Nehru’s Word: A tale of two mosques

“I was thinking how backward we are in this country, that we are prepared to sacrifice our lives for such trivial matters (like religious disputes) and are ready to endure slavery and hunger.”

Pt Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister
Pt Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister
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Mridula Mukherjee

These past few days, the country has been outraged by the brazen attempts of vested interests to whitewash the barbaric mowing down of protesting farmers. Eighty-four years ago, Jawaharlal Nehru, warning people against the dangers inherent in allowing religion into the political domain, wrote a fascinating article, while serving one of his numerous jail terms in Almora, of which we bring you the first part this week.
Clearly disturbed by reports of the dispute between Sikhs and Muslims over the Shahidganj Gurdwara/Mosque in Lahore, he recounts the 1,400-year-old history of the Hagia Sophia Church/Mosque in Istanbul, which Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the secular ruler of Turkey had recently converted into a museum.

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“The Shahidganj Masjid of Lahore is daily in the news these days. (A dispute between Muslims and Sikhs over possession of lands attached to the Masjid was settled in favour of the Sikhs by the High Court on 19 October 1934. On acquiring possession of the land, the Sikhs decided to renovate the building and the Muslims thereupon started an agitation.)

There is quite an excitement in the city and religious fervour seems dominant on both sides. Attacks on each other, complaints of evil designs of the other and, in between, British rule showing its might as the judge. I do not have an accurate version of the incidents— who started it, who was at fault etc.— and I have no real intention of finding out.

Such kinds of religious enthusiasm do not interest me much. But unfortunately, once it is aroused, you have to face it, interest or no interest. I was thinking how backward we are in this country, that we are prepared to sacrifice our lives for such trivial matters and are ready to endure slavery and hunger.

From this mosque my attention wandered to another mosque. It is a very famous historical mosque and for the last fourteen hundred years or so, crores of eyes have seen it. It is older than even Islam and in this long life it has witnessed many things. Many empires toppled before it, old kingdoms were destroyed and many religious changes took place. In silence it witnessed all and at every change and revolution changed its dress too.

Fourteen hundred years of storm this majestic building faced; the rains washed it, the air scrubbed it with its particles and the dust covered some of its parts. Every stone speaks out its age and magnificence and it seems as if fifteen hundred years have injected the history of the world into its veins and capillaries. It was difficult to stand the tricks and storms of nature for such a long period, but more difficult than this was to endure the crimes and brutality of man. This also, however, it sustained.


Before the still eyes of its stones, empires came up and dwindled, religions spread and collapsed, mighty emperors, beautiful women and many talented persons came into existence, lived and then disappeared. It witnessed bravery, baseness and meanness. Big and small, good and bad, all have gone; but those stones still stand. While looking down from their heights even now, I wonder what those stones think of the multitude below— the games of the children, the quarrels, the deceit and the foolishness of the elders— how very little have they learned these thousand years! How much more would it take them to learn and be wise?

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A narrow arm of the sea, like a broad river, separates Europe from Asia there. The Bosphorus flows and keeps the two worlds separate. On the hillsides of its European bank there was an old settlement of Byzantium. For long it was part of the Roman Empire, the eastern border of which, up to the early centuries of the Christian era, was in Iraq. But from the eastern side this kingdom was often attacked….

The Roman Emperor, Constantine, decided to shift his capital to the east, so as to protect the empire from the eastern onslaught. He selected the picturesque bank of the Bosphorus, and on the tiny hills of Byzantium established a huge city. When Constantinople (or Kustuntunia) came into being, the fourth century of the Christian era was coming to an end. The Roman Empire no doubt became well established in the east; but now the western border became more remote.

After some time, the Roman Empire got divided into two parts— the Western Empire and the Eastern Empire. Some years later the Western Empire was destroyed by its enemies. But the Eastern Empire lasted for over one thousand years thereafter and was known as the Byzantine Empire.

The Emperor Constantine not merely changed the capital but brought about yet another change. He accepted Christianity. Earlier the Christians in Rome were greatly tortured…. Now suddenly the situation changed greatly. The emperor himself embraced Christianity and Christianity now became the most honoured religion…

In this city of Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, massive buildings were built by the orders of the emperors and very soon it developed into a very big city. No other city in Europe could stand comparison with it— even Rome fell far behind.

The buildings were erected in a new style— an architecture where the arches, domes, towers and pillars had a style of their own with minute mosaic work on the pillars and towers. This architectural style is known as Byzantine art. In the sixth century a magnificent cathedral was built in this style. It was known as Sankta Sophia or Santa Sophia. It was the most massive church of the Eastern Roman Empire and the emperors desired that it should, by its high quality of art, be unique and suited to the empire.

Later on, the Christian religion split into two parts…The Bishop of Rome (the most senior) became the Pope and in the western countries of Europe he was regarded as the head. But the Eastern Roman Empire did not recognize him and their Christian community became separate. It was known as the Orthodox Church or sometimes the Greek Church, for the language there had become Greek. The Orthodox Church held sway also in Russia and the nearby regions.

The Cathedral of Santa Sophia was the centre of the Greek Church and so it remained for nine hundred years…

(Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former Professor of History at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library)

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