How innocently I met Islam! It was through a humble kind of “How do you do?” proffered to a handful of Rajasthan mosques; among the first there, I had stepped inside and removed my shoes early.
I was twenty and twenty-one both: before-and-after a bewitching winter's night in the foggy village of Ranakpur when the Jains, at their astonishing fifteenth-century temple, unwittingly ushered in an Australian's twenty-first year. Among 1444 marble pillars the fullness of cymbals reverberated that night, a sound to uplift, giddily gift the spirit to crisp air. I felt incredibly fortunate then.
The Jain priest sat with us after the service and had probably spoken of his religion, though the exact words are lost for me now. What remains is a temple echo from a time overloaded with novel sensation, a period of thought explosion when all seemed draped in wonder. So it shall be: a first trip to India.
I'd never heard of Jainism before we reached Delhi. Islam wasn't much more than a word. To be factual, it's logical that my very first mosque was in that city. Certainly we visited the Jame Masjid. Perhaps a week later we left our shoes at the gate of the Ajmeer Sharif, too.
The Jame Masjid is vast. It earns its name as the world-reflecting mosque. The Ajmeer Sharif bustled. It was crowded and very revered. The looks of some pilgrims brought discomfort: a feeling of intruding on someone else's sacred. We didn't linger.
Despite our curiosity it wasn't those grander sites that brought intimacy with this other religion. It was the little mosques abutting Rajasthan's highways, the everyday mosques of mud brick in long-forgotten villages and small towns where the average-everybody prayed. Usually we stood at the gate, asking in English and with body language to whoever was available if it would be alright if we looked inside.
At some we were permitted to climb a minaret to take photographs of Thar Desert landscapes. In most we'd sit some minutes on whatever mats they had, outside prayer time, just to take in a room of simple decoration, its atmosphere and the design of its mihrab.
As much as a temple could address the soul with sound, I learnt, a mosque could do the same with silence. One's religion didn't alter much: those rural mosques were holy spaces. The peace within deafened.
A lot has changed since then, I don't have to tell you. A younger mind can parcel complexity and happily experience one aspect of anything at a time. At an older age it's a panorama of inseparable pros and cons that more often registers: a stew of ideas, histories, politics, opinions and prejudices. It becomes difficult to anatomize, more trying to put aside the baggage of self.
The world changed. At home in Sydney, to be sure, anti-Muslim bigotry was well-established before I reached Rajasthan. But then, not six years later September 11 happened. We are all witnesses to the hysteria, ignorance and heightened prejudice unleashed. We lived through the subsequent inexcusable violence wrought in Islam's name. We learnt of the miserable sacrifices to be made for this thing called security; and saw the failed and surprisingly amateurish decisions of key western politicians: decisions of dire, long-lived repercussion. There's been a lot of public noise about Islam. It couldn't be further removed from that precious meditative silence.
Yet in that same year, 2001, Yann Martel published his book, The Life of Pi. On its pages he constructed stronger towers, as though he knew what the world would need. “Hindus, in their capacity for love,” he wrote, “are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat wearing Muslims.”
He could almost have been writing about my first trip to India, the innumerable temples, mosques and gurudwaras; there were one or two churches too, though oddly they often lay behind padlocked gates unless it was a Sunday.
It's funny how such divergent paths lead to a similar destination! So many expressions there are of a most fundamental human value, that of hope. Still, among them the peacefulness of the Rajasthan mosques was unique.
Far and wide, I have to say, I never found it again. I saw the patterned mosaics of Iranian mosques and in Arabia I sat in elegant and chic structures. I visited mosques in unusual destinations like Asmara and the one in Turkish Nicosia, built long ago on the remnants of a cathedral, thanks to the medieval upheavals of the crusades. All were nice to visit; none invoked that precise ambience.
Indeed, village mosques in Bangladesh are perhaps the most similar, unsurprisingly; but perhaps there's something in the clean lines and sparseness of a desert landscape, something that lives more readily in lighter, drier air. Or perhaps it's as simple as that I saw Rajasthan first. Whatever it was, as years rolled on, it was a silence almost forgotten, and from a time when silence needed no caveat.
In the middle of the fifteenth century, Uzbek Sufi saint-and-general Khan Jahan Ali arrived in the Bagerhat region, riding on the backs of two crocodiles who became his first disciples, so it is said. I'm glad he did. From the Sundarban jungle, he carved out the wealthy city then-called Khalifalabad and adorned it with mosques and monuments that would stand the test of time.
The most famous of course is the Shaat Gombuj Masjid, the Sixty Domes Mosque which actually has sixty pillars and more than seventy domes. I'd seen photos of the world heritage site on numerous occasions but took my time to go there. I'm not sure why. If I'd known what I'd find, surely I would've reached Bagerhat sooner.
The day was clear and hot, the sky unimpeachably bright. It was a weekday, without crowds. The grounds were picture-perfect manicured, overseen by ancient and enormous rain trees in their grand wisdom, in neat brick circles. In the large tank at the back, lotus leaves congregated, hinting a promise of color and depth in some other season. And of course, centre-stage was the mosque reaching out in a dignified display of symmetry and craftsmanship.
I am fortunate, really. I've seen quite a few historical sites in Bangladesh but rarely have I come across anything as presentable and clean as Shaat Gombuj.
Inside, it was cool and soundless. There was a surprising amount of light given the absence of windows. Two gentlemen sat in quiet contemplation. One engaged in basic chat.
Upon reflection, one realizes that the forest of stone pillars is not unlike the layout of the Ranakhpur Jain temple, built as it happens in the same century. Aside from the primary mihrab of interesting stonework, there is the intricacy of terracotta design to admire in the several secondary mihrabs spaced along the qibla wall. To have multiple mihrabs is a Bengal specialty, apparently, incorporated no doubt to broaden sanctity and to overcome notions of hierarchy.
For quite some years I can't have granted more than the most fleeting thoughts to Rajasthan. Yet inside Shaat Gombuj, unexpectedly, faded memories resurfaced. Among those pillars and in that space I was transported to a time before the drums of life marched me to war, as inevitably they do. For some few moments I lived again in an age when discovery ruled, a time of joy, with all the complexity of intervening years dissolved. In the mosque I was younger. Surprised at having come full circle, I found the chance, again, to greet Islam for a first time. It was with a renewed curiosity, an untainted kind of “How do you do?” that I felt the singular essence of peace that should be all that we need.
Andrew Eagle is an occasional contributor to the Star Literature Page.