City Series – Stones of Jama Masjid III, Shahjahanabad
Delhi’s grand Friday mosque.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Sitting on the stairs of Jama Masjid, I turn to a travel article on Delhi that novelist Anita Desai wrote for The New York Times in 1989. It is titled Echoes of a Princely Past in a Many Layered City. Ms Desai is describing the mosque.
From the top of the stairs one can look down at the bazaar where bread is being baked in clay ovens, kebabs roasted over charcoal fires, pilaos and biryanis stirred in enormous cooking pots. Small benches and tables are set up under ragged roofs, where one can sit and eat as richly as kings (quite possibly to discover that modern-day stomachs are not made for such fare). If it is the end of Ramadan, the festival of Id-al-Fitr is around the corner, and there will be a sea of goats and sheep waiting to be slaughtered for the annual feast – daubed with pink and orange paint and bleating frantically. Little is left of Mogul grandeur, but the ordinary people probably live much the same lives as they did in those days.
I gaze at the ‘those days’ photos of Jama Masjid that a collector living in Ballimaran had presented to me. One print is captioned: A Street Scene in Ancient Delhi – the “Rome of Asia”. It displays the western wall of Jama Masjid, its only side with no stairs. The street leading towards the mosque is crowded with pedestrians, tongas and rickshaws.
Another photo shows the stairs on which I am sitting. I count the people. Eleven.
I look up. Down the stairs, a burqa-clad woman has both her covered arms spread out for alms.
Now, a sepia-stained image. 1857, the year of the Uprising when Shahjahanabad was destroyed by the British. The mosque is standing at the end of a vast expanse. It is looking forlorn. Two men are kneeling together on the ground, as if in mourning. The trees are without leaves. I think of Anna Akhmatova’s poem The Last Toast.
I drink to our ruined house,
to all of life’s evils too,
to our mutual loneliness,
and I, I drink to you –
to eyes, dead and cold,
to lips, lying and treacherous,
to the age, coarse, and cruel,
to the fact no god has saved us.
Allah hoo Akbar…
The prayer call. Keeping back the photos, I get up to enter the mosque.