Water in the Zayande-Rud was a happy spectacle of course, but it looked familiar. Much of my childhood memories are filled with very similar evening gatherings of lovers seeking a moment of proximity and old people seeking a moment of quiet breath on the bank of the Hooghly River, which was about three minutes walk from my maternal grandpa’s home in Shyamnagar, one of those ugly towns that constitute the northern suburban tail of Kolkata.
What, however, was unexpected was the Masjid Jameh, Isfahan’s grand congregational mosque.
This immense architectural arrangement is unique by many counts. Inscribing it as World Heritage Site, the UNESCO notes it to be a ‘stunning illustration of the evolution of mosque architecture over twelve centuries…’. It is unique in being the oldest preserved edifice of its type in Iran and has been over a thousand years an inspiration for great architects designing mosques across Central Asia. It is unique in being the first mosque to adopt the Sassanid period’s four courtyard layout spread over 20,000 Sq. Mt. Unique are the decorative details of its domes, representing stylistic developments of Islamic art over a millennium.
At least over the past six hours I am trying to soak in the mosque’s architectural grandeur. I am trying to capture in pictures, albeit in vain, its ‘stunning’ aiwans, arches, domes, the vastness of its courtyard, its Mihrab (the niche in the wall marking the exact direction of Mecca on the Qiblah wall) and Minbar (an elevated platform for the preacher) with breath-taking wood-carving, making the best possible use of my poor camera and poorer photographic skills.
Suddenly it rings out. Voices. Children’s voices. Laughter. I turn my head: there they are. Two little Iranian girls, heads completely uncovered, playing, shouting, jumping, making all kinds of mischief that is universal to children irrespective of the myriad divisions of identities into which we adults have managed to divide ourselves and have shed relentless blood. Instinctively I take a snap. Then it sinks into me.
I have visited enough number of important mosques in many countries to be aware of the solemn atmosphere that generally hangs on them. Indeed, such solemn that because of not being a Muslim, even though there are no restrictions on non-Muslims, when I visit a mosque, something tells me to be a little extra-cautious, so as not to hurt sentiments inadvertently. And here I am standing in the courtyard of the most important mosque of Iran, where the stranglehold of the Mullahs on everything, we are told, is terrifying. And here I hear and I see that two little girls have turned it into a veritable playground.
No. No fierce looking bearded Mullah in menacing black robes is sauntering towards the children to scare the hell out of them. I let my cameras hang from my neck for a moment, step back mentally, and look around. ‘Relax man,’ the whole ambiance whispers into my ears.
One after another a series of snaps pop-up in front of me, me, and not only my ophthalmic sense: girls playing, totally oblivious of the bombastic religio-artistic adjectives attached with the mosque in profound books and journals, a guy in deep slumber in the shade of the aiwan exactly opposite to the one with the holy Qiblah, with his legs stretched towards it (in a flash it brings to mind that famous anecdote about saint Kabir (1), almost where his outstretched legs end, another man sitting in praying posture looks towards the same Qiblah-Aiwan with a simile of soothing calm, people huddled in small groups simply chatting, and Japanese tourists trying to catch the domes and minarets and tiles in praiseworthy frames.
No, nothing indicates to me that it’s a place which you must enter with a sense of apprehension lurking in your mind. That is what I carry back from Iran’s oldest mosque, which has seen a whole millennium and two centuries roll by. All its architectural spectacle and politico-religious importance notwithstanding, the grand Masjid Jameh leaves me with the lasting impression of a shrill, happy, carefree laughter of little children!
(1) Once the venerated 15th century mystic saint was lying in a mosque courtyard, exactly like our gentleman, with his legs towards the holy Qiblah. Out came a furious Mullah and screamed, ‘You stupid! Don’t you know that’s the direction of god?’ Said Kabir smiling, ‘Oh! Really? Can you please kick my legs to point to a direction that’s not the direction of god?” The Mullah gave Kabir a hard kick, moving his legs, and to his horror in his mental vision he saw the direction of the mosque’s Quiblah change with the direction of Kabir’s legs. He did it again and again and again with the same result each time to his increasing horror, until the saint’s simple point dawned on him!