Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh
The Taj-ul-Masajid is the largest mosque in India (not counting the Bara Imambara), the second largest outside of the Middle East and the tenth largest in the world. It was the last major construction project to be initiated by the Mughal Empire in its last days, and it was not completed until 1985 after a construction hiatus that lasted more than a century. An architectural treasure, it is generally well off the beaten path for most travelers through India, making it one of the country’s less visited major mosques and thereby a particularly excellent experience for pilgrims.
By the early 19th century, the 300-year old Mughal Empire was well into its final decline as the British Empire gobbled up more and more of its territory. It was in fact, by that point, little more than a British puppet state. However, under the last emperor, Zafar (for short), the Mughals enjoyed one last, brief renaissance.
Zafar, a devout Sufi Muslim, was nevertheless a protector and even patron of Hindu culture in the final years of Mughal rule, and was apparently popular among both groups. Because of this Zafar was seen as the perfect leader of a rebellion againt the British and possible Emperor of India. He helped to lead the Rebellion of 1857, which ended in a crushing defeat for the rebels, exile for Zafar and the dissolution of the Mughal Empire.
Before the rebellion, Zafar had undertaken the construction of a great mosque in his capital at Bhopal, the largest ever to be built in India. Construction continued until the 1850s, when funds ran out, and was halted indefinitely after the Rebellion of 1857. It remained incomplete throughout the rest of the British colonial era, and well into the first few decades of independence.
In 1971, after a 114-year interruption, work finally resumed on Zafar’s masterpiece. Funding was provided from throughout the Muslim world, notably the Emir of Kuwait, and was finally completed in 1985. By the time of its completion (which required significant renovations to the original structure), it was one of the longest mosque-construction projects in Islamic history.
The Taj-ul-Masajid is absolutely gargantuan in scope. This sprawling mosque in red brick is architecturally reminiscent of the grand structures built by the Mughals at their height centuries earlier. The huge minarets which flank the main building soar over two-hundred feet above the city skyline. They are crowned with glittering white onion domes which match a trio of huge domes that crown and flank the entranceway. Seven massive gates provide entrance to the interior. The imposing outer wall and partial moat gives the place the appearance of a fortress.
The interior is a sea of columns which spread out over a huge area supporting ornately decorated ceilings. According to some counts, the interior and courtyard of the mosque together can accommodate 175,000 worshippers at once.
The Taj-ul-Masajid is just northwest of the city center of Bhopal, approximately 350 miles south of Delhi. It is open year-round (non-Muslims should check to see if/when they may visit). There is no charge for admission. Web: http://bhopal.nic.in (official tourism website of Bhopal).
Bhopal is home to a thriving Muslim community which hosts an annual Muslim convention of sorts. This takes place in nearby Islamnagar at the Chaman Mahal, one of the last of the Mughal palaces.