Monday, 28 January 2019

Lat Masjid – The Search of the Pillar

Dhar Mosque is Delhi Mosque’s Lost in Kumbh Mela Sibling

Dhar was brimming with temples built during the glorious years of Parmars. Scores of temples were felled to build the Kamal Maula Mosque that today is known as Bhojshala. But it seemed there was enough material remaining to build another mosque nearby.

View of the Northern Arcade looking towards the Prayer Hall - Lat Masjid

The Photo that started it all. You have a feeling that this photo was taken by Henry Cousen. The Iron Pillar can be seen leaning against the masonry basement with the mosque's northern portico visible in the back. The big boulders seen on top were the anchors that held the pillar upright. Interestingly, the lower end is pointing up - Lat Masjid in Dhar, MP

Our old friend Mohammad bin Tughlaq could not decide whether to stay in Delhi or not and kept shuttling between Delhi and Daulatabad. Timur taking advantage of the anarchy razed Delhi down in 1398. The provincial governors of the Delhi Sultanate had seen enough and most of them decided to strike out on their own.

Dilawar Khan Ghuri, the Delhi Sultanate Malwa’s Governor asserted his independence in 1392. Dhar was the capital of Malwa then. His first job according to a recovered inscription in the Kamal Maula Mosque complex was of repairing the mosque. Presumably, the mosque by then was more than sixty years old.

The Inscription found in the minbar of Bhojshala - currently in CMSVS Mumbai

Once the dust after the plunder of Timur had settled down, Dilawar Khan assumed independence in 1401 to found the Malwa Sultanate and had the Khutba read in his name. The imam reading the sermon would have stood on the striking minbar of Kamal Maula Mosque whose floor had the polished inscribed stone tablet belonging to finest of the Parmar temples as reported by John Malcolm. Malcolm further disclosed that he took away the inscription.

MP Archaeological Department shows how to care for monuments - The first view of Lat Masjid approaching from North

Dilawar needed a new mosque of his own now. There was plenty of temple material lying around in the town itself. He did not have to go far. A little distance away from the town, south-east of Bhojshala, in totally tranquil surroundings stands the Lat Masjid. Built in 1405, almost hundred years after the Bhojshala, the Lat Masjid is relatively controversy free.

 The Portico can be seen on right and the big boulders on the left which was the original site of erection of the Iron Pillar

Dilawar Khan Ghuri was a Delhiite who had worked in Delhi’s Tughlaq court. You would have thought that breaking away from Delhi, he would have chosen a different design for his mosque. But no, he goes for the much tried and tested Ghurid template. In fact, he goes even a step further: he wants to totally replicate the Qutb’s Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque. For this he even procures an Iron Pillar! We will come to the Lat or the pillar soon. First let’s look at the mosque.

The Google Map of Lat Masjid. Two gateways can be seen on Northern and Eastern sides. The pillar originally was erected on the boulders platform

An ascending path takes you to a landscaped setting where a beautiful structure sits atop a small hill. The path has been carved through a possible extant protection wall. Unlike the Bhojshala, the mosque is built on a raised platform. On the left you can see two huge boulders set on a platform. You don’t pay much attention to them. Unbeknownst to you these stones are part of one of the most endearing and enduring saying. We will come back to the stones, the proverb and the pillar a little later!

The Northern Projecting Portico

Photo Courtesy: Naoko Fukami, Photo Taken Circa 1960 when Japanese Historian Matsuo Ara visited. In 1995, a team of Japanese scholars led by Fukami went around Delhi and presumably other parts of India retracing Ara's steps and seeing how the monuments have changed over the years

Dilawar has apparently upped the style quotient a bit here. An elaborate pavilion or portico surmounted with a dome greets you projecting from the North wall. This is one of the two doorways to the mosque. The pavilion reminds you of temple mandaps. Luard says the masjid was erected out of the remains of a temple. The key words being ‘a temple’. Looking at the location, it does seem a single large temple could have existed exactly at this spot. The mandap could have been inspired this entrance. You can see another smaller portico built into the northern side towards west. It was probably used by women worshippers to access the zenana section in the prayer hall.

Looking towards North East - Lat Masjid

Inside, it is absolutely serene. There is this unmistakable vibe here. The recent rains have covered the central open courtyard with a green carpet. The architecture is similar to Bhojshala. In a congregational mosque the courtyard or Sahn should be able to hold all the believers of the town when they assemble for the Friday prayers. However, there is no ablution tank in the courtyard that is used for ritual cleaning before prayers. And just like the Ghurid mosques elsewhere, the minarets are missing.


The Prayer Hall full of Surprises

Colonnades or arcades run on three sides. Similar looking sculpted pillars line the arcades. The prayer hall has the Mihrab, the niche in the wall that indicates the direction of Mecca and Minbar, the pulpit where Imam stands to deliver khutba. The direction of Mecca is called Qibla and hence the qibla wall. Delhi’s mosques usually don’t have minbars while they seem to be common here in Dhar.

The Dome or Qubba unlike Bhojshala is disappointingly plain. What happened here – did the mandap ceiling of the temple fall rendering the corbels unusable? As if to compensate, Dilawar Khan’s architect seemed to have few surprises up his sleeve.

Rarely seen Muezzin Mahfili where the Muezzin sits in front of minbar

The Biggest Surprise - The hole in front of the Mihrab. Was it the temple element which drains the abhishek water?
Lat Masjid - The Prayer Hall full of surprise with Mihrab, Minbar, the hole on the floor, the muezzin's platform and two zenanas on either ends

You are seeing this masonry platform in front of the minbar for the first time. The Muezzin Mahfili in Turkish or Mukabariyah in Arabic is a special raised platform where the muezzin carries out his duties to call for prayer and to chant in response to the Imam’s prayers. The platform is not compulsory in mosques. Wait a minute - now what is this? On the floor in front of the mihrab is an octagonal stone with a hole in the centre. Mosque floors don’t have such holes. Is this from the temple that was used to collect and drain the abhishek water?
The wholesome looking Zenana section on North-West corner

Looking down from the south-west zenana towards north

The Prayer Hall has some interesting stone filgree work - Lat Masjid in Dhar

On either side of the hall, there are mezzanine floors resting on shorter pillars. Maybe the regular pillars were chopped to accommodate the additional floor. These were probably the zenana section built for women worshippers since women can participate in the Friday prayers. The eastern colonnade has another imposing gateway which is kept locked by ASI. Both gateways have inscriptions, the one on the west says that the mosque was erected by Dilawar Khan on 17th Jan 1405.

The three pieces of the Iron Pillar lying on the platform outside the Lat Masjid

Coming out of the mosque you walk to the north-east corner where on a platform rests three pieces of the Iron Pillar. This is the pillar you saw in the photo that brought you here. Things are becoming too similar to Delhi where the Iron Pillar stands in the courtyard of the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque. Dilawar Khan to mimic Delhi’s mosque had an iron pillar planted here in Dhar – it seemed Dilawar really missed Delhi and wanted to recreate Quwwat-ul-Islam in his capital.

The three pieces of the Forged Welded Iron Pillar have finally come together again. Cousens think a small fourth piece is missing

An unknown author by the name of “A Bombay Subaltern” published his delightful accounts of his wanderings in Mandu in 1844. He mentions an iron pole in front of Mandu’s Juma Masjid that is being used as a flag pole. William Kincaid in the preface of his book which carries Subaltern's account and published in 1879, declares that the iron pole in front of Mandu’s great Mosque formed part of the iron ‘Lath’ that stood in front of the Buddhist Temple at Dhar outside the city now called Lath Masjeed. Three pieces have been found – one leaning against the wall in-situ, another one in Fort of Dhar and the third in Mandu. The total height of the pillar would be 41 feet. Kincaid further asserts that the Lath Masjeed is simply a transformation of a Buddhist Temple.

Now this is interesting. Until now you thought that the Lat Masjid was built over the remains of a Hindu Temple! Does that explain the undecorated ceiling of the dome and the comparatively plain pillars? Giving some force to the Buddhist Temple hypothesis, is the location of the Lath Masjid. The location is away from the city, and on the hill which was called Telangani Tekri by the locals. Now you can identify the vibe that you felt when you walked around which you associate with Buddhist places across India.  

The imposing eastern gateway - Lat Masjid

Kincaid finds the biggest in-situ piece leaning against the terrace with one end stuck in the soil. The locals had an idea that it is composed of all metals. The guide told him about the Persian inscription of Mughal Emperor Akbar on the part buried in the earth. The locals sometimes called it Akbar Shah’s Lath but commonly it is called the “Telin ki Lath” (oilman’s pillar or walking stick!). The locals think that the pieces in Mandu and here in the fort are parts of this pillar. Near the pillar are two large stones weighing several tons in weight and are called the half and quarter-seer weights of the ‘telin’!

The inscription on the Eastern Gate. The blue tiles here and on the dome and the prayer hall would have looked beautiful six hundred years ago

In 1912, when Luard comes visiting he sees the pole of wrought iron lying outside the mosque. The pillar was locally known as Jayastambha or pillar of victory. The pillar has apparently been uprooted because now he can read Akbar’s inscription which indicated Akbar stopped here on 15th Feb 1600 on his way to Deccan. Jehangir saw the pillar standing and called the mosque the Jami Masjid. Jehangir says that Bahadur Shah of Gujarat ordered the pillar to be taken to Gujarat and in the process the pillar broke into two. Everybody wants the Pillar! Jehangir ordered the pillar to be sent to Agra to be used as a lamp post. But the order was not carried out.

Before going ahead let us look at the Upright / Prone timeline of the pillar in Dhar! The pillar was upright when Dilawar Khan built the mosque in 1405. Bahadur Shah broke it while trying to take it away in 1531 and the two broken pieces lie on the ground. (the third piece is still in Mandu at this point of time, originally broken by Multani when he annexed Mandu in 1304). The pillar was still lying on the ground when Akbar came in 1600 as his inscription is at the bottom (Akbar was proceeding to Asirgarh to fight his last battle). Jehangir sees it standing circa 1620, William Kincaid finds it buried and leaning against the platform circa 1875. Henry Cousens also sees it buried and leaning against the high masonry basement in 1903. By the time Luard arrives in 1912, the pillar is again lying on the ground! In 2018, yours truly saw the pillar, now in company of its two siblings, prone on the ground. ASI has fixed the pieces to the platform so that they are not going anywhere soon!

Some Interesting History Tidbits!

It was the twilight of Akbar’s glorious career. He had to take care of some unfinished business in the Deccan. In the beginning of year 1600, Akbar rolled into Khandesh from Malwa. The Faruqi King Bahadur Khan refused to pay tribute to Akbar and duly took position inside the impregnable Asirgarh. After taking over Burhanpur, Akbar returned and the Mughal forces laid siege to the fort in April while Prince Daniyal was engaged in quelling Chand Bibi in Ahmednagar. The emperor could not bear the defiance of a small king on the all important route to Deccan. Intelligence confirmed that the fort had ample supplies of water, food and ammunition. Akbar knew subjugating the fort will take time and time was one luxury he did not have. He will have to employ trickery and intrigue.

Read the Story of Akbar's Deception and Ashwathama!

Asirgarh - Key to the Deccan


Now coming to the most interesting and enduring proverb! Luard provides a possible scenario of the origin of the famous proverb: “Kahan Raja Bhoj Aur Kahan Gangli Telin”. Once upon a time there lived a Giantess Oil-Woman in Dhar and sometimes Nalcha. Her name was Ganga or Gangli Telin. She had a huge pair of scales that matched her size. The pillar was the beam of her balance and the two boulders the weights! According to Cousens, these boulders held the Pillar upright. It seems there could be historical fact too behind the saying. In 1042 Bhoja defeated the combined forces of Gangayadeva and Jayasinha. Jayasinha was the ruler of Telingana. The enemy forces would have taken this route coming from South. The battle could have taken here on this hill called Telingana-tekri. So, the proverb might mean “How Exalted Raja Bhoj is and How Lowly are his enemies Gangaya and Tellingana”!

Henry Cousens, the ASI archaeologist and photographer, gives a detailed report of the Dhar Iron Pillar in 1903. You love this guy and his thoroughness in writing this article. In the article, he compares the Dhar pillar to almost every pillar existing in the country then, most of whom he had personally visited. Now that says something about the dedication of archaeologists of that era. According to him, the total length of the pillar was 43 feet and 4 inches. He surmises that the pillar was a Jayastambha or column of victory as they were quite common in the country. The pillar was probably erected by Arjunavarmadeva (a successor of Raja Bhoja) in around 1210 to commemorate his victory over Gujarat. The pillar was made out of arms and booty taken from the enemy and was erected in the grand Vishnu Temple in Mandu. According to him, Muhammadans as per their inscriptions usually demolished the biggest temple to build their Jami Masjid. The pillar was broken down into two pieces after the conquest of Malwa in 1304 by Delhi Sultanate’s Multani. A hundred years later the longer piece was taken by Dilawar Khan to be erected in his mosque in 1405 while the smaller piece remained in Mandu. The presence of this smaller piece in front of the Jami Masjid is corroborated by the Bombay Subaltern’s account of 1844. Bahadur Shah defeated the Malwa Sultanate of Mandu in 1531. To avenge Gujarat’s past defeat he wanted to take the pillar back to Gujarat when the bigger piece at Lat Masjid further broke into two pieces. Cousens is not able to figure out why and when this pillar was made because of absence of any inscription but he is sure the pillar was surmounted by some image (Garuda) or symbol (Trishul) which probably lies disfigured together with the principal deity under the mosque in Mandu. Cousens further opines that there would be a fourth piece making the original pillar’s length almost 50 feet; twice as high as Delhi Iron Pillar.

That is a magnificent Tamarind Tree. The pillar in its original size was almost 50 feet high. It would have given great competition to the imli tree!

Your search is over. The search for the pillar in the photo has brought you to Dhar. Bhojshala turned into marvellous story set over different time frames. The story is still relevant in modern times, though the narrative has grown less cordial than you would have wanted. The three pieces of the pillar are now back together at Lat Masjid. History is amazing; how pieces in different time frames come together in the most unlikely of the places. Michael Willis in his remarkable paper says: “Indology has the power to bring us closer to the historical realities of medieval India”. Now only if we don’t create make-believe worlds and rather stay true to reality. And history is reality.

Dhar & Mandu, A Sketch for the Sightseer, 1912, by Major CE Luard, Page 1, 9 – gives interesting local narratives of the pillar

Henry Cousens, “The Iron Pillar at Dhar” Archaeological Survey of India, Annual Report, 1902–03. (Calcutta, 1904), pp. 205–212 – what an awesome paper. Have high regards for the archaeologists of that time – ok not for that Fuhrer guy!

History of Mandu, The Ancient Capital of Malwa (1844) by A Bombay Subaltern republished in 1879 by William Kincaid, Bheel Agent, Pages Preface, 10, 101 – he calls the temple on which the mosque is built a Buddhist Temple -KI MASJID

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  1. Got immersed ! Very exhaustive and interesting.

    1. Hi PN Sir, thanks for taking time out to read. The Iron Pillar had had such an amazing life. India's history is so colourful and multidimensional and yet all interconnected. It is always a learning experience going through the excellent documentation of the past historians. Regards