Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Volume 6, Issue 02, Tuesday, January 11, 2011




sites of divine worship

With a staggering number of mosques across the city, it is hardly a surprise that Dhaka came to be known as “the city of mosques”. With most of the country's population being Muslim and the fact that great Muslim dynasties ruled this land for centuries, it is only logical that Dhaka has turned out to be a city full of mosques.

And there is a plethora of different mosques you can find here: the new, the old, the ancient, the forgotten, and the neglected. But where and when did it all begin? Before the Mughal rule, in Narindia (or Narinda), a lady named Bakht Binat built the first mosque in Dhaka, popularly known as the Mosque of Binat Bibi, or simply, Bibi Mosque. It is believed that this place of worship was built in 1457 AD. However, details on the identity of the woman are unknown.

Being an ancient mosque, you might have splendid imagery in mind. However, the Binat Bibi Mosque underwent numerous renovations that have locked several pre-Mughalic features of the building. With countless shops and other houses surrounding the mosque, you will hardly notice it if you are not looking for it. The extremely tiny building, humbly and wearily stands as the oldest mosque we have, having soaked numerous prayers and having seen Dhaka transform into what it is today.

The historical significance of the mosque makes it popular, not its size, of course.

But the same surely cannot be said of Baitul Mukarram, the largest mosque in Bangladesh. The national mosque of our country was designed by architect T Abdul Hussain Thariani and completed in 1968. The complex also houses numerous shops and offices.

Apart from being 'political' at times and for its size, the ambitiously built mosque is also popular for its hall having a structure that bears a striking resemblance to that of the Kabah in Mecca.

“When you enter the mosque from the front gate and see this feature, it naturally touches your heart”, said a worshipper at Baitul Mukarram. Other than that, the mosque homes many modern architectural features, whilst preserving some traditional architectural features as well. But perhaps the main reason for its wide popularity lies in its enormous size, which radiates majesty and greatness.

Another majestic mosque which is not big though is the widely famous Star Mosque, more commonly known as Tara Masjid or Sitara Masjid located in Armanitola. If you were asked to make a list of mosques in Bangladesh in terms of beauty and grandeur, then probably this mosque will be right at the top. The mosque was erected in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Today, after two sets of massive renovations, the five-domed mosque glints with a surfacing of sparkling “Chinitikri” work (mosaic work done with pieces of Chinese porcelain). Star motifs are found all over the mosque including the domes, which explains the mosque's name.

A very mesmerising view of the mosque can be seen from the main entrance gate. When you look at the big star-shaped fountain in front of the small mosque with five domes, and the structure dotted with bright stars, it looks like the design has been borrowed from heaven itself.

The prayer hall is also very peaceful and calm.

Finding this spirituality is vital. You may not feel equally calm and spiritual in every mosque you enter. But the designers of mosques try to create the ambience of prayer halls as such. The motifs and the recurring patterns used in mosques like the ones of Star Mosque give a sense of infinity, symbolising God's power. The recurring patterns also have a soothing effect on us.

Another aspect that symbolises power is the enormous height of the ceilings. The height makes you look small in comparison, and this generates a sense of grandiosity.

This is also a reason why domes are used. Domes, which are neither the creation nor a monopoly of Islamic architecture, are nevertheless a predominant element (but not obligatory) in mosques. Not just that it looks beautiful, the incredible view we get when we stand under a dome and stare upwards is a significant factor too. Because it's pointing upwards high above, it lends us a unique disposition of spiritualism, infinity and greatness thus expressing some of the characteristics of God.

Take for example, the inside view of the dome of Baitul Aman Mosque in Dhanmondi. The three storied mosque has a dome that is exposed to the person sitting on the ground floor, since the top two floors are built in a manner that does not occupy the space right under the dome. Thus, when gazing upwards, the worshipper, from the ground floor, is likely to feel the greatness or magnificence of the mosque and consequently, that of God.

Indeed, Baitul Aman Mosque is a great example of mosque architecture, and is popular among the more recent mosques built. Located beside Dhanmondi Lake, the worshippers also have peaceful, scenic views from some angles. The exterior view of the building itself, is impressive, partially owing to the many arches of the doors and windows of the mosque.

Another popular feature of mosques is minarets. Although with the invention of loudspeakers, the use of minarets has declined, the tradition of having them in mosques -- and also the aspect of aesthetic beauty -- make them a common structure.

The Chawk Mosque of Chawk Bazaar, another famous mosque of the old town, boasts a breathtaking minaret. The very tall and slender body (among other smaller ones) shoots up towards the sky to a great height compared to other structures in the bazaar.

This much celebrated mosque was built by the Mughals. Indeed, a lot of splendid mosques were built in Dhaka by rulers long ago. Dr. Syed Mahmudul Hasan, the author of Dhaka: the City of Mosques, wrote in his book, “It is true that wherever the Muslims went, they erected mosques to meet the fundamental religious requirements, that is, congregational prayers five times a day. But mosques built during the early phase of Muslim rule in Bengal reflect the genius of Muslim architects and their adjustability to local architectural influence.”

Also notable is Kakrail Mosque, which portrays quite a unique scene. As the chief centre for Tablighi Jamaat in Bangladesh, the mosque shelters numerous Muslims from all over the world who come to carry out activities of spreading the word of Islam and drawing people towards the religion.

People in groups practically stay there for days; they conduct meetings to organise events, hold lecture sessions, etc. The mosque is therefore always buzzing with people.

However, it depends from one person to another as to what in a mosque strikes a spiritual chord within him/her or ignites particular feelings. For example, Javed, a middle-aged man, is a regular at a mosque in his own residential area. “I have been coming here for ages. I know the walls and doors by heart. This familiarity brings a level of comfort and reassurance, thus making it the best mosque for me.” he said.

Famous or not, every mosque is the house of God; and every mosque adds to the enormous total of mosques that we have. And somewhere along the hundreds of years of mosque building, our city has rightfully earned the title of being the “city of mosques”. Hats off to the builders!

By M H Haider
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed



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