The Bengal Sultanate (13th-16th centuries)

There was a time when jungles ruled over a large part of Bengal. And they had a great friend called the flood who still survives. They together ate away dead cities and deserted centers of civilization. A lot of forts, palaces, mosques, temples, tombs and other structures were swallowed by them. Till the explorers came. They uncovered some important facts and some interesting monuments. Development brought some more surviving structures to light. Though the vagaries of nature has brought many of them to a condition of utter ruin, but some of them are in a comparatively better state.

Adina mosque at Pandua, in Malda district, is perhaps the most important monument built by the Bengal Sultans. This lavish mosque was erected by Sultan Sikandar Shah, the second independent Muslim king of Bengal between 1364-1374 AD. He ruled from 1359 to 1383.

This exceptionally huge mosque is a product of the second phase of Islamic architecture in Bengal. It extends 507 ½ feet from north to south and 285 ½ ft from east to west. With these statistics, it nearly equals the great mosque of Damascus.

The cloister of this mosque is really massive, primarily because due to the insistent and frequent rains, roofed halls were more comfortable to worship in ,than open courtyards.
It is formed by 88 archways, each leading into five compartments or bays.

It is said that the astrologers of king Lakshman Sen foretold that his state was going to be captured by the Muslims. They had also told him that the leader of this invading army would have such long hands that when he would stand upright and let his hands hang by his sides, his fingers would reach right up to his calves. After investigations, Lakshman Sen found out that Muhammad Ikhtiyar Ud Din Khalji, a general of Mohammad Ghori had this feature.

When Khalji arrived in 1202, he left his troupe behind, and entered the city with only seventeen horsemen. He informed the gaurds that he was an envoy going to pay his respect to their master. And once he was inside the carnage began. In this manner, it is said, Lakshman Sen’s rule came to an end and the Islamic rule established.

Minhaj-us-Siraj, the author of Tabqat-i-Nasiri, mentions that Ikhtiyar ud Din built several mosques, colleges, rest houses and other buildings. Contemporary chronicles are also full of evidences of the building activities carried out by one of his successor- Hisam ud Din Iwaz. But the tropical climate took its toll. Not a single monument survives today.

The second phase of Islamic architecture started with the establishment of independent sultanate in Bengal. The first independent sultan of Bengal was Shamsudin Ilyas Shah. He is supposed to have built a fort at a place called Ekdala. However, nothing of that fort survives today. This mosque was built by his son Sikandar Shah.

The central chamber of the liwan or the main cloister, though still of an appreciable height, was built up to a height of seventy feet. It has five arched openings at both sides. Though the type of roof it had is not confirmed, it was most probably a vault, one of the rare usage of this architectural technique in the post Buddhist times.

But this was not the only feature that the builders of this mosque took from the Buddhist temples.

The central Mihrab of the mosque is exquisite and located in the exalted company of an equally elegant mimbar, constructed of black basalt. This mihrab is an adpatation of the type of niche found at numerous sites in Bengal and Bihar which enshrined the images of Buddha and the Hindu deities.

This image of a lion probably formed a part of the throne of an earlier king.

The chamber under the mimbar is beautifully decorated with carvings.

All the mihrabs have different carvings, which adds to the beauty of the mosque.

This was the place from where the king and his family attended prayers, known as badshah ka takht.

Islam as a religion has always prided itself for its egalitarian philosophy, as projected through its huge congregational mosques. A famous couplet says-

Ek hi saf mein khade ho gaye Mahmud-o-ayaz,
Na koi banda raha na bandanawaz.

Both Mahmud (a referance to Mahmud Ghori) and Ayaz, his slave are standing in the same row. There are no masters and slaves here.

Given such a background, Badshah ka Takht definitely looks like a big anomaly.

Some historians also say that it was the ladies gallery, where the royal women offered namaz while maintaining strict purdah.

The pillars here are heavy, short and square in the lower storey with massive bracket-capitals typical of Bengal. Fluted shafts and expanding lotus capitals impart elegance to the columns in the upper storey.

Sultan Sikandar Shah is also buried here, in his dream mosque. This is one of the rare instances of a grave in the main cloister of a mosque.

Sikandar Shah was killed in a battle with his son, Ghiyas Ud Din Azam Shah who later became the king. It is said that Ghiyas Ud Din was his favourite son, who had to rebel due to the actions of a wicked stepmother. Though Ghiyas Ud Din had given express instructions to his soldiers as to not to physically harm the sultan in anyway, yet the sultan was unintentionally wounded. The prodigal son came to him on his deathbed and asked for forgiveness. Forgiveness was given and the son and the father reunited.

Though the grave is almost universally accepted as being that of Sikandar Shah, a legend says that it is a saint’s grave, who was buried here much later, when the jungles had taken over the monument.

Sikandar Shah’s reign was one of the most peaceful and prosperous eras in the history of Bengal. Firoz Shah Tughlaq did plan to invade his state, but was appeased with a present of 40 elephants and other gifts.

This roofless room, known as Sikandar’s chamber, is said to have been his original resting point. He was shifted to his current position after the roof fell, and the tomb was almost destroyed.

The mosque lacks a gateway worthy of a structure of such a magnitude. There are just a couple of small doors which were probably reserved for the king or the mullahs.
But that does not affect the splendor of this mosque.

What does affect it is the inadequacy of the design. Not enough arrangement has been made for light. As a result, the covered portion remains dark even in the day time.

However, there were lessons to be learnt from this partially fallen mosque. Islamic builders of Bengal realized that their usual building techniques were not enough to endure the severe tropical conditions existing here.

Post Adina,the story of Bengal architecture centers around the city of Gaur.

The capital was shifted here during the reign of Sultan Nasir Ud Din Mahmud Shah. The name ‘Gaur’ is probably derived from gur, or raw sugar, due to extensive sugar cane farming that takes place in this area. In those times, this site used to be the confluence point of two great rivers- Ganga and Mahanadi.

It was time for the Islamic builders to adapt more from the local architecture and learn more from the locals who had the benefit of experience.

The Bara Sona Masjid is the biggest mosque in this dead city. Sultan Nasrat Shah built this mosque in 1526 AD. It is a rectangular building – 168 ft long and 76 ft wide.

Some historians say that the name originated from the expenses incurred on the mosque, since there is no trace of gold anywhere in the mosque.

However, the widely accepted theory is that the dome of this mosque was originally gilded. Therefore the name Bada Sona.

Another once- gilded mosque known as Chotta Sona Masjid also exists nearby. Here, the gilding was seen as late as 1879.

The common name of this building is Baradwari or, literally, a building of twelve doors. Since there are only eleven doors in this building, it is suggested that the name Baradwari, which ordinarily means 'Audience Hall' was given to the mosque on account of its spacious – 200 sq. ft. court-yard in front of the mosque. This courtyard has arched gateways – each 38½ ft by 13½ ft – in middle of the three sides. The eastern gate, as it stands today was restored in the early 1900s.

At that time, the varieties of stone suitable for building purposes was available in Bengal. As a result, bricks were chiefly used in construction of mosques and other structures. This had a major effect on the style of architecture as brick is not particularly conducive for construction of beams and pillars. This resulted in arches assuming further importance in an already arch based Islamic architecture.

The western wall of the mosque is in complete ruins.

The dilapidated condition has robbed the building of much of its charm.

Time is a grim harvester. In the case of Bara Sona Masjid, it reaped all its glory and left a ruined mosque which is but a shadow of its former self.

Nasrat Shah built another mosque called the Qadam Rasul mosque. It contains the sacred 'Foot-print of the Prophet. This footprint was brought from the chilla khana of renowned Sufi Shah Jalaluddin Tabrizi at Pandua. Chilla khana is a place of seclusion where a saint meditates, generally for forty days. Originally, it is supposed to have been brought from Arabia by a saint called Makhdum Jahaniyan Jahangasht.

The relic is placed on a small-carved pedestal of black marble.

Today, the footprint is kept in the custody of khadims of Mahdipur, who keep it in their house and bring it when a visitor wants to see it. This arrangement has been made because the footprint has been stolen once.

The building itself is 63 ft 3 inches by 49 ft 10 inches, with the main chamber being 25 feet by 15 feet. It was erected by Nasrat Shah in 1513 AD.

It is said that Nasrat Shah had once gone to pay respects on his father’s grave. There, an eunuch gave him offence. He ordered the eunech to be executed. But before his orders could be carried out, the eunuchs got together and killed the Sultan.

A ruin of a rest house exists adjacent to the mosque. It is attributed to a later period, supposed to have been built by Sultan Shuja.

A plain building stands outside the mosque. It is shaped like a thatched shed .This building is known as the mausoleum of Fath Khan a general of Aurangzeb. Tradition says that Aurangzeb suspected a local saint Shah Nimattullah of inciting his brother Sultan Shuja against him. He sent Fath Khan to cut off his head The saint was innocent. When Fath Khan reached Gaur, he vomited blood and died.

Though this building is a late example of Bengal architecture, it is nevertheless important due to its roof structure. Though curvilinear roofs were quite common in Bengal, almost all the examples are now lost. Mughals adopted this roof structure from Bengal. And later on, it found its true place of honor in the post-Mughal architecture of the Sikh gurudwaras.

Nusrat Shah’ s brother Ghiyas Ud Din Mahmud Shah was the last independent sultan. He was deposed by Sher Shah Suri.

Gaur’s downfall began with Sher Shah Suri’s invasion of Bengal. Slowly, the old glory faded away. The terrible plague of 1575 proved to be the last straw. The city with a one time population of twelve lakh people, was soon deserted. The buildings of this once wealthy city were neglected. Jungles came up over the entire area with wild animals ruling over the capital city of the Bengal sultans.

New towns arose all around Bengal- English Bazaar, Murshidabad, Rajmahal and later Calcutta. The stone, bricks and particularly the glazed tiles of these monuments were robbed by the local zamindars and used in construction of these towns. This practice of stripping the monuments continued till the English government stopped it in 1899. A lot was lost by then. A lot was further lost, when the country was partitioned and with it a major portion of the former city of Gaur went to what was formerlyeast Pakistan and presently Bangladesh.

But the surviving monuments still tell a story. A story of disrespect for one’s heritage.

Next time we will introduce to a school of architecture which took the art of carving to unequalled heights. Khuda Hafiz.

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