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GENERAL CHARACTER OF MONUMENTS


The medieval period in Indian history is generally regarded to have started with the coming of the Muslims through the conquest of Delhi towards the end of the twelfth century by the Ghorids of Afghanistan. Within a few years the Muslims reached Bengal and their rule, started by Ikhtiar Uddin Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khalji around 1204 CE. brought about a change not only in the political field but also in the social and cultural arena. The factors that had moulded the society and culture so long were, in general term, Hindu and Indian, but now it was not only Indian– Hindu, but also Middle Eastern– Muslim. With the coming of the Muslims– Arabs, Turks, Persians and Afghans a change came in all spheres of life appropriating local and Muslim elements, and hence defined as ‘Indo-Islamic’ or ‘Indo-Muslim’. What was seen in Bengal architecture during this period was not only Indo-Muslim in general, but also local in particular, a style characterized by Hindu-Buddhist features of local origin in combination with Muslim elements.

While the Muslims brought with them architectural forms that were in conformity with their religious needs, the Hindu-Buiddhists contributed mostly to the techniques of construction, essential for the development of a style. Needless to say, along with forms Muslims also imported techniques associated with their forms hitherto unknown in India, such as the role of the arch and pillar in shaping a façade, and of the pendentive and squinch in holding a dome. Collectively known as arcuate these features were not originally Muslim, but were adapted from Romano-Byzantine and Persian sources of pre-Islamic origin in such a manner and shape that they eventually became part and parcel fo Muslim buildings throughout the Islamic world. Of the Hindu-Buddhist techniques, mention should specifically be made of columns, lintels and beams in an order generally termed trabeate for holding a ceiling and corbelling the corners of a domical vault. These techniques were associated with the use of long­ standing stone and carving practices for which Indian art had little parallel.

Muslim Architecture in Bengal better termed as Sultanate and Mughal started with

Bakhtiyar’s conquest of the province. He is reported in Minhaj’s Tabaqat to have built ‘mosques, madrasahs and khanqahs’. But little is known about them and there are only some hypotheses possible about their forms and characteristics. From the evidence of


other countries, and from some examples derived from this land, it can be surmised that they used local materials of mud, bamboo and thatches or ready made substances available from the spoils of war. In the countries of West Asia, for example, Muslims had converted abandoned churches and temples whenever necessary as mosques immediately after their conquests. But in India and in Bengal this was not possible because of the architectural character of the temples, primarily their size and orientation which rendered them unsuitable for change. So what the logic dictated was to give the craftsmen, mostly local, their plans and ask them to construct with local materials and according to their skills. The result was a Muslim mosque constructed with materials from local sources inclusive of deserted buildings, and based on local methods of construction.

On the analogy of Qutbuddin Aibak’s mosques of Delhi and Ajmer, and on the strength of many later extant examples, it is possible to come to the conclusion that the buildings of the early period of Muslim rule in Bengal in some cases were constructed by the spoils of the older buildings. Not to speak of the multi-faceted temple columns and lintels which are frequently seen in the extant monuments, it is curious that even the mihrab, the element to indicate the direction of the qibla and perhaps to symbolize the presence of the prophet, was also shaped out of temple blocks containing sculptures of gods and goddesses. In the latter instance the front of the blocks containing the images was put towards the core of the wall, while the back was carved concave to fashion the mihrab. The use of these stone materials in the period of the independent sultans or after them even during the period of the Mughals was in the main for strengthening the structure which were mostly of bricks, but occasionally were also to beautify the exposed brick fabric with polished stone relieving of black colour.

Because of unstable political conditions after the conquest that lasted for more than a century, it is unlikely that many buildings were erected during this period. Except for a few references in inscriptions, and the extant examples of the mosque and tomb of Zafar Khan Ghazi at Tribeni, and the Bari Mosque and Minar at Chhota Pandua in the Hughli District of West Bengal, and the mosque remains at Mankali Bhita in Mahasthangarh we do not have surviving examples of more religious or any secular buildings of this period. Even the referred mosques said to have been erected towards the end of the 13th or the beginning of the 14th century show all characteristics of later periods. A comparison of the mosque of Zafar Khan Ghazi with the Qadam Rasul at Gaur and the Bagha Mosque of Rajshahi, particularly the frontal pillars and the mihrabs inside, proves that they were of the Husayn Shahi period. So were the features of the Bari Mosque– it’s pillars, arches and pendentives, so similar to those of the Darasbari or Dhunichak Mosque of Gaur, suggesting beyond doubt that they belong to the second Iliyas Shahi dynasty of the late 15th century. The Mankalir Bhita Mosque, although not in total extant, with it’s visible features suggests that this was a mosque which also belonged to this period.


The assumption of power by the Iliyas Shahi dynasty in 1339 CE. however, changed the scene. Till this time Delhi governors, occasionally rebellious and independent, ruled the country, but now a sovereign dynasty who had had local aspirations and whose authority spread over almost the entire country was established. Haji Iliyas Shah was the first ruler of Bengal as we have seen above to have assumed the title of ‘Bengal Sultan’.

The independent Sultanate of Bengal initiated by him constitutes the most important period in the history of Bengal architecture. The architecture then assumed a style of it’s own, now generally described as the ‘Bengali’, distinct from the imperial Delhi Sultanate style or other regional styles of India. It is in this style that the Iliyas Shahis and the Husayn Shahis made significant contributions.

The monuments that survive today of the independent periods are all seen in their metropolises or divisional headquarters, signifying that architecture was then a subject of royal patronage. Of the cities and towns where such monuments survive mention may be made of Gaur-Lakhnauti, Pandua-Firuzabad, Sonargaon, Khalifatabad, and Bara Bazar sometime identified with Mahmudabad all of which were important administrative centers. Small but architecturally important mosques in places such as Mahisontosh, Bagha, Kusumba, Sura, Navagram, Rampal, Masjidbari etc suggest that these places were at one time centers of smaller administrative units, within the larger units.

Of the architectural forms the surviving examples belong mostly to religious

categories. The reason is obvious: their materials were not pirated even after they were deserted because of the sacred character of the monuments and their preservation whenever made possible. A visit to Gaur-Lakhnauti or Pandua-Firuzabad will show even today how the secular monuments were despoiled to build private houses nearby. The few surviving examples of secular monuments in these places are represented by

the extant examples of some gateways, remnants of a palace and some bridges in Gaur and the palace remains at Pandua. Of the Gaur-Lakhnauti Palace (mid-15th century), some lengths of the enclosing wall known as the Baish Gazi and traces of some pavement mosaics are discernible. The Pandua-Firuzabad Palace (mid 14th c.) is also in total ruins, and is at present filled up with jungles or some agricultural lands, only the remnants of a hammam and a broken tower known as the minar probably a corner burj of a gateway of the city mark the site. The description of the palaces of these two cities with their massive pillars and wall decorations have been left by Chinese and Portuguese travellers reminding us of the heydays of the two great metropolises, widely considered to be the most impressive examples of medieval cities.

Mosques dominate the religious categories of buildings. They are of two kinds viz. Friday jami‘ mosques and waqtiya mosques, sometimes also called panjegan mosques because of their exclusive use for the five times’ prayer of the day. The identifying marks of the jami‘ mosques are their larger dimensions and the addition of a royal gallery or maqsura in general as an upper floor to the north-west inner


corner to maintain the security of the ruler or his representative. The absence of the royal gallery in the Khalifatabad (present day Bagerhat) Jami Mosque, the second largest mosque after Adina, may be attributed to the existence of a postern on the northern side of the central mihrab, used occasionally, by earlier rulers to enter the maqsura encircling the mihrab.

Jami‘ Mosques are generally rectangular in plan and are multi-domed with a wide vaulted-nave that runs perpendicularly through the middle. However, with the exception of the Adina Mosque at Hazrat Pandua, not a single congregational mosque was erected with an open sahn (courtyard) surrounded by riwaqs (cloisters) a feature of traditional jami‘ mosque design outside India. The reason was obviously the unsuitability of the plan considering local climatic conditions. The only mosque without a royal gallery but described in an inscription as a jami‘ mosque seems to be that at Rampal in Munshiganj built in 888 AH (1483 CE) by Jalaluddin Fath Shah, the last ruler of the restored Iliyas Shahi dynasty. It should perhaps be mentioned here that small mosques occasionally could also be used as jami‘ mosques if and when necessary.

The waqtiya mosques were small in design and were erected generally in various localities, not only to fulfill the prayer needs but also as centers of social meetings and as primary religious schools. They are generally of the single domed type, and occasionally have a vaulted verandah in front running from north to south. The vaults of both jami‘ and waqtiya mosques were occasionally executed in a local variety of the chauchala design that followed from the chauchala hut of the land.

Other surviving religious types of monuments consist of a few tomb-buildings, both full structures and sarcophagi, and two madrasas at Gaur-Lakhnauti, the foundation of one of which has recently been discovered through excavation. Of these structures the most important one is that known as the tomb of Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah (1415­ 1432 CE) at Pandua-Firuzabad, and the tomb of Khan Jahan (d. 1459) at Bagerhat. Square and single domed in design, they appear to have been built in imitation of those square ones in Delhi, the earliest example of which is the tomb of Sultan Iltutmish. The origin of this type has been traced to pre-Islamic Sassanian chahartaq.

The tomb of Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah is particularly important in the sense that it initiated the Bengali chala-curved motif as the curvaiture of the roof line for the first time which eventually being used in almost all subsequent monuments became the potent and marked characteristic of Sultani architecture.

It appears that tomb building was not as popular in the Sultanate period as it was in the Mughal. Amongst the sarcophagi, the widely known one is that of the tomb of Ghiyasuddin Azam Shah (1392-1410 CE), situated in the western quarters of the city of Sonargaon, the capital of the first independent ruler of East Bengal, Fakhruddin Mubarak Shah. It is made of beautiful carved stone in contradistinction to other simple brick examples in Gaur-Lakhnauti such as those of Alauddin Husayn Shah and his family or in Pandua-Firuzabad of Sheikh Jalaluddin Tabrizi (d. 1337) and Nur Qutbul


Alam (d. 1415). The sarcophagi unprotected as they were except those of the holy personages, fell easy prey to weather conditions and purposeful demolition. The madrasa at Gaur-Lakhnauti, locally known as Darasbari Madrasa (1504), was a vast rectangular structure with an open courtyard in the middle. All the rooms surrounding the courtyard served as dormitories except for the central western room which was larger and was used as a mosque evidenced by the existence of three mihrabs. Another madrasa, also from Gaur and known as Belbari Madrasa (1502), is yet to be excavated and discovered.

The Qadam Rasul (1531) at Gaur-Lakhnauti is the lone example of a religious type of monument, not much in favour in the Sultanate period. Nasiruddin Nusrat Shah of the Husayn Shahi dynasty built it. The monument has the general appearance of a mosque but with a platform in the center to contain the footprint representation of the Prophet, an object of much respect and reverence for the Faithful. The form became somewhat popular in the Mughal period.

Except their forms, the general characteristics of the Sultanate architecture in Bengal are that they were all built in bricks, the walls being very wide, ranging from 1.5m to 4m, occasionally covered with stone facings or stone lintels running horizontally through the middle. The corners are strengthened by the erection of towers mostly octagonal but occasionally also round, rising only up to the level of the roof without any cupola or pinnacle. From tower to tower the roof was bow- curved, a feature derived from the prevailing curvilinear from of thatched huts. Above the roof rose inverted tumbler-shaped domes of the local type, built mostly on triangular pendentives, but occasionally erected above squinches, both being adapted from outside sources Byzantium and Persia. Inside, in large buildings slender but hard granite columns of indigenous origin were put in rows to carry two-centred pointed arches giving the interior a sense of lightness and airy space. The buildings were decorated both inside and outside with string mouldings and terracotta designs of local origin, the most important subject matters being creepers within frames. These designs contained hanging motifs of different designs, originally derived from the chain-and-bell motif of temple decoration. The mihrabs in mosques, corresponding to the number of east doorways, had mostly engrailed arches in front. The entire element was so profusely ornamented and kept within a rectangular frame that it became at once the focal point of the entire interior.

The above characteristics of the buildings gave the Sultanate architecture in Bengal a distinct look, different from other medieval architecture in India or elsewhere and have created a style which may aptly be described as the independent Bengal or Bangla style. The style prevailed in the 15th and 16th centuries and continued unabated even in subsequent centuries particularly in temple-making, despite the inroad of Mughal building art which from the 17th century became the order and the accepted mode.



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