The Pathar Masjid: A Marvel of Mughal Architecture in Kashmir

BY Arka Chakarborty

In the Nowhatta region of old Srinagar stands a somewhat dilapidated grey structure, seemingly out-of-place in a setting so close to the bustling capital of what is, by most accounts, a modern Union Territory in a modern nation. The fact that this structure is a mosque is not immediately apparent due to its stark architectural and material difference when compared to most of the mosques of the region. It almost seems as if the shops, checkpoints and barbed wires that have cropped up surrounding the mosque were deliberate attempts by the marching arrow of time to hide this medieval oddity from a world that reinforces modernity and embraces homogeneity. If one decides to explore this mosque more closely, however, the decorated arches, the lotus leaf carvings and the domed roof reveal a centuries-long gripping tale of imperial ambition and accomplishment in the 17 th century along with neglect and conservation in the 20 th and 21 st centuries. The story of the Pathar Masjid (literally meaning the ‘Stone Mosque’)is one that deserves attention.

Mughal Rule in Kashmir

Throughout history, the valley of Kashmir surrounded by mountains has been an extremely difficult terrain to conquer and control by outside forces. However, the fact that the mountainous protective barrier was pierced by no less than eleven major passes and that the valley had intimate economic and cultural contact with the rest of the subcontinent meant that the above tasks were not impossibilities under the correct circumstances. The Mughal rulers before and during the reign of Akbar, for example, had sent no less than seven military expeditions to conquer the valley which ended disastrously. These failures encouraged emperor Akbar’s (r. 1556-1605 AD) administration to apply a complicated and timely combination of soft diplomacy (such as generously patronizing disgruntled nobles and political fugitives from Kashmir, supporting unsuccessful claimants to the Kashmiri throne, trying to create a pro-Mughal support base within Kashmir), exhibition of Mughal military might to intimidate the Kashmiri sultans into symbolic submission and using pretexts to justify military interventions to finally conquer the valley in 1586 AD, The Mughal rulers found the Kashmir valley beautiful to behold and added to its natural beauty to building a number of religious and secular architectural monuments there. Most of these were unique as they brought in the hallmarks of Mughal architecture style into Kashmir which stook in contrast with the indigenous Kashmiri style of monument-building and aesthetics. The Pathar Masjid was constructed under the patronage of his chief queen Nur Jahan in the year 1623 AD.

Architectural Brilliance

The reign of Emperor Jahangir was an era of architectural transition when the materials used in the main imperial building projects shifted from being dominated by red sandstone to the more magnificent white marble, reminiscent of light and, therefore, the divine presence manifested as light in the person of the emperor. This was the age of pietra dura (exquisitely inlaid precious gemstones within building surfaces), the merging of an already hybrid imperial style with that of the Deccan, vibrant colors indicating luxury beyond comprehension and white marble indicating divinity. Nur Jahan, in spite of being a queen and, that too, a relatively late arrival in the middle- aged emperor’s harem (Jahangir married the widow Meherunnisa in 1611 AD), quickly became the most powerful presence in the Mughal court and helped to sustain the ailing emperor’s authority while raising her family members to powerful positions. Her power is reflected in the fact that she sponsored and managed the building and maintenance of magnificent monuments all over the vast empire. The fact that she patronized the building of imperial gardens and mosques in a province as far-flung as Kashmir speaks volumes of her power.

However, the Pathar Masjid looks nothing like the monuments sponsored by her in the imperial heartland (the Delhi-Agra-Lahore belt) or even in some other provinces. Unlike the characteristic white marble or even red sandstone, this structure is built entirely of grey limestone, a material which was locally available and could be polished and carved easily. The mosque consists of a long arcade to the west of an enclosed courtyard. The façade has nine arches, the central one being larger than the rest. These arches are enclosed in shallow cusped arches, which in their turn are enclosed In rectangular frames. The plinth of this mosque has lotus leaf coping on it. The space between the projecting cornice and the eaves are decorated with lotus leaves carved in relief, although some are pierced for ventilation. The mosque has a sloping roof, approachable through a flight of steps. The roof has twenty-seven domes and is supported by eighteen columns from inside. The bottoms of these columns are made of stone, although the tops are made of brickwork covered with lime masonry. No less important, of course, is the garden at the center of which the mosque building is located. The chahar bagh or quadrilateral garden was a type of Indo-Persian garden unique to the Mughals and consisted of a garden divided into four parts by two paved paths intersecting each other on a sight angle. This particular garden had paved pathways with flowerbeds adorning the sides. The Pathar Masjid stands in stark contrast to local Kashmiri mosque architecture. While the differences are too numerous to enlist here, the most notable are: while the Kashmiri mosques are traditionally built of wood, this mosque is built of stone and bricks. Moreover, while Kashmiri mosques generally have pyramidal roofs, the Pathar Masjid had a domed roof.

The reason behind this mosque being built in grey limestone instead of the white marble or red sandstone more befitting the empress’s prestige has not been explicitly stated in any of the Mughal documentary sources. However, it should be assumed that the cost of transporting enough white marble and red sandstone to a region as remote as Kashmir to construct an entire mosque was too great even for the imperial coffers.

Journey through the centuries: Destruction, Neglect and Calls for Conservation After the death of the last ‘great Mughal’ emperor Aurangzeb (1707 AD), Mughal control over Kashmir gradually weakened. The invasion of the Persian monarch Nadir Shah (1739) sounded the death knell for whatever little influence the Mughals had left in Kashmir. The invasion of north india by Nadir Shah’s protégé Ahmad Shah Abdali resulted in Kashmir passing into the hands of the famously cruel and coercive Durrani rule (1752-1819). This was the era when the neglect of Mughal structures began, as they came to represent not the power that had all but evaporated, but the relics of a bygone era. The Kashmir valley was then conquered by the armies of the Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh led by his Dogra vassal Gulab Singh (1819). The Sikh rule (1819-1846) ushered in a worse era for the Mughal monuments were not only neglected, but actively desecrated. The Pathar Masjid, for example, was closed for worship and turned into a granary. Parts of it were destroyed to provide material for the construction of Sikh monuments.

The subsequent Dogra rule (1846-1947) represented state aloofness towards Mughal mosques. In the 1970s, the dilapidated condition of this mosque was brought to the attention of the government and it was declared a protected site by the Archaeological Survey of India. In spite of its protected status, the Pathar Masjid is currently in shambles. The local residents have, fortunately, raised a hue and cry about the uniqueness and importance of the mosque as a historical monument and have called on the government to take strong steps to repair and conserve the site for the benefit of future generations. Whether the monument receives the conservation it deserves, however, remains to be seen.

The sands of time have sadly eroded the grandour of the Pathar Masjid. What was once a grand symbol of Mughal architecture, a monument of stone in a crowd of wooden structures, has now been reduced to near-anonymity. The physical structure of the mosque has suffered greatly over the years and is in dire need of repair. Thankfully, the local residents concerned with the heritage significance of the site have called for the need to repair and conserve it for posterity.

Today, the Pathar mosque is actively used by local Muslims, but only during the summer as the stone exterior of the building is unable to keep out the cold during winters. Its lawn is used to operate a madrassa and during winters, people offer their prayers in a nearby Darasgah. As one ponders the grand history of this mosque and then observes its present simple serenity, the silence broken by the sound of students crowding its lawns, this monument of grey stone appears to the observer adorned with colors which are splendid to behold.