September 19, 2012

Tipu Sultan Shahi Mosque, Calcutta

The 180-year old Tipu Sultan Shahi Masjid happened to be the second monument (or seventh if considering the 6 memorials/monuments within St. John’s Church complex as individualistic, refer Pixelated Memories - St. John's Church. Aakash feels those separate posts were a diversionary attempt at gaining extra popularity from a single place!) I visited when I travelled to Calcutta alone for the first time. I have come to realize that if one is interested in photographing historical sites and monuments, travelling alone, or occasionally with friends who share the same interests, is a far superior option than travelling in random groups since this way one can visit, explore and photograph all the places one wishes to without any time constraints or having to stop for frequent food/rest breaks. Of course the downside is that one has to foot all the expenses, which is quiet alright in a relatively less expensive city like Calcutta, but might be an issue in, say, a place like Delhi or Kashmir. But then why would one head to Kashmir alone!

A cluttered, forgotten existence - Tipu Sultan Shahi Masjid

Returning to the topic at hand – Tipu Sultan Shahi Masjid (“Royal Mosque”) happens to be one of the least known historic monuments in chaotic Calcutta. And this is highly surprising despite the fact that the city possesses a plethora of heritage sites boasting of varying antiquities – one, because the graceful white mosque is prominently located just off Esplanade which, by virtue of being a major metro station, intercity bus terminal and shopping and tourism destination (there’s Victoria Memorial, St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. John’s Church and Birla Planetarium, each located in immediate walking neighborhood – see links in the end), is one of the most important landmarks in the city, and second, the mosque’s startling nomenclature is assumingly bound to astonish and impress anyone who hears of it into researching its history. But that’s the issue – there are so many majestic monuments and heritage sites whose immense popularity easily dwarfs that of this elegant yet simple mosque that while in Calcutta and even when in the vicinity of Esplanade area, instead of inquiring about the curious case of a splendid little mosque that bears the name of Tipu Sultan who happened to be the legendary Emperor of far-off Mysore (then consisting most of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and southern Andhra Pradesh), most visitors to the city and even a large proportion of the inhabitants end up spending their time admiring the sculptural magnificence of the nearby located Victoria Memorial or gazing at the changing (artificial) skyline in Birla Planetarium.

Window to an uncluttered past (Photo courtesy -

An innovative genius and unparalleled military tactician who also possessed intimate knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence, shooting, horse-riding, Hindi-Urdu writing, poetry and economic systems, Badshah Fath Ali Khan Bahadur Tipu Sultan was instructed in military tactics by French officers in service of his father Nawab Hyder Ali Khan and is credited with creating the first prototype rockets which he used in wars against the annexing armies of British East India “trading” Company whom he continued to oppose and fiercely resist all his short life. Technologically advanced and financially capable, he employed several skilled European weapon makers and mercenaries, was aware of the potent warfare technologies of his time, possessed an extremely strong naval force consisting of numerous war ships and frigates and even went to the extent of suggesting an alliance based on mutual admiration with Napoleon Bonaparte who came as far as Egypt on a conquering spree to unite their forces. But he never came to Calcutta. Nope, not even for sightseeing! So why does a mosque in the administrative and heritage heart of the city bear his name? The mosque’s forgotten history begins soon after the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War (May 1799, Seringapatnam) in which Tipu was killed by the combined forces of British East India Company, Nizam of Hyderabad and Maratha Confederacy (each of whom he had triumphantly defeated, though not crushingly, in the past) and his entire family (3 wives, 12 sons, 8 daughters and nearly 300 relatives in total!), considered highly dangerous state enemies, was exiled to Vellore (Tamil Nadu) so they couldn’t indulge in inciting passions and rebellions in the name of the dreaded deceased “Tiger of Mysore”. Following the “Vellore Mutiny (1806)” seven years later, Tipu’s illustrious fourteenth son and successor (since the British administration only recognized him as head of the family) Prince Ghulam Mohammed Anwar Shah was re-established (with pensions and land grants) at then British capital Calcutta according to the uneasy Government’s orders. He commissioned the fine mosque in 1842 in memory of his dear departed father and consequentially it still bears the title “Shahi Masjid” (“Royal Mosque”).

Mosque interiors - Subdued royalty or classical architecture?

Despite his superb administrative, organizational and warfare capabilities, Tipu is considered (based on unreliable, highly biased early British sources who participated in wars against him) a fanatic bigoted Muslim and an extremely harsh, iconoclast ruler who heinously ordered destruction of numerous temples and shrines and oversaw the forceful conversion or merciless execution of hundreds of non-Muslims, especially Christians, besides following a “scorched earth” policy and pitilessly ravaging and impoverishing captured territories and destroying their economies and agrarian capabilities. His admirers continue to debate that he looked after his subjects irrespective of their religion and personal beliefs, employed Hindus at almost each of the influential court post and provided religious grants and protection against brigands to several Hindu temples, some of which existed in the immediate vicinity of his palace. Yet he remains a much abhorred and very controversial personality in Indian history – a patriot who relentlessly strived against foreign colonial rule, yet himself a foreigner who ruthlessly oppressed his subjects and executed those he considered unbelievers or heretics. It is therefore difficult to contend whether his soul would be pleased to see that at present people of all religions are welcome at all times of the day without any distinction or discrimination in the mosque built by his son to commemorate his regal existence. The stunning structure, with its numerous plaster-faced shallow domes, elaborate plasterwork and slender minarets, is an epitome of architectural beauty made more attractive by the subjection of meticulous attention to detailing. Appearing ordinarily nondescript from outside (which might be the reason for the relative lack of popularity it suffers from), the brilliant white structure fails to attract many visitors despite the fact that the numerous turnip-like domes, lean minarets projecting from meager ornamental pillars, exquisite plasterwork patterns especially along the back of the mihrab (western wall of a mosque that indicates the direction of Mecca, faced by Muslims while offering prayers) and arched entrances inset in thoroughly painted white walls prove to be interesting visual additions to the city’s streetscape especially when observed vis-à-vis the numerous rundown, makeshift shops that have come up against the sides and back that faces the arterial Esplanade street.

Smothered flights of regal glory

Numerous people dozed or sat gossiping in clusters on the checkered courtyard that appears like a massive, enclosed chessboard (the only thing perhaps missing are the chess pieces, they would have completed the entire visual scheme!); while the roof over the courtyard is supported on several simplistic narrow pillars, the long wall enclosing the mosque’s sanctuary possesses along its exterior face shuttered doors flanked by Corinthian pillars and further framed by taller thick fluted pillars. Near the entrance are set several taps where people gather early morning to wash and bathe; the mosque’s “wazu khana” (space for ritualistic pre-prayer ablutions), with its moist, patterned grey walls and long line of taps and stone blocks for sitting, appears highly symmetrical and visually appealing – I was told that the water in the wazu khana is potable and indeed many people were there filling large bottles. Restoration and repair work was being undertaken and scaffoldings enclosed the two lofty corner minarets that rise above the tree line that envelops them. Facing the entrance side, several chambers are located across the courtyard and have been converted into residential units – one can avail permission for photographing the mosque interiors from here – hardly ever is anyone denied consent, in fact more often than not one is taken within the mosque’s sanctuary where rows of complex four-sided pillars, shallow concave surfaces underneath each of the ten small domes surmounting the roof and several fans hanging like flowers from their thin stems make for visually compelling photographic compositions. The double-aisled prayer chamber has been spotlessly painted brilliant white throughout and possesses the same checkered floor surface that extends to the exterior courtyards; the only sign of ornamentation are the simplistic ribbed semi-circular arches decorating the entrances and mihrab niches; color is introduced in the form of multi-hued floresque stained glass windows inset within the semi-circular sections above each of the side entrances and mihrab niches.


The minbar (platform where the Imam (chief priest) stands and delivers sermons from) is equipped with mikes and sound amplification system. The politically active Imam, Maulana Syed Muhammad Noor-ur-Rahman Barkati, has been in the news lately for several highly debatable and subjective reasons, for instance, indulging in political debates and opposing the right-wing BJP party (most Hindus did not like it), solemnizing the marriage of a Muslim boy with a transgender (most Muslims did not like it), or organizing prayers for the soul of Osama bin Laden (nobody liked it!). It is interesting to note that he also happens to be the Mufti-i-Azam, or the “chief arbiter on Muslim issues for the country”! This is an eye-opener – firstly, because there are a number of more articulate and learned clerics in the country, and secondly, because one might further question if the Mufti-i-Azam’s mosque isn’t so well-maintained, what exactly is the status and condition of other historic mosques in the country?!

Several estimates put the precise capacity of the faultlessly designed mosque at 1,000 people, however, I really doubt if it can accommodate such a large gathering in a single go – though the courtyard is vast, it isn’t so large either – all in all it took me not more than 30-40 minutes to explore and photograph the entire place.

Such symmetry! - The mosque's "Wazu Khana" (site for pre-prayer ablutions)

The mosque is maintained by Tipu Sultan Shahi Masjid Protection and Welfare Committee, an arm of the royal family trust of Prince Ghulam Mohammed (which draws revenues from the vast properties and palatial mansions that the royal family owns and leases out throughout the city) and the present restoration project is being implemented by it at the cost of Rs 80 lakhs (approx. $145,000) to be also shared by the identical twin mosque at Tollygunge which unbelievably also shares the entire architectural plan and decorative ornamentation to the last minutest of details. However, as already mentioned, one has to concede that the Esplanade mosque isn’t very well maintained and could have been a beautiful sanctuary in this crumbling old city had attention been accorded to its exteriors which have been overtaken by makeshift shops.

Prince Anwar Shah road, which snakes its way through one of the most posh localities in the entire city, is named after Prince Ghulam Mohammed Anwar Shah. Ironically some of Tipu Sultan’s sixth-generation descendants, amongst them one also named “Prince” Anwar Shah, are reduced to lowly rickshaw-pullers plying their trade on the same road named after their ancestor! Others from this illustrious genealogical line have been renowned as members of legislative councils, political parties and business houses; one of them, Noor Inayat Khan, whose father happened to be the eminent Sufi saint Inayat Khan whose dargah (sacred tomb) is located close to Hazrat Nizamuddin’s in Delhi (refer Pixelated Memories- Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah complex), participated in World War II as a British Special Operations Executive and was executed by Germans on charges of subversive sabotage and espionage – she is one of the only three women to have been awarded St. George’s Cross, Britain’s highest wartime honor accorded to civilians. Some years ago, the eminent businessman and UB-Kingfisher Group Chairman Vijay Mallya bid for and bought Tipu’s sword for millions of dollars from a London auction house in a much talked about deal that was hailed as a resurgence of Mysore’s pride and economic affluence. One wonders if the expectation that he had focused back home and perhaps attempted to find about Tipu’s surviving family and spared part of the gigantic sum for their and the mosque’s well-being be considered utopian?

A whiff of color!

Location: At the intersection of Esplanade Street (Dharmatalla Street/JL Nehru Street) and Sidho Kano Dahar, approx. 400 meters from Esplanade intercity bus stop/metro station on the straight road.
How to reach: Walk from Esplanade with your back to Hotel Oberoi Grand and the Indian Museum. Taxis/buses can be availed from different parts of the city for Esplanade.
Open: All days, 4 am – sunset
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video Charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 20 min
Other attractions located in the neighborhood -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Birla Planetarium
  2. Pixelated Memories - Indian Museum
  3. Pixelated Memories - Metropolitan Building
  4. Pixelated Memories - St. Andrew's Church
  5. Pixelated Memories - St. John's Church
  6. Pixelated Memories - Victoria Memorial
  7. Pixelated Memories - Writers' Building
Suggested reading -
  1. - History: Great-granddaughter of Tipu Sultan died in Nazi concentration camp
  2. - Article "Decline into poverty: Hard times for Tipu Sultan's descendants" (dated April 15, 1988) by Kamaljeet Rattan
  3. - Article "Why we love to hate Tipu Sultan" (dated Feb 01, 2014) by Vikram Sampath
  4. - Article "4 Stories of Everyday Royals" (dated July 23, 2013) by Matthew Schneeberger
  5. - Khudadad: The Family of Tipu Sultan
  6. - Article "Osama prayer fuels questions" (dated May 7, 2011) by Muzaffar Raina and Rasheed Kidwai
  7. - Article "Tipu Sultan mosques to get a healing touch" (dated Sep 11, 2010) by Subhro Niyogi
  8. - Article "From princes to paupers"
  9. - Shezada Hyder Ali
  10. - Tipu Sultan


  1. There are a few grammatical mistakes, so do look into that. The post is pretty much awesome, given the amount of research you have put into it. It is however sad to see people neglecting the mosque and choosing other places you mentioned. Tipu Sultan was one of a kind leader, with his name alone able to strike fear in the hearts of the British. The photos are amazing! Lets hope this gets restored soon!

  2. though i stay in kolkata ,i have never visited this place.

  3. AnonymousMay 09, 2013

    xtermely useful for my project thnxxxx......

  4. Loved it !
    Nice work (y)

  5. Rahul PriyaranjanSeptember 29, 2014

    A great read wid some wonderful pics !!!

  6. well written:) great job as ever..needless 2 say:)