Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh
The Masjid Charminar, also known as the Mosque of the Four Towers, is the most famous and beautiful mosque in southern India, and one of the world’s most unique religious structures. It was built to commemorate Hyderabad’s miraculous deliverance from the plague in the 16th century, and is revered as the city’s symbol both by Muslims and Hindus. While the Masjid Charminar is known for its beautiful combination of Central Asian and traditional Hindu stylistic elements, it is for its engineering that this mosque is best known: the main prayer hall is suspended between the four minarets more than sixty feet off the ground! Hundreds of thousands of Muslims, Hindus and structural engineers make a point of visiting the Masjid Charminar when passing through the city.
The Islamic Sultanate of Bahmani was the first major Muslim realm in India. Founded in the early 14th century, it predated the arrival of the Mughals by several centuries. It also began to collapse just around the time the Mughals were arriving in India in force in the 16th century. In 1518 AD Bahmani broke up into five smaller states, including Golconda. The kingdom of Golconda would be one of south-central India’s most prominent Muslim nations until it was absorbed into the Mughal Empire a little less than two centuries later.
Towards the end of the 16th century the Sultan of Golconda, Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, decided to build a new capital city for the burgeoning Muslim state, and founded Hyderabad. Hyderabad was intended to be a modern planned city, with palaces, mosques, public monuments and the like. One of the first things constructed in the city was a replica of the Tomb of Hussayn, the second Imam as the people of Golconda and the Qutb Shahi dynasty were Shi’ite Muslims.
Soon after Hyderabad’s founding, a plague ravaged south-central India. As the story goes, Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah prayed beside the Hussayn’s memorial tomb, asking for the plaque to be lifted. Amazingly, the city was largely spared the worst of the scourge, and in honor of this miracle Qutb Shah ordered the construction of a magnificent mosque to be built on the spot where he prayed. When he laid the foundation stone, the sultan declared that the new mosque would be a place of prayer for men of all faiths, not just Muslims.
After the collapse of the Kingdom of Golconda in the 17th century, Hyderabad came under a succession of foreign rulers, including the Mughals and the British. During the British colonial period, to the shame of the British, the Masjid Charminar was seized and used for the storage of opium. In the aftermath of Indian independence in the 1940s, predominantly Muslim Hyderabad found itself surrounded on all sides by Hindu territory. Although local leaders wished to see Hyderabad as part of Pakistan, geography made this impossible. But even as the city was absorbed into Hindu India, Muslim sentiment runs strong, and the Masjid Charminar an important symbol of the city’s Islamic past.
The Masjid Charminar is without doubt one of the world’s most unique mosques. Because it predates the arrival of the Mughals, it bears no resemblence whatsoever to the Islamic architecture of Northern India. Its predominant style is in fact tradition Hindu, with just a hint of Persian influence most noted in the minarets. The overall structure, which was built over the memorial of Hussayn, somewhat resembles the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The main difference is the four towering minarets rising from the corners. Four Hindu-style archways rise between the minarets, supporting the main prayer hall sixty feet above street level.
This immense suspended space was one of the greatest architectural feats of its day, and it remained the largest such structure in the world until modern engineering techniques became available in the 19th century. The interior of the mosque is also an architectural marvel. The prayer hall level is actually three levels: two large galleries and an open-air deck. During its heyday these various levels were used for teaching and classes. The interior artistry and tilework is a fascinating blend of Hindu and Muslim styles and themes.
The Masjid Charminar is located near the Masjid Makkah in the heart of the old city on the south side of Hyderabad, approximately 800 miles south of Delhi. It is open to both Muslims and non-Muslims. However, due to both safety and religious concerns, access to the upper areas is restricted. As of this writing no other visitor information was available. Web: www.hyderabadtourism.in (official tourism website of Hyderabad)
Because the city of Hyderabad is in the predominantly Hindu southern part of India, there are not too many places of Muslim interest. However, in addition to the Masjid Charminar, there is the Masjid Makkah, which is the city’s largest mosque, and the largest mosque in India south of Agra. Another popular site is the Mausoleum of Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah who founded Hyderabad.