In Bangladesh, Reimagining What a Mosque Might Be

In Bangladesh, Reimagining What a Mosque Might Be

THE AMBER DENIM mosque sits at the back of a factory compound deep in the industrial sprawl north of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s frenetic capital (population: more than 18 million). Its walls are a Tetris grid of concrete blocks that recess in tiers toward open centers, like molds for tiny Aztec pyramids. Pipes left over from a plumbing job serve as pillars. Steel struts branch upward toward the 18-foot roof like the skeletons of umbrellas open against a monsoon. On a hot spring morning, the punishing deltaic sun bounces off the shallow moat that surrounds the structure, drifting over the concrete.

The mosque, completed in 2016, was the second project by the seven-year-old Dhaka firm Archeground to be built at the Amber Denim garment factory, which produces reams of fabric for the garment manufacturers that are the engine of Bangladesh’s new economy. A year earlier, the firm had constructed an open-air loom shed of bamboo, concrete and the same repurposed pipes that would be used in the prayer hall: It was an affordable prototype for humane industrial architecture in a nation plagued by deplorable, sometimes fatal working conditions. The loom shed originally contained a small prayer hall at its western end, but the weavers complained that the clacking from the looms disrupted their prayers, and so Jubair Hasan, 39, one of Archeground’s principals, approached the factory’s owner for another patch of land on which they could build a mosque. “We wanted to create a prayer space that would be connected to our climate,” Hasan says. “So there are no windows, no doors. Light comes in from all sides.” Since its completion, Hasan has encouraged the 1,500 employees who work, and in some cases live, on the compound to make their own adjustments by, say, fashioning bamboo curtains to block cold morning air in the winter. “Really, the people are making their own mosque,” he says.

Mosques have been at the center of civic life in eastern Bengal, the ancient region surrounding the Ganges-Brahmaputra river delta, since shortly after the Sufi missionaries arrived in the 13th century. Of the 165 million people now living in Bangladesh, a nation roughly the size of Iowa, about 90 percent are Muslim. Aside from the red brick ruins of ancient monasteries, remainders of 400 years of Buddhist rule that ended in the 12th century, the only structures to have survived from antiquity are the austere brick mosques left by the Bengali sultanate (which controlled the region until the 16th century), some Hindu temples and a handful of civic structures built by the Mughals, who ruled the area until the rise of the British East India Company in the 18th century. Otherwise, the vernacular architecture of Bengal, a land of estuaries and mangroves, of shifting soil and torrential storms, largely consists of thatched-roof huts built with mud or bamboo and open-sided pavilions that accommodate, and often succumb to, the extreme climate.

Mosques have been at the center of civic life in eastern Bengal, the ancient region surrounding the Ganges-Brahmaputra river delta, since shortly after the Sufi missionaries arrived in the 13th century. Of the 165 million people now living in Bangladesh, a nation roughly the size of Iowa, about 90 percent are Muslim. Aside from the red brick ruins of ancient monasteries, remainders of 400 years of Buddhist rule that ended in the 12th century, the only structures to have survived from antiquity are the austere brick mosques left by the Bengali sultanate (which controlled the region until the 16th century), some Hindu temples and a handful of civic structures built by the Mughals, who ruled the area until the rise of the British East India Company in the 18th century. Otherwise, the vernacular architecture of Bengal, a land of estuaries and mangroves, of shifting soil and torrential storms, largely consists of thatched-roof huts built with mud or bamboo and open-sided pavilions that accommodate, and often succumb to, the extreme climate.

The concrete pavilion of Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury’s Chandgaon mosque (2007) on the outskirts of Chittagong.

But Bangladesh, as the world knows the country, is a modern invention. When the British relinquished their colonial stranglehold on the subcontinent in 1947, they split it along religious lines: The predominantly Hindu western side of Bengal became a state in India, and the Muslim east became East Pakistan (separated by a thousand miles from West Pakistan). Over the next two decades, a resistance movement emerged in Bengali-speaking East Pakistan as the local population demanded greater representation — and eventually freedom — from the Urdu-speaking political elites in the West. In 1971, after a brief but brutal war, Bangladesh won its independence. In its early years of nationhood, the country had a distinct but austere tradition of mosque architecture to draw on. To set themselves within the framework of a more global Islam, engineers and architects relied on Turkic domes, peaked Mughal arches and massive Arab minarets — the pan-Islamic shorthand for sacred architecture — to indicate the buildings’ importance. These mosques had little to do with Bengal itself.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/09/t-magazine/bangladesh-mosques.html By Micheal Snyder 2019


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