Culture Tuesday

Nakhoda Masjid and its neighbourhood

Amidst the high entropy of Central Kolkata, at the intersection of Zakaria Street and Rabindra Sarani, stands a contrastingly regal structure in red and green. This is Nakhoda Masjid, popularly called Badi Masjid, the biggest mosque of Kolkata.

What does ‘Nakhoda’ mean? Who built it?
The city of Calcutta was made home by many communities from within the country and outside of it. One such community was of the Kutchi Memons of Gujarat who are said to have arrived in Calcutta in the 1840s owing to their need of intensifying trade with Burma (now Myanmar), Java, Singapore, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Mauritius via the sea. The Memons of Kutch are a community of Sunni Muslim traders and were considered unparalleled in sea trade and commerce.
The community is said to have a strong presence in Calcutta and its most tangible manifestation to this day is the Nakhoda Masjid.1 The Mosque is said to have been built from the funds from Abdar Rahim Osman, member of the Kutchi Memom Jamaat (congregation) and a shipping magnate. He had traveled the Middle East extensively and was a sailor. The Masjid is named after him as ‘Nakhoda’, a term originating from the Persian language2, literally means captain. So, Nakhoda Masjid is, quite literally, the ‘Mariner’s Mosque’.
The construction is said to have begun in 1926 and cost 15 lakhs.

The green dome and minarets of Nakhoda Masjid rising above the chaos of the streets.
Photograph: Varun Mishra

Visual Markers and Architecture
From the outside, one can easily spot 3 domes and two principal minars. There are an additional 25 smaller minarets.
If you look at the entrance of the Masjid, built of red sandstones, you’ll notice a resemblance with the entrance of Buland Darwaza at Fatehpur Sikri 3. The red sandstone used is from Dholpur, a city in eastern Rajasthan. located on the banks of river Chambal.

Entrance of Nakhoda Masjid. Photograph: Varun Mishra
Buland Darwaza gate to Jami Masjid at Fatehpur Sikiri, India.
Source: Wikimedia commons, Marcin Bialek.

The Masjid is said to have been modeled on Akbar’s mausoleum or maqbara at Sikandra. (photo below)

Akbar’s Tomb of external entrance from the road, built to imitate the Buland Darwaza at Fatehpur Sikri, the city, Akbar founded. Source: Wikimedia commons, Antoine Taveneaux.

While the main entrance is of red sandstone the rest of the façade is terracotta red. The domes, a contrasting green, and the minars and minarets rise regally above the everyday chaos of the city.

Inside, the courtyard houses a fountain and pool for ritual ablutions. The prayers halls of the Masjid can accommodate up to 10,000 people. The pillars are painted, again, in contrasting shades of  green.

The use of marble inside presents a soothing contrast to the red facade outside
Pillars and doorway inside the Mosque
Extensive use of marbles inside
Interiors of the Masjid
Interior of the mosque boasts of intricate carvings and ornamentation

Because of the nature of its design, Nakhoda Masjid is also one of the only mosques in Kolkata that has successfully resisted the installation of air conditioning. Its open architectural style allows cross ventilation which keeps the mosque cool even on the hottest of days.

The upper floors have screens fitted to the arches and balustrades below
The Believer.
Photograph: Varun Mishra

Located in the nerve center of Zakaria Street, it presents a splendid spectacle at festivals such as Eids, Fridays, and during the holy month of Ramzaan.

A Food Street outside
Right outside the mosque is Zakaria Street that hits you with a heady mix of colours, aromas and a characteristic old world charm. You’ll find musical instruments, Chinese shoes, perfumes and dry fruits. Talking about food, there are different types of meats and fish, firni, falooda and shahi tukra to name a few.

Sufia Restaurant is famous for its beef and mutton dishes like nihari, haleem etc. Aminia Restaurant and Royal Hotel are known for their biryanis which contain egg and potato along with the meat and chaap from Bombay Hotel is also praiseworthy . Crisp bakarkhani, a kind of sweet, flat bread and an exquisite street food, sheermal and naan rub shoulders with laccha sevai and khajla, flaky flour discs fried in ghee, which are dipped in milk and savoured. Mawa laddoos, gajar ka halwa and gulab jamun at Haji Alauddin Sweets are a major attraction. 

We are waiting for the lockdown to end so that things return to normal and we can visit this historical monument and savour the sights and sounds of Zakaria Street.

Words by Bidipta Sen, Seema Mishra. Photographs by Varun Mishra.
We would like to thank Maariyah Siddiquiee, journalist and researcher, for her inputs.

1. The other landmark is the Cutchi Memon Jamat kabrastan (cemetery) at Upper Circular Road, which is open for burial of both Cutchi Memons and other Muslims subject to trustees’ permission.

2. Nakhuda (when Anglicised, also written Nakhodeh, Nakhudah, Nakhooda, Nakhoda, Nakhodi) is a term derived from nāv boat (from Old Persian) + khudā master, from Middle Persian khutāi a ‘master of a native vessel’ or ‘Lord of the Ship’. Read more here.

3. Buland Darwaza or the ‘Door of victory’, was built in 1602 A.D. by Mughal emperor Akbar to commemorate his victory over Gujarat. It is the main entrance to the Jami Masjid at Fatehpur Sikri, which is 43 km from Agra.

3. Anjana Sharma 2018, Records, Recoveries, Remnants and Inter-Asian Interconnections, Flipside Digital Content Company Inc.
5. Takeo Kamiya, Indo-Islamic Architecture, a concise history
6. Government of IndiaMinistry of MSME, Brief Industrial Profile of Dholpur.

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