The Sultanate of Bengal founded in 1206, is associated with the initial phase of Muslim building in India. Besides reflecting its contemporary “Indo – Saracenic” architectural trends effused off Delhi and other influential “provinces” (Ajmer, Gujarat, Mandu, Jaunpur), the Sultanate architecture of the region also developed its own provincial style, including both radical typologies (the chattri) and ‘innovative’ modifications (lantern over the central mihrabs).
Reutilization of pillage material from Hindu and Jain temples found itself in many sites including Gaur, Chota Pandua and Tribeni. Stone in the Bengal region was almost confined to the black basalt of the Rajmahal hills in the Malda District; but the fine alluvial clay was freely available, the material for the characteristic Bengal bricks and terracotta. The stonework was mostly a thin ashlar veneer over a brick core. The other characteristics of the Bengal style made their first appearance in the Eklakhi mausoleum at Pandua, notably a curve on each cornice of the square tomb chamber that was derived from a local method of constructing huts with bamboo rafters, octagonal corner buttresses, single hemispherical dome, and ornament in terracotta and glazed tiles. With the 15th century dynasties of the Shahi rulers, the decorations became more lavish – the domes being gilded; besides the square buildings with a curved cornice on each side, appeared the oblong pitched-roof building with the curved cornice on the long sides and gables at the short sides. The Bengal tradition flowing into the later 15th century, as reflected in the Islamic structures of Bagerhat, showed corner turrets and lintel-and-bracket doors set within pointed arches, very similar to those of Firuz Shah Tughluq’s buildings in Delhi of a century earlier, although retaining the local curved cornice. Many of these local features persisted in the Bengali architecture of the Mughal period.
As mentioned above, the earliest buildings re – used pillage pillars of large stones without mortar; and flaunted the shallow corbelled dome, the early arch and the multiple mihrabs (particularly the externalization or the special ornamental treatment of the central mihrab) in finely moulded terracotta. The feature of multiple mihrabs with a niche (miskat) corresponding to the doorway defined the mosques of the Tughluq Era in Delhi; and as stated by Perween Hasan, it was adapted in Bengal to console two opposing yet uncannily similar ideologies. The practice seemed appropriate to the designers and craftsmen working within the Indian tradition who had to accommodate the congregational nature of a religious building that is larger than an average temple and, hence in need of more than one doorways. Moreover, to the newly converted Muslim community, niches were directly associated with the worship of deities in temples, and a single mihrab in the west wall would have appeared to resemble too closely the sacred position of the image in a temple. Multiple mihrabs would dilute this resemblance, emphasizing more the qibla wall. The string of mihrabs aligned to a row of entrances also fulfilled the ritual requirement of congregational prayer in Islam – the formation of straight lines – providing horizontal emphasis to the interior space of centrally planned buildings such as the numerous square, single – domed mosques of Bengal. Overtime, the central mihrab received the veneration that is paid to single mihrabs outside Bengal, thereby becoming a consistent feature of this region. Originating in the central ratha of shikhara temples (.i.e., of Somapura Temple of Bengal) or the Jaina caturmukha type of shrine, the tendency included the anointing of the niche. The motif of a rectangular panel enclosing the niche, with a chain and ornament descending from the apex of the arch in the interior of the mosque; and the projection of the central mihrab in the exterior wall with sunken panels framing mihrab motifs – all served to glorify the niche of worship.
In most cases, with the exception of the hypostyle Adina Mosque (built 1374 – 75) of Hazrat Pandua, the mosques were large, rectangular, covered structures; a trait attributed to the heavy rainfall in the region, which dispensed off the interior open sahn (courtyard) and transformed the western liwan of a standard mosque into an independent building. The Sultanate architecture of Bengal boasted of excellent examples of elaborately carved canopied minbars – the stepped pulpit in the prayer hall of the mosque. Stone and wood were the preferred mediums: the earliest prototype, carved in basalt, in the early 14th century Bari Masjid of Chota Pandua has 9 steps leading to a domed upper chamber, with arched openings on 3 sides and what appears to be a mihrab representation against the western wall of the prayer chamber. This design was followed in the great Adina Masjid where the mihrab – like decoration on the western wall is carved with the representation of a lantern and the outer surface carved geometrical diaper patterns. The more ornamental minbars belonged to the structures of the Malwa Sultanate.
Bengal also developed its own ‘regional’ style of Quranic quotations that were used as mosque and mausoleum inscriptions. The common Kufic – naksh, thuluth, nastaliq – were in common use for both Arabic and Persian inscriptions all over India with some regional modifications; yet this style used a more elongated vertical strokes of alif, kaf and lam; spaced evenly across the length of the inscription, leaving the significant parts of the remainder of the letters to occupy the lowest quarter or third of the band, sometimes the tails of final or detached nun or ya were so disposed in the top part of the inscription to produce the “bow and arrow” effect – a style similar to the ones found in the coins of Jaunpur.
According to Percy Brown, it is possible to resolve the Islamic building art of Bengal into three phases, or rather two preliminary stages, and the third recording its ultimate development into a specific style:
- AD 1200 – 1340: The period extending from the first conquest of the “country” and while the capital was at Gaur until it moved to Pandua.
- AD 1340 – 1430: From the date when the capital was established at Pandua until the building of the Eklakhi Tomb.
- c. 1442 – 1576: During the period from the date of the re – transfer of the capital to Gaur, until the “country” was acquired by the Mughals.
For the sake of convenience, this essay will view, in some detail, the prominent exemplars of architecture pertaining to the first two phases. While no palace survives from the period, much of the evidence of the Era includes mosques and burial places – open-air funerary enclosures without architectural covering over the grave and monumental mausoleums.
The Jama masjid at Pandua, the Adina Mosque was built in 1373 by Sultan Sikandar Shah as a visual proclamation of his victory against Firuz Shah Tughluq. The largest in the Indian subcontinent, it has a corridor with domed bays, three on east side and five on the western side. There are 378 domes in all. The liwan is surrounded by 260 pillars of basalt and 88 brickwork vaulted archways. It is divided into two symmetrical wings by a central nave that was originally covered by a pointed barrel vault. The high central vaulted nave may be traced to Persian antecedents, Taq-i-Kisra, a pre-Muslim monument at Ctesiphon. The mihrab is decorated with large rosettes and interlaced ornamentation; and its arch had pendentives made in brick. There is an upper storey on the northern side, probably the royal compartment, known as the “Badshah ka takht”. This storey rests on fluted pillars having brackets – a typical of Indo – Saracenic architecture.
Other Masjids of note include the Chota Sona Masjid of Gaur and the Qadam Rasul (“Foot of the Prophet”) Mosque of Malda. The former, built by Wali Muhammad Khan has a rectangle plan with 8 columns that support 15 cupolas. The brick masonry walls have “drop” arches, and arches that are multi cuspid on the 5 arched opening lavishly curved façade. The latter is of built of small dimensions, having an inner chamber surrounded by corridor on three sides. Four basalt columns from temple pillages were used and the roof pattern had been copied from the typical traditional Bengali style roof, made of bamboo and thatch.
Graves of some of the important saints in Bengal – Shan Jalal at Sylhet, Alaul Haq and Nur Qutbul Alam at Chhoti Dargha, Pandua, are in open enclosures and conform to the orthodox belief that “only the pious deeds of the dead will offer him protection and shade”. Among the tombs of the first Ghazis, the Mazar-Madrasa complex at Tribeni, ascribed to Zafar Khan on the basis of two inscriptions dated 1298 AD and 1313 AD, belongs to the category of open-air tombs. The tomb consists of two roofless square rooms raised on a stone plinth. This tomb is not only the earliest known Muslim monument in Bengal but also the earliest extant mausoleum in eastern India. Another example is the exquisitely carved black basalt sarcophagus at Mograpara near the Panch Pir Mazar that has been ascribed to Ghiyasuddin Azam Shah (1411 AD).
Of monumental mausoleums, the foremost mention should be of the Eklakhi Tomb at Pandua. Built in 1414 – 1431 in the memory of Jalal – ud – Din Muhammad Shah, it is the earliest example of the monumental qubba in regional Bengali form. It has a square burial – chamber and octagonal interiors to support the hemispherical dome above on squinches carried on embedded stone pillars. The structure bears a triple curved cornice and octagonal turrets at corners.The facade is a combination of lintel beams and pointed arches, with ornamental panels and blind windows on it. The structure is built in brick with a roof, made of bamboo and thatch, with a slope to drain off rainwater. Once profusely embellished, the surface ornamentation bears traces of floral painting on plaster in the interior and a variety of terracotta and glazed tiles on the exterior.
The Eklakhi style became a hallmark of Bengal architecture during the later Shahi periods and persisted in the early Mughal period. Two important tombs in the Eklakhi tradition in Bangladesh are Khan Jahan’s at Bagerhat, dated 863 AH (1459 AD) and Badr Pir’s at Chittagong. The structures resemble each other – to accommodate the dome on the square tomb chamber, the phase of transition in both the tombs is achieved by squinches resting on brackets. The most distinctive feature of Khan Jahan’s tomb, however, is its lavishly inscribed sarcophagus.
The other is the Dakhil Darwaza of Gaur. Built in 1465 by Barbak Shah, the gateway to the city of Gaur resembled the Tughluq style of architecture. A high structure comprising of central vaulted or domed passage – it has security rooms on either side of the entrance. There are circular projections at the entrance of the fortified wall. Built in brick, the remains of its terracotta work can be witnessed having patterns of sunken arches, hanging lamps, rosettes, decorated niches, etc.
Compared to the Sultanate architecture of other provinces, this architecture is unimpressive; despite being symptomatic of passing phases of excessive ambition and self – exaltation. Nonetheless, the establishment of so inventive and original constructive principles in religious architecture, in particular the interesting adaption of conventional Islamic forms to regional tastes and requirements, speak of a religious accommodation in the patrons of architecture who generally belonged to the ruling elite; as well as served as evidence of the cultural syncretism that was taking place throughout the period of Muslim rule in India.
- Indian Architecture: Islamic Period – Percy Brown.
- Indian Islamic Architecture: Forms and Typologies, Sites & Monuments – John Burton Page.
- History of Islamic Architecture: Delhi Sultanate, Mughal and Provincial Period – Sharmin Khan.
- Temple Niches and Mihrabs in Bengal – Perween Hasan.
- Architecture of Bengal (Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia).