Srinagar, Jammu Kashmir
The Jama Masjid of Srinagar is one of the oldest mosques in India to carry that moniker. Aside from the various Dargahs built for various Sufi saints, it is in fact one of the oldest standing mosques in the country. Located in the extreme north of India, it is among a number of great mosques constructed under the auspices of the Delhi Sultanate during its golden age in the 15th century. It is also one of the largest mosques in India, and one of the finest surviving examples of Muslim architecture in the Kashmir Valley.
During the early centuries of the Delhi Sultanate, the practice of Islam spread far and wide throughout India. The Sultanate reached its territorial height under the Tughlaq, under whom Islam reached almost every corner of the continent. Though the Sultanate’s territory rapidly diminished in the second half of the 14th century, it left behind Islam entrenched in many places where it had hitherto not been.
Among these areas was the Kashmir Valley in the far north of the country, a region which had only been nominally evangelized in earlier centuries. During the 14th century, Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani, a Muslim scholar from Persia, traveled to Kashmir. He spent most of his life in the region working diligently to help spread Islam, and much of the region’s traditions and culture can be traced back to his efforts.
To solidify the Islamic toehold that Hamadani secured in Kashmir, then sultan Sikandar ordered the construction of a massive mosque, which was completed around 1400. Within a generation, the local Muslim community had grown so much larger that a major expansion of the mosque was carried out under the auspices of Sikandar’s son. It remained one of India’s largest mosques until the arrival of the Mughals more than a century later.
The Jama Masjid of Srinagar has weathered many disasters over the years, including being badly damaged by fires on several occasions. The mosque was significantly renovated during the reign of the Mughals. Despite ongoing troubles in Kashmir brought about by rival claims from India and Pakistan, the Jama Masjid has survived well into the 21st century as the heart of the region’s Muslim community.
The Jama Masjid of Srinagar is a sprawling affair that essentially remains as it did after its renovation in the late 16th century. Although not as ornate as mosques being built in Persia at the time, the Persian influence is nevertheless unmistakable. Giant gateways with the distinctive arched entrances permit access to the mosque at several points. Rather than being crowned by domes, the gatehouses are topped by spire-like structures that give the mosque a hint of Southeastern Asian influence.
The mosque interior consists of an immense columned and carpeted hall larger than three football fields. The columns, nearly four hundred of them, were carved from the wood of Kashmir trees. Over thirty-thousand worshipers can pray here simultaneously, and more than double that can be accommodated in the courts and lanes surrounding the mosque on all sides.
The Jama Masjid is located on the south side of the city of Srinagar in west-central Kashmir, approximately 80 miles east of Islamabad in Pakistan and 350 miles north of Delhi. It is open to Muslims. Non-Muslims should check ahead, especially if there are problems in the region. The mosque is open year-round. There is no cost of admission. Web: http://travel.kashmironline.net/jamia_masjid (official website).
The other must-see Muslim site in Kashmir is the Khanqah-e-Mualla Monastery, which is dedicated to Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani. This monastery, built on the site of where the Persian poet once lived, is said to house two relics associated with the Prophet Muhammad: his flag and his tentpole.