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Dr Ziauddin Desai
By Dr Abrar Rahmani

Archaeologist and former director of the Archeological Survey of India's department of epigraphy at Nagpur, Dr Ziauddin Desai died on 24 March in his ancestral home town Ahmedabad, Gujarat.

Ziauddin Desai was second to none in epigraphy. During his 31-year service (1949-80) in the Archaeological Survey of India, he made the best inscriptions of India safe and secure through hard work and intelligence. Author of several books and innumerable articles and an expert in his field, he has also performed several very important jobs.

Sir Syed Ahmad was the pioneer in preserving monuments and inscriptions in the form of books. When he compiled his Aasaarul Sanaadeed, the book rightly won accolades. The path shown by him was followed by many others, but the true follower of this path was Dr Ziauddin. In this respect the late Dr Desai deserves to be called the real successor of Sir Syed.

Here I will try to throw light in some detail on the authoritative works of Dr Desai. 'Mosques of India' is a very important book of documentary nature on this topic in a very scholarly and analytical manner, e.g., the status of mosques in Islam. Under this head, after throwing light in a very lucid manner on the brief definition of Islam, importance of prayers and the function of mosques, he has concluded thus: 
‘Mosque has played a very important role in the life of Muslim people. New arts and sciences which are considered very important from the point of view of Islam were all related to mosques. Learning Qur’an by heart and its comprehensive study was like the starting point of Islam’s scientific and educational journey. Learning of the Hadiths of the Prophet was next in line. Hence there was no difference in principle between madrasa and mosque. The mosque itself used to be a madrasa also. The teacher used to sit propping against either the wall or some pillar of the mosque and the students used to sit in front of him either in rows or in a semi-circular form. It was quite common for teachers to accommodate themselves in the mosque itself where small rooms were given to them for this purpose. Similarly, sometimes a row of small rooms was also built for students along the wall of the mosque which was called ‘rawaaq’. Later on, though separate madrasas were set up, the ‘maktabs’ of the mosques were run as usual. Like other countries, in India too education was provided in these mosques’. (Mosques of India, Publications Division, Patiala House, New Delhi)

The necessity to write on the mosque in detail was felt so that the importance and utility of mosques in Islam could be highlighted. Ziauddin Desai has proved through historical evidences that the role of these mosques was not limited to offering prayers only and those who insist on this aspect only, in fact, confine the importance and utility of mosques. This is wrong from many points of view.

In this book, Dr Desai has thrown detailed light on the origin and evolution of mosques, construction of mosques in India, construction of original mosques, styles of Delhi mosques and other models and specimens of mosques in other states. 

The last chapter of the book is very important from a historical point of view. Dr Desai has taken great pains and worked hard to shed sufficient light on the famous mosques of India, together with their photographs, including the Quwwatul Islam mosque located within the Qutub Minar complex. Here Dr Desai specially mentions that the purpose of building its tall mihrab-like walls was to give it an Islamic shape which was otherwise built in Hindu architectural style. One thing is clear that this mosque is an early model of Indo-Islamic style of architecture.

Among the most ancient mosques in Ajmer is one that is called ‘two-and-a-half day’s hut’ (arhai din ka jhonpara) about which it is said that, as the name indicates, it was built in two-and-a-half days, but the foundation of the present spacious building was laid by Qutubuddin Aibak in 1199AD. On looking at the mosque from outside, one cannot judge, whether it is a mosque or a temple. 

In addition to these, there are many other mosques such as the mosque near the mausoleum of Nizamuddin Aulia which is of Alauddin Khilji’s times, Kalan Masjid inside the Turkman Gate area built by Firoz Shah Tughlaq’s prime minister Joona Shah, the grand ‘Khirki Masjid’ in the village Khirki of Delhi, Shah Alam’s mosque in Wazirabad near Delhi, ‘Masjid Moth’ in the village Moth built by Sikandar Lodhi, Itala Masjid of Jaunpur (1408), Purana Qila mosque built by Sher Shah Suri in 1541 and Masjid Aadina in district Malda of Bengal which was built by Sultan Sikandar Shah in 1369. Another mosque in Gaur village of Malda district is called Bara Sona (Big Gold) which is the biggest mosque in this area and was built in 1526 by Nusrat Shah. An incomplete mosque in Ahmedabad is Sidi Sayeed Masjid, construction of which started in 1572. Its stone lattices and floral inscriptions are worth seeing. In addition to these, there are 18 other historical mosques mentioned in this book along with their photographs. These mosques are, however, losing their shape and exterior charms because of the ravages of time and the day is not far off when we shall miss them and say ‘our eyes now eagerly long to see them’. 

It is Dr Ziauddin Desai’s grand feat that he has collected and preserved in one place the photographs of these mosques after laborious efforts and research. As mentioned above, Islamic madrasas were part of mosques themselves. Later, with the spread of education, great need was felt to set up madrasas and jamiahs separately. Hence large and grand madrasas were built. Their number also runs into thousands across the country. 

A big service of Dr Desai in this field is his book 'Centres of Islamic Sciences in India’ in which he has described in detail all big and important centres of Islamic sciences of every school of thought including Darul Uloom Deoband, Nadwatul Ulama Lucknow, Patna’s Madrasa Islamia Shamsul Huda and many other madrasas and jamiahs of India. 

Dr Desai was able to perform these great achievements largely because of his keen interest in the Indo-Islamic style of architecture. Striking his head against walls and stones was Majnu’s compulsion and madness but devoting his time, energy and attention to forts, mosques, madrasas and their walls and stones and straining his eyes and mind in reading and analysing the inscriptions and writings was Desai’s hobby and passion which sometimes bordered on craze and insanity to which his probing intellect and mind had given lustre and sheen. 

Now let us look at the sum and substance of his studies, research and observations on Indo-Islamic style of architecture in his own words: 
‘The Muslim architecture in India is an interesting story of two apparently different architectural styles on the principle of ‘give and take’ or ‘give some, take some’ and their combination at different places and different ages, depending upon geographical conditions, building materials, their supply and provision and other similar factors. It is because of this that Indian characteristics appear to be used very liberally in Muslim historical buildings of India. The durability and strength of buildings, their glory and grandeur which are purely Indian characteristics were adopted by Muslims who had not used the simple and plane style in abundance, whereas, on the other side, the concept of space, openness, expansion with the help of arches, covering wide and spacious areas with domes etc were purely Muslim characteristics. The interesting and informative story of this unity, uniqueness and combination is clear and apparent from the scenario of Islamic memorials spread throughout the length and breadth of the country…’ (Indo-Islamic Style of Architecture, Publications Division, Patiala House, New Delhi)

Dr Desai has rightly concluded: ‘This is that element of Indian civilization which is telling the truth. If these are not changed like some other aspects of cultural life of the country, these buildings are the most glorious memorials of the composite civilization of the country’.

It is a great pity that the glorious memorials of composite civilization are being selectively targeted in late Dr Desai’s Ahmedabad and other places in Gujarat. These subversive elements have already destroyed many of these buildings and are trying to destroy many more of them. Probably Dr Desai could not tolerate the destruction and demolition of this composite civilization and loss of human lives in his own native state and breathed his last. (Translated from Urdu)

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