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Mainstream, VOL XLVIII, No 50, December 4, 2010

An Enduring Loss to the Sharqi Tradition

Sunday 12 December 2010, by Sankar Ray

The Babri Masjid was one of the last masterpieces of what is known as the Sharqi school of architecture—different from the star-shaped temple Nagara style characterising the architectonics of Hindu temples. A former Director of the Archaeological Survey of India categorised the mosque as a specimen of Sharqi architecture which flourished decades before Babar arrived in India.

Constructed from the end of the 14th century, when Jaunpur was the capital of the Sharqi kingdom, architectural growth had taken place conspicuously during the regime of the eunuch kings who patronised high-class architecture. The oldest of them, revealing a striking archetype of Sharqi design, is the Atala Masjid. It has a courtyard surrounded on three sides by pillared walls; the fourth is a high-ceilinged prayer hall which has at the centre a domed sanctuary, and a tall ornate portal, almost like a gopuram. The portal hides the main dome, the most distinctive feature of Sharqi architecture. This school of architecture was developed through an inter-mixing of Hindu architectonics and architectural patterns from the regions of Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt and southern Europe.

But the Sharqi regime collapsed when Delhi was ruled by the Lodhis. Sikander Lodhi was so angry with the Sharqis that he ordered the demolition of many of those rare works. Husain Shah Sharqi, ruler between 863-879 Hijri (1458-1476/78 AD), fled Jaunpur for Bengal after being attacked by the Lodhis. He died in Bengal in 905 Hijri and built a few mosques, like Baro Sona Masjid at Gaur, the then capital of Bengal. Those mosques have no minaret.

The Sharqi style is characterised by inclined walls, square pillars (unlike rectangular pillars of Hindu temples) but without minarets, unlike mosques of the 16th century. Encyclopaedia of Islam too states: “The earliest primitive mosques had no minaret.” Indeed, mosques at Sirkej, Manda etc, built before the 14th century, had no minarets. The Babri Masjid too had no minaret, nor rectangular pillars. According to Dr Sushil Shrivastava, author of The Disputed Mosque: A Historical Inquiry, the Masjid at Ayodhya “might have been constructed during the Tughlaq period in the Sharqi era… Archaeological design does help us conclude that the mosque belongs to a period before Babar.” Incidentally, during ASI Director B.B. Lal’s helmsmanship of the ASI in the late 1960s, an ASI report found no Ram temple among ruins of nearly 1000 temples. Later, Lal who worked under Mortimer Wheeler, argued, albeit with not-so-sound scholastic evidence, that the mosque at Ayodhya was built by destroying a Ram temple. An independent scholar of Indology and linguistics, Debaprasad Bhattacharya, supports Srivastava, “Ram temples are comparatively of recent origin.”

Another noted archaeologist D. Mandal, wrote in a book, Ayodhya: Archaeology, that the so-called pillar bases were incapable of “bearing the vertical load of large-sized stone pillars,” and the claim that a ‘pillared building’ was constructed in the 11th century AD was “absolute baseless. No structural feature or artefactual find points to a date approaching the 11th century. Instead, what is firmly suggested for the poorly built structure unearthed in the trench, is a date between the 13th and 15th centuries AD.”

SHER SINGH in his Archaeology of Ayodhya, having studied Francis Buchanan’s works, inferred that the mosque, definitely belonging to the Sharqi School, was built in 872 Hijri, 15 years before Babar’s birth. A Scottish physician, Buchanon, made an extensive tour of Gorakhpur and surrounding areas between 1810 and 1813, having been commissioned by Lord Wellesley to undertake a survey of the region. He refuted the theory that the Babri Masjid was built by Babar’s army chief Mir Baqi in 1528. But the question remains: why was it then called the Babri Masjid?

Whether the demolished mosque was constructed by Mir Baqi is unresolved but it was most probably one of the last gems of Sharqi architecture. For the cognoscenti and museologists, its demolition is an agonising episode. “History.” G.W. Hegel wrote, “is a slaughter house” and that’s why historical findings are falsified, revised, falsified and revised. The findings by the ASI in 2003 are not irreversible.

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