By Times Headline Writer
AHMEDABAD: During his visit to Saudi Arabia earlier this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gifted King Sal man a gold-plated replica of Kerala’s Cheraman Mosque –considered to be the oldest mosque in India -in honour of the ancient trade links between the two countries.
Arguably though, India’s oldest mosque is not Cheraman but one in Modi’s home state, Gujarat; some experts suggest it may even date to the time of the Prophet Muhammad. The Cheraman mosque was rebuilt in the 11th century, but the Juni Masjid or Barwada Masjid on the northern edge of the ancient port town of Ghogha, on the Gulf of Khambhat, is still in its original form, albeit in a dilapidated condition. Like the Cheraman mosque, the Barwada mosque (Barwada Masjid in Gujarati translates as outsiders’ or foreigners’ mosque) is not a listed monument and hence is not covered by any conservation plan. No information is available on when it was built and who built it, but some historians contend that it predates the Cheraman Mosque, which was built in AD 629, and the Palaiya Jumma Palli or The Old Jumma Masjid of Kilakaria in Tamil Nadu, which was constructed between AD 628 and 630.
The reason to consider this 15×40 foot structure as the oldest mosque in India lies in the Muslim custom of offering Namaz during the times of Prophet Muhammad. One tradition says that Muslims prayed facing `Baitul Muqaddas’ in Jerusalem, for the first 13 years of Islam – from AD 610 to 623. Another tradition limits the period of maintaining the Qibla -the direction Muslims face during Salat -towards Jerusalem to the 17 months after the Hijra, the Prophet’s exodus from Mecca to Medina. In AD 623, while offering Namaz in Medina, Muhammad had a revelation and declared that Muslims were to face the Kaaba during prayers. From then on, Muslims stopped facing Jerusalem and the Qibla has faced the Kaaba.
At the Barwada mosque in Ghogha, the Qibla, indicated by the position of the Mehrab (a semi-circular niche in the wall facing which prayers are offered), is towards Jerusalem, an angle nearly 20 degrees north of the Qibla towards Mecca. This reflects the fact that this stone structure must have been erected much before the Prophet’s declaration that the direction to the Kaaba be treated as the Qibla. The historical mosques in Kerala and Tamil Nadu have their Qibla towards the Kaaba.
Compass readings taken at the site put the heading of the Mehrab from the entrance at about 295°NW. The heading towards the Kaaba, as at a newer mosque in the same neighbourhood is about 275°NW.
A teacher of history, Professor Mehboob Desai has been arguing about the Barwada mosque’s antiquity ever since he stumbled upon it. “Looking at the flow of information among Arab traders, there is no chance that a Muslim would build a mosque facing Jerusalem after the Prophet had declared the Kaaba as the qibla,” he told TOI. “This is the oldest mosque in India, because I have not heard of any other mosque with its mehrab pointing towards Jerusalem.”
Desai insists that the mosque at Ghogha may be older than many of Arabia’s an cient mosques. None of the mosques built in Medina or in Kerala or Tamil Nadu are in their original shape. While Cheraman Mosque was rebuilt in the 11th century , all other mosques changed shape in the 20th century .
Built by Arab traders on the then bustling port of Ghogha, this stone structure may have been abandoned by devotees after the qibla was changed. With more than half of its roof gone, the pillars are in need of support, and a board on the mosque’s doors asks visitors not to pray there because its mehrab doesn’t point towards the Kaaba. It also warns people not to damage the structure because of its heritage value.
Aslam Siddiqbhai, who lives in the neighbourhood, said that repairs are made on the mosque as and when locals find a donor.
With inputs from news agencies