Above: (left) Jama Masjid, New Delhi; (right) Mecca Masjid, Old Hyderabad
I did no background study or research before I visited Delhi this year. I would be entering Old Delhi for the very first time and I had not done my homework, due to various reasons, one of them being that I wished to visit the place expecting nothing, so that what I saw would have a raw impact on me, and would make its impression on the clean slate of my mind. I wanted Delhi, our rajdhani, the city that was the seat of government for many different empires and over many centuries, to speak to me, to a mere visitor, not to a history-enthusiast, avid reader, student, architect, journalist, Indian, Muslim or woman. I say student because I still consider myself to be one, and wish to continue to be one throughout my life. I say Indian, because I would be visiting the capital of India, and no Indian is oblivious to what Delhi stands for, having studied about it almost from birth in various school subjects, from History to Geography to Civics, General Knowledge and Current Affairs. I say woman because of the stigma surrounding the public treatment of women in this city, and how this plays a role in this article. And I say architect and Muslim, because I will be focusing on one structure, one religious heritage public space in Old Delhi to write about in this essay, again for various reasons, ranging from the fact that I cannot shake off my inherent architect, and Delhi being one of the largest cities in the country and my having visited only a part of it at one point of time with a clean slate for a mind, it is beyond my scope to make generalizations.
I stress again, I write not as any of these above-mentioned identities that are me, but as an observer who cannot be completely immune to any of her identities, but will try to all the same. Two of my identities that I refrained from naming earlier, will most definitely seep into my writing, for this article belongs to them. I am conservative to some extent, and at some level, I aspire to be a conservationist. Before I continue, here are the dictionary definitions of words that will occur throughout this article.
Conserve: 1. Keep constant through physical or chemical reactions or evolutionary change; 2. Keep in safety and protect from harm, decay, loss, or destruction
Conservation: 1. An occurrence of improvement by virtue of preventing loss or injury or other change; 2. The preservation and careful management of the [built] environment and of natural resources
Conservative: 1. Resistant to change; 2. Opposed to liberal reforms; 3. Avoiding excess; 4. Unimaginatively conventional; 5. Conforming to the standards and conventions of the middle class
Is it possible to be a conservationist without being conservative? No. (If I am to be a little bit liberal, the answer would be not entirely.) So why is ‘conservation’ described positively and why does ‘conservative’ have a negative intonation, when both words share the same root? Since I do not agree with any except the third definition of the word conservative, I will have to look up the word ‘liberal.’
Liberal: 1. Showing or characterized by broad-mindedness; 2. Tolerant of change; not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or tradition
Is it virtuous to be excessively liberal and tolerant of change when that change is obviously negative, harmful and destructive? Is it still a vice to be conservative of all that is good and pure and to try and prevent its loss, damage and injury, and to protect it from negative forces and strive to keep it constant through physical or chemical reactions or evolutionary change?
These are rhetorical questions. However, I aim to make the answers clearer through my words, in specific view of the state of the Jama Masjid in Delhi.
It is an undisputed fact that a mosque is a place of worship, which may also serve as a place for gathering and religious discourse, an icon of the Muslim community. And oft-repeated statement is that Islam is not a mere religion, but a way of life. It governs not only man’s dialogue with God, but also how one lives, how one behaves in private and public, how one dresses, how one relates to his fellow humans, how a leader is appointed and how a state is governed, the etiquette of war and peace, and even how a city is planned. A mosque, thus, is not only a portal to God, but a center and representation of the Muslim community.
Everything evolves with the passage of time, and there is no escape. Time changes all, indiscriminately, for better or for worse. The only constant is Truth. God himself has taken the responsibility to preserve the most authentic manifestation of the truth, the Quran. The word of God has remained unchanged over centuries, and will remain unchanged forever. The Almighty has preserved what He created. Is it not upto the believers of His word to protect and preserve what we create?
On my visit to Jama Masjid, I saw decay and destruction, which can be translated as disrespect for the code of the mosque.
The mosque, which was the largest in the world not a decade ago, is now unrecognizable as a mosque except for its large dome flanked by minars. Upon entry, it appears to be more of a bazaar than a place of worship of the divine. The tank in its courtyard is used for more purposes than ablution. Its putrid waters are a testimony to the fact that the filtration is not fast enough to maintain the required level of purity. Running water is nowhere to be seen. The minar, labeled the ‘tower’ for the benefit of foreign tourists, is accessible on purchase of a ticket. The bastions of the upper terraces facing the back entry have lost their original shape and most of them lie in ruins. The walls have been vandalized and no effort is made to restore the less visible parts of the mosque. The back of the mosque, seen from an alley, is unrecognizable to anyone who has not seen the building a million times in pictures throughout their life. A face-lift seems to suffice for the benefit of tourists and salability. It is a sad scene for a monument as large and as famous as the Jama Masjid, located in the capital of India.
Entry is open to all. This is liberalization. Contrary to popular belief in India, women are not prohibited from entering a mosque. Gender segregation is mandatory. The last two statements are not contradictory. Women are allowed into the mosque in a segregated section, where they maybe comfortable and free from the gaze of the opposite sex, and are thus protected. The focus of each human in a mosque must be oriented towards supplication of the Almighty. No human is free of desire, and thus, gender segregation is an obvious and reasonable solution. It is compulsory for men to attend the mosque five times a day and pray in congregation with other Muslim men. This compulsion was relaxed in the case of women for obvious reasons and by request of women themselves. However, women cannot be barred from entering a mosque where there is a separate women’s section. Since the Jama Masjid does not have a women’s section, it is out of disrespect that all genders enter and comingle inside the mosque. The purpose of a mosque is prayer and community gathering. Jama Masjid seems to have strayed far from this purpose, as, even on a Friday, the actual worshipers are outnumbered by tourists. Tourists who do not seem to understand the purpose and protocol of the mosque. Some of whom are not even half-clothed, and need to be persuaded to remove their footwear and not their headgear. (The West shows respect by taking off the hat whereas the East shows respect by donning a head cover.) None of the visitors of the mosque seem to have done their homework, which did not comfort me in the least.
In contrast, on my visit to Dilwara Temple in Mount Abu last year, I did not encounter any breach of protocol, as there were various levels of entry, and at each, the rules of the place of worship were made clear. Not one in the throng of tourists wore anything on their feet and not one woman was bare-headed. Consequently, the sculptures and intricate carvings were in a state of almost archetypal preservation. The respect arose from the awareness that was conditioned into us at every level before we could even see the entrance. If conservation or conservativeness can be carried out in Mount Abu, I don’t see why it cannot be done in Delhi as well.
I do not blame the ignorant or ‘liberal’ visitors for the state of Jama Masjid. I blame the Muslims of the area, and those in authority. It is their ignorance, inertia and complete disregard that has resulted in the current state of this religious heritage public space. Knowing full well what a mosque entails, it is them who fail to preserve it, physically or spiritually.
Is the Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad headed down the same path? I think not. In stark contrast to the poor maintenance of the Charminar, the principal monument of the city which serves as its icon, the Mecca Masjid is unsurprisingly well-preserved. I say unsurprisingly, because after a visit to the Jama Masjid, it becomes clear that loss of character and identity of a particular space is the foremost reason for its degeneration. Perhaps the ultra-conservative Muslim factions of Hyderabad are to be ‘blamed’ for the upkeep of the Mecca Masjid, its physical as well as spiritual preservation. When a building is disused and preserved only for display, it loses its life (just like a handicapped person who feels useless and a burden) and its health, so to speak, quickly deteriorates. The solution is not to prevent use of a space or a building, but to conserve not only its structure but also its purpose.
Preserving a place of worship demands preserving the purity of the religion. Is the Mecca Masjid better preserved because its only function remains that of a mosque? Is it because women still do not have access to the men’s prayer hall? Is it because its minars are still known as minars (as opposed to towers), and because they cannot be accessed by purchase of a ticket? Do all these reasons suffice to explain why even after a recent bombing, the throngs of visitors to Mecca Masjid are worshipers who spill out onto the adjoining streets on a Friday and that traffic is governed by the prayer and not the other way round? I do not think these rhetorical questions need answering.
The sanctity of a building can only be preserved when the definitions of the words conservation and conservative are accepted as one. The chasm between these words has led to a blurred line between what deserves to be saved and what does not.
Hunoos Dilli door ast! This Persian phrase is used to signify that a discussion or argument has not ended yet. It means “It is still a long way to reach Delhi.” I’d say Delhi still has a long way to go.