There’s a delightful couplet in Urdu that goes something like this:
Jahan gaaye the khushiyon ke taraane,
Muqaddar dekhiye, roye waheen par.
Masjid se ghum hue joote hamare,
Jahan paaye the, khoye waheen par.
Where I had once sung songs of joy,
See my fate: I now weep there.
At the mosque were my shoes taken;
Lost, where they were once found.
That, of course, gives you a fair idea of the very first rule of visiting a mosque: take off your shoes before you venture in. Unfortunately, it also tells you what may happen if you’re unlucky, or if your shoes catch the fancy of an unscrupulous passerby.
The solution, interestingly, is one that not too many people know about: you can actually carry your shoes into a mosque. The trick is to ensure that the soles (which are considered unclean) do not face West, that is, the direction of Mecca. This can be a bit puzzling, but not if you’re taught by a professional teacher - as I was.
Years ago, on a misty winter morning, I visited the exquisite Jama Masjid, the jewel of Old Delhi. We were a group of about twenty people, headed by a vibrant and extremely knowledgeable lady called Beeba Sobti. Beeba, who teaches history, quickly gathered us around her, and issued instructions. We were to take off our shoes outside the mosque. Put them down on the ground sideways- so that the shoes `stand up’ on their sides- and then turn them so the soles face each other. Then pick them up in one hand and carry them in.
Since that long-ago walk, I’ve been on many more historic walks to other famous mosques around Delhi: the Zeenat-ul-Masajid, the Sunehari Masjid, the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, the Fatehpuri Masjid, the Khirki Masjid, the Kalan Masjids (one near Turkman Gate and the other in Nizamuddin), the Begumpuri Masjid, and more. I’ve been explained the intricacies of mosque architecture by a teacher, a conservation architect, a historian - even a journalist. I’ve seen styles of architecture that range from the elegant to the mediocre; material that ranges from rubble to white marble; and size that goes all the way from a single room to a huge courtyard capable of accommodating a congregation of more than a thousand.
All are mosques; and, as Beeba explained that day, all have some basic fundamental features that don’t change. The most basic form of a mosque is a `wall mosque’- a wall that marks the direction of prayer. (A rather pretty but rundown example is to be found in the enclosure of Atgah Khan’s tomb in Nizamuddin). Most mosques, however, are larger, and have many more features. And irrespective of when it was built, by whom, and at what cost, a mosque has some features that will always be there.
The first of these is one of the most obvious, and what you’ll encounter as soon as you enter: the sehan. The sehan, or the courtyard, is a large paved area, usually square or rectangular, that invariably occupies the front of the mosque (in some cases, it may be a central courtyard surrounded by pillared cloisters known as riwwaaqs). The sehan is the area where worshippers congregate for prayer, so the size of the courtyard roughly determines the number of people who’d come to the mosque for namaz. The majority of mosques are mardana masjids (mosques for men); the number of janana masjids (mosques for women) is comparatively less. In the rare case that a mosque has both mardana and janana sections, there would be two separate sehans, each kept discreetly apart to segregate the sexes.
Within the sehan is another necessary feature: the hauz, or watertank. Ablution is an essential part of namaz; therefore, clean water must be near at hand. The hauz is usually a large, shallow pool set in the centre of the sehan.
The facade of the mosque has its own importance, especially in mosques of the Mughal period. The architecture of earlier mosques (like the Khirki Masjid, the Kalan Masjids, or other mosques constructed by Khan-e-Jahan Junaan Shah Telangani) is less ornate and impressive than that of Mughal mosques, and part of the reason lies in the fabulous arched facades that adorn the latter. The Jama Masjid is a prime example: its gorgeously cusped arches span a facade that’s topped by beautifully proportioned domes, each tapering elegantly upwards.
The number of arches in a typical facade of a Mughal masjid is always an odd number: there will be three, or five, or seven arches, not two or four or six. This, inevitably, draws the viewer’s attention to the central arch, which is often larger and more ornate than the ones on either side. The central arch is known as the iwan, and the sets of arches on either side of it are, quaintly enough, known as the sawaal (the `question’) and the jawaab (the 'response’). It’s a heartwarming term that epitomises the love for symmetry that typifies Mughal architecture - in particular that of the master aesthete, Shahjahan.
Walk in through the iwan, and you’re in the liwan - the covered area that lies right beyond the facade. The main body of a mosque consists largely of two sections, the sehan outside and the liwan inside; and of these, the bulk of the area is taken up by the sehan. The liwan is generally a relatively narrow oblong area. Almost always, tit’s he wall opposite the iwan that is marked by the mihrab - the walled-up arch that signifies the direction of Mecca - and which, consequently, is the direction in which the entire congregation kneels in prayer. The mihrab, especially in some of the more magnificent Mughal mosques like the Jama Masjid and the Qila-e-Kuhna Masjid (in Purana Qila), are beautifully ornate affairs with intricate carving.
Also within the liwan is the mimbar - a short flight of steps (usually only about half a dozen or so), generally on one side of the mihrab. The mimbar is the mosque’s equivalent of a church pulpit: a raised platform from which the imam of the mosque leads the faithful in prayer or preaches to them. Interestingly enough, during namaz, the imam never stands on the topmost step of the mimbar. It is symbolically left vacant, reserved for the most revered preacher of all- the Prophet Mohammad himself.