The recent decision of the Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone (APSEZ), that it will not handle any container cargo originating from Iran, may have put the relationship between India and Iran under further strain but the nature of the relationship between the two countries was very different in the past.
In the present times, their shared history, economic linkages, bilateral trade and cultural ties dating back to centuries is underwritten in the form of Mumbai’s Moghul Masjid — the oldest Shia Iranian mosque in the city.
A vibrant mixture of art and craftsmanship, the Moghul Masjid with its intricate geometric designs, blue mosaic tiles, dazzling stained glasses and thick Persian rugs is one of the few remaining vestiges of the 19th Century Shia Iranian influence on Mumbai city.
The masjid, when it was constructed in 1858, was known as the Iranian Masjid. The dominance of the Persians in the Mughal court and Mughal bureaucracy made the Persians synonymous with the Mughals in popular perception. It was due to this association that the mosque slowly gained an identity as Mughal masjid.
While Bombay historically had linkages with Iran given the presence of a substantial Zorastrian and Bahai population, there was a fresh round of influx of mostly Iranian Muslims in the early 19th Century. Most of these new migrants hailed from the inland cities of Shiraz and Isfahan and came to Mumbai in search of greener pastures in view of the economic recession suffered by inland Iran.
Nile Green, in his book ‘Bombay Islam’, writes, “In 1830, Bombay’s total trade with Iran amounted to 350,000 rupees, but by 1859 the annual trade in horses alone had risen to 2,625,000 rupees, and this trend continued as the century progressed. By 1865 the number of Iranians officially registered as residing in Bombay reached 1,639 persons, though we can be fairly sure that a good many more unofficial residents escaped the eyes of the city’s officials.”
Many of the early Iranian Shia traders settled down in Umerkhadi and Dongri. The ornate mosque was built by the early settlers as a visual symbol of their separation constructed with the help of the ceramic tiles that were shipped in from Iran.
The mosque was completed in 1858, funded largely by Iranian merchant Haji Muhammad Husayn Shırazı, who was deemed as the “malik al-tujjar (king of the merchants)” among Bombay’s Iranian community.
While mosques have no fixed design, Iranian Shia mosques have a distinct pattern. The tall minarets, of which the mosque has two, are deemed to be an expression of divine guidance and direction.
The hauz or the central pool is a centrally positioned symmetrical axis pool meant for aesthetics as well as ablutions.
The central courtyard is considered to be the resting place for travellers.
Unlike most other old mosques in Mumbai, the Moghul Masjid is one of the very few domeless mosques in the city.
“While the mosque is a place of worship, this place is also a testament to the vibrant relations and deep linkages that Mumbai and Iran shared not so long ago,” said Ali Namazi, one of the trustees of the Haji Mohammed Shirazi trust.