He anoints my hands with a fragrant oil and bids me welcome…
“Allāhu ‘akbar; lā ‘ilāha ‘illā-llāh…”
(Allah is greater; there is no deity but Allah )
– Muzzeim’s call to prayer
It is quiet inside the mosque. The roar of traffic out on Chowringhee Road, though still audible, is nothing more than a low murmur. I remove my shoes. A woman shows me where to put them. I climb the steps to the prayer hall. It is a simple open platform with columns supporting a vaulted ceiling. There are carpets on the floor directly outside the mosque’s internal hall. A geometric pattern of black and white tiles covers the rest of the floor. A digital clock with a red display shows the current time at Mecca.
The mosque is small. Its main hall is surmounted by four slender minarets, one on each corner, topped by pale green cupolas.The roof itself is ornamented with a further ten cupolas, each one the same shape and colour as those of the minarets. Arched windows supported by four pillars, two on each side, allow light and fresh air into the prayer hall. An ablution block and accommodation facilities are located in a squat building of whitewashed plaster adjacent to the mosque.
The mosque takes its name from Tipu Sultan (1750-1799), ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore, in south-western India. Deposed by the British after the Anglo-Mysore Wars of 1767-99, Tipu Sultan’s family was exiled to Calcutta (modern-day Kolkata). His youngest son, Prince Ghulam Mohammad, built the mosque as a memorial to his father in 1842. It’s affairs, along with those of an identical mosque built by the prince in Tollygunge, on the southern outskirts of Kolkata, are still administered by his descendants.
I am fascinated by Islam. Ever since I first hear the ghostly cry of a Muezzin calling the faithful to prayer in the darkness of an African dawn, I have been drawn to countries where Islam is one of the principal religions. On this visit to India, I had hoped to visit many mosques. However, as is often the case with travel, this hadn’t worked out. My travels had taken me to predominantly Hindu regions of the subcontinent: places where Islam was a minority religion and, indeed, somewhat under siege by the resurgent Hindu Nationalism sweeping India.
And so I am here, briefly, in the Tipu Sultan Mosque, the only mosque I have visited, on my last day in India. There are three men sitting cross-legged in the centre of the prayer hall. In answer to my greeting of “as-salāmu ‘alaykum” (peace be upon you) they reply “wa ‘alayka s-salām” (and unto you peace). I sit on the floor near an outside corner of the prayer hall. I feel like an intruder in this holy place but I know that I am welcome, as are all people who enter a mosque.
One of the men stands and comes over to me. His hair and beard are orange with henna. His feet are bare. He anoints my hands with fragrant oil and bids me welcome. I thank him in English. He smiles and rejoins his friends. It is five in the afternoon. I feel a great peace come over me: nothing religious, just an overwhelming sense of tranquility. Outside the mosque, a taxi is waiting for me. Soon I will have to put on my shoes and once again submerge myself in the chaos of Kolkata. There is a muted click as a microphone is turned on, then an unseen Mussein begins his call: “Allāhu ‘akbar; lā ‘ilāha ‘illā-llāh…”