Sunday, 6 May 2018

Sayed Jamaluddin's Mosque, Saptagram

Located in the Saptagram area of Hooghly district in West Bengal, Sayed Jamaluddin’s Mosque is the only surviving monument from the Hussain Shahi period when Saptagram was a flourishing port and mint town. The last surviving witness of the glory days of this erstwhile capital of southern Bengal, Sayed Jamaluddin’s mosque is also a fine example of that phenomenon unique to Bengal – a terracotta mosque.

 


SAPTAGRAM AND THE TERRACOTTA MOSQUES OF BENGAL

Historian Nihar Ranjan Roy cites the ancient Hindu puranas to show that the river Saraswati was once the original course of the Ganges, and Saptagram, on its bank, served as an inland port, the only major port in West Bengal once Tamralipta faded away. The name refers to 7 villages, Basudevpur, Bansberia, Khamarpura, Debanandapur, Shibpur, Krishnapur and Trishbigha. Trishbigha has now been designated “Adi Saptagram”, or the core area of Saptagram and has a railway station by the same name. The rise of Saptagram could be said to have started around the 13th century, when Zafar Khan Ghazi arrived in neighbouring Tribeni and built his mosque in 1298 CE. Emperor Muhammad bin Tughluq, who every Indian schoolchild knows as “the wisest fool”, because he shifted his capital from Delhi to Daulatabad leading to a major disaster, established a mint in Saptagram and the first coins from that mint rolled out in 1328 CE. Silver was becoming increasingly scarce at this point in Delhi, but silver coins continued to roll out of the mint, and since there were no silver mines anywhere near, it is reasonable to assume that all the silver was coming through overseas commerce. By the 1494, Bipradas Pipilai identifies Saptagram as a major port and a town filled with large mansions of rich people.

Interiors of Sayed Jamaluddin's Mosque. Note stone pillars
But Aniruddha Ray, in the book “The Indian Trade at the Asian Frontier”, cites an inscription from 1505 stating that Sultan Alauddin Hussain Shah of Bengal was having a bridge built from Saptagram to Tribeni. No trace of the bridge remains, but since Saptagram was on the eastern channel of the Ganges, called the Saraswati and Tribeni on the western channel, called the Bhagirathi or Hooghly, this is the first clue that the flow of water was changing and Saptagram was facing challenges. When the Portuguese mission led by Antonio de Britto came to Bengal in 1521, they landed and Chittagong, although it would have been much easier to land at Saptagram, since it would have been a far shorter overland journey to Gauda, the capital. The last mention of big ships in the port of Saptagram is in the 1560’s by traveller Ceasar Frederici. When Vincent Le Blanc visited Saptagram in the 1570’s, after Akbar’s conquest of Bengal, he made no mention of large vessels at the port. When the Portuguese got their trading firman from Emperor Akbar in 1579, it gave them permission to build a settlement in Hooghly, which would signify that Saptagram was already in decline. So, by the late 16th century, Saptagram’s importance as a major trading port had ended and the focus had shifted to Hooghly and from there, eventually to Calcutta.

Terracotta decorations inside Sayed Jamaluddin's Mosque
Large urban and trade centres in India are also places where religious architecture flourishes. Very little stone is available in Bengal and thus for construction material, terracotta was relied upon. Vast amounts of clay could easily be had in riverine country. Clay was easy to work with, and when fired, the bricks were stable and long-lasting. While under Hindu rule, it was the stonemason, who carved the all-important stone idol who received more prestige and more money, under Bengal’s Muslim rulers, the equation changed. Mosques did not need stone idols, but they did need large amounts of terracotta decorations for walls, pillars, niches and even ceilings. From the 14th century, the terracotta art of Bengal began to develop under the patronage of its Muslim Sultans. Examples of such mosques are to be seen even today in areas such as Gauda and Pandua. By the 17th and 18th centuries, we find terracotta decorations appearing on Hindu temples, where finely crafted terracotta panels would tell stories from the epics or portray contemporary social scenes. While it is not often mentioned in this context, passed over in favour of Kherur, Motichur or other more grand structures, Sayed Jamaluddin’s Mosque is a fine example of a Bengal terracotta mosque.

Mihrabs of Sayed Jamaluddin's Mosque
SAYED JAMALUDDIN’S MOSQUE – DESCRIPTION AND FLOOR PLAN

The mosque itself is fairly modest in size, around 14 metres wide and 9 metres broad. The eastern fa├žade has 3 entrance, through which may be seen, 3 mihrabs or niches on the interior of the western wall. The roof appears to have collapsed long back and there are no remnants of a dome. However, the wall on the north-eastern corner is higher than the rest of the mosque. The four corners of the mosque had 4 small minarets, but presently, only the north-western minaret is standing. These appear to be purely of an ornamental nature and were not meant for the muezzin to climb into, for the azaan, the ritual call to prayer. The northern and southern side contain two entrance each. Inside the mosque are the remains of two stone pillars, which appear to be very similar to pillars seen inside the mosque of Zafar Khan Ghazi in Tribeni. Strewn around the compound are parts of pillars which must have been inside the mosque at one point. Remains of intricate terracotta floral patterns are seen all around the mosque, including around and inside the mihrabs and on the base and top of the minarets.

View from the north-eastern corner. Note only surviving minaret
To the southeast of the compound, on a raised platform are 3 tombs, with the one in the centre appearing to be of a female. Male tombs from this period were topped with a wedge, called a “kalam”, while female tombs had a flat strip on top, known as “takhti”, making it appear lower. Pioneering orientalist, Heinrich Blochmann had visited the site in 1870 and mentioned in his notes that the graves were inside an enclosure. There are no remains of a wall around the graves today, so it reasonable to assume that the wall has collapsed or decayed and the debris has been cleared. The stone on the western tomb has decorative carvings while the rest are plain. The north-eastern corner of the platform of the tombs contains inscriptions in Arabic, in the Tughra script. There are 3 stone tablets arranged along the northern side of the tombs. Of the people buried here, the general consensus seems to be that at least one male and one female tomb are of Jamaluddin’s parents, i.e, Fakhruddin and his wife. About the third, there is some disagreement. While some writers claim it is of Fakhruddin’s eunuch, some say it is Jamaluddin’s “Khoja”. On the eastern and southern sides, immediately outside the fence of the compound are 5 graves – 3 to the south and 2 to the east. These could be tombs of Khadims or caretakers of the graves, or of Imams who once served the mosque, but without any inscriptions on the tombs, it is difficult to say for sure.

Interiors from the north-eastern corner
INSCRIPTIONS

The inscription easiest to identify from Blochman’s writing is the one fixed on a basalt tablet on the eastern wall of the mosque. Blochman’s translation of the tablet reads as follows –

“God has said, ‘That man will build, &c.’ [Qoran IX., 18 ; vide Inscr. IX].

The prophet has said, 'He who builds for God a mosque in the world, will have seventy castles built for him by God in Paradise.'

This Jami' Masjid was built in the reign of the just king, Abul Muzaffar Nasrat Shah, the Sultan, son of Husain Shah the Sultan, the descendant of Husain, by the worthy Sayyid Jamal Din Husain, son of Sayyid Fakhruddin of Amul, the asylum of the Sayyids, and glory of the descendants of Taha [the
prophet],—may God preserve him in the world and the faith,—during the blessed month of Ramazan, 936 [May, 1529.]

Tablet of the eastern wall
The Sultan mentioned in the inscription is Nasiruddin Nasrat Shah, son of Alauddin Hussain Shah, who was emperor of Bengal from 1519 to 1533 and the date of construction falls in his reign. From the 3 tablets which are currently found leaning against the northern side of Fakhruddin’s tomb, Blochman finds mention of 2 more mosques, one built by “Tarbiyat Khan” in 861 AH (1457 CE), and the other by “Lord of the sword and the pen, Ulugh Majlis Nur, commander and Vazir of the district of Sajla Mankhbad, and the town known as Simlabad, and Commandant of the Thanah Laobla and Mihrbak, District and Mahall (Perganah) of Hadigar” 4th Muharram 892 AH (1st January, 1487 CE). Blochman failed to identify the places mentioned in the tablets, but concludes that these two tablets probably came from neighbouring mosques that are no longer in existence. It was a common practice of the time to collect the stone tablets from collapsed structures and put them all in one place and we see this in the Zafar Khan Ghazi mosque in Tribeni as well. A third tablet at Fakhruddin’s tomb also states the same things as the tablet on the mosque’s eastern wall. But there is no mention of the fading inscriptions on the north-eastern corner of the tomb which are carved into the rock and therefore definitely belong to this site. Since I cannot read Tughra, I cannot decipher them, but if some scholar would volunteer to translate them for me, I would be more than happy to furnish a high resolution photograph.

Fakhruddin's tomb. Note basalt tablets and inscription on corner
Blochman identifies the “Amul” in the inscriptions about Fakhruddin, as the Iranian city of “Amol” in the Mazandaran Province on the Caspian Sea. The other option could be T├╝rkmenabat, the 2nd largest city in Turkmenistan, which was known as Amul in ancient times. Since it was on the old Silk Route, it is not entirely unreasonable to suggest that Fakhruddin could have come from here. Whatever be the case, since a Muslim preacher from so far away chose to settle in this area, it is clear that Saptagram was an important city under Bengal’s Muslim rulers. The “sripat” of Uddharan Dutta and Raghunath Das also survive from the Hussain Shahi period in Saptagram, but both these structures have been renovated and reconstructed multiple times. Sayed Jamaluddin’s Mosque is the only survivor from the glory days of Saptagram.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh

TRAVEL TIPS

  • Adi Saptagram is connected to Howrah and Sealdah by multiple local trains. The journey can take between 1 hour 15 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the train you take. From the railway station, Sayed Jamaluddin’s Mosque is 1.6km away and local transport is easy to find.
  • By car, Sayed Jamaluddin’s Mosque is around 62km from Kolkata and can be reached in 1.5-2 hours. The drive is pleasant and the roads mostly good, although there are some rather treacherous speed-breakers. But if I survived in a Honda City with 4 adults, you should be fine as well.
  • There are eateries all around Saptagram but if you want to have a comfortable lunch, I would recommend Hakim Singh’s Dhaba at the crossing of G.T. Road and Assam Road. Beer is available and their chicken bharta and Chicken 65 are deadly.


GPS COORDINATES

  • Sayed Jamaluddin’s Mosque - 22°57'37.7"N 88°22'11.2"E
  • Hakim Singh Dhaba and Bar - 22°56'44.4"N 88°22'54.5"E


SUGGESTED FURTHER READING



ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

My sincere thanks to fellow bloggers Soham Chandra and Abhijit Das for accompanying me on this trip. Check out Soham’s blog here.

SOURCES

Hasan, Perween - Sultans and Mosques: The Early Muslim Architecture of Bangladesh (I.B.Tauris (August, 2007)
Blochman, H. - Notes on the Arabic and Persian Inscriptions in the Hugli District (Asiatic Society, 1870)
Sarkar, Sir Jadunath – The History of Bengal: Volume II (University of Dacca, 1948)
O’Malley, L.S.S. – Hooghly District Gazetteer (The Bengal Secretariat Book Depot, 1912)
Bhattacharya, Narendranath – Hooghly Jela-r Purakirti (Govt of West Bengal, 1993)
Stephen, S. Jeyaseela (Ed.) - The Indian Trade at the Asian Frontier (Gyan Publishing House, 2008)

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