When were you in Morocco?” a globetrotter friend excitedly asked while browsing through some of my photographs. “Never been there. I’m keen to visit it, though,” I sallied. “This is Morocco,” he said emphatically, pointing to an image on the monitor. “This is Punjab,” I countered. “It’s the Grand Mosque of Marakesh,” he stressed. “It’s the Moorish Mosque in Kapurthala,” I smiled. Our rebuttal session got a tad extended leaving my friend utterly flummoxed and I thought of bailing him out. “You’ve been partially accurate all along. The mosque is a replica.” He was astounded. So are a host of others initially when they see the images of Kapurthala, an erstwhile royal province defined by its architectural grandeur. Their surprise springs not from the verity that a facsimile structure exists, but from the knowledge that it stands in Punjab!
The feisty agrarian land of Punjab has always been shy in boasting about its built heritage, instead letting its overenthusiastic bhangra and scrumptious tandoori chicken do most of the talking. Nonetheless, it does have stunning edifices dotting its landscape and is quite an indulgence for the history-digger. Amongst them all, Kapurthala is definitely the crowning glory. It was established in 1772 A.D. and till Independence was a significant dominion with tremendous history. Its lineage dates back to founder Jassa Singh Ahluwalia (1718-1783 A.D.), an astute warrior, who played a pivotal role in crushing numerous invasions to become the first leader who consolidated large parts of Punjab, which until then was divided into bands or jathas (later known as misls) each under an independent commander. In a way, Jassa Singh laid the path for Punjab’s most exceptional monarch, Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839 AD), to establish an impregnable Sikh empire years later.
Jagatjit Singh’s legacy
However, Kapurthala owes its structural legacy to Maharaja Jagatjit Singh (1872-1949 AD), who added magnificence by constructing a medley of splendid edifices that can be counted amongst the most impressive in the country. A widely-travelled royal, his voyages allowed him to see exceptional architecture and he chose the blueprint of some of the finest in the world to adorn his State with. That’s how Kapurthala got the Moorish Mosque that had completely bowled me over during my tour of the city.
Recreated by French architect Manteaux, on the pattern of the Koutoubia or Grand Mosque of Marakesh, Morocco’s signature structure, it was erected in 1930 at a cost of Rs. 4 lakh. Stunning in its simplicity, it’s the judicious use of colour, line and horse-shoe arched forms that make it an architectural masterwork. Far removed from the Indo-Islamic, marble-domed mosques found around the country, it has instead a brick-work façade, no dome, a flat roofed entrance and, uniquely, a single cuboidal minaret. The only area where embellishment of stone is seen is in the inner concave of the sanctum sanctorum.
What appealed instantly were the joyous colours that reflected a Mediterranean ambience. I was gripped by a rose pink wall meeting a lemon one round the corner, mustard-coloured arches, glazed dark turquoise ridged tiles capping a hexagonal dome or the touch of green in its minaret. The intricate, brick-filigreed minaret is further adorned with a spire which is three copper balls in reducing size, signifying the traditional style of the Almohads — a dynasty that originated in 1121 A.D. with Ibn Tumart, a Berber tribe member of the Atlas Mountains; and by 1149 A.D., it had established its control over Marakesh. The Grand Mosque was built between 1184 and 1199 A.D. Centuries later, the Moorish Mosque in Punjab stood as a splendid link in the six degrees of separation from a passage of history that played out in distant Africa.
Today’s Kapurthala has a reticent charm. It moves with the gentle-swiftness of a yesteryear sovereign, who, having seen the heights of glory, now basks in past pride and savours sepia-tinted memories. I had walked its dusty lanes to get a grip on its other landmarks. In addition to this slice of Morocco, the town is dotted with other European replicas too. I observed a bit of France in the Jagatjit Palace, a close reproduction of the Palace of Versailles, that is now the Sainik School. A touch of Greece came across in the Jagatjit Club that’s designed on the lines of the Acropolis. A building of elegance, it was originally a church before worshippers of another kind began entering its portals when it got converted into a cinema hall shortly before Independence. The silver screen gave way to the club a few decades ago.
A bevy of places that completed the impressive line up were the Indo-Saracenic Jhagar Singh War Memorial; Elysee Palace that’s now MGN Public School; the Islamic-patterned former Durbar Hall which at present serves as the District Court; and the Randhir College that was set up in 1856 and named after a former ruler. It was among the first education institutions of Punjab and exhibits the progressive thought of the Kapurthala royals. The most eye-catching on its campus is the Jubilee Hall, standing amidst a carpet of green and constructed in 1916 for convocations. A place I couldn’t peep into was the present residence of the royal family, the Spanish-fashioned Villa Buona Vista, locally known as Villa Kothi that stays out of bound for the public.
6 months ago