The engagement between a non-believer and a shrine is always fraught with tense uncertainties. In most cases the engagement doesn’t happen largely because of disinterest of the non-believer and at times due to the strict exclusive nature of the shrine. But when the heart is inquisitive enough and the sanctuary welcoming, the meeting is as tense and uncertain as the moments of falling in love. Always. But sometimes it can reach the fragrant heights of inhaling the beloved’s breath. That happens rarely. In my whole life I experienced it twice: in two shrines: the Dilwara Temple in Rajasthan’s Mount Abu, and Sheikh Lotf-Allah Mosque, in Isfahan’s Naqsh-i-Jahan Square. These are the two shrines, the first one a Jain temple, and the second a Shi’ite mosque, which grabbed me by my collar with both hands and said: look at me. When I did, it was not beauty alone that was staring back straight into my eyes, and the non-believer slipped into uncertain domains.
Naqsh-i-Jahan Square unprepares you for Sheikh Lotf-Allah mosque’s intensity. 89600 Sq. Mt. of green grass is surrounded by AliQapu palace, Shahi Mosque, Lotf-Allah mosque and Kesariyeh bazaar, each one of these having crossed four centuries ofexistence. People come here to relax, on the benches lining the immense lawns, or on the grass, either to escape the grind of the daily routine, or to cool their nerves after confronting any one of these buildings. The whole square is yet another UNESCO inscribed World Heritage Site of course, because of being ‘one of the largest city squares in the world and an outstanding example of Islamic architecture’.
So I decide to purchase a small paper-bag full mixed nuts and recline in one of the benches. By the time I look for a trash-bin to dump the empty paper-bag I am curiously content with life and almost feel like humming a happy song. I take out my itinerary notebook and find Sheikh Loft-Allah mosque marked in bold. I had done my bit of homework on the Shi’ite shrine, seen numerous stunning photos of its walls, arches and dome. It’s a tiny mosque, with less than 2500 Sq. Mt. of floor space, a sparkling drop in comparison to Masjid Jameh. It’s so small because it was actually the private mosque of the Safavid Emperor Shah Abbas’s family, who had it built over sixteen years between 1602 and 1618. Of course it has its own curious aberrations: I think it’s the only mosque I have ever seen that doesn’t have minarets. It also has a single dome unlike any other Safavid era mosques. I pretty much know what to expect.
I enter. And I am swept off my feet.
I drown in a flashing realization that unlike the Truth from which emanates the seed of Life for the believers, the Truth of Beauty is mercilessly demanding. What I confront inside the Lotf-Allah Mosque, so much like the Dilwara Temple, doesn’t offer me peace. Unlike Masjid Jameh, this creation doesn’t have the space within it to contain the carefree laughter of children. If Raja Ravi Varma had not reinforced our collective male-gaze with his boorish painting, I could even have taken the liberty of evoking Tilottama, a creation of Hindu mythology’s divine architect Vishwakarma, to paraphrase the space that I stepped into.
Finally when I am done with the intensity, the sheer perspiration of it soaks my senses. It appears to me as a single piece huge and complex fresco, with a centrifugal pull. I shudder at the thought of the sheer meticulousness of the arrangements of the polychrome glazed Haft-Rangi (seven coloured) tiles of the walls, and arches, the roundel golden-yellow patterns of the dome that in unerring precision reduces in size from the periphery to the centre drawing our gaze with them to centre-point. I imagine: four hundred years ago an architect had actually conceived this whole canvas within his head. He was Baha al-Din Muhammad Ibn Hussein al-Amili AKA Sheikh Bahai, the chief architect of the Safavid court. But then he was also a philosopher, astronomer, mathematician, and a poet.
And then there are the calligraphic borders, in Thulth and Nastaliq, which merge with the cohesionof the fresco with effortless ease: the magic touch of the master calligrapher Ali Reza Abbasi. That in itself is a whole chapter in the history of the world’s architectural art. Can you remember any single architectural school in the whole world that uses written letters as decorative art other than Islamic architecture? I can’t. I step forward and I step back, I look straight in front of me and I look up, the length of the letters appears not only exactly the same but in complete harmony with all the other patterns: Trompe l’oeil, the grand optical illusion created by gradually increasing the size of the letters as the height of their placement increases. The same illusion that we see, or should I say we don’t see, on the walls of Taj Mahal. Finally, there are the filigree windows and the resulting patterns of light and shade.
I feel the hands grabbing my collar hard, and whisper: look at me. I slip into uncertain domains.