Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Sonepat's Durga Masjid and Other Wonders

On 29 May, 1453, after almost two months of laying siege to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Ottoman sultan Mehmed II entered the city. His first stop was the Hagia Sophia, the largest cathedral in the world at that time and a focal point for Orthodox Christianity, the state religion of the Byzantine Empire. As his troops pillaged the city, the sultan exercised his new found power to declare the Hagia Sophia a mosque. The Ottomans introduced essential mosque architecture such as minaars and mehraabs into the mosque while removing obvious Christian elements such as bells and altars as well as plastering over a number of mosaics. This sort of thing religious conversion though wasn’t unexpected for the Hagia Sophia. 250 years back in 1204, as part of the Fourth Crusade, Western Europeans had attacked Constantinople and plundered the Hagia Sophia. Like the Ottomans, though, just plunder wasn’t enough. The Roman Catholic invaders wanted to humiliate the Orthodox Christians religiously. The Hagia Sophia was therefore converted into a Roman Catholic cathedral and remained so till the Byzantines managed to expel the Latin Christians from their city and convert the Hagia Sophia back into an Orthodox church.

As the Hagia Sophia amply shows, the capture and conversion of religious monuments during conflict sends a strong symbol to a defeated people. It’s one thing to be defeated in war. But to even see your gods defeated...that must hurt.

The city of Sonepat, 40 odd kilometres from Delhi, has a small example of that symbolism.

Driving though the city centre, I noticed two tall minaars towering above the city. Apart from their great height (~60 feet), their obvious antiquity tickled my curiosity. I stopped the first passerby I saw and asked him what that was and how I could get to it. He replied that it was a Durga Mandir. Not having seen too many mandirs with minaars before, I nodded condescendingly and asked someone else. As you might have guessed by now, “Durga Mandir” was the answer again. Intrigued by this minaar studded mandir, I made my way to Mohalla Kalaan where this structure was located. There in front of me stood what looked exactly like a medieval mosque but with a red stone facade, an obvious modern day addition with the words “Sri Sanatan Dharm Sabha Panji Durga Mandir” written on it in Hindi.

The facade of the Durga Mandir

Unfortunately, the "mandir" was shut when I chanced upon it. I did manage to locate the pandit and convinced him to open the gate for a quick darshan. The interiors of the mosque have been completely refurbished and coated with white marble, an odd choice of stone given the structure’s red sandstone exterior. In the middle sits an idol of Durga. On the way out I gingerly quizzed the pandit on oddity of a mandir having two minars and three domes.

“It’s a sixty year old story,” he said looking at me suspiciously.

 I flashed him my most winning smile. “Partition?,” I ventured stating the obvious.

Haan, it’s a tale from ’47. The Muslims has all left for Pakistan so we took over their mosque and made it into a temple.”

“Didn’t that cause any problems?”

“No, not really. There were no Muslims here at the time. There is a court case on but you know how those work.”

I nodded knowingly, assuring him that I knew exactly how the judicial system worked in India.

“So there are no Muslims in Sonepat anymore?”

“Now there are but these have come recently as labour from Bihar and UP. No Muslims from here”

I thanked him for his time and left the mandir.

Once I reached home I did some more research from the Interwebs. What is today the Durga Mandir was the Jumma Masjid of pre-1947 Sonepat, its main congregational mosque. During Partition the mosque was converted into a makeshift mandir. Today construction is going on at full swing at the monument to make that change permanent. Till some back (see pic below), there was no red stone facade. Most probably within a few days the mosque will be unrecognisable.

The mandir from a few years back before the renovation. [link]

In 1947, Haryana was part of the British province of Punjab one of the two provinces to be divided between the newly created dominions of India and Pakistan, the other province being Bengal. While Bengal saw its fair share of communal violence the Punjab just erupted into a bloodbath. East and West Punjab both empted themselves of their minorities. Lahore and Amritsar, the two largest cities of united Punjab had a more or less equal balance between Muslims on side and Sikhs and Hindus on the other. Today you’d be hard put to find Hindus and Sikhs in Lahore and Muslims in Amritisar.  Sonepat, it seems, just followed the example of the more illustrious Punjabis cities. And just like the Ottomans chose the Hagia Sophia, the city had chosen its Jama Masjid to act as a symbol during those mad times.

[Further reading: a couple of interesting articles on similar phenomenon I came across from the Other Side while doing my research: Pakistan's disappearing temples and churches, Pakistan’s long forgotten Hindu temples and Gurdwaras]


If the tale of the Sonepat’s Jumma Masjid fills you with despair, do not you worry. Just a few hundred metres away in the same bazaar, Sonepat presents to you a shining example of communal harmony. In the 800-year old Mama Bhanja Dargah lies buried Hazrat Nasiruddin. The first chaadar at the annual Urs of the mazaar is to be only offered by a member of the Brahmin Kanwar family as this plaque in Hindi proclaims.

The story behind it is that at the site of the dargah once stood a temple looked after by an old, blind pandit. Nasiruddin came to pandit one fine day and asked to be buried in the temple. He also asked the pandit to go to Rohtak and call his bhaanja (nephew). The pandit agreed to the dying bit but running this errand was a bit too much, it seems. He pleaded helplessness citing the fact that he was blind. Nasiruddin then apparently used his powers to cure the pandit and lo and behold! he could see (using his powers to call his nephew in the first place is something that, I guess, never occurred to Nasiruddin). The pandit called the nephew and then asked for two more boons. One that the Jamna shift seven kos away from Sonepat as it did (and the fact that it’s still there even after 8 centuries should lay all doubts to rest). Second that this brahman’s family be allowed to offer the first chaadar at the Urs—a custom that’s still followed.

In what might be a modern day take on Nasiruddin’s syncretism, the sajjaadaa nasheen of the mazaar calls himself a ‘pujaari’ now (see pic above).

The entrance to the mazaar. It was locked when I was there.


Sonepat has another another saint buried within the town who goes by the name of Khwaja Khizr. Unfortunately, the Khizr does not refer to the Green Man of Islamic tradition, a fact that greatly excited me at first. Of course, it struck me a moment later that a mausoleum for Khizr would be decidedly odd. Khizr, like Hanuman in Hindu tradition, is supposed to be still alive today. The tomb is of a noble at Sikander Lodhi’s court who gave it all up and became a saint. The maqbaraa was completed in 1524.

Situated in the middle of a large, neatly-laid out garden, the mausoleum acts as a sort of hang-out place for the local populace given that it’s probably the only park-like space in the city. The mausoleum itself is beautiful. It’s cleanly built and stands on a high plinth, at the south end of which stands a finely done doorway. The monument is made of a white stone (whose name I don’t know) and red sandstone. The combination of the two results in an extremely elegant structure.

The place is still an active place of worship and I was reminded rather rudely by a few men outside to remove my shoes before going in. The structure contains two huge tombs with chaadars, flowers and incense sticks littered about. One tomb must obviously be of the saint named Khizr, the other is unknown.

The Maqbara

The doorway to the mausoleum
The plinth is made of brick and is around 7 feet high
The two graves inside the maqbaraa. The blue thing on top of the right one is a chadar. Sorry for the glare but there's something wrong with my phone camera.
The lotus on either side is a typical feature of Lodhi architecture and represents the Indian influence on this style of architecture 
The kalash was also a regular feature in Lodhi archtitecture
Captured from the South-East

Sonepat is around an hour’s drive from Delhi. If you ever decide to visit the town, apart from the blessing of Goddes Durga, Khizr and Nasiruddin, do get some eats from Sukhdev Dhaba at Murthal as well. The place has some rather awesome paraanthas (served with small mountains of white butter) which are best washed down with a glass of thick lassi.

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