The magnificent Prayer Hall of the Mosque
CHINIOT: THE CITY AND ITS MOSQUE
by Najma Khan
In the days of the Raj, the British officials used to record all matters of a district in the special gazettes. These were the dossiers of information on almost every subject. A glance on the District Gazetteer of Jhang in those days describes the district in following words “the surface of the district presents three levels on the extreme west the high sand dunes of the Thal, in the centre the two low-lying river valleys and on the extreme east a portion of the Sandal Bar”.
Jhang historically has been the district and Chiniot, a tehsil town or sub district of Jhang. The people of Chinot had always been demanding a district status for their town or merge it as a tehsil of Faisalabad, as distance wise the town was much nearer to Faisalabad than Jhang. Then compared to Jhang, it had and still has more arts and crafts as well as trade and architectural splendors unique to the city of Chiniot. This always made the people to demand for a proper recognition of their town which was historically and culturally better placed to claim the status of a district itself.
A further dig into the ancient history reveals importance of Chiniot especially during the period of the Mughals as the city stood at a prestigious pedestal, being an inter-provincial trade centre. Its craftsmen were scattered all over the Hindostan contributing to the marvelous architecture of imperial Mughal buildings spread over Agra, Delhi and Lahore.
Situated on the left bank of the river Chenab, the city then could be considered the richest jewel set in one of the picturesque valleys in the area. Even today, it stands on a rock related to an outcrop of rocks barely two miles away where the Chenab pierces its way through and in the process splits up into two giving rise to an island of unsurpassed beauty and grandeur. A grove of date palms provides cool shade.
To view the rising sun from any of the surrounding rocks is an unforgettable experience in itself.
BIRTH OF CITY NAMED CHINIOT
As the story goes, in ancient times, a Hindu princess by the name of Chandanvatti, used to visit the banks of Chenab. Fascinated by the romance that prevailed almost all the time on the river bank, she decided to build a city along the river itself. So a city was built and it was named Chand Niyot after the beautiful princess whose brainchild this city was. Winds of times carried ancient whispers to our age as we come to recognize Chand Niyot now as Chiniot.
The credibility of this legend though, is yet to be tested, but its romance – is alluring. Being an ancient city, its earliest record of existence suggests that it may have been the cradle of some ancient civilized urbanity under a Sanskrit name. A reference in Rig-Veda by some scholars implies a city name now known as Chiniot. The city is said to have been mentioned in the Ramayana too and subsequently by Alberuni in his Kitab-ul-Hind. It is also mentioned by history writers as depicted in certain stone structures in the reign of Moryan Kings as well.
In the 7th century AD, the city is reported to have come under the administration of Brahmin Chach, one of the ancestors of Raja Dahir, who was later defeated by Muhammad Bin Qasim. Chiniot was among five provinces ruled by the young Muslim commander in early 8th century AD.
THE SHAHI MOSQUE
Main enterance of the mosque as viewed from the prayer hall
Today, the city is world renown for its splendid architecture and the amazing craft of its artisans. Some 160 km west of Lahore, Chiniot offers many buildings of historic magnificence and import. Amongst all those, the Shahi Mosque stands aloft with its glorious past and sheer beauty with intricate floral patterns which make the mosque much distinct from many such similar buildings. To a great extent, its architectural design resembles the Grand Shahi Mosque of Delhi, India.
Not much is known about the origin of the Mosque. Though called as Shahi Mosque [imperial], yet it is not known with certainty that the mosque was constructed on the orders of any emperor. It is, however, generally believed that the Mosque was built by Nawab Saad Ullah Khan of Chiniot [Grand Wazir in Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s court].
Saad Ullah Khan lived in Pataraki, a secluded village on the banks of river Chenab nine miles away from the main Chiniot city. His father Ameer Bakhsh was very poor and passed away on the very evening his son Saad Ullah was born. For the early part of his life, Saad Ullah lived in orphanage, passed through extreme poverty and deprivation, then moved to Lahore after the death of his mother and started as a fakir seeking alms near Lahore’s Wazir Khan Mosque to pay for his educational expenses. Very soon the people of Lahore started to recognize him as Hafiz of the Holy Quran and a public speaker who could captivate the masses listen him for hours. His wisdom and vision led him to the court of Emperor Shah Jahan and he won the Emperor’s favor by his honest counseling and skilful articulation in certain court matters. In the year 1645, this poor orphan of Pataraki was invited, through a Shahi Farman (royal decree) to take over the office of Wazir-e-Azam [Grand Wazir].
Interior: decoration on marble
It seems that Saad Ullah Khan decided to build this mosque in Chiniot to offer his gratitude to the Almighty for this grand reward. The construction began in 1646 and continued till 1655. Maulvi Noor Ahmed Chishti recorded the building of this mosque in Tehqiqat-e-Chishti in 1867 and mentions that Sang-e-Surkh [red stone] was used, but this suggests he never visited the mosque himself for the mosque is built of a stone called Sang-e-Abadi [Abbri in some records].
The mosque is set on a single storey podium some 15.6 ft above the ground. An exceedingly handsome edifice of hewn stone obtained from adjoining hills decorates its external façade. The internal court has an ablution pool and three domes over a prayer hall. Three domes stand out like the petals of a crown and four minarets in all corners of the mosque give impression of a floral bouquet. This design can also be seen in Jamia Mosque Dehli [built around 1644] and also on the arches of Lal Qila. It clearly suggests that Shahi Mosque’s construction began somewhere around 1646. Many believe that this mosque was built by Wazir Khan but he died in 1641.
The minaret at sunset
The mosque stretches 108.6 ft East-West and 97.87 ft North-South excluding the stairs. On the eastern side of the mosque, the stairs measure a little above 20ft and on the northern side around 12.6 ft. long rows of side rooms [four in the north and five on the south] of vast courtyard measure 28.9 x 26.3 x 9.6 ft. the vast prayer hall has four rows of 8 pillars each. Every part of the ceiling falling between the pillars is decorated with magnificent design and color.
The vast courtyard measures 70.5 x 71.2 ft with an 18.8 ft square ablution pool. There’s no door in the southern part of the mosque like the one in Jamia Masjid Delhi. A narrow stairway in the south east leads to the roof above where three giant domes stand majestically surrounded by four minarets originally built in Sang-e-Larzan [the trembling stone]. They used to sway slightly with the strong wind, but during their restoration and renovation, they have been replaced by ordinary stone.
As the British came to replace the mighty Mughals, much of Chiniot’s glorious architectural treasures suffered neglect and many were taken over as private residences, so the city lost much of its old grandeur yet the Shahi Mosque of Chiniot still retained much of its past magnificence to relate the tales of the splendors the city once had.
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All Photographs shot on location by Umair Ghani
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