Lentils and mosques: Moth ki Masjid

Delhi has a vast number of mosques (not unusual, considering the many centuries this city was ruled by Muslims). They’re large and small, obscure and prominent. And some of them have really odd names: the Imliwaali Masjid (‘the mosque of the tamarind’); the Amrudwaali Masjid (‘the mosque of the guava’), and the Randi ki Masjid (‘the prostitute’s mosque’, formally known as Masjid Mubarak Begum, but called by its unsavoury epithet because it had been built by General Ochterlony’s extremely unpopular Indian wife Mubarak Begum).

And then there’s the Moth ki Masjid, near South Extension: the ‘mosque of the lentil seed’.

The Moth ki Masjid, near South Extension.

The Moth ki Masjid, near South Extension.

This is a 16th century mosque, built during the time of Sikandar Lodhi (1488-1517 CE) and there are various versions of the legend behind its name. One has it that Sikandar Lodhi was out strolling with a minister named Mian Buhwa, and in the course of the walk, the Sultan bent down, picked up a lentil seed that was lying on the ground, and handed it to Mian Buhwa. Mian Buhwa, not wanting to throw it away (since it was, after all, a ‘gift’ from the Sultan) decided to put the lentil seed to good use: he planted it, and from the resultant crop, grew more lentils, which he sold—and continued the cycle until he had enough money to build a mosque. The Moth ki Masjid.

There are other variations; one has it that Mian Buhwa and Sikandar Lodhi were at namaaz, and when the Sultan rose from his knees, Mian Buhwa noticed the lentil seed on the prayer mat and took it. There’s another (less well-known, even less likely, and therefore mostly ignored) version which has nothing to do with Sikandar Lodhi but talks of an old woman who found a lentil seed and used it to grow crop after crop of lentils for sale until she had collected money enough to build a mosque.

Like a few other medieval mosques (the Begumpuri Masjid and the Khirki Masjid are other examples), the Moth ki Masjid looks, from the outside, more like a fortification than a place of worship—especially if you happen to be looking at it from the back. This area, with its high, forbidding wall, curved, bastion-like turrets and general air of solidity, is so much like a citadel that you’d be forgiven for not realizing it’s a mosque.

Looking at the Moth ki Masjid, from the back.

Looking at the Moth ki Masjid, from the back.

If you go round the surrounding wall, though, you’ll soon begin to see signs of the decoration that makes Moth ki Masjid such a very attractive building. At the corner, the wall is topped with a pretty domed chhatri (a small pavilion) adorned with bright blue tiles.

A small domed chhatri or pavilion at the mosque.

A small domed chhatri or pavilion at the mosque.

Further on, the main gateway to the mosque is beautiful carved in a style that is highly reminiscent of Hindu temples: the same lintels, the same ‘elephant trunk’ carvings, the same square pillars. (It’s an interesting example of how ‘Indo-Islamic’ architecture, since so many of the stone carvers were Hindus, incorporated symbols and elements that had been in use in indigenous architecture for centuries before the arrival of Muslim rulers in Delhi).

A view of the mosque's main gate.

A view of the mosque’s main gate.

A short flight of steep steps leads up from the gate into the sehan, where there is a shallow hauz for wazu, or ritual ablutions. The mosque itself, with its five-arched façade, is pleasant without being fussy. The arches are all triple ones, each arch consisting of three recessed ones. Medallions of incised plaster, niches, and strips of sparse carving in red sandstone form the basic decoration here.

A decorative detail: a medallion made of incised plaster.

A decorative detail: a medallion made of incised plaster.

A decorative niche at the Moth ki Masjid.

A decorative niche at the Moth ki Masjid.

For me, the best thing about Moth ki Masjid is the fact that relatively few people seem to know about it. Most times I’ve been here, there has been nobody about except a local caretaker/sweeper. Just pigeons pecking about in the sehan, among heaps of yellowing neem leaves fallen from the trees above. Bliss.

10 thoughts on “Lentils and mosques: Moth ki Masjid

  1. What an interesting post about this lovely mosque! Have been to this mosque before and used to pass this every day when I lived in GK some years back. But was not aware of the legend behind the name. Thank you, Madhu! :-)

    • Thank you, Harini! I’m glad you liked this post. :-)

      I still remember, one of the first times I ever visited Moth ki Masjid, there was an ASI caretaker-cum-sweeper there, a woman who was convinced our camera was a video cam, just because we were carrying it in its pretty bulky case (and this was back in the days before digital cameras, so it actually wasn’t a camera that could double up as a video cam too). She began insisting we pay the Rs 50 or whatever ASI requires for videography, and refused to listen until we finally asked her to fetch someone else. Fortunately the man whom she summoned was better at recognising that our camera was a still one!

  2. Very interesting post indeed and the legends behind the name. Thanks Madhu for the informative write up. When I saw the third picture, I wondered if it was a temple before the Muslims combined it with their architecture to convert it into the mosque and then read your explanation. One more place added to my list to my future visit to Delhi.

    • Thank you, Neeru! I’m glad you liked this post. :-)

      Yes, while one generally tends to think of ‘Indo-Islamic architecture’ as conforming to a certain set of rules, the fact was that it borrowed a lot from indigenous motifs, because all the stone workers were local Hindus (at least in the early years). If you go to the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque (at the Qutb Minar complex), for instance – it’s one of the earliest mosques to be constructed in India – you’ll see a lot of motifs that are typically associated with Hindu temples: lotuses, lotus buds, the kalash filled with mango leaves, the stylised Ganga and Yamuna motifs, and what is known as a kirtimukh, too.

  3. Thank you Madhu for another wonderful, informative post. It is quite amazing to realize that we have such rich antique artifacts right in the middle of our streets that could easily be a highly sought-after monument, had it been in another part of the world. Though I am not deeply familiar with Delhi, I have noticed many amazing architectural beauties embedded as part of the citi lanscape during my short visits and often wondered how these are being preserved! I hope Archeological Survey of India has plans to care for these monuments.

    It’s a pleasure to know that someone is fascinated enough to spend time and energy describing these work of arts, hats off to you!

    • Thank you, Ashish, for the appreciation.

      Delhi has a huge number of heritage monuments – well over a thousand, according to the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), who did an inventory of them. Over the past few years, thankfully, what with increasing awareness (and a lot of it thanks to INTACH), the ASI has extended protection to a lot more monuments, and has restored a large number. There were places I visited 15 years ago, for instance, to find them dilapidated and neglected; now, I find that they’ve been repaired, cleaned, and are even guarded (a little too zealously in some cases!).

  4. I saw you had published a post a couple of days ago, but things have been, let’s say, demanding, and I haven’t had the chance to read this until now. Even though the title made me very, very curious. :) Thanks for that interesting tidbit… my! The number of places I want to visit when I next visit Delhi is increasing by leaps and bounds.

    • “The number of places I want to visit when I next visit Delhi is increasing by leaps and bounds.

      Which means it will have to be an extended trip? Good. :-)

  5. The fact that the stone carvings by the hindu artisans were employed in the Moth Mosque uprooting them from some hindu temples is evident when you look at the entrance gate of the mosque from outside. The left side & the right side carvings are not identical suggesting of some make shift arrangements.

    As mentioned above in the blog, the array of the massive rectangular pillars exhibits their strength to bear the mammoth load of the rubble masonry roof/ domes built around 500 years back!

    ( I am unable to attach the photographs available with me.)

    The Begumpuri Masjd blog was also nice, but couldn’t comment for the above reason.

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