On a late afternoon in July, the premises of the Khan Mohammad Mridha Mosque was as lively as ever with the sound of children playing football in the open space in front of the mosque building. Meanwhile, some elderly men sat inside the mosque waiting for the Asr prayer to begin. As the prayers began, the kids took a short break.
After the prayers had ended, the children continued playing. Their games would continue till the forthcoming Maghrib azan. During the game, however, the ball hit the wall of the 300-year-old mosque twice and bounced back. While the children paid no heed to the situation, the elderly men inside the mosque became visibly irritated but said nothing.
On the other hand, there were two signboards by the mosque clearly warning individuals that they could face up to a year in jail if they were to cause any damage to the relic.
"The Khan Mohammad Mridha Mosque is well-known among the architect community for its aesthetic beauty and its architectural significance. While those in the tourism sector may label the Tara mosque as the most unique mosque, most architects would label the Khan Mohammad Mosque as the most unique," said Taimur Islam, an architect and the chief executive of the Urban Study Group, a platform which campaigns for the preservation of architectural relics in the Old Dhaka.
The Khan Mohammad Mridha Mosque is one of the around 30 Mughal-era mosques in the city which the Department of Archaeology took control of and restored. Established in 1704, the mosque is only 300 meters away from the Lalbagh Fort. However, the architectural and cultural heritage site has been neglected and decaying in silence for a while.
What is so unique about the mosque?
The three-dome mosque was built on a 17-feet platform. The open space on the platform enabled the wind to breeze through the structure and cool the devotees.
Unlike other Mughal-era mosques in India, the minaret of this mosque is small in size. Architects believe that the people who constructed the mosque kept the minarets small keeping the frequent earthquakes in the region in mind.
To reach the mosque, one must climb a 24-step staircase to the second level. Interestingly, visitors will find no terrace on any of the seven two-story structures that make up the mosque. The long staircase leading up to the mosque is an unusual element of the establishment.
"In our daily lives we are on the same level but when we go to the mosque, this staircase transports us to a higher level. There is something mystical about this phenomenon," Islam explained.
There is an L-shaped corridor on the ground floor of the southern side of the building. Next to the corridor lies a row of chambers – a line of shop-like rooms with arched doors. However, nobody knows what lies next to the rooms. On the northern side of the ground floor, there are six rooms where 14 temporary employees from the department of archaeology reside.
"This mosque is different from the other Mughal-era mosques in Dhaka. We call it the 17th mosque of the Mughal-era mosques in Dhaka," said prominent historian Muntasir Mamun.
Very little is known about the shop-like rooms on the ground floor in the Mughal period. However, Mamun explained that in the beginning of the 20th century, fertilisers of the Dhaka Municipality were stored in the small rooms.
"The rent money is used to pay the salary of the muezzin. The Department of Archaeology oversees the mosque and has been trying to maintain it," added Mustasir Mamun.
There is a garden of flowers in front of the building where different types of flowers have bloomed. Next to the garden, there is an unknown grave.
"We have to thank the Department of Archaeology for their initiative to protect the mosques in the city; they have restored and conserved many so far. However, after the restoration, the maintenance of the structures are not done properly. As a result, the plaster of the walls have come off walls and has become covered in moss," Islam explained.
He also pointed out that although the Department of Archaeology painted the walls of the mosque, because of the painting, some of the motifs of the mosque have become obscured. He opined that the authority should have been more careful about the renovation work. The government needed to carry out renovation works regularly, not once in 10 years, he further added.
Moreover, the Department of Archaeology and the state-owned Parjatan Corporation need to come forward and properly showcase the mosque to foreign visitors. Furthermore, Islam suggested that it could be worthwhile for the Parjatan Corporation to take the initiative to research the history and heritage of the ancient mosque.
"Many of us go to Malaysia to visit the mosque in that country. The government can take steps to attract not only local visitors but foreign tourists," Islam said. "Yet, there is no one to tell us about the mosque and its history." Supporting the local tour guides and operators financially, or otherwise, may be a good first step in that regard.
The centre of the ground floor is closed from all sides. "We do not even know why these chambers were built and what purpose they served in the Mughal-era," Islam further added in that regard.
Why has this architectural relic been decaying in silence?
Local influential people have long been entrusted to look after the Khan Mohammed Mosque on behalf of the citizens. Riazuddin Ladla, a local with influence, has been looking after the mosque as its 'mutawalli'.
According to the officials of the Department of Archaeology, if someone wanted to host any arrangement on the premises, they would have to take permission from the central authority.
However, seeking anonymity, one of the employees of the Lalbagh Fort alleged that the mutawalli of the mosque did not take permission from the authority to do anything. The informer also alleged that in the name of doing things for the betterment of the devotees, the mutawalli treated the cultural heritage site like his own personal property.
Furthermore, the individual also alleged that the officers posted in the area overlooked the irregularities because they had to work there.
"If the officer does something that goes against the locals' interests, he will get into trouble," he said. "Some of the locals recently damaged a part of the building but no action has been taken against them."
The informer also alleged that local children use the site to play cricket and football. In the past, he used to protest against such violations but now he realised that he cannot do anything to protect the building from the locals.
He said that he wanted to open the gate only 30 minutes before each prayer, to keep the relic intact.
Not only the locals but also some of the employees from the Department of Archaeology have been complicit in the negligence towards the Mughal-era establishment, the informer alleged.
14 people live in the rooms on the ground floor of the building. One of the residents who is also a worker at the Lalbagh Fort admitted that eight people cook food there, using seven kerosene stoves and a gas stove.
Halima Afroj, the custodian of Lalbagh fort and museum, on the other hand, said that all the employees who live in the Khan Mohammad Mridha mosque were contracted labour and were not permanent employees of the Department of Archaeology.
"As far as I know, some of them did cook food inside the building," she responded when asked about cooking on the mosque premises. When asked whether cooking could damage the building, Afroj acknowledged that it could.
Regarding whether the mutawalli sought permission before carrying out any initiative, Afroj pointed out that there were many instances where the mutawalli did not ask for any permission to carry out events inside the building.
Furthermore, when asked about whether or not children could play cricket or football on the mosque premises, Afroj said, "If the football hits the wall, there is a risk of damaging the building, especially the walls. We have sat down with locals many times in the past to tell them not to let their children play games on the premises".
Riazuddin Ladla, the current mutawalli of the mosque said he always forbade children from playing cricket or football on the premises of the mosque.
"I have often scolded the kids when they refused to not play inside. But, I could not stop them from playing," Riazuddin Ladla.
However, he denied the allegations that he did not seek permission to do anything in the mosque.
When asked about nails hammered into the pristine walls, Ladla admitted that he did not seek permission for doing that specifically.
"Why should we take permission to insert nails into the wall? What we have done is solely for the wellbeing of the devotees," Ladla argued.
Interestingly, he instead suggested that the officials from the Department of Archaeology did not look after the old building.
"The department has not made any improvements to the mosque for the last 10 years," Ladla explained in that regard.