City Monument – Corona-Era Jama Masjid, Old Delhi
The edifice these days.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The gigantic courtyard is empty. So empty that even the customary pigeons are not there — remember how they would always be seen flying from the courtyard to the central dome, and back?
The iconic Jama Masjid monument in Old Delhi is feeling absolutely surreal these days. Like most monuments, and most places of worship, it was closed for months due to the coronavirus. The pandemic is still raging on but the Mughal-era mosque has re-opened. On this late morning, it is so quiet here that you could hear your own breathing.
Tomorrow’s historians might look back upon these times as a defining moment that altered the course of the world. But the 17th century Jama Masjid has withstood more than one transformative event: the 1857 uprising, when the victorious British turned it into a camp for soldiers, as well as the Partition in 1947, when freedom fighter Maulana Abul Kalam Azad made a memorable speech against it on the steps of the great mosque.
The pandemic too is now leaving its mark in the red sandstone monument. At first glance, the prayer hall looks the same, its giant chandelier as imposing. But then you notice alternating red and green marks on the tiled floor, indicating the percepts of physical distancing the devotees have to follow. The sight of these symbols — as if checked right and wrong by a teacher on an exam sheet — imprinted in such a historic place reflects how deeply the pandemic has embedded itself into the texture of our material world.
At this moment only two people are inside the prayer hall, sitting at a distance.
The vast courtyard has a vazu pool at the center where worshippers would wash themselves before prayer. It is dry. Suddenly a woman appears in a black burqa and stands at the other end of the pool. She seems to be sobbing, her body shaking. She recollects herself after a few minutes and walks towards the east-facing gateway.
In the courtyard outside, monsoon sky is pressing in like an unexpected guest in a family gathering. Indeed, the small puffs of dark clouds floating above seem so close to the mosque’s upper limits that they feel like a ghostly extension of its architectural elements.
Perhaps the most eye-catching, if not the most attractive, object here is a red plastic bin placed at the center of the courtyard. It’s looking so out of place in this edifice of immaculate aesthetics that one can’t help but keep turning to look at it, much the way one’s tongue inadvertently keep going back to feel the aching tooth.
The long balcony beside the mosque’s gate no. 1 is usually always teeming with people. Today it is crowded —with three men. One of them is sleeping. Now a fourth man in white kurta pajama enters the mosque and purposefully heads towards this balcony. He sits with his back against the stone railing and stays still, looking like a figure in a Mughal miniature.
Further ahead is the ticket booth to the mosque’s tower. The sign board is in a series of foreign languages. The four instructions to the tower’s visitors are only in English though; the last one says that “unaccompanied woman and child are not allowed to visit the tower.” (The tower hasn’t opened to visitors yet).
Outside the gate 1, the staircase overlooking the chaotic Matia Mahal Bazar would always be packed with locals, sightseers, hawkers, beggars, and cats. It is empty.
Hopefully these difficult days too will pass over, and Jama Masjid, like all timeless monuments, will once again transcend its present and regain its former life.
Jama Masjid today