Aali Masjid:The fading grandeur of 624 year old mosque

At the far end of Eidgah in Srinagar, basking in sunlight often interrupted by cool shade of mighty chinars, stands Aali Masjid, a mute spectator to history of six centuries of Kashmir. Termed as the second biggest mosque in Srinagar, the Aali Masjid is known for its unique architecture, 156 deodar columns, six stepped pulpit made of devri stone and wooden pinjrakari work.

The mosque has gone through the phases of destruction and rebuilding during its 624 years of existence. However, at present the mosque is confronted with new challenges causing it to slowly lose its sheen. The insensitive interventions undertaken by the local mosque committee has played havoc with its aesthetic value. Together with lack of maintenance and attempts to grab the prized land, the historical place is in grave danger.

According to experts the mosque is the only such structure built on such a grand scale, that has been constructed in an Eidgah, in any part of the Islamic world. Historically the mosque was the second largest mosque to be built in Srinagar city after Jamia Masjid.

The mosque which was abandoned for more than 30 years was restored by the government

with the help of INTACH and since then has been regularly used by devotees.

According to traditional Kashmiri historical references, Ali Masjid or as it is commonly called Aali Masjid was constructed in 1395 by Sultan Ali Shah, the seventh Sultan of Kashmir. Most of the traditional historical sources maintain that during the reign of Ali Shah’s father, Sultan Sikander (1389 -1413 A.D) Mir Syed Mohammed Hamdani, the son of famous Persian missionary Mir Syed Ali Hamdani (Shah-i-Hamdan) purchased a large piece of open land on the western side of Narwara in 1393 and dedicated it for organizing Eid prayers and became famous by the name of Eidgah.

The mosque complete with wooden mehrab with naqashi work is then said to have been enlarged in the 17th Century and rebuilt in 19th Century. A stone slab located over the mehrab of the mosque states that Sultan Hassan, the tenth Sultan of Kashmir, constructed the mosque.

In local oral traditions the name Aali Masjid is also associated with the famous Mughal engineer and governor of Kashmir Ali Mardan Khan, who is said to have renovated the mosque during his rule (1650–57A.D).

According to the historian Hassan Shah, Islam Khan constructed a permanent masonry wall around the mosque and raised the ceiling on tall wooden columns. From Hassan Shah’s work description it seems that the original construction probably consisted of an open dalan (talan) raised on wooden columns; which was enlarged and enclosed by Islam Khan within masonry walls. Islam Khan had the trees around the mosque cleared and had the area planted with chinar trees.

The mosque got burnt down in Afghan rule during the governorship of Abdullah Khan in 1800 A.D. A prominent Afghan Sardar, Gul Mohammed Khan reconstructed the building in 1801 AD.

The mosque so built was a single story structure with the ceiling supported on a wooden colonnade and surmounted by a low pitched sloping roof covered with a birch bark roof.

The gazetteer of 1872 A.D, describes the mosque as;

“…….a fine old building, half concealed by……….chinars. The interior is about 64 yard (58.5 m) long 20.1m wide. The roof is flat and supported on four rows of polygonal wooden pillars…..”

In 1935 A.D. the traditional birch bark roof of the mosque was changed to three tire CGI roof under the supervision of Mirwaiz Kashmir, Moulana Yousuf. The present day three tired pyramidal roof with its exposed wooden truss dates back to this period. The wooden latticework windows of the mosque were replaced by glass pane shutters and a raised wooden floor constructed in the main prayer hall during repair work carried out in 1985.

The mosque which is located in northeastern corner of Eidgah was mainly used on the occasion of Eid prayers and for the astigfar namaz (prayers of atonement). The mosque was in partial use up till 1947 before being abandoned though the building has been used for prayers, occasionally. It was the abandoned state of the mosque that gave rise to large numbers of myths and legends maintaining the mosque being inhabited by spirits and jinns which many inhabitants of the locality still believe.

Interestingly local traditions maintain that the original mosque was located at the centre of the Eidgah ground and not at its present position. Aali Masjid was located at the edge of the Srinagar city, away from the main settlement. It was only in the second half of the 20th Century that the residential houses came up in the vicinity. The traditional approach to the Eidgah and the mosque was from water channel branching of from the main Nallah Mar canal.

During the early part of the 20th Century the Eid sermons were given from the mosque while the Eid namaz was offered in the open field of Eidgah. According to locals the rectangular platform projecting at the centre of the southern façade of the mosque was used by Mirwaiz Yousuf Shah, a prominent religious preacher, for delivering the Eid khutba (sermon). The mosque also served as a prominent platform for the freedom struggle during the Dogra rule in the early part of the 20th Century.

Despite having rich heritage and historic value, the condition of the mosque at present is not good. “The biggest problem with the Aali Masjid is the partition which the local committee has raised inside the mosque. The open space inside the mosque which has the religious, cultural, heritage and aesthetic value. Unfortunately  they have disfigured the same space,” said Salim Beigh State Convenor of INTACH.

The mosque has been in disuse since 1990s and after renovation in 2009-10 faithful again started trickling in. Almost two crores were spent on the preservation of the mosque for which INTACH had prepared a detailed plan.

“The mosque was built in lime mortar and we had to train masons for 15 days in the technique. Infact the construction wasWe had to get technical expertise from outside the state. We had to remove the cement which was used without giving any thought,” said Beigh. “The biggest problem was its dampness which we took care of with the help of experts. It was after many intervention that it was ready for prayers.”

Besides the partitioned space, the mosque has the problem of creeping moisture. The fungus infestation has covered the walls starting from the bed.

“Our experts minutely worked on the moisture problem. They gave the solution that the floor has to remain uncovered every few days or so. Second option was to lift flooring during the night and spread it in morning,” said Beigh. “But the guidelines were never followed.”

A major threat facing the mosque is the land grabbers. “Earlier there was no habitation near the mosque but now houses are nearby. Lot of people pray here and it has attracted vendors too. Some of the vendors are connected with the committee members and even Waqf people and they want to built few shops there,” said an insider. “Now they are lobbying with Waqf to give permission to build a new small mosque so that it will help them in their construction plan. If that happens it will destroy the value of Aali masjid. Even the partition inside the mosque is fishy. Sometimes they say it is for protection of cold and sometimes they say it is prayer space for women, although women don’t come here.”

Beigh refuted the problems of cold weather too which was cited by worshippers in the mosque. “Jamia masjid is open if there is no issue of cold there, how come it is here,” said Beigh. “Secondly the worshippers have alternative in the shape of a beautiful small mosque at nearby Alam Saheb, where they can pray in warmth. That mosque is the only colonial style mosque in Kashmir, but unfortunately is currently closed. But it can be opened and used. Any new construction will do irreparable damage.”

Beigh said Srinagar has a tradition of using certain mosques only during summers, which were collectively known as Retiqal Masjid (Summer mosques) and Aali masjid comes under that genre too.

The shoddy interiors with dangling wires and haphazard electric fitting completely takes the sheen of its beautiful interiors.

G R Sufi, Vice–chairman of J&K Muslim Waqf Board acknowledged the problems at the Aali Masjid. “I recently visited the mosque and found that partition inside the main hall. I immediately directed the concerned to remove the partition and hopefully it will be done in coming few days,” said Sufi. “Aali Masjid is one of our treasured mosques and everything will be done to protect its heritage value. We are looking into the demand of locals and are evaluating options to help them and at the same time preserve the Aali masjid.”