How Muslims and Lahore got Sunehri Mosque back from the Sikhs

Published 14 Dec, 2020 02:09pm

"Maharajah had decided it was the religious duty of Sikhs in the area to get up early morning to awaken all Muslims for prayers."

Few historic monuments in the Walled City have as colourful a history as the one at the corner of the junction where Kasaira Bazaar meets Kucha Chabakswaran, just off Kashmiri Bazaar. It is a beautiful mosque built at a slight height.

Now this mosque has curiously-shaped bulbous domes coated with real gold leaf and its architecture is a mix of local traditions. As it has no definite architectural style to label it, the experts, some very reputable ones, do not approve of it. Others find it exciting and a reflection of Lahore’s open and liberal tradition. Like Amritsar’s Golden Temple, this mosque is Lahore’s Golden Mosque, better known as ‘Sunehri Masjid’.

The stories associated with this historic mosque are worth narrating. Built in the era of Mughal decline in 1753, almost half a century after Emperor Aurangzeb died, and 12 years before the Sikh rule commenced, its construction was opposed by both local traders and by the ‘mullahs’ of the area.

The traders opposed it because it would allegedly harm their profits by congesting the already congested bazaar. The ‘mullahs’ opposed it because traders threatened to cut off their funding if they supported the project. In the end, an interesting solution was arrived at.

The builder of the mosque was Nawab Bukhari Khan, the then deputy governor of Lahore in the reign of Mir Munoo, the Arain strongman of Lahore. Nawab Bukhari met the traders first and promised that they would not be asked to pay donations for the mosque. It would have shops on the ground floor, whose rent would pay for the maintenance of the mosque.

As the plot of land was a small vacant one, the mosque did not hinder the work of the traders. If anything, it added to their demand level. He then asked the traders, who were now satisfied with the solution, to convince the ‘mullahs’ to issue a ‘fatwa,’ stating that the building of a mosque was an Islamic act and much needed by the traders. In return, they promised to continue financing the ‘mullahs’.

So it was in 1753 that the beautiful mosque was completed. Soon afterwards, the Sikh triumvirate of Gujjar Singh, Sobha Singh and Lehna Singh of the Bhangi Misl conquered Lahore on April 12, 1765 and the Sikh era started. The city was conquered with assistance of the Arain traders of Lahore. Amazingly, it was these very traders who also, much later in 1799, assisted Ranjit Singh wrest the city from these very three rulers. The arrival of the Sikhs, at least, led to an era of peace and an end to the Afghan pillage.

Maharajah Ranjit Singh took over Lahore in 1799 and it took him a decade to completely consolidate and expand his empire. After a few years, once the new ruler had grown strong, a Sikh priest led a group of soldiers and Sikh residents of the area and took over the mosque. They complained to the maharajah that ‘Azan,’ the call for prayer, was making life miserable for the Sikh and Hindu residents in the neighbourhood and they just wanted to end the noise.

Initially, the maharajah allowed them to control the mosque, provided it was turned into a ‘gurdwara’. So a copy of the Guru Granth Sahib was placed in the middle of the mosque and for all practical purposes, it became a ‘gurdwara’. It even had a new name and that was ‘Chota Sunehri Gurdwara’.

For a few years, this continued and then a delegation of Muslim leaders approached the powerful Fakir family of Bazaar Hakeeman and discussed the issue with Fakir Azizuddin and Fakir Nooruddin. In 1826, the brothers approached Maharajah Ranjit Singh to get the mosque restored. As the Fakir brothers were very influential in the Lahore court, the crafty wise ruler asked for some time before he could think of a strategy to dislocate the powerful Sikh panths. His solution was an amazing one.

All the Sikh residents and priests were one day abruptly summoned to the Lahore Fort and informed that the maharajah had decided that as he would serve all the communities equally and it was the religious duty of all the Sikhs in the area to get up early in the morning to awaken all the Muslims for prayers. So five times a day, they were given strict orders and refusal to comply meant severe punishment.

Within a fortnight, the same Sikhs went back to the ruler and told him that they just could not carry out this duty as they could not sleep due to it. So the mosque was returned to the Muslims but on two conditions. Firstly, they were to call the ‘Azan’ at a very low volume. Secondly, the rent accrued from the shops beneath the mosque would go to the government. It was a solution that both sides ‘agreed to’.

Most interestingly, the Muslims allowed the Sikhs, on special occasions, to use portions of the mosque.

Before the mosque was built, the plot of land was a vacant one, which Nawaz Bukhari Khan purchased.

The design of the mosque needs some explaining. The pillars ending in a lotus configuration certainly does provide glimpses of Hindu-Sikh architecture but then the domes are more bulbous with plant formations. Traditionalists do not like the design while others find the amalgamation of several sub-continental traditions a beautiful mix. In all aspects, it is a beautiful building.

By the time the upheavals that followed the death of Ranjit Singh and the rise of the East India Company came, the mosque was in considerable disrepair. The British under McLeod did carry out essential repair work. Later on as 1947 approached, the Muslims of Lahore collected funds to maintain a falling structure. Further neglect began to further damage this beautiful mosque.

In 2011, the US ambassador to Pakistan visited the mosque as well as other historical sites during a tour of old Lahore and he was appalled at the condition of the mosque, especially given its history. Immediately, he set into motion a proposal whereby funds from the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation of the USA were released.

The Americans insisted that only experienced and honest architects and artisans be allowed to work on conserving the mosque. The initial funding of $35,000 was released and the four domes were gilded in gold leaf, the minarets were ‘resurfaced’ and the flooring had new marble installed. It returned to its original glory.

Today the mosque is a protected monument and, ironically, as one newspaper report tells us, after the prayers the doors are locked to keep the tourists away. Why this happens, need investigation. The busy bazaar certainly does not mean that tourists and visitors, let alone those willing to silently pray, are disallowed from visiting this beautiful historic mosque.

Nearby the mosque built by Wazir Khan is nearing its conservation and it would not be a bad idea for the experts to visit Sunehri Masjid so as to put forth a plan to further improve conditions within the mosque. There is a lot of work to be undertaken within the domes as well as on the walls. The quality of work in the larger mosque nearby can certainly be extended to this historic mosque.

This piece was first published in Dawn, December 14th, 2020

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