The Jaunpur Sultanate (14th-15th centuries)

Adaab. Welcome to ‘Saga In Stone’.

Jaunpur, a sleepy small town 58 km north-west of Benaras was founded by the king of builders, Firoz Shah Tughlaq. It is believed that the city had already had one earlier incarnation when it was destroyed by the floods in the river Gomti.

He named it after his cousin and predecessor, Muhammad bin Tughlaq whose real name was Juna Khan.

This township, one among the many erected by Firoz Shah, went on to become one of the major centers of Islamic architecture in India.

Atala Mosque- the earliest example of the Sharqi style and also it’s finest conforms to the conventional cloisters and courtyard plan.

The three gateways of this mosque are massive. The entrance on the east used to be the principal entrance. It was also the most beautiful one. But now, with repeated white washing over it, it has lost its old world charm. Also, with a madrasa functioning in the eastern side, the southern gate is being used as the main entrance.

A big surprise awaits you in the mosque.

The mammoth propylons. Used for the first time in architecture anywhere in India. Three gate-pyramids of almost Egyptian mass and outline, they stun and overawe you.
The central one is 75 ft in height. The ones on the either side are much smaller at 32 ft.
Within the main propylon is an eleven feet deep recessed arch. The sides of the structure have smaller arched niches or stone-screened windows placed one upon another. Both for its style and its proportions, the propylon is a great architectural success.
Khwaja-i-Jahan started the work on this mosque. He was a eunuch.

The last Tughlaq ruler, Nasir ud Din Mahmud had given him the title Malik ush Sharq or the ‘Chief of the East’ and appointed him as the governor of Jaunpur. The real name of Khwaja-i-Jahan was Malik Sarwar. He had risen through the ranks first to become chief eunuch and the controller of the elephant stables and from there to the position of the vazir. He proclaimed his independence in 1394 and established his own dynasty - the Sharqi dynasty. The dynasty of east.

The mosque was later completed by the third Sharqi king Ibrahim Shah.

The cloisters that surrounding the courtyard rise up to two storeys. The outer columns of these colonnades, as well as those adjoining the interior of the court, are in the form of double square pillars. The four intermediate rows are arranged as in the Hindu temples, with single square pillars supporting a flat roof of slabs.

The central room has an interesting shape. A three level structure– it is square in the lowest, octagonal in the second and sixteen-sided in the third.

Another interesting feature of this mosque are the ladies galleries on the first floor. It allowed privacy to the women who were otherwise not allowed to offer namaaz in the mosques. These rooms were originally separated from the rest of the building by stone screens and were accessed through private doors in the external walls.

These ladies galleries are almost exclusive to Jaunpur, within the whole of India, with the exception of some mosques in Bengal. But even in Bengal, the tradition was not as widespread, and generally only the imperial mosques had this feature.

The architecture of Atala Mosque was inspired by Tughlaq style. The domes over its prayer-hall, the shape of the arch, the sharply tapering minarets, the sloping sides of the propylon, etc., all the typical features of the late Tughlaq architecture are there. But inspite of these reference points, Atala mosque remains a highly original and elegant piece of work.

Bibi Raji, the wife of Mahmud Sharqi- fourth Sharqi king, erected the second significant mosque of this era- the Lal Darwaza mosque.

This mosque get its name from the high gates of the palace which adjoined it. These gates are believed to have been painted with vermilion. Today no trace of Bibi Raji's palace remains, but the name of this mosque retains its memory.

Today, the interiors of the mosque have been painted red, maybe in a bid to live up to the name. But the slipshod painting job has had a reverse effect. Instead of adding to the beauty, it has lessened it considerably.

Lal Darwaza can be called a smaller version of Atala mosque. The date of its erection is not known.

There are three entrance gates to the mosque. The thirty ft high eastern gateway, forms the principal entrance. A flight of stairs leads up to it from the road below.

Lal Darwaza Masjid too has a big propylon. However, at forty-and-a-half feet, it stands much lower than the Atala one.

The towers contain the staircases leading to the mezzanine floor and the top of the propylon. They are used by the muezzin for giving azan or the call for the prayers.

Over the central opening of the space under the central arch, the Kalimah or the Islamic proclamation of Faith – La Ilaha Il Allah Muhammad ur Rasul Allah, meaning 'There is no God except Allah and Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah' is inscribed in large letters on black stone. The lower portion is formed in the trabeate fashion of the temple architecture – pillars mounted by lintel.

In Jaunpur, almost every mosque has a madrasa or religious seminary attached to it. This has meant regular upkeep and maintenance. Madrasas owe their origins to the Eastern Iran where, under the rule of the Abbasids, the early madrasas came into being. Today, of course, madrasas are perhaps the most influential and popular educational institutions in the Islamic world.

Lal Darwaza also boasts of the ladies gallery. Today, the space is being used as classrooms for the children of the madrasa.

The largest monument built by the Sharqi rulers was called Al-Masjid Jami us Sharq or 'the Jami Masjid of the East'. This was the last great monument they ever built before the shiraz of India and the Paris of medieval India, as this city was called, lost its glory and became another provincial town.

This grand mosque is known as Badi Masjid by the local people. Its construction was commenced by Ibrahim Shah in 1438. But when he died two years later, it was yet to rise above ground level. His dream mosque was completed three generations later. Husain Shah, the last Sharqi ruler completed it in 1478.

It is said that during the reign of Hussain Shah, there was a severe famine that lasted for seven years. Hussain Shah employed a large populace of starving men and women to participate in the construction of this mosque, and thereby earn a livelihood.

According to another version, the mosque was made so that Khwaja Hazrat Isa would not have to walk from his abode to the Masjid Khalis Mukhlis, a mile away. But the mosque took forty years to be completed, and by that time Hazrat Isa was already dead.

While the essential features of the Atala mosque are once again repeated here, the general plan and execution of the Jami mosque show evolution. The entire structure is raised on a plinth, 16 to 20 ft from the ground level. An imposing flight of steps adds to the grandeur.
Propylon, that trademark of Jaunpur architecture, is there at its usual place- the western facade. But this time it is larger and even more commanding. A lofty central arch – 72 ft high in height – connects the massive piers of the propylon.

One of the major philosophies behind Islamic art and architecture has been that man is the highest form of creation in all the world - ‘Ashraful Makhluqat’. This meant that he is to aspire to lofty heights.

As Quran says "Do you not see that Allah has made what is in the heavens and what is in the earth subservient to you, and made complete to you His favours outwardly and inwardly?"

This propylon of the Jai Masjid is one of the biggest examples of the lofty heights man has achieved.

The central chamber is square in shape. Just above the arched openings it changes into that of an octagonal figure. It is superseded by one of the sixteen sides. All of these are arched and enclosed in elaborate architraves.

Over this the dome rises to a height of 67½ ft. Eight out of the sixteen sides that support the dome are pierced and filled in with railings.

The two side-wings are erected in the single-vaulted fashion. The vault had been extensively used over a millennium ago in India by the Buddhist builders in their chaitya halls. But after that, this technique had faded away. This mosque is one of the rare post Buddhist structure with this characteristic. Vaults could have been a boon for the mosque architecture, given its propensity for providing great columnless spaces for congregational worship. But it was not to be. It remained an experiment in isolation.

This mosque, like others in Jaunpur, also has a ladies gallery. However, today this gallery is abandoned and has been taken over by a huge number of bats.

The Eastern gate of the mosque was destroyed by Sikandar Lodi during his calamitous attack against his brother Barbak Shah – the governor of Jaunpur and his instigator Hussain Shah, the exiled Sharqi ruler in 1495. He had vowed to destroy every trace of the Sharqi rule. Only the mosques were spared from his rage, and that too, it is said, under public pressure. All the other masterpieces of Sharqi rule- the forts, the palaces, the tombs, were completely destroyed. And so was the Sharqi rule.

Ibrahim Sharqi’s grave is situated in a graveyard just next to Jama Masjid. It is said that every time you count the total number of graves here, the number will be different. Either some graves will be added or some will be lost.

That was quite spooky.

Anyway, the Sharqi style had its stylistic resemblances with the Tughlaq architecture .But that, certainly did not make it a copy of the Delhi school. Its individuality existed in the coexistence of arcuate and trabeate styles.

But what really set Sharqi style apart was its bold and forceful character, as expressed in the gigantic propylons. These propylons bid goodbye to Indo Islamic architecture after the Jama Masjid and were never seen ever again.

If you thought that Islamic builders were only good at building mosques, palaces and tombs, well, you have a surprise coming.

Shahi Pul, a busy bridge over Gomti, is another beautiful structure of Jaunpur. It was built in 1567 by Munim Khan, a governor of Akbar’s court.

It is said that on a visit to Jaunpur, Akbar decided to go out for boating. On his excursion, he saw a poor widow stranded, without any means of getting to the other side. Akbar took the widow across, and ordered boats to be stationed at the ghat to end the problem. He also remarked to Munim Khan that Sharqi rulers should’ve built bridges for the common man, instead of concentrating on mosques. Next day, Munim Khan announced the construction of the bridge. This was 1564. The bridge took 3 years in construction. It is said to have cost thiry lacs.

The bridge measures 330 feet in total. It was designed by an architect from Kabul called Afzal Ali.

Today after more than 4 centuries, the beautiful Shahi Pul is bombarded with continuos heavy traffic. The question is, at this pace, how many more centuries will this beautiful piece of our heritage survive?

Much later, Aurangzeb wanted to rebuild all the mosques affected by the Lodi rage. It never really happened due to that scourge of all monarchies, rather of all forms of government – the internal court politics.

Our histories and mythologies are full of stories of the times when art and artists have been destroyed on the rulers’ whims and fancies. I wonder sometimes, and in that sense of wonder, I dream, about the pinnacle human race that would've achieved had there been no destructive egos to contend with.

Shabba Khair, till we meet you at Mandu- the city of joy immortalised by a great love story

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