Popularly known as the Jama Masjid, the mosque that was at the heart of the recent anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests in Delhi can accommodate 20,000 worshippers, was completed in 1656 at a cost of Rs 9,00,000 and was originally named Masjid-e-Jahan Numa (a mosque from where one can see the world). During Shahjahan’s time, there was no mosque inside the Red Fort, and the Emperor and princes visited the mosque whenever they chose to join the congregational prayers. The East Gate, known as the Shahi Darwaza, was reserved for the royals.
Because it was placed in the heart of the more densely populated western half of Shahjahanabad, Masjid-e-Jahan Numa was thronged by people the whole day and well into the night. The sweeping steps leading to the South, East and North Gates of the mosque had all manners of shops, selling pigeons, chicken, parrots, mynahs, bulbuls, and a wide variety of other birds kept as pets. Cloth merchants, especially those dealing in cut pieces, traded from the steps, as did those who sold kebabs, kulfis, betel leaves and all kinds of trinkets. The dastaangos (storytellers) arrived in the evenings, as did the poets, writers, their fans and hundreds of others.
All this changed after the 1857 Mutiny, when thousands were massacred in the city. As part of their discourse of Muslims being anti-Christian from the time of the Crusades, the colonialists systematically targeted mosques. The Akbarabadi mosque, built by Akbarabadi Begum, a senior queen of Shahjahan, was demolished and the site converted into Edward Park (Subhash Park of today). Zeenat-ul- Masjid, built by a daughter of Aurangzeb and located adjacent to the Red Fort, was converted into a bakery for British officers. The shops in front of Fatehpuri Mosque, built by another of Shahjahan’s queens, were bought in an auction by Lala Chhunnamal. It was restored to the Muslims, after paying him off, only in the mid-1890s.
The Jama Masjid, due perhaps to its central location, was taken over by the colonial army, which converted it into a camp. The soldiers walked in with their shoes, the desecration of the mosque meant to rub salt into the wounds of a defeated people. An idea was floated to demolish the mosque and use the stones to build a grand church in its place. It was dropped only when it was discovered that demolishing the mosque would cost more than the value of the stone recovered.
The mosque eventually passed back into Muslim control only in 1862, though the British continued to walk in with their shoes; the practice was discontinued only in the 1890s. The mosque was placed in the care of a committee of loyal Muslims headed by one Ilahi Bakhsh. It was the same Ilahi Bakhsh who betrayed Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar to the British.
At the time of the 1903 and 1911 Coronation Durbars of King Edward and King George, the ceremonial processions passed in front of the Jama Masjid and people bought tickets to stand on the steps to get a better view.
The Urdu Maidan, placed between the East Gate of the mosque and the Red Fort. was the site of many public meetings during the struggle for freedom. At one end of Urdu Bazaar was located Sangam Theatre (later renamed Jagat Cinema and now closed). It was the venue for theatrical performances and at least one session of the Muslim League, when the league was headed by Sultan Mohammad Shah (Agha Khan III), in the first decade of the 1900s.
In the aftermath of Partition, thousands took refuge inside the mosque, seeking safety in a part of the city that they felt secure in. It was from the steps of Jama Masjid that Maulana Abul Kalam Azad addressed thousands of scared Muslims, who wondered if they should go to Pakistan, reminding them that this was their Motherland, the land where their ancestors lay buried, the land that had given them their language, culture, food, music, attire and everything else they saw as symbols of their identity. Many old residents of the city who heard the speech as children, who are in their 80s now, remember the electrifying effect it had. Many that day decided to stay back.
During the dark days of the Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi in 1975-77, it was the area around Jama Masjid that saw protests against the forceful evictions and sterilisations unleashed by Sanjay Gandhi and his men. The protesters were beaten up and fired upon by police.
The successors of some of those who rose to political prominence as a result of that anti-Emergency upsurge have now used police against people protesting unjust and discriminatory laws.
Writer-filmmaker Sohail Hashmi is also a history buff
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