I was five months old when the domes fell. Following instances of violence in our neighbourhood, my parents — with me in their arms — left our home and traversed a curfewed town to a safer place. I am 30 years old now and after three decades of being termed as “vivaadit dhancha” (disputed structure), the design for what can now be called a mosque were revealed in December 2020. The brick-and-mortar domes that fell 30 years ago have been compensated with a glass one. Since it has not been named yet, let us call it the New Mosque.
Designed by the Delhi-based architect S M Akhtar, the New Mosque, in its architectural programme — the spatial constituents of the design — provides prayer spaces for nearly 2,000 people, a 300-bed super specialty hospital, an archival centre or museum, a community kitchen, and a library. The mosque is a modern building with a pallet of glass, white cladding, and technologically complex façade systems. Hailed for its “futuristic design” and climate change sensitivity, the architecture of the mosque shows more than what meets the eye.
First, the mosque goes beyond its liturgical and congregational objectives in providing a hospital and other civic amenities across six times the area of its prayer space. Why?
Mosques have always been centres of mixed urban activity. The raised platforms in medieval mosques provided space for economic activity after prayers and generated revenue for the mosque’s maintenance. Markets around medieval mosques are still a feature in most cities. The main structure of the mosque, however, remained a space for worship, religious learning, and acted as a centre of interaction (and therefore, politics) within the Muslim community.
Things changed after the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11, 2001. As stories of Islamic terrorism dominated the media and attacks on Muslims followed, the community felt the need to reach out to the society and present itself as upholding values of civic life. Mosques started getting converted into Islamic centres that included “community outreach” in their objectives.
The New Mosque in Ayodhya is a significant addition to this change. According to the architect, the civic spaces have been included in the mosque “to serve the society”. The architectural programme of the mosque seems to reiterate what was offered as a “solution” at many instances in the history of the conflict — “why don’t we build a hospital or a school?” This proposal ignored the religious rights of a community that was defending attacks on one of its religious buildings. Thirty years later, those attacks have not stopped but increased.
The programme is also devoid of any memorial to the trauma that is indispensable to the history of Ayodhya. While there is a museum planned, it has been clarified by the architect and the curator that the complex will not have any reference to the Babri Masjid or its past.
The civic spaces that dominate the New Mosque speak of a community that feels under pressure to present itself as socially conscious and patriotic, rather than one that can comfortably create religious spaces for itself and is secure in conducting its religious practices without being validated by civic virtues. It deliberately suppresses its religiosity and tries too hard to render itself to civic and nationalistic responsibilities. The mosque speaks less of the rights of a community under the Constitution and more of their duties towards the nation.
Second, the mosque’s form and material pallet shy away from explicitly expressing its identity. There are no traditional minarets or any other explicit reference to Islamic architecture. The mosque, according to Akhtar, imbibes modernity and breaks away from the past. Why?
In conflicted societies, modernity promises a solution to the anxieties of identity. In 1947, as India was dismembered in order to be liberated, the founding members of the republic inherited a ruptured society. For them also, modernity was the only viable way forward.
Architecture followed this approach as well. Jawaharlal Nehru invited the likes of Le Corbusier to design Chandigarh and Otto Konigsberger to design modernist buildings for the new nation. Modernism was seen as aspirational and gained prominence in the works of A P Kanvinde, Habib Rahman and Joseph Allen Stein. Modernism became central to nation building and allowed for overt references to identity to be ignored.
In the formal aesthetics of the New Mosque, we see a similar effort towards overlooking identity in the caution of stoking a conflict. In a socio-political environment, where a particular religious identity is expressed vigorously, the New Mosque at Ayodhya suppresses its own. It hesitates to be Islamic and traditional and seeks recognition by being modern and futuristic.
The mosque articulates a sad reality of contemporary India — farther a Muslim is from his visible religiosity, the more acceptable he is in “Indian” life. The acceptable Muslim is the one who is not too Muslim. The constructed binary of Muslim-ness and Indian-ness is the rhetorical foundation of violent othering of the community. The aesthetics of the New Mosque, albeit with good intentions, play into this binary.
The truth of history, however, is that it cannot be overlooked, hidden, reversed, or deleted. Layers of the past can only be added to. The New Mosque in Ayodhya, however much it tries to seek a break from the past and overlook the traumatic history of its own conception, carries the legacy of domicide — the politically motivated destruction of architecture.
Architecture survives to tell the story of a civilisation. Just like Jodha Bai’s temple in Agra’s Red Fort speaks of Akbar’s pluralistic ethos, the ruins of the Babri Masjid have told the story of India where genocide followed domicide and at least half a century of political propulsion was generated.
The New Mosque, despite its efforts to do otherwise, will tell the story of a community that — in the face of social conditions that threatened its survival — tried to shun its own rightful religiosity, trauma, past, and identity in the hope for harmonious existence; and failed at it.
The writer is an independent scholar and researcher of Architecture and City Studies