Grand structures, both, and now getting a healing touch. Two mosques of Kolkata, bearing the legacy of Tipu Sultan, are being restored by a team of heritage architects who plans to show the world the beauty of these Byzantine pieces. In ruins when the team of heritage architects led by Manish Chakraborti approached the two structures a year ago for the purpose of restoration, the Shahi mosque at Esplanade was built a few years after its twin, the Tollygunge mosque, came up in the 1830s. They were built by the eighth son of Tipu Sultan, Prince Ghulam Mohammed Shah, who was exiled by the British to Kolkata.
On inspection, the team found to its utter surprise that the dimensions of the two shahi mosques were identical and were immaculately planned by 19th century architects. The Esplanade mosque was in a bad condition due to the construction of the Metro Railways on Chowringhee Road–cracks had appeared in the walls, the central dome had been affected, damp had eaten into the walls and the structure was weak.
Also, there was a need for restoring the Imambara within the premises and making more space available which the architects did by erecting a platform for namaaz. ‘The challenges of restoring the mosque were many. We had to undo many negatives, like wrong plastering which had happened in the past. Luckily, the mosque was built on arches,’ said Arif Ahmed, who heads the Prince Ghulam Mohammad Wakf Estate. The estate is bearing the cost of restoration, which is about a crore for each mosque.
‘The aesthetics of the two mosques is very interesting. It’s Byzantine architecture all the way. We are working with the concept of water being part of the layout of the mosque and practice of religion,’ said Chakraborti. So in the Tollygunge mosque, which has access to a pond, Chakraborti is reviving a channel of water running through the edifice for the ablutions of musallis (people who attend prayers at the mosque regularly). The tomb stones of family members of Tipu Sultan are also being restored with great care and the makeover of the mosques is almost sixty per cent complete. The sprawling garden at the Tollygunge mosque is also being landscaped and open air marble prayer mats being laid out for those who pray daily.
Another historically important mosque getting a coat of sheen by the same team is the grandiose Sibtainabad Imambara at Metiabruz built by the last nawab of Oudh, Wajed Ali Shah in 1864. The dethroned nawab of Oudh lived in exile in Kolkata for over 30 years. The opulent tazias from Shah’s time are intact even today and the Shias and Sunnis participate in a Muharram procession that takes off from here every year. In fact, Satyajit Ray shot a few scenes for his film, Shatranj ki Khiladi here. Says Chakraborti, ‘The main challenge is to revive the roof of the Imambara which is coming apart. After all, it is here that the nawab’s last remains are buried. ‘
History tells us that Wajid Ali Shah arrived in Kolkata in 1856. He was kept under nazarbandi at Fort William and released from Fort William on 9 July, 1859. Before he reached Kolkata, his retinue of 500 persons had arrived by the land route and rented a house belonging to the Maharaja of Burdwan for Rs 500 a month.
Initially, the Nawab lived in that house. Later, he rented other houses in the vicinity for his retinue. Metiabruz grew to be a mini Lucknow with the exiled nawab residing here. Says Chakraborti, ‘ Here history comes alive. It’s not just brick and mortar that you are dealing with but the city’s heritage that you are bringing back to life’. And it’s a slice of Awadhi culture for sure that he’s trying to breathe life into.