If you have always wanted to visit a Moorish Mosque but never had the means to fly all the way to Alhambra or Marrakesh, then a cheap alternative is at Kapurtala. This is what draws me to this well-known town which has to its credit many fine buildings and palaces. As I walk through town in search of accommodation I see that many of these once grand palaces are today government offices. Their royal glamour may be lost but at least they are being put to good use.
At the intersection of two busy roads I find the Sainik Rest House, a place of stay for the Indian Armed Forces. There is a nice garden here and some pretty flowers are in bloom. The place is quiet despite its proximity to the main road. The bus stand where I alighted is perhaps only a mile away from here. It takes me a while to find the caretaker of the place.
‘Are you in service?’ he asks. This is a fair and standard question.
‘These are the rates,’ he points to a chart stuck on a wall. I go through it. The rates are printed in small letters and recent updates are hand-written.
‘Do you give rooms for the general public?’ I ask.
‘I’ll come in a while. Relax,’ he replies and disappears from the office.
I am looking forward to visiting the Moorish mosque as early as possible but the caretaker is in no hurry to get things started. I sit in the office staring at the chart. Rates are grouped under columns – ex-serviceman, rank, staff and so on. There is a column for civilians. Looks like I can get a room after all, although it might be more than what I usually pay. Dorm beds cost Rs. 100 a night and air-cooled rooms are at Rs. 300.
In time the guy comes around to check me in. There is no dorm bed available. I don’t know if this is really true but I’ll have to take his word. The air-cooled room is large and the bathroom is spacious. There is hot water. This is just the place I require to wash my clothes. The caretaker puts new sheets and switches on the television. He later brings me a jug of water.
‘You should visit the Kapurtala Coach Factory,’ he says as he prepares to leave.
‘But I would have to know someone, right?’ I ask.
I walk in the direction of the mosque. First, I come across a small mausoleum standing at a busy intersection, its pink facade catching the first rays of sunset. It is a compact monument. Its cusped arches, domes and finials are neat. Otherwise, it is not a wonder, which would explain why it’s not any more famous.
Across the road from here is the mosque. I can barely see it from here because a large open lawn lined with trees separates the mosque from the road. Some children are playing on the lawn. Their parents or grandparents are chatting away the slow evening. The facade is impressive. It is nothing like any other mosque I have seen elsewhere in India. A tall square tower rises at the end of the right wing. A pair of porticos project out from the corridors and enclose within them a central arch. The arcaded corridors to the left and to the right are plain but beautiful in design. Everything appears demure and restrained. Yet in the details seen on the tower and around the central arch I see artistic flamboyance. Perhaps I will see more of it on the inside.
I walk into a pillared hall with arrays of arches linking pillar to pillar. There is something to be said about these odd looking arches. They are odd only because I have not seen anything like them to date. They are not the graceful Early English arches. They are not the stupendous Perpendicular Gothic arches. They are not Mughal arches found all over the country. They are instead almost semi-circular. The curves rise purposefully with every intention of forming a semi-circle; but at the last moment, as if in rashness or inspiration, they change course and join in an unexpected point. This point is so subtle that the original intention is not lost. Yet, after all that’s been said and done, it is a pointed arch. Yes, it may be odd and unusual but this Moorish arch is beauty redefined.
Architecturally, yet another unique aspect of this mosque is its inner quadrangle. It is defined by arcaded corridors on all four sides. The tower is visible on one side. Two pavilions topped with pyramidal roofs are at two sides of the quadrangle. These pavilions shelter water fonts that perhaps were once used for ritual ablutions. Near the pavilions are rectangular pools in the floor, today dry but would have been filled up in better times. The decorations on these pavilions are rich. Decorative corbels support the overhanging eaves. You might think of them are ornamented chhajjas of Hindu architecture. Arches exhibit stalactite work. These are not really magnificent and may be considered poor imitations of the grandeur of Alhambra that I have often seen in photographs. I must not forget that this mosque comes to us only from the 1930s.
A few quiet minutes at the quadrangle is enough to sense the beauty of this architecture. I wonder if this mosque is being used today. As if to answer my question a man walks out from the inner part of the mosque. Apparently it is used but perhaps it will see more crowd on a Friday evening.
The facade to the inner closed prayer hall is just as simple and refined as elsewhere. The same arches decorate the facade. The central arch is flanked by a pair of thinner ones. The central inner space is bigger and breaks the perspective along corridors and bays. The qibla is beautiful. It has the same arch which is here framed by motifs that together suggest the fanned tail of a peacock. Floral reliefs set within geometric patterns decorate a wall of white marble. This central space rises to a tower with spectacular vaulting which is pyramidal but 8-sided. Semi-circular lean windows on this tower brings in light. The stalactite work on this tower is beautiful.
There is much more to this mosque than I have managed to describe but it is time to move on. The setting sun has coloured the tower golden. On my way back I have a nice dinner at a restaurant right opposite my rest house.
In the morning, I take a cycle-rickshaw to the Shalimar Garden. The garden is alright but I am more interested in the mausoleums dedicated to late maharajas of Kapurtala. Unfortunately access to public is not allowed, a sensible thing since Indians are prone to vandalism and haven’t yet learnt the importance of preserving historic monuments. I take a look at the mausoleums from outside their fences. Some of them are richly decorated. They have everything typical of Indian architecture – jali screens, cusped arches, fluted pilasters, bulbous capitals, jettied balconies with decorative brackets and parapets, wide chhajjas, ribbed white domes and corner chhatris.
From here I take a walk to the Panch Mandir. I have no idea how old is this temple but it has definitely got a recent whitewash. The morning sun paints the white walls and shikaras into a new level of radiance. I like this temple for its colour and mood. Predominantly white, touches of silver and biege do not compete but rather enhance the quiet mood. The shikaras are small but beautiful. I hardly remember the deities here or even having a darshan. All I will ever remember is the mood.