HistoriCity | The syncretic past of the Kamal Maula mosque-Bhojshala complex - Hindustan Times
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HistoriCity | The syncretic past of the Kamal Maula mosque-Bhojshala complex

ByValay Singh
Mar 14, 2024 10:19 PM IST

Why is a 14th century mosque being called ‘Bhojshala’? Here’s what the ASI and other historical scholars say about Dhar

On a humid September night in 2023, a group of men allegedly illegally and surreptitiously entered the Kamal Maula mosque in Dhar, Madhya Pradesh and placed an idol of the Hindu goddess of learning, Saraswati. The next morning, radical outfits like the Hindu Mahasabha started mobilising people to visit the shrine and worship the idol of Saraswati, which they claimed had appeared miraculously. They also claimed that the very same idol had been worshipped there until the existing mosque was erected on the spot more than 700 years ago. The local police dismissed the "miracle" as the CCTVs installed in this shared monument clearly captured the intruders. The idol was removed to a safe place and a case was registered.

The Kamal Maula mosque in Dhar, which is also known as Bhojshala temple amongst Hindus(HT File Photo) PREMIUM
The Kamal Maula mosque in Dhar, which is also known as Bhojshala temple amongst Hindus(HT File Photo)

In the run-up to the Madhya Pradesh assembly elections in 2003, and a year before the national elections in 2004, a rath yatra across the Dhar district sought to mobilise Hindus against a 1997 ban that prohibited their entry (with the exception of Basant Panchami day) into the Kamal Maula mosque, which is also known as Bhojshala temple amongst Hindus. Speaking at a large gathering, the then Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Praveen Togadia had said: “Hand over Ram Janmabhoomi land in Ayodhya, the Kashi and Mathura temples and Bhojshala in Dhar voluntarily, or we will fight to get 30,000 temples across the country which have been converted into masjids.”

Soon after, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) had issued orders that Hindu devotees be allowed to worship every Tuesday and Muslims every Friday at the Kamal Maula mosque-Bhojshala temple. But this didn’t satisfy radical Hindu outfits, who approached the Madhya Pradesh high court (HC) against this ASI order demanding unrestricted access. The court had dismissed their petition.

Since 2003, a lot has changed: The Ram temple complex was inaugurated in Ayodhya, a local court has allowed multiple ASI surveys to determine the nature of the Gyanvapi mosque at Varanasi and allowed worship in a part of the mosque while the final judgement is awaited, and a similar dispute in Mathura is sub-judice.

In May 2022, the Hindu Front for Justice had filed a petition in the HC against the offering of namaz at Kamal Maula mosque and sought a survey to determine the “real religious character” of Bhojshala. On the basis of evidence presented by the petitioners in the form of coloured photographs of pillars where Sanskrit verses are written, the court allowed the ASI to survey the monument.

With the Madhya Pradesh HC’s order to conduct a scientific survey to "demystify" the nature of the syncretic complex at Dhar, the focus is back on the well-known site ahead of the general elections. The court passed this order on the petition filed by lawyer Vishnu Shankar Jain, who is also the lawyer in the Gyanvapi case at Varanasi.

Before we delve deeper into the history of Dhar, let’s look at what the ASI has said about it. In 1998, the ASI had submitted to the MP high court the state government's declaration stating that “the present structure called the Bhojshala and Kamal Maula Mosque is an archaeological monument, and thus it could not be handed over to either the Hindus or Muslims for conversion into a temple or a full-fledged mosque and that entry into the said structure can be allowed only for the purpose of sightseeing. The Muslim community may continue to offer their Friday namaz.”

It further contended that “the factual identity of the present structure is not definitely known, nor can it be ascertained from the study of the structure itself... There is every possibility that the pillars and ceilings could have been gathered from demolished edifices around Dhar and material readily available must have been put to use for the construction of the mosque of Kamal Maula... The actual location of the original Bhojshala remains a mystery which remains to be solved."

What is known about Dhar?

The first reference to the old quarter of Dhar appears in an inscription that belonged to the Maukhari dynasty and was found at Jaunpur. It seems that since the sixth century, Dhar (short for Dharanagara or the ‘City of Swordblades’), was an important stronghold for any king who wished to control central India. Lying at the meeting of the north-south and northwest trade routes, the region was of strategic importance and formed a sort of threshold between kingdoms in the Deccan, in Gujarat and the north, according to the 2012 article Dhār, Bhoja and Sarasvatī: from Indology to Political Mythology and Back by Michael Willis.

A large circular stone fortress has dominated the town since ancient times and has been recorded in memoirs of various rulers such as Jehangir (1617), who attributed its construction to Muhammad ibn Tughluq (1325-51). The fort bears general similarity to the Tughlaqabad fort in Delhi.

The legend of Paramara king Bhoja remains unsurpassed in central India — he is said to have reigned between 1000 and 105 A.D.

There is no documented record that the Kamal Maula mosque was built on the ruins of another temple that was constructed by Bhoja. However, near Bhopal, sits one of the largest shivlings in India in the unfinished Bhojeshwar temple. This temple, if it had been finished, would have been twice the size of the temples at Khajuraho, that date back to 800-1000 AD/CE. It can be said that the legend of Bhoja emanates from this extremely grand yet incomplete temple. No inscription attributing the temple to Bhoja was found here, but one was found in a neighbouring Jain temple, which records that king Bhoja showered on Magha, a poet, “all the merit of the new Bhojasvamin temple that he was about to build himself’, and then “set out for the country of Malava”, according to CH Tawney's translation of the collection Prabandha-Chintamani, published in 1901.

Not much is available by way of historical records to conclude king Bhoja’s story, and there is absolutely nothing to suggest that it was he who built either the fort or a temple at Dhar. But as scholar Michael Willis has shown in Dhār, Bhoja and Sarasvatī: from Indology to Political Mythology and Back, king Bhoja’s posthumous glorification started with his successor Arjunavarman (1210-15) calling himself a reincarnation of Bhoja. Such a depiction had its own political benefits, as it allowed him the control of religious endowments and power. Willis writes, “The most extensive account of Bhoja's character and ambition is Merutuñga's Prabandhacintãmani, completed in the opening years of the 14th century. Post-medieval collections, such as Baílalas Bhojaprabandha (17th century), continued to extol Bhoja’s greatness. This tradition was picked up in the 20th century as India searched for indigenous cultural heroes.”

Bhoja’s greatness received a new fillip in the early 20th century against the mixed backdrop of Orientalism and Hindu nationalism; cultural activist and Congress leader KM Munshi wrote in the Smgâramanjarïkatha, Siñghi Jaina granthamäla, “During Bhoja's rule civilisation in Malwa had risen to a magnificent pitch. Our appreciation of Bhoja for having portrayed a faithful period of mediaeval Indian History is heightened when we take into consideration that he worked and stood for all that was glorious in Hindu culture.”

Why was the mosque called Bhojshala?

Major-General Sir John Malcolm’s Report on the Province of Malwa, published in 1822, contains the first mention of Dhar. It records extant folktales such as “Bhoja made a vow to build a series of dams to arrest the streams of nine rivers and ninety-nine rivulets.”

Other British accounts like William Kincaid’s History of Mandu: The Ancient Capital of Malwa (1870), also record other stories and legends but do not mention the Bhojshala, thus showing that the Bhojshala legend was yet to be created.

In 1903, ahead of Viceroy of India George Curzon’s visit to Dhar, the local political agent Captain Barnes formed a small archaeology department and appointed the local head of the school, KK Lele, as in charge. It is to Lele that the coinage Bhojshala is attributed, dating to his 1903 report entitled, Summary of the Dramatic Inscription found at the Bhoja Shala. Being a revivalist upper-caste Hindu, his knowledge of Sanskrit came in handy in transforming the legend of Raja Bhoj ka Madrassa (King Bhoj’s school) into a ‘Bhojshala’.

Willis writes, “But there is no such thing as a Sanskrit shala (that would be vidyala, vidyapitha or jnanapitha) and no shala named after a king. Lele coined the term to provide the descriptive terminology he needed for the pillared colonnades of the mosque and to advance the idea that the building was indeed an old structure put to new use by the Muslims”.

It appears that Lele and his assistant were the key informants of Captain Barnes, who told him about the Raja Bhoj Ka Madrassa legend in the first place. Lele was not alone in interpreting history through this communal lens. He was only a part of a larger tradition of such misrepresentation that led to several sites including the Taj Mahal being called a Rajput palace or a temple-palace.

When did the Kamal Maula mosque come up?

Kamal al-Din Malawi (1238-1330), a Chishti saint, is believed to have settled in the Malwa region, hence acquiring the moniker of Malawi. This Sufi saint attracted a lot of followers from all sects and castes but mainly those oppressed under the caste system. Next to his tomb—which is still maintained by his descendants—an existing mosque was renovated in 1392-93 by Dilawar Khan, the then governor of Malwa.

Seventy years before this renovation, Malwa had been subdued by Sultan Alauddin Khilji’s governor, Ayn al-Mulk Multani, who served at Dhar till 1313. This mosque is believed to have first been built before 1313 and therefore dates back more than seven hundred years.

What explains the use of materials seemingly from temples (Hindu, Jain or Buddhist) in mosques across the country, is not the triumphalism of one religion over another alone. It also needs to be seen as a visual demonstration of the social engineering that took place after the advent of Islam, and particularly Sufis. Willis writes, “The approach to the construction of the mosque (at Dhar) deliberately mimics what was done at the Qutb in Delhi. Just as individuals could choose to become Muslim and find a place in the new Islamic dispensation, so too pillars, beams and slabs could be converted and find an appropriate role in the new architecture”.

Was there ever a Saraswati idol at Kamal Maula mosque-Bhojshala complex?

The ASI’s submission to the MP high court in 1998 said, “that there is indeed an image of the female deity at the British Museum, but to lay claim and identify it as the very same image which was originally placed in the present structure cannot stand... In this matter, it is submitted that the famous Indian iconographists have yet to come to a common platform about the true identity [sic] of the sculpture under question. There exist conflicting opinions apropos this sculpture’s identity, wherein one school of thought considers it as Vagdevi (Saraswati) while the other school thinks it to be that of a Jain Yakshi Ambika... It is submitted that even this information... does not state in its absolute clarity that the sculpture was discovered from the present structure. Still, on the contrary, the information states that the image was discovered from the ruins adjoining the Bhojshala in Dhar”.

Both the nature of the idol and the place of its discovery have been conclusively dealt with by Michael Willis and other scholars. Willis says, “Already in 1943, CB Lele (nephew of KK Lele), who had access to archival sources, reported that the sculpture had been found in the debris of the old city palace in 1875”.

The nature of the idol present in the British Museum, as the ASI itself has said, has not been ascertained beyond doubt: It has been argued by scholar Kirit Mankodi, that it is not that of goddess Saraswati, but Jain goddess Ambika. As per their reading of the inscription present on the British Museum idol, its main objective is to record an image of Ambika after the creation of three Jinas and Vagdevi. Jain iconographic features such as the lion and the elephant god also confirm that the sculpture is of Jain goddess Ambika, who is described as ‘ever abundant in fruit’.

References list:

Ambika in Jaina Art and Literature, MNP Tiwari (1989)

History of Mandu the Ancient Capital of Malwa, William Kincaid (1870)

Report on the Province of Malwa, John Malcolm (1822)

Dhār, Bhoja and Sarasvatī: from Indology to Political Mythology and Back, Michael Willis (2012)

Court documents: Submissions of the Archeological Survey of India to Madhya Pradesh high court, 1998

HistoriCity is a column by author Valay Singh that narrates the story of a city that is in the news, by going back to its documented history, mythology and archaeological digs. The views expressed are personal

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