Basri Shah Masjid: Kolkata’s Oldest Mosque

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    In the Cossipur area of Kolkata, surrounded by buildings, is a small green mosque with three domes. This is Kolkata’s oldest mosque, harking back to the days when Calcutta was no more than a small English trading outpost. What makes the mosque even more fascinating is that while it is widely recognised as Kolkata’s oldest mosque, who built it and when is enveloped in mystery.

    The most comprehensive documentation of the Basri Shah Mosque’s history is by city historian Pijush Kanti Roy in his book Mosques in Calcutta (2012). Before the city of Calcutta, or Kolkata as it is now called, was established, most of the region on which the city was built was forest land made up of three small villages – Sutanooti, Gobindapur and Kalikata – owned by the zamindari family, Sabarna Roychowdhury of Barisha.

    From the early 1700s, the British East India Company acquired the rights to these villages from the Sovabazaar family and began developing a new settlement here.

    As the new city began to grow, villagers from across Bengal began migrating here. As the number of Muslim residents in the settlement swelled, a need for a mosque was felt.

    There was a foundation stone near the mosque which sadly went ‘missing’ a few years ago. It stated the present mosque had been built anew, on the ruins of an older mosque in 1219 Hijri (1804 CE) by someone named Ja’fir Ali. Many speculate that this was the infamous Mir Jafar, the man who betrayed Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah in the Battle of Plassey in 1757 CE, and then made the Nawab of Bengal by the British.

    For a short period of time, in the 1760s CE, when he had been temporarily dethroned by the British, Mir Jafar had lived in Kolkata. But he died in 1765 CE, 39 years before the mosque’s renovation. So ‘Ja’fir Ali’ is probably not Mir Jafar.

    Another important personality linked to the mosque’s construction is Reza Ali Khan. Born in 1717 CE in Persia, Sayed Muhammad Reza Khan was one of the most influential men in the Court of Murshidabad, capital of the Nawabs of Bengal. Rising in the ranks of the administration, he became the ‘Naib Nazim’ (deputy governor) of Decca (now Dhaka).

    After the Battle of Plassey, when the balance of power shifted from the Nawabs to the British East India Company, the ambitious Reza Khan developed cordial relations with Robert Clive and won the confidence of the East India Company.

    He would rise to become the Diwan of Bengal (deputy governor), that is, of all of Bengal, from 1765 to 1772 CE. Such was his influence that historians call Reza Khan the ‘virtual ruler’ of Bengal.

    But the East India Company wanted Europeans to be in charge of the Diwani (Revenue) Administration. In 1769 CE, the post of District Supervisor was created and manned by Europeans, only to check the authority of Reza Khan. Finally, in 1772 CE, Reza Khan was fired from his position and imprisoned.

    However, during the trial, he managed to prove his innocence and demonstrated how the Fort William Government wanted to make him scapegoat to camouflage their corruption. Reza Khan was reappointed as Naib Diwan with full honours in 1775. In 1791, Lord Cornwallis formally abolished the post of Naib Diwan but Reza Khan died soon after.

    Reza Khan lived in Calcutta for a substantial amount of time, and this leads many historians to believe that he may have endowed the mosque or may have been behind its construction. But, again, lack or perhaps loss of direct historic evidence makes this very difficult to prove.

    Another theory connected to the mosque is that its name, ‘Basri Shah’, comes from the dargah of a late 18th-century Sufi saint of the same name. The dargah stands right next to the mosque, which is in fact enveloped by the dargah’s compound. Like its date of construction, even the name of the mosque is shrouded in mystery.

    Officially, the name of the mosque is ‘Basri Shah Mosque’ according to the municipality’s list of heritage buildings. The adjacent mazar (grave) in the dargah is also included in the heritage list as ‘Basri Shah Mazar’. But some books refer to the saint as ‘Bhousri Shah’ and the mosque as ‘Bhousri Shah Masjid’. The root of the confusion lies in the statement of the famous early 20th century Calcutta historian Sir H E A Cotton, who in his book Calcutta Old and New (1907) noted, “The masjid is nearer to Calcutta than the shrine on the bank of the canal.’

    But according to the book Mosques in Calcutta, author Pijush Kanti Roy contacted the mutwalis (trustees of a waqf) and learnt that the name of the saint was ‘Basria Rahmatullah Allahe’, who hailed from Basra, a port city in Iraq. After he settled in Calcutta sometime between 1760 and 1790, he was addressed by the local people as ‘Basria Shah’ or ‘Basri Shah’, and was loved and respected by both Hindus and Muslims. After his death, his tomb was built by his followers. Since the mosque was built on the same property, it was named ‘“Basri Shah Masjid’.

    Till recently, the mosque had been lying abandoned until the Kolkata Municipal Corporation included this structure in its heritage list and renovated it.

    The mosque is designed in the Murshidabadi architectural style. Three domes are centrally placed and there are four minarets in each of the east and west domes. At the entrance to the structure, there are three arches. The interior is decorated with stucco that contains mainly flowers. Stucco has been on the outer wall of the mosque too. It is beautifully ornate with flowers. Geometric placement of bricks and a layer of linen plaster further enhance the aesthetics of the mosque.

    The original architecture, as we can see in an 1850s photograph by a British photographer Frederick Fiebig in Mosques in Calcutta, was a little different compared to the renovated one. Originally, the colour of the outer wall was brick red and the domes were blue. Also, two slimmer minarets were placed within the thicker minarets. During the renovation, the eight major minarets were restored and currently, the domes are painted light green.

    An imam (priest), Tahir Khan Qadri, has been appointed by the Sunni Waqf Board. He says very few people gather here for prayer, while the dargah of Basri Shah is visited by people belonging to different communities, who believe that the shrine has healing powers.

    The Basri Shah Mosque is one of Kolkata’s enigmas still waiting to reveal its secrets.

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