The Mughal Masjid: tracing Shi’a materiality, making and mnemonics in Bombay

Sarover Zaidi

‘We could be in Shiraz or Isfahan’ explains the caretaker as we enter the Mughal masjid, a striking and ornate, blue tiled mosque located in a congested by-lane of the ‘native’ town of Bombay. The Mughal Masjid, also known the Irani Masjid, was built in 1858 in the late Qajar architectural style. Built by an Iranian trader, the mosque aimed to establish not only the presence of Iranian Shias in Bombay but also assert a public identity for them in the myriad religious market space emerging here from Indian Ocean trade (Green; 2011).

Embodying in its material form, both Persian blue tile facades brought from Iran and south Indian Mangalore tiles, the mosque today asserts the concordant identity of Indian Shi’as. This identity on one hand is located on the transnational impulse (Gupta; 2014), seeking legitimation from Shi’a practices of Iran, and on the other emergent extensively within the locale of India.

During Muharram the month of ritual mourning for Shi’as, the mosque becomes a centre for different Shi’a communities of the area, with the Khoja isnashariah Shi’as taking the lead. Albeit the Muharram majlis is performed in Hindustani by a north Indian Maulana, adjusting the transnationalism of the Iranis and Khojas to the concerns of the local.

My paper attempts to trace through architecture, ritual and identity the idea of being Shi’a in India. Drawn constantly towards utopian notions of Iranian Shi’aism, the community is under continuous dialogue and contestation on issues of ritual, authority, politics and nationalism, mapped here through the ethnography of a religious structure.