For centuries, the locals of a small village in Shariatpur district have been praying in an ancient mosque.
After 500 years of devoted use, however, the landmark building in Shibpur village under Nagerparha union of Goshairhat upazila has become dilapidated, and now poses serious risks to the safety of worshippers.
Locals have demanded the mosque be renovated and recognized as a national heritage site, because of its historical and aesthetic values.
They say it has a glorious history – although there are no surviving records of it. The site is not even listed in the government’s architecture book list.
The mosque – situated about 8-10km from Sadar upazila of Shariatpur and 5km from the Arial Khan River – is popular because of its impressive decorative art.
The bricks were carved with ornate designs, while the structure itself is surrounded by serene green trees and a pond at the western side.
The square mosque, which has been set up on four kathas of land, has an ornate dome with a minaret on the top. The mosque’s beauty is further enhanced by minarets on each of the four corners.
The interior of the mosque is intricately designed with rosettes, while the exterior exhibits depictions of art during the Muslim rule in Bengal. The architectural patterns blend harmoniously to reflect both the Sultanate and Mughal rules.
Locals have also attached superstitions to the ancient mosque, with some believing that it is possessed by spirits. Some have informed that for many years, people were afraid to enter the mosque in fear of spirits.
Others have dismissed the idea. Their beliefs are that the mosque was constructed during Mughal Emperor Akbar’s rule in 1576.
Bengal remained a Mughal province until the beginning of the decline of the Mughal Empire in the 19th century. After the last great Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, governors employed in Bengal practically became independent rulers.
However, others villagers believe the mosque was constructed during the Nawabi period between 1717 and 1765.
“Nawab” is a particular designation indicating political rank and power in the Mughal administrative hierarchy. In the British period, the term was used for a state conferred honorary title of rank, but it did not have any official attachment.
During the middle of the 18th century, they served as rulers of the provinces of Bengal. Nawabs were only nominally subordinate to the Mughal Empire.
Abdus Salam Talukder, a tutelary of the mosque, said the truth would always be shrouded in conjecture.
“We cannot know the real history as there are no written documents, but I have always heard from my forefathers that the mosque was established by British Indian architects in the periods of Nawabs,” he said.
“But maybe the mosque was constructed during the reign of Mughal Emperor Jahangir.”
According to Abdus, Haji Shariatullah, an eminent 19th-century Islamic reformer from the Indian Subcontinent under whose name Shariatpur district was named, used to visit the mosque from time to time. Sometimes he would come with his son Dudu Mia to offer prayers.
“We tried to renovate the mosque because of its current dismal situation,” Abdus said. “But we failed as we lacked funds. We even sent a letter to Awami League leader and former minister Abdur Razzaq, as he is our MP, but did not get any response.”
Abdus Salam Talukder confided that currently, people come to pray inside the mosque five times a day, including for the Jumma prayers on Friday.
“We try our best to preserve the heritage,” he said. “But we need the government’s help to protect the mosque.”
Md Mujibur Rahman, director of Bangladesh Human Rights Enforcement council and a resident of the village, said despite the mosque’s rundown state, he goes to pray there every now and then.
“Protection of such a heritage site is the government’s duty, for the sake of the country,” Mujibur said.
Architect and Chief Executive of Urban Study Group (USG), Taimur Islam, said there are many historical sites in Bangladesh, but very few are listed officially.
“If anything inside the mosque gets damaged, there is no way we will be able to restore it the way it was,” he said.
“These structures should be preserved for their aesthetic values. Otherwise, our future generation will never witness our country’s rich history.”
Taimur questioned the activities of the Ministry of Housing and Public Works.
“The authorities concerned rarely take the initiative to search the historical sites across the country, citing their lack of employees,” he said.”This cannot be a valid excuse.”
Ahmed Anisur Rahman, sub-assistant engineer of Shariatpur Public Works Department (PWD) told Dhaka Tribune that they did not know anything about the mosque in Shariatpur.
“We can only renovate buildings that are included in the list provided by the government,” he said.
“After obtaining the list from the government, we visit the site and fix the amount of money needed for renovation.
“If the mosque in Shariatpur has an actual historical origin, and if it is in a dilapidated state, the concerned people can get in touch with the District Commissioner’s office for renovation.”