Thursday, September 30, 2010

Sitara Mosque & A Very Curious Imam in Dhaka Tales

I was fidgeting while partaking lunch at Hotel Al Razique Restaurant until I realized that this particular meal was, in itself, a unique experience. The place didn’t look all that different from a Chinese restaurant, until I noticed that everyone around me were males. To my left, at the corner of the room is a cloister – a separate, more intimate stall with partitions. “That’s where women eat,” Mafuz my guide told me. Women were conveniently segregated from men. The mores and traditions of Islamic Bangladesh are too far removed from my cosmopolitan Manila, to think that some idiots from the rest of “civilized West” still envision the Philippines as an island life where people still live on trees. For one, our maids spell better than the superior beings who hire them! Mafuz nudged me out of my reverie. Right, next stop is Star Mosque.


I paid 380 taka for our meal, comprising of lentil soap, mutton, chicken, and some vegetable dish I couldn’t remember the name of. I asked that I be taken to a money changing shop first. I was taken to a heavily congested area right across the National Mosque (Baitul Mukarram). They were coaxing me to exchange more than what I required, but until the dollars in my wallet becomes theirs, I am the boss. We hailed a rickshaw and after a few haggling, we got our ride. Mafuz conveniently saved me from a lot of wasted effort and time. We ventured into the smoke-filled streets that characterize ugly urbanization, passing through Dhaka’s Zero Point, a special landmark from which map distances are calculated. Unfortunately, this landmark was littered with garish posters! I saw a Post Office servicing mails in the Motijheel area.


I jumped off my rickshaw the minute we got to Sitara Mosque (Star Mosque). The neighborhood was familiar - Armanitola. In fact, this was the same street as the Armenian Church, just 350 meters from where we were. The mosque is a petite unimposing building that didn’t look particularly intimidating unlike Baitul Mukarram. There’s a sprawling yard with square patches of grass-covered ground and a dry, star-shaped fountain made of marble, and a stack of blue tiles delineating the pond’s water-level. I gazed at the main atrium and was entranced by the beautiful domes – five of them - rising proudly above its roof. In Islamic architecture, domes are placed directly above prayer halls.


I was reminded to take my shoes off, leaving them outside the gate. I had doubts about it. This was a chaotic street, anyone could easily pick them and run. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust the people. It was me! I’m just not comfortable walking barely – and years of visiting temples and mosques haven’t acclimate my feet. But since I didn’t have any choice on the matter, I took them off.

The mosque itself has an inlaid star pattern; the walls are a mosaic of broken pieces of china in arabesque design (an elaborate application of geometrically repeating patterns), set over white tiles. Flower and star patterns are also in abundance, as well as a limited arabic calligraphy which is otherwise common in other mosques. It was built in the early 18th century, employing the usual mughal architecture, but it has been extensively renovated some 50 years ago, with finances coming from a Japanese. This resulted into portraits of Mount Fuji on a set of tile design. Where is this? It’s actually easy to find these, if you’re observant.
From the front yard, you directly face the mosque. The entrance is an open lobby where the faithful can already bow and pray. The wall that divides the lobby and the prayer hall inside has 5 arched doorways. This wall is littered with tiles of Mount Fuji (with a lake and a tree at its foreground), probably numbering 18, if my estimates are correct. I’m aware that images and photographs are not allowed in mosques, thus calligraphy and geometric patterns decorate mosques. This would make those Fuji images special. It’s obviously a unique exception to the rule on Mosque architecture and Islamic art, isn’t it? The dried-up would-be fountain outside is part of the “garden” design of mosques – for ablutions (purification rituals).


I timidly made my way inside, unsure if I was going to be shooed away like I usually am in mosques elsewhere. To my surprise, an exceedingly curious imam (prayer leader), with a beehive of goatee hanging below his chin, came up to me and started asking me like I was a job applicant: was I a student, was I married, which country do I come from, what is my educational attainment (they always ask about education and work), do I like Bangladesh. After having passed his amused interrogation, he rolled the carpet for me – so to speak. I was invited inside. Whenever I’d stop to stare at the mihrab (the prayer niche that indicates the direction to Mecca), he would wave his hand to suggest I was free to take as much photos as my heart desired. I was floored by such hospitality. The imam would stand at the other end of the hall, then point to a corner of the small prayer hall. I’d look “enlightened” and terribly interested, just out of gratitude for this privilege.


Under most interpretation of Islamic laws, non-Muslims may be allowed into mosques as long as they don’t sleep or eat inside. But Islamic Asia, unfortunately follows the dissenting opinion presented by the Maliki School of Islamic Jurisprudence that prohibits visitors like me. In Bangladesh, however, the attitude towards tourists are very welcoming. Even women are allowed inside – and that is a liberal move! Visiting a country with not a lot of intrusive tourists has its advantages, after all.

It didn’t take me 30 minutes to soak in on the atmosphere of this holy landmark. I made my way out and said my “thank-you” to the gentle imam. Tourists always find it heartening when local strangers extend a piece of kindness. It also makes this world a wee bit brighter.

This is the Eye in the Sky.

Mahfuz checks up on me.

A very curious imam.

Mount Fuji, a tree and a lake.

The main prayer hall.

The mihrab or prayer niche

Gorgeous entrance arch leading to the prayer hall.

In arabesque design full of flowers and stars.

Praying at the lobby, just before going inside the main prayer hall. Christians genuflect; Muslims bow and touch the floor.

Point Zero in Old Dhaka from which maps are calculated. It's also a busy rotund where vehicles take their turn.

Location of Point Zero

No comments: