Red Mosque: Testament to a rich cultural and religious diversity | Sunday Observer

Red Mosque: Testament to a rich cultural and religious diversity

The red carpets embossed in ancient designs of Iran are a work of art. The red and white bricks are a contrast for optical delight. Each single brick was painted by hand. The red bricks are kept in 4 designs- jagged, spiral, striped and checkered. On the edge of the outside border are calligraphy- painted by hand. In 2007, the Trustees realized the need to expand, and began building

As the adherents of Islam observe the sacred month of fasting it is a common sight to see them going to the mosque for prayers. Colombo Fort is a busy commercial area and the bazaar in the Pettah (Anglo- Indian word meaning outside the Fort) is the vibrant artery that connects hundreds of traders. As you walk along Second Cross Street or enter the area via Main Street you cannot miss the magnificent dome of the Red Mosque, dominating the skyline. This mosque has been a radiant icon for the traders of the Muslim community. Its contrasting red and white design has been a lovely sight that makes both, tourists and locals stop and take a second glance. The mosque is testament to the passion and faith of its builder, the late H.L. Saibo Lebbe.

I made my way through the busy street with Pradeep Kumar to learn the amazing story of the Red Mosque, commonly referred to in Sinhalese as the Rathu Palliya. Hundreds of men are entering the mosque. At the entrance is a bearded vendor selling prayer caps, and tiny glass bottles of scented liquid. After removing our shoes we enter the Information Office and are greeted with the words “Welcome brother”- by Ruzni Mohammad the co-coordinator. It is not often that one is welcomed as brother and it sets a beautiful tone for our conversation.

Islamic footprints in Ceylon

Since the 7th century the Island of Serandib (land of rubies) had attracted Arab traders, who sailed to our island and originally settled in Beruwela. They discovered not only gems but our spices too. Some opine that these traders built the first mosque in Beruwela in 920 CE. As the years went by, these traders moved to Colombo. It was later that Muslims of South Indian origin set up their trading shops in the Pettah and Fort areas.

Subsequently, the ruling British recognized these traders as an economical asset. As the requirement for prayers arose these pioneering businessmen decided to build a small mosque close to their shops. They purchased a land at a cost of 500 rupees and donated the property and set up a Trust.

As the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “Prayer is a pillar of the religion (Islam). Whoever establishes it, establishes religion”. Prayer builds a personal and spiritual bond between the Muslim and his Creator. Prayer when performed correctly fills the heart of the Muslim with contentment and peace. It is an act of submission to Allah. Quran 29.45 says “Verily, prayer prevents one from shameful and evil deeds”.

The task of building the mosque was bestowed on H.L.Saibo Lebbe, an accomplished builder. It is interesting to note that he was not a qualified architect. Saibo Lebbe began work in 1908 and built a 2 storey mosque with a clock tower and dome (kubba- in Arabic language) reflecting Indo- Saracenic architecture.

The clock was brought down from Ukraine. The large teak support columns were procured from Puttalam. The builder chose to have the dome in the shape of a pomegranate fruit (some have said it’s the shape of an onion, but this is wrong). When you cut a pomegranate you see the red and white colours , and this was the builder’s inspiration for the unusual colour scheme. It is the only mosque in the world to have a dome in the shape of a pomegranate with a half crescent at the top. Another feature in the mosque design is the minaret- an idea from the ancient Arab king Abdul Malik. The Red Mosque has 49 such minarets, further accentuating its glorious design. Once the mosque was completed the Trustees named it Al Masjid –al Jamiul Alfar. The word Masjid means mosque, Jamiul shows a mosque which is dedicated to congregational prayers on Friday and the word Alfar means success. The erection of this mosque in 1909 was a success indeed. Tamil speaking traders began to call the mosque sammankottaipalli. Some believe that the prudent builder Saibo Lebbe was killed when a horse cart accidentally reversed into the spot where he was standing outside the mosque. I asked Ruzni if there was a photograph of this great builder and they did not have any, as Saibo Lebbe was a humble man not wanting any fame.

As we began to walk around we were fascinated by the amazing designs and intricate brick work of hundreds of men, who laboured here. A mosque has an open courtyard to take in sunlight and fresh air. We stop at the large marble pond of ablution- where men stop and wash their face, hands and feet, an outward sign of purification before entering the mosque.

The steps of white marble lead to the first floor. A large chandelier hangs from the roof.

The sunlight drifts in via stained glass windows- stained glass windows are more common in church designs. I am showed the mimbar (pulpit) where the chief Moulavi would sit and preach. The wooden pulpit has 3 steps leading to a platform. Adjacent to this is the mihrab- a kind of grotto in the wall, built to capture and magnify the sound. I noticed the mosque is clean and tidy, thanks to the work of 16 staff.

The red carpets embossed in ancient designs of Iran are a work of art. The red and white bricks are a contrast for optical delight. Each single brick was painted by hand. The red bricks are kept in 4 designs- jagged, spiral, striped and checkered. On the edge of the outside border are calligraphy- painted by hand. In 2007, the Trustees realized the need to expand, and began building.

They built around the original mosque of Saibo Lebbe and today, this edifice has 6 floors with a capacity for 12,000 men to unite in prayer. At present, the masjid has 7 domes. On special days the mosque sees a multitude of almost 16,000 men with people gathering from outside Colombo.The current moulavis (chief priest) serving the masjid have been here for 36 long years. They are, moulavi Kali Alawdeen Siddeeki and moulavi Nahi Muthuwappa Alim from India.

As we climbed down with Ruzni we witnessed another act of brotherhood- men preparing food to be served for Iftar, the meal to break the day long fast. Porridge, dates, samosa and fruits are being stacked on trays. Another man is busy arranging bottles of water. The mosque feeds 2,000 people daily during this period of fasting. We reach the sixth floor and the view of the busy bazaar looms into view, with one side giving you the view of the Colombo harbour.

As we leave the mosque we realize the legacy left behind by the builder Saibo Lebbe. The Jamiul Alfar Masjid or Red Mosque is a haven for Muslims in the city, to unite in peace. It is also a reminder to all Sri Lankans of our rich cultural and religious diversity.

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