Abu Hanifa,” explains Dr. M. Haris Z. Deen. 

With its mesmerising red and white candy strips, 49 minarets, pomegranate domes, and a clock tower, Red Masjid is nothing short of a spectacle. One has to wonder about the architect and be pleasantly surprised that it is a simple ‘mason bass’ who designed it.

A brick mason like his father, Saibo Lebbe was commissioned to design and build a mosque at Second Cross Street by South Indian traders. He had never stepped outside Ceylon and had no access to any literature on architecture. When the mosque was built in 1908 it is said that Saibo Lebbe had to depend on black and white pictures and photographs given to him by the patrons from India. No wonder the brick work turned out stunning with each single brick painted by hand. The red bricks are kept in four designs – jagged, spiral, striped, and checkered – creating an optical feast. On the edge of the outside border are calligraphy-painted by hand.

Scholars of architecture identify the style of the Red Masjid as ‘Indo-Saracenic’, also known as Indo-Gothic, Gothic-Moghul, Neo-Moghul or Hindoo. It’s a term worth googling. Knowingly or unknowingly Saibo Lebbe was tapping into a fascinating fusion of Hindu, Muslim and Christian (and Indian, Arabic and British) architecture for his house of prayer. Devised by British architects in late 19th century colonial India, Indo-Saracenic is essentially a hybrid style that draws elements from native Indo-Islamic (think Moghul) and Indian architecture (think Rajasthani palaces), and combines it with the Gothic Revival and Neo-Classical styles favoured in Victorian Britain (think House of Parliament). The unquenchable thirst for oriental exoticism ensured that the British designed their administrative buildings across the Raj in this style, and also took it back to Britain and then exported it elsewhere, to Malaysia and British Ceylon.  Other notable buildings in this style in Sri Lanka include the landmark Cargills building, the Victoria Memorial Eye Hospital, Colombo, and the Jaffna Public Library.

The mesmerising red and white candy stripes of the Red Mosque in Pettah.

No wonder it is déjà-vu. As if I am back in Old Delhi, walking through the chaos of Chandni Chowk, with Shah Jehan’s Red Fort looming over it. Pettah feels similar and different at the same time, with its narrow streetscape overcrowded with things literally falling apart. And then, there you are, in front of the red and white Jama Masjid across Meena Bazaar, as sudden the Red Masjid on Second Cross Street in Pettah.

Perhaps this is what grips me about Agra, Delhi, Galle or Pettah: the parallels. Time and again, one encounters the other in such places, gods meet other gods, civilisations meet other civilisations.  Time and again, these encounters lead to something more. Some choose to fight. The others embrace.

Today, the world seems confused about Islam. But beyond this initial confusion, there is room for understanding, appreciation and love, which even the Victorian British, despite their famous stiff upper lip, found in Moghul India.

As you strip off the layers of history like a consummate restorer of a ruin, what emerges is a different tale of Islam than the one we are used to hearing on media. These buildings are the evidence that Islam, in its journey across time and space, has embraced other cultures and practices; It has evolved, negotiated and survived. It has given as much as it has taken.

Egyptian Architect Abdel Wahed El-Wakil, one of the most renowned architects of our time, highlights the wisdom of traditional architecture over modern insecurities of individualism when he says, “Traditional Art is not trying to make the artist a special man. It tries to make every man a special artist.” According to him, it is simple, down to earth, does not seek to stand apart, and is one with the universe.

You never see ugliness in Islamic art and architecture, no neurosis, personal problems; nor any of the dark stuff that so obsesses modern art trapped within its own ego. Because it recognises the problems of the artist are just storms in a tea cup, utterly irrelevant in the larger scheme of things. Designed by royal architect or brick mason, in Moorish Spain or Moghul India, there is no identity crisis in Islamic Art. It is not about where and what and whose tradition. It is a tale of oneness with Allah, with Beauty and Love. The artist must come out of his small cocoon and confines of identity, to create a reflection of paradise on earth, for himself and for the others. 

As we gaze upon their creativity, we realize, so must we.

This exhibit was supported by Historical Dialogue.lk, an initiative of the programme Strengthening Reconciliation Processes in Sri Lanka (SRP). SRP is co-financed by the European Union and the German Federal Foreign Office and implemented by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH and the British Council.