Architecture of the Sharqis of Jaunpur: The Atala Devi Mosque

After the decline of the Tughluq Sultanate and the invasion of Timur, a new independent sovereign state was inaugurated in AD 1394 which came to be known as the Sharqi Empire. The Sharqi Empire extended from Koil (modern Aligarh) in the west to the frontiers of Bengal in the east; and from the foothills of the Himalayas to the borders of Malwa in the south.

It lasted for around a century and had six rulers: Malik Sarwar (1394-99), Mubarak (1399-1401), Ibrahim (1401-40), Mahmud (1440-57), and Husain (1458-1505).

All of them were great patrons of art and architecture and are credited to have erected numerous religious and secular buildings in their realm. Malik Sarwar added new buildings to the old fort and renovated the palace which was now renamed as dār us surūr. Sultan Ibrahim and Sultan Husain built splendid mosques, madrasas, palaces, libraries, bazaars, tombs, baolis, bridges and gardens. Unfortunately most of these architectural accomplishments of the Sharqis were destroyed in 1495 by Sikandar Lodi when he defeated the last Sharqi Sultan.

Presently the Sharqi architecture is represented by five or six mosques at Jaunpur (the Atala, Jami’, Masjid Shaikh Barha, Khalis Mukhlis, Jhanjiri, Lal Darwaza and Jami’ ush Sharq) and some remains within the fort (the gate, the baths and a mosque).

The fort of Jaunpur is in the form of an irregular quadrangle having stone fortification built around an artificial mound which stands on the northern bank of the Gomti river. The entrance to the fort is through a gateway in the east. On both sides of this gateway are large projecting piers connected by a lofty archway, divided in four storeys by ornamental mouldings. It is flanked by semi-circular tapering bastions.

The school of architecture which emerged at Jaunpur was a harbinger of all that was best in the Delhi Sultanate which suited the local conditions. The Sharqi mosques were the improved versions of the Alai Darwaza and the Begumpuri mosque. The pylon of the later served as the model for the propylon as it developed at Jaunpur.

The architectural scheme followed in the Sharqi mosques include the tapering minarets, battered sides of the propylons, stucco decoration, arch-and-beam openings and low four-centred arches with decorative fringes all derived from Tughluq style.

The most distinctive feature however is the tall propylon, a gigantic arch framed within a rectangular frame with much emphasised battered sides. This propylon completely obscures the front view of the massive hemispherical dome built over the sanctuary. In fact the massive propylon appears to be an architectural element completely independent of other subsidiary features.

The Atala Masjid, built in 1408 on the foundations of a temple dedicated to the goddess Atala, earlier destroyed by Firuzshah Tughluq in 1376 is the first Sharqi structure in Jaunpur. It does not stand on a plinth and thus its façade loses much of the charm and impressive character gained by structures built on a high platform, a feature of prominent Tughluq mosques.

The outer walls at Atala have monumental gateways which closely follow the design of the propylon. The courtyard of the mosque 78.7 m on a side is surrounded with cloisters on three sides and a prayer chamber on the west which is divided into five compartments which are five bays deep.

The propylon comprises of two 22.9m high battered towers framing a large recessed arch. The structure is 16.61m across the base and 14.33m at the top showing a batter of 1.13m on either side.

The main entrance is through a beam-and-lintel opening flanked by two smaller arched entrances.

The battered towers, divided through string courses, are decorated with four small sunk arches arranged in a vertical order, on each side. The lower section is severely plain. The whole exterior of the propylon uses the arch, in various shapes and sizes as a decorative motif, creating the most fascinating façade. Almost all the arches, big and small, are fringed with stylised spearheads.

To the left and right of the central propylon stand two smaller propylons of similar design which considerably reduce the disparity between the stupendous height of the propylon and the modest height of the side wings.