Hidden Mosque on a Hill Top
I was on a road trip when I passed by the western Assam town of Dhubri and stumbled upon an architectural marvel of not much magnificence, but of certainly high significance. As I approached the town, an old structure sitting next to the highway suddenly caught my eye and upon stopping and enquiring, I found out that it was an old mosque. The mosque in the Panbari/ Rangamati hillock on the outskirts of the small town encompasses a history so old and rarely told that it became a legend; a riveting story that compelled me to connect the dots through clues hidden away in lost books. Ten years later I am still trying to link broken pieces of history to paint a vivid picture of its origins.
Assam was never under Muslim rule; therefore, all the mosques that I grew up seeing were not as grand as the Mughal era mosques I had seen in books and photographs. The mosques that prevailed in Assam are regular big buildings with kitsch design elements of a stereotypical mosque thrown in. One’s eye might stumble upon pseudo-arches on the doors and windows, minimal calligraphy and occasionally a minaret. Hence, the Panbari/Rangamati Masjid was unlike any other architecture I had seen in Assam. Though it could be easily identified as a mosque, the architecture with its symmetrical façade, domes and minarets was still alien to me as I was more used to seeing thatched or pitched roofs. While chit-chatting with the people nearby I was startled to know that the said masjid was the oldest mosque in Assam. I was neither religiously inclined nor had a keen interest in history. Although, when something is claimed to be the oldest, it carves a new place for itself as is evident with similar adjectives like tallest, longest, oldest, biggest, etc., which render a whole new level of importance to the subject. Hence, my quest to find the answers to the slew of questions, which popped up in my inquisitive mind, regarding this monument started.
Alaudin Hussain Shah, the founder of the Shah Dynasty in Bengal assigned his General Ismail Ghazi to invade Assam. Kamatapur (now Dhubri district) which is at the western most tip of Assamwas and still is the main entry point into the North Eastern part of the country. This flat river plain sitting between the treacherous Himalayan Range to its North and the Garo Hills to its south (refer Map1) was annexed by Ghazi from 1499-1502 (Majumdar, R.C. (ed.) (2006). The Delhi Sultanate, Mumbai: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan). It is said that to celebrate their victory and also to offer prayers the king commissioned the mosque during that period.
Legend has it that the Panbari Mosque was discovered some 200 years back by the locals while wandering into the forest. It was covered in thick foliage. Subsequently, the local Muslims cleared the area and started offering prayers.
In 1662, Mir Jumla, a powerful Subedar of Bengal, under the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, invaded Assam (N.N. Acharya, R.C. 1990. A Brief History of Assam, New Delhi: Omsons Publications). Mir Jumla had sustained a long battle with the Ahoms, the most powerful rulers of the valley. He along with his army managed to reach as far as Garhgaon (Eastern Assam), the capital of the Ahom Kingdom but could not stand the harsh annual floods and the damp humid climate. The locals took advantage of these factors and finally drove the Mughals out, although, Kamatapur was always held by the Mughals. The mosque is believed to be constructed during this time.
Though two parallel stories exist, the exact date of the mosque’s existence could not be established. But it can be firmly believed that it is indeed the first mosque built in Assam. It has three domes which is the most dominating character of the structure with eight minarets complimenting them. Three arched doors on the Eastern façade and one window each on the South and North façade with intricate jaali work. Once inside, the domes give the space a very airy atmosphere and there is the mihraab, the alcove, at the centre of the western wall for the imam to lead the prayers. A mimbar, a pulpit where the imam sits to give sermons and recite writings from the Holy Qu’ran, was made of wood and installed after the discovery of the mosque by the local people. These elements make it look distinctly different in comparison to other state monuments or indigenous buildings. Thereby, making it stand out as one of the rarest example of Islamic architecture in the state.
The mosque is presently run by the local people through funds and donations. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has deemed the structure as a National Monument, although, the structure requires renovation work. The lack of initiative by the ASI, the developing infrastructure in the vicinity of the mosque and poorly executed local design interventions could rob the state of a very rare and pristine piece of history.
Ten years on and I’m still asking questions to seek the perfect answers about the history of the mosque. The structure might have been built in either the 15th century or the 17thcentury. This imposing edifice has a lot of uncertainties attached to its past. I hope it doesn’t have any such uncertainties attached to its future and it is fit to tell its glory and grab the attention of many more souls.