Walking in the lane from Chitli Qabar to Turkman Gate, you will probably miss what is perhaps the oldest surviving structure in Shahjahanabad. Now hidden in a narrow alley and surrounded by tall buildings, Kalan Masjid used to be known as one of the tallest mosques of the city. Unlike other mosques, you cannot see its minarets from a distance since it has not got any. Two key features of mosques of the Tughlaq dynasty are the absence of minarets and the use of shallow domes. Other prominent mosques without minarets are Khirki Masjid and Begumpuri Masjid. All of these mosques are attributed to the master architect of the Tughlaq era Junan Shah Maqbool, better known as Khan-e-Jahan, along with his father. His name was included in the long inscription that used to be at the top of the Kalan Masjid gate, at least till the 1920s. Junan Shah suffered a terrible fate—he was forced to run away to Mewat after an altercation with a prince, and was later found and brutally murdered. When Carr Stephen visited the place in 1876, there were three graves, one of which was to be believed to contain the architect’s remains. But these graves were not there in 1919, as Bashiruddin Ahmed reports in his Waqiyat-e-Daar-ul-Hukumat.
Built on a high ground of several feet, Kalan Masjid has been described by travelers and chroniclers of the city as the most prominent structure in Old Delhi, after Lal Qila and Jama Masjid. Old photos give an impression that the mosque was built on a hilly ground since, even without minarets, the mosque looks tall against the sky. But today, its most prominent feature is the green gate between two pillars. The entire mosque has been painted over in green and white, making it difficult to recognize it as a fourteenth-century structure at first glance. It is probably the only surviving pre-Mughal structure in Mughal Delhi. The plaster and paint make it difficult to see the masonry wonders that have given the masjid its stable and solid structure. As against the ornate and beautifully carved red stone and white marble of the Mughal period, this mosque was built with uneven grey stones. Bishop Reginald Heber, who visited Delhi in 1824, describes it thus: ‘The Kala Masjeed is small and has nothing worthy [to] notice but its plainness, solidity and great antiquity, being a work of first Patan conquerors, and belonging to the times of primitive Mussalman simplicity. It is exactly on the plan of the original Arabian mosques, a square court, surrounded by a cloister, and roofed with many small domes of the plainest and most solid construction, like the rudest specimens of what we call the early Norman architecture.’
Plaster also hides what Carr Stephen observed about how the stones had been put together. He writes, ‘This stone which is in masses of various sizes, some, especially those towards the foundation, being of considerable dimensions, is unhewn, and cemented by chunam of the best quality, indeed so excellent that the strength of the domed roof seems to depend entirely on its adhesive properties.’ He further adds that builders of the walls and domes deployed no special techniques in placing the stones, the techniques that became very popular in later periods, leading to versatile arches and domes. In the construction of arches and domes, stones are specially shaped so that placing one on the top of another creates the curved shape. The stone at the top called ‘keystone’ holds the rest of the stones together. Stephen was most amazed by the absence of the keystone in the construction of Kalan Masjid, leading him to claim that the stones were held together by ‘chunam’, a lime-based adhesive material.
All these details are, of course, now hidden behind the plaster. During our recent visit, making our way from between the goats, Samprati and I tried to reach to points from where various sides of the mosques can be seen. There is rectangular patch with visible grey stones without plaster on the outer side of the right wall. Discussing the observable details, I somewhere dropped the world ‘original’ in the conversation. At this point, a local bystander who could overhear our conversation interjected, ‘All of it original.’ For eyes trained to see old monuments in naked stone, it is not surprising why bright green might indicate something hiding the original. What sets this mosque apart from most other mosques of the same period is that it is a ‘living mosque’ because not only are five prayers held here every day but also it plays an active role in the life of the neighbourhood. Descriptions of travelers indicate that prayers have always been held in the masjid, making it a mosque that have always remained integrated in community life and therefore has not become a ‘monument’ in the strict sense of the word.
Through the course of its history, the mosque has taken different colours. Carr Stephen noted that the mosque was ‘originally’ plastered with lime, both from inside and outside. What he could tell by the little remains of this plaster at the time of his visit was that the mosque from outside was ‘colored of that peculiar blue-black produced by the ground charcoal of coconuts’. In 1919, Bashiruddin Ahmed found that the colour had turned black because of moss. So much so that the mosque was called Kali (Black) Masjid. Henry Sharp adds in 1921, ‘The lack of ornament and dark stained plaster combine to produce an effect of gloom.’ The present-day green colour stands in direct contrast to this and signifies what the ‘living heritage’ might look like when it is preserved through community aesthetics and with local resources as against the global appeal of ‘restored’ monuments.
All photographs, unless mentioned otherwise, ©Chiragh Dilli.