Monday, 27 June 2016

Zafar Khan Ghazi Masjid: Bengal's Oldest Mosque

Located some 70 km to the North of Calcutta (Kolkata), in the town of Tribeni, the Zafar Khan Ghazi Masjid is not just the oldest mosque of Bengal, it is the oldest standing Islamic structure of any kind. The complex consists of a mosque and a dargah, with several tombs and it remains an active religious site. However, the identity of the man, i.e., Zafar Khan Ghazi, remains something of a mystery and colourful tales about him continue to circulate. So just who was this man and why does the mosque that he built, look so strange?

The Zafar Khan Ghazi Masjid



WHO WAS ZAFAR KHAN GHAZI?

Eastern window of dargah, probably temple doorframe
The material available to us comes primarily from two sources. An Assistant Professor at the Calcutta Madrassah, H. Blochman’s translations of the Arabic plaques in the complex were published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society in 1870, which was preceded by “An Account of the Temple of Tribeni near Hugli”, written by a civil servant, D. Money, which appeared in the Journal of the Asiatic Society in May, 1847. Money’s account is a most detailed one and one that many refer to even today. Mixing legend and family records (which is called Khurseenaamah), what we know is this – a Muslim subject of the Hindu king of Tribeni sacrificed a cow to mark his son’s circumcision. The enraged king had the son beheaded since cows are sacred to Hindus. The father appealed to the Muslim king of Delhi, who is referred to by Money as Feroze Shah. Feroze Shah immediately dispatched a large army to Bengal, led by Zafar Khan Ghazi. Zafar Khan battled the Hindu king, named Man Nriputi, in a place called Mahanud near Satgram (now known as Saptagram), about 8 miles West of Tribeni. The Hindu king was defeated and converted to Islam. Shah Soofee, who according to many accounts was Zafar Khan Ghazi’s nephew, fought alongside him in this battle and was killed. He lies buried in the dargah in Hooghly’s Pandua, also known as Chhoto-Pendo, chhoto being the Bengali word for small, to distinguish it from the larger Pandua or Boro-Pendo in the Malda district.

Eastern side of Zafar Khan Ghazi's Dargah
Zafar Khan Ghazi, it seems, settled in Tribeni. The area which contains his mosque and dargah were referred to as “Ghazi Sahab ka astanah” in the 1840’s. The word astanah, although of foreign origin when used in Bengali means den or lair. Here, an amazing transformation takes place. In spite of his antipathy towards Hindus, the local people thought of Zafar Khan as a “buzurg”, i.e., a learned elder. While staying on the banks of the Ganges, here called the Hooghly (or Hugli), Zafar Khan was completely bowled over by the beauty of the river. Such was the power of the love that he felt, that it is said that the rivers waters rose up to meet him when he sat in meditation on the banks, and “in the ecstasy of the beatific vision, the full tide of his aspirations rolled in Sanskrit shlokas instead of Persian verse”. Money quotes a Sanskrit verse that he says was written by Zafar Khan Ghazi and was well known to Brahmin priests of his time. When translated, it reads as follows…

Oh Suradhuni Gunga, the daughter of Janhoo Muni, what will be thy greatness if thou wilt bestow salvation on the virtuous, who are saved by their own merits! If thou bestowest salvation on me, a helpless wretch, I would then proclaim thy glory to the highest extremity”.

Zafar Khan had 4 sons. Ain Khan Ghazi, Ghain Khan Ghazi, Barkhan Ghazi and Ughwan Khan, all of whom lived in and around Tribeni. But those who live by the sword usually die by the sword. Zafar Khan Ghazi was killed in a battle with a Raja of Hooghly, named Bhoodev. In fact, it seems he was decapitated on the battlefield and his head could not be located. Only his body was brought back for burial. Ughwan Khan marched against Bhoodev, defeated him in battle and ultimately married his daughter. She is buried alongside him in the dargah, and Money writes that his father’s religious transformation must have had some effect on Ughwan. It seems in the 1840’s “Hindu votive offerings” would be left on Ughwan’s wife’s tomb by devotees.

Southern side of the Zafar Khan Ghazi Dargah

Chain and flower motif  on Western wall of dargah
Who were the kings referred to in this story? The first puzzle is the name of Muslim king, Feroze Shah, which is also spelt Firuz Shah or Firoz Shah in various accounts. Zafar Khan’s mosque was built in 1298 C.E., and if one were to simply match the numbers, there are only two people who appear likely. Jalal-ud-din Firuz Khilji, the founder of the Khilji Dynasty of Delhi, who reigned from 1290 – 1296 C.E. or Shamsuddin Firoz Shah, who was an independent ruler of Bengal and reigned from 1301 – 1322 C.E. If the initial appeal was made to a Feroze in Delhi, it is likely to be Jalal-ud-din Firuz Khilji, while support for Zafar Khan Ghazi’s madrassah may have come from the latter. About the two Hindu kings, Man Nripati and Bhoodev, Money speculates that they must have been either Oriya kings or tributary chiefs of the kings of Orissa (now Odisha). The influence and territory of the kings of Orissa extended as far as Hooghly back in the day. The second oldest “rath yatra” or car festival of the Hindu deity Lord Jagannath is in Mahesh in Serampore, approximately 30 km to the South of Tribeni, and worship of Jagannath in this area started under the influence of the Oriya kings.

Western side of the Zafar Khan Ghazi Dargah
But of course, this is only one theory about the man. According to Syed Mahmudul Hasan, Zafar Khan Ghazi was a general under Ruknuddin Kaikus, the predecessor of Shamsuddin Firoz Shah. This makes some sense, because Tribeni and Satgaon, or Saptagram, were first brought under Muslim control during Kaikus’s reign. But Sir Jadunath Sarkar is of the opinion that the Zafar Khan who conquered Saptagram for Kaikus was a different Zafar Khan, who in later life took the title Khan-i-Jahan. Confusion is further confounded by D. Money’s original article which says that the Khurseenama says that Zafar Khan came from a place called “Muksoodabad”. Muksoodabad is the old name for Murshidabad, which would later become the capital of Bengal. How likely is it that Shah Sufi would take an appeal about a local matter all the way to Delhi, and the king of Delhi, in response would despatch soldiers from a provincial town? In his book “Land of Two Rivers”, Nitish Sengupta also talks about a band of wandering dervishes called “Qalandars”, who were instrumental in spreading Islam in Bengal. Several of these Qalandars took to arms to defend their faith. Among them, the famous Shah Jalal, who invaded and conquered Sylhet. The pretext for this invasion was the oppression of the Muslims of Sylhet by their Hindu king, Govinda Deva. Perhaps something similar happened in Tribeni. We shall never know for sure.

Northern side of the Zafar Khan Ghazi Dargah - note temple door frame to the left, with keystone

ARCHITECTURE OF THE ZAFAR KHAN GHAZI MOSQUE AND DARGAH

Projecting metal pieces are from  Zafar Khan Ghazi's battle axe
The dargah and mosque of Zafar Khan Ghazi, stand on an elevated area, commanding a view of the river. The dargah is to the East of the complex and consists of a rectangular area with two enclosures. It is not clear to me if the dargah ever had a roof, but it certainly doesn’t have one today. On the Eastern wall, facing the road is a window with a black stone “jaali” screen. Both the window and the jaali screen look like they came from a Hindu temple. A few rough steps lead up to the window and upon climbing them, one can touch two pieces of metal projecting from the window’s sill. These pieces of metal are said to be part of Zafar Khan Ghazi’s battle axe, the rest of which is buried within the Eastern wall. Although the pieces are loose, it is impossible to pull them out. The complex is made of brick and stone. Basalt is used in the Eastern enclosure, while sandstone is used in the Western one. In places, stone cladding is used on brick walls. The whole has a very incomplete, haphazard appearance as if someone put together one building from bits of material from multiple sources.

Eastern chamber of the dargah. Note 3rd tomb from left is topped by a takhti, appearing lower. A female tomb.

Chain and lamp motif. Keystone on Southern doorframe

Immediately to the South of this are steps leading into the complex. Up the steps and to the left, metal boards contain a short history of the complex, which have been put there by the Archaeological Survey of India. Beyond it, in a small garden, there are two small tombs. It is unclear who is buried here. To the right are the two doors leading into the two enclosures of the dargah. Again, the doors appear to have come from a Hindu temple. It is quite easy to spot this when you know what to look for. First, the door frames are not arched, which is what they would likely be if they were designed by Muslim architects. Second, at the bottom of each frame, on each side, undeniably Hindu carvings are seen. There are deities, which appear to be Hindu and a rough attempt has been made to chisel them off. There are miniature “deul” type temples. There are also very Hindu symbols such as the “mangal ghat”, which is a representation of an earthen pot commonly used in Hindu rituals. The eastern enclosure contains 4 tombs. These are of Barkhan Ghazi and his two sons Rahim Khan Ghazi and Karim Khan Ghazi. The identity of one tomb remains unknown. However, 3 of the tombs are topped by a wedge, making them appear higher than the 4th. Male tombs from this period were topped with that wedge, called a “kalam”, while female tombs had a flat strip on top, known as “takhti”, making them appear lower. So we can assume that the tomb which looks lower, has a woman underneath. 

Western chamber of dargah. Tomb to the right is Zafar Khan Ghazi. Note inscription plaques on platform.

Grave of Abdul Kareem Khan (left) and Abdul Rahman Khan (right).

The Western enclosure contains 4 tombs. The western-most one is that of Zafar Khan Ghazi, while the other 3 are of Ain Khan Ghazi, Ghain Khan Ghazi and the wife of Ughwan Khan. Again, Ughwan’s wife’s grave is easy to spot, thanks to it being topped with a “takhti”. On the outside of the enclosures, between the two doors of the enclosures, there is a large tomb. Another tomb is on the Western side of the enclosure and yet another is near its North West corner. These may be tombs of earlier khadims, or caretakers, of the complex. A path leads West from the enclosures to the mosque of Zafar Khan Ghazi. On the left, or South is a giant Banyan tree which is said to be some 100 years old. There are several graves in an open spot outside the complex as well. A couple of them have legible plaques on them, mentioning the names Abdul Kareem Khan, son of Mohammed Kareem Khan and Abdul Rahman Khan, son of Kaladar Khan. The former mentions the date of death as “4, Jumada al-awwal, 1372 Al Hijra”, which equals 16th June 2010, so these are all fairly recent burials.

Ruined mihrab. Note obliterated Northern mihrab's position marked by long stone on the far end.

Looking South from the central mihrab
The Zafar Khan Ghazi Masjid may appear strange to those who are only used to Mughal style mosques, with their onion domes and graceful minarets. This mosque has none of those. The oblong mosque measures some 76 feet by 36 feet and is divided into 2 aisles by four unusually thick stone pillars. There are 5 arched bays at the front, and these 5 bays and 2 aisles create 10 squares, each of which is topped by a dome. The domes are created by placing successive rings of brick or stone one top of one another, each a little smaller than the previous one, with the small remaining hole being covered by a stone. 

Looking North from the central mihrab. Note rudimentary minbar

Ruined Northern terracotta partition
This same technique is used in Gauda and Pandua as well, which is why many of the domes have these ring-like things on the outside (For more on the mosques of Gauda, click here).Other than the central dome, the 4 other domes above the Western aisle have collapsed. On the Western wall, 3 mihrabs may be seen, while the ruins of 2 more are visible to the Northern and Southern ends. The central mihrab appears to have been very recently renovated and its arch looks like it has been recreated with mortar or cement. The two mihrabs to the two sides have arches made of decorated brick (which is different from terracotta), and in a case of the Southern one, the arch is held up by ornamental pillars, which appear to have come from a temple. In two places in the Western wall, two panels have been arbitrarily mounted vertically, which contain a repeating vegetal pattern. Panels with a similar pattern are seen on the walls of the Zafar Khan Dargah, and these may have come from a temple as well.

Central mihrab. Note gap in the wall immediately the left of the mihrab, where an inscription plaque used to be

Rocks gathered in one corner. Inset - pillar with projecting metal piece
All the mihrabs appear to be created using temple doorframes, and in the case of the mihrab immediately to the left or South of the central mihrab, Arabic calligraphy is seen all along the frame and on a keystone above the arch. The four stone pillars in the centre of the mosque are of stone and are very thick. Experts suggest that these may have come from a temple as well and that no mortar was used to create them. Apparently, the stone are held together using some special Indian technique. There are a large number of stones, broken pillars etc, at one corner of the complex, and what I found interesting was that many of the pillar fragments, had bits of metal poking out from their core. Is this ancient Indian TMT bar technology?! Two partitions, one bay deep, extend from the Northern and Southern end of the central aisle. These partitions contain niches made of terracotta tiles and decorated bricks. The Northern partition has partially collapsed and some recent attempts appear to have been made to recreate it, albeit without the terracotta tiles.

The mihrab in the best condition. Note ruined Southern mihrab on the far end of wall

Terracotta decoration on Southern partition
The Zafar Khan Ghazi Masjid is called the prototype of the Bengal style of mosques. Such mosques are found in Gauda, Pandua and Murshidabad and are unique to this part of the world. Upon his return to Delhi from his fist Bengal expedition in 1354, Firoz Shah Tughlaq built the Kotla Mosque, which bears a striking resemblance to the Bengal style. He was, no doubt, influenced by what he saw here. This is the enclosed type of mosque, with no open courtyard in front. In Bengal’s steaming weather and pouring monsoons, such a courtyard would have been pointless in any case. But what I find interesting is that there is no “Wazu Khana”, where the devout would perform their ritual ablutions. Perhaps there was a well or a pond nearby which later got filled up. A couple of modern taps and basins serve this function today, for the Zafar Khan Ghazi Masjid, more than 700 years after it was built, still remains active.

The western aisle of the Zafar Khan Ghazi Masjid

THE MISSING PLAQUES OF THE ZAFAR KHAN GHAZI MOSQUE

The good thing is, back in 1870, Blochman had left complete and detailed translations of all the inscriptions on the various plaques found on the walls of the Zafar Khan Ghazi Mosque and Dargah. The bad news is, I couldn’t find many of the plaques. Even when I did find plaques, I couldn’t match them to the text because they weren’t in the same place. It took me two visits before I finally got it. All my source texts were from the mid-19th Century and none of them mentioned that four of the mosque’s domes had collapsed and all of them talked about 5 mihrabs when I could only see 3. Careful inspection of the Western wall revealed that there were two more mihrabs, there were signs of them, even though they didn’t exist anymore. I could only see 3 plaques with clear inscriptions and I took photographs of all of them, but unfortunately since I do not read Arabic, I have no way of matching them to their translations. On the Western wall were also two spots which looked like there had been plaques there at one point, which had been removed. So where are these plaques and who moved them? When did the domes collapse? There are no satisfactory answers to these questions.

INSCRIPTION I
Are these simply verses from the Qur'an?

Blochman mentions one mihrab with an inscription on black basalt, which said the following…

And I [Zafar Khan] hope to obtain the pious wishes of such as are learned in the law that God may strengthen my faith at the time I am in the grave. May God reward me; for He is truly merciful and liberal and kind and I hope that He will honour me

Continues on top...

Zafar Khan, the Turk, the lion of lions, _____ and the most excellent one of builders of benevolent edifices, after the heroes, and by smiting the infidels with sword and spear and lavishing treasures on every ____

Lines 7, 8, 15, 16 and 24 are illegible. The inscription continues on the left post...

And by honouring all the learned of the faith, in order to elevate the standard of God.

The date is expressed by the Wafq letters 8, 90, and 600 and according to the reckoning of him who counts.

The other plaques of the mosque.
The inscription begins on the post on the right, proceeding upwards onto the horizontal top post, and onto a separate keystone, ending on the post of the left, where the writing continues downwards. Although so much of the writing was illegible even in 1870, by a stroke of luck the name and the date have escaped unscathed. The date, from the “wafq” letters, is simple enough to calculate. 600+90+8 = 698 Al Hijra, which is 1298 C.E. I found only one mihrab which had Arabic writing on it, but it was definitely not black. I have no way of telling if this is the inscription, or if these are just lines from the Qur’an.

One more black rectangular plaque is not historically important and just contains a quote from the Qur’an. There are two more tall, black plaques with Arabic writing, but these do not originally belong to this mosque. Over time, Zafar Khan Ghazi Masjid has become a sort of museum for these plaques, and Muslims have been picking them up from decaying structures all over the district and placing them here. A regular nightmare. Thankfully the plaques in the Zafar Khan Ghazi Dargah are relatively unmolested.

INSCRIPTION II
Inscription plaques from the pedestal in the Western chamber of the dargah

Blochman’s account has two long black plaques on the Northern wall of the Western chamber. These have been moved to the Northern side of the platform on top of which are the tombs of Zafar Khan Ghazi and his sons. The translation of the plaques is as follows…

Praise be to Him to whom praise is due! This Madrasah which goes by the name of Dar ul Khairat [house of benevolence] was built during the reign of the Lord of munificence, the owner of the crown and the signet, the shadow of God on earth, the generous, the liberal, the great the master of the necks of nations, the sun of the world and the faith, who is distinguished by the grace of the Lord of the universe, the heir of the realm of Sulaiman, Shamsuddin Abul Muzaffar Firuz Shah. May God perpetuate his reign.

Continues to the second slab...

by order of the distinguished Khan, the generous, the respected, the liberal, the praiseworthy, the helper of Islam, the aider of mankind, the meteor of truth and faith, the supporter of kings and sovereigns, the patron of enquirers, Khan Muhammad Zafar Khan. May God give him victory over his enemies and guard his friends.

Dated 1st Muharram 713 A.H.

The date translates to 28th April 1313 C.E. The king mentioned in the tablet was an independent ruler of Bengal, successor to Rukunuddin Kaikaus and ruled from 1301 to 1322 C.E. Sir Jadunath Sarkar speculates that this Khan Muhammad Zafar Khan may have been a different person and that the plaques for the Madrasah that he established, somehow ended up here. But there is no way to confirm this, and the general consensus seems to be that Zafar Khan Ghazi had established a Madrasah (school for Islamic instruction) at this spot.

INSCRIPTION III
The rock on the floor of the western chamber

There is also mention of another tablet on the floor of the Western chamber, which is still there. The plaque reads…

God has said the mosques belong to God. Worship no one else besides God. (Qor’an LXXII, 18)

This mosque was built by the great Khan, the exalted grandee, Ulugh Ajmal Khan - may God preserve him in both worlds - the Commander of the army of the exalted nobleman, Iqrar Khan, who is the guardian (jandar) of the honour of the royal Harem, Commander and Vazir of the District of Sajla Mankhbad and the town of Laobla - may his exalted qualities endure for ever - during the reign of the just, liberal, learned and perfect king, Barbak Shah, son of Mahmud Shah, the Sultan

Dated A.H. 860

860 in the Hijri calendar is 1456 C.E. according to the Gregorian calendar. Blochman made exhaustive enquiries, but could not identify Sajla Mankhbad or the town of Laobla. The king referred to is Rukunuddin Barbak Shah of the Ilyas Shahi dynasty, who was the governor of the Satgaon or Saptagram region, and succeeded Nasiruddin Mahmud Shah on the throne. The other side of this plaque has what appear to be carvings from a Hindu temple. I thought I’d turn it around to get a clear photo, but as soon as I touched it, I knew I could pump iron for the next 100 years, and I still won’t be able to move this thing an inch. How did men work with such heavy stones in an age when there were no power tools?

WAS THE ZAFAR KHAN GHAZI MOSQUE A HINDU TEMPLE?

Miniature deul temple carved into doorframe. Note deities have been chiselled off. 

Temple panels on the Southern side
In an academic paper, Presidency University student Purba Hossain warns against jumping to conclusions about Islamic destruction of Hindu temples. The actual evidence for it is remarkably sketchy, she says, and in most cases is little more than legend. In an interview published in Tehelka magazine in November of 2013, Professor Richard M. Eaton, the leading authority on medieval and Islamic history in India says that Islamic temple destruction has been blown out of proportion for political gains, and needs a much more nuanced understanding. Temples were destroyed, desecrated and looted, that much is for certain. But how many, and for what purpose, that is the issue that needs careful study. Hindu temples, even today, are storehouses of vast amounts of money and gold – what people call moveable assets. Where does this come from? Offerings from devotees, of course. In 2012, on his birthday, Vijay Mallya (of Kingfisher fame), had donated 3 kilogrammes of gold to the Tirupati temple! It is obvious that this amount of booty in one location would attract raiders, especially from a country like Afghanistan which was largely arid and had no major crops or industries to speak of. This is a trend that continues even today. In 1795, dacoits struck the Buddhist Bhot Bagan Math in Howrah’s Ghusuri because it housed solid gold idols (For more on Bhot Bagan Math, click here). In 2014, thieves stole all the gold ornaments from the idols at the Jagannath temple in Mahesh in Serampore, home to India’s 2nd oldest Rath Yatra. Think of the Afghan raiders simply as thieves with cavalry – a terrifying proposition! All their Islamic pretensions were simply a way to garb the fact that they were here to pillage.

Clockwise from top - 1.Navagraha/Dasavatara panel 2.Panel detail 3.Kalpalata panel. Western wall of dargah
The other kind of temple destruction is one that many are unaware of. In a Hindu kingdom in India, the king’s authority, his claim to legitimacy, emanated from his royal temple. It was because of the blessings of that particular deity, that the people believed he was sitting on the throne. Therefore, when his country was invaded, and a new king took over, it became necessary to destroy the royal temple, because that was a powerful visible symbol of the old monarchy and the new king would not want all his subjects to be reminded on a daily basis, that he was an outsider who had usurped power by force. This type of temple destruction is not unique to Islam. The first raid on the Jagannath temple of Puri happened to be by the Hindu king Govinda III of the Rashtrakuta dynasty.

Sanskrit writing in Western chamber of dargah
In the wake of Bakhtiyar Khilji, as Turkic armies swept Eastern India, many Hindu and Buddhist sites were raided and looted for booty. Stones from these sites were, in some cases, later used to build mosques. The reasons were practical. Indrajit Chaudhuri of Anandabazar Patrika told me of the concept of a “conquest mosque”, where a Muslim ruler would build a giant mosque in an area as soon as he took control of it, to assert his superiority. Again, this isn’t unique to Islam. Look at all the Islamic structures demolished or converted to Churches in Spain, for instance, once the Christians took over from the Moors. The trouble in Bengal, however, was the dearth of stone. Stone in Bengal could only be procured from the Rajmahal mountains, and this was obviously not an option if one needed a mosque built quickly. So where would such large amounts of stone come from? From stone temples, some of which had been destroyed in the war and some more which lay in ruins. But almost as a rule, mosques were never superimposed on the floor plan of a temple. The two buildings were fundamentally different, and doing this would have presented problems. So in the case of the Zafar Khan Ghazi Mosque and Dargah, there are two questions. First, was this the site of a Hindu temple? And second, were materials from a Hindu temple used to build it?

Panel containing faces on Southern wall of dargah
The answer to the first question is almost certainly no. Rakhaldas Bandyopadhyay, the man who discovered Mohenjo-daro, was of the opinion that the Dargah of Zafar Khan Ghazi was a Hindu temple, with the Eastern chamber serving as a “naat-mandir” or “jag-mohan” and the Western chamber serving as the sanctum sanctorum or “garba-griha”. The problems with this hypothesis are multiple. Leaving aside the fact that the design of the structure doesn’t resemble a temple, consider the fact that 8 people are buried in there. That means someone would have to cut through the stone plinth, then the stone foundations of the temple, and then 6 feet into the ground. A back-breaking task even with a jack-hammer.

Top row - temple faces mounted  upside down. Middle row - Kalpalata panel. Bottom row - unidentified Hindu panel

Interlocking triangles forming a 6 pointed star. A Hindu symbol
But temple remains have most definitely been used in both structures. In the Western wall of the mosque, there are two stone panels, mounted vertically, which contain vegetal patterns. The same pattern is seen on the walls of the dargah. On the Southern wall, faces carved in stone can be seen in a spot now partially concealed by a staircase. Near the South-Western corner, two more panels may be seen. One has a vegetal pattern while another has human figurines. On the Western wall, Amit Guha of Aishee has identified a “kalpalata” panel, besides which there are faces carved into certain stones which have been mounted upside down. I saw this exact same face on the walls of Adina Masjid in Malda district, which I found rather curious. A “dasavatara” panel is found on the Northern wall, which also contains fragments of another “kalpalata” panel and vegetal patterns. None of these could have been part of a Muslim structure’s original plan since portrayal of living things is considered “haram”, or forbidden in Islam. Inside the Western chamber, Sanskrit writing may clearly be seen on certain stones. In 1840, Money was able to read many of the Sanskrit inscriptions and says that they were descriptions of scenes from the Hindu epic Ramayana, and stories from the life of Krishna. Money speculates that these were probably descriptive lines attached to bottoms of panels depicting these scenes. On the inside of the black stone "jaali" in the Eastern chamber is what looks like a star of David. This 6 pointed star, formed by 2 interlocking isosceles triangles is a symbol also used in Hinduism. The upward pointing triangle represents the male, while the downward pointing one represents the female. Remember Robert Langdon explaining blade and chalice in The Da Vinci Code? He wasn't making it up!

Sanskrit inscription in Western chamber

Mongol Ghot carved in doorframe
What had me perplexed right from the start, was the large variety of stones that have been used for Zafar Khan Ghazi’s mosque and dargah. If one temple had been demolished, one would get only one kind of stone, which was used for the structure, and at most another kind, which was used for door frames. Here, I could see stones of at least 4 different kinds. A large variety of stones is found in Adina, leading to the assumption that the stones came from different temples. But then, Adina is Bengal’s largest mosque even today. That amount of stone couldn’t have come from one structure. The Zafar Khan Ghazi mosque is smaller than Adina’s nave, and the dargah is not very large either. Moreover, even more than the mosque, the dargah has this very Frankenstein-ish character. It is partly stone, partly brick, partly brick with stone cladding. All of this adds up, in my mind, to only one logical conclusion. Small amounts of stone from multiple locations were used to build the mosque and the dargah, and it is likely that no structures were destroyed to create the Zafar Khan Ghazi complex, but rather, stone was procured from already ruined structures. Re-using stone from the ruins of earlier structures isn’t unique to Islam either. In the 1830’s, the Hindu King of Khurdah in Orissa (now Odisha), for instance, removed stones from the Konark Sun Temple to use in a temple he was building, causing the already decaying structure to collapse even further. In the case of the Zafar Khan Ghazi complex, additions and modifications have also been made, often quite randomly.

Another temple face, hidden by bricks.

CONCLUSION – THE TRUTH IS, THERE IS NO TRUTH

What is the truth? Who was Zafar Khan Ghazi? How were his mosque and dargah built? With the number of modifications and restorations that have happened over the years, with plaques and documents disappearing or decaying, I am afraid no one can now answer these questions with any amount of certainty, which is a frustrating proposition for someone such as I. I’d like to put things down in black and white – here’s what you’re looking at, and here’s what it means. But all I have in this case are inferences, and the most acceptable inference seems to keep changing with time. I was discussing my frustration with Pushkar Sohoni, academic and author of the book that helped me so much on my trip to Aurangabad, and he said something that stayed with me. “You are looking for one undeniable, unambiguous truth, which is the truth for all time. I must tell you, that such a thing cannot be found in science or art. It can only be found in religion”. That is the only thing that seems to have any continuity at the Zafar Khan Ghazi Masjid. 718 years after it was built, the mosque is still active and prayers happen every day. Even Hindus offer their respects at the tomb of Zafar Khan. After all the war, and bloodshed, and vandalism, faith has survived. I can make my peace with that.




  

-  by Deepanjan Ghosh (with inputs from Soham Chandra)


TRAVEL TIPS FOR TRIBENI

  • Tribeni is well-connected to Calcutta (Kolkata) by rail. A large number of local trains travel from Howrah to Tribeni station. From the station, the Zafar Khan Ghazi complex is a short walk.
  • Alternately, you could take a car, and you’d be there in under 2 hours using one of 3 possible routes. Do check for construction and road conditions before choosing a route.
  • PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS – mosques, as a rule, are best photographed in the morning, because they face East. It would be best, however, to photograph the interiors of the dargah in the afternoon. Remember, this is an active religious site. Shoes must be removed before entering, shorts, sleeveless dresses etc are not permitted. Entrance to the mosque is best avoided at prayer times.
  • For lunch, there are a large number of options nearby. I personally prefer Anand Hotel, aka Hakim Singh’s Dhaba/Jhajha Singh’s Dhaba. Their Anda Tadka and Chicken Bharta is to die for.
  • If you are in Tribeni, do check out the Tribeni Ghat and temples, all in the vicinity of the dargah.
  • GPS CO-ORDINATES - 22°58'46.5"N 88°24'03.8"E


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

  • My thanks to my friends, without whom this piece would not have been possible. Soham Chandra and Projjwal Das accompanied me to the site. Soham has provided valuable inputs about the site, and pointed out things to me that I would have missed. Check out Soham’s blog here.
  • Veteran bloggers Rangan Datta and Amitabha Gupta have been my sounding boards, helping me reason my way through this puzzle, and I am grateful to them for their help. Check out Rangan Datta’s blog here, and Amitabha Gupta’s blog here.
  • Translation help from Anindita Chatterjee, Anupam Augustine, Debasmita Boral, Mohamed Abdel-Hady, Mahmood Adnan Ajez, Ayesha Ahmed and Lina Ahmad.


SOURCES

Hasan, Perween - Sultans and Mosques: The Early Muslim Architecture of Bangladesh
Blochman, H. - Notes on the Arabic and Persian Inscriptions in the Hugli District (Asiatic Society, 1870)
Money, D. - An Account of the Temple of Triveni near Hugli (Asiatic Society, 1847)
Cumming, John (Ed) - Revealing India`s Past: A Record Of Archaeological Conservation
Mehta, J.L. - Medieval Indian Society and Culture
Sarkar, Sir Jadunath – The History of Bengal: Volume II
O’Malley, L.S.S. – Hooghly District Gazetteer
Bhattacharya, Narendranath – Hooghly Jela-r Purakirti
Sengupta, Nitish – Land of Two Rivers
Hasan, Syed Mahmudul - Mosque Architecture of Pre-Mughal Bengal
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