Art and Architecture

Mosque Architecture in Bangladesh: The Archetype and Its Changing Morphology

Abstract: Bangladesh possesses a rich early heritage involving two great religions, Hinduism and Buddhism. These two beliefs, with their political patronization, developed an architectural vocabulary expressing their spiritual desire and aspiration. Later, when Muslims invaded India, they brought a different architectural approach, evident in their secular and religious structures all over the Indian subcontinent. Muslims built mosques with the use of imported features modified by local culture, climate, tradition, materials, and technology. From that period through the present, mosques in Bangladesh have developed a unique style in terms of architecture. The notion of mosque architecture has been changing over time, according to the desires of the ruling class and the common people as well. This study presents tangible evidence of the changing morphology of mosque architecture, and identifies the influencing factors that initiated the development over the ages.

Architecture is the carrier of the social, political, and cultural history of a nation. Whenever we speak of an architectural style or pattern, we have to look behind to search for the history, culture and, above all, the aspirations of the people of that period. Bangladesh, formerly part of undivided Bengal, by virtue of its remote location at the northeastern extremity of the Indian subcontinent, remained undisturbed by external forces for thousands of years.

The architectural heritage of Bangladesh dates back to the third century C.E. From that ancient time the country cradled two major religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, and it was marked by religion-based politics. The architectural relics of that period are basically religious buildings, largely because domestic structures of that time were built of less permanent materials. The Buddhist monasteries and Hindu temples, although now mostly in dilapidated condition, can still give us an idea of their architectural characteristics. The orientation, geometric configuration, use of local materials, and sense of proportions prove that, in ancient times, people of Bengal were sensitive to the highest demands of the forms and techniques of building and architecture. The advent of Islam in Bengal in the thirteenth century was of a different dimension than in the rest of India. In India, it was a political and military conquest over the Hindu dominion. But in Bengal, it occurred with less political and social upheaval because of the conversion of upper class Bengalis to Islam long before the invasion (Zahiruddin 1990, 17-24).

Because of the long heritage of the Buddhist and Hindu periods, this region developed a rich architectural vocabulary of its own. On the other hand, when the Muslims invaded India, they already possessed a highly developed style of mosque architecture, distinguished by the arch, the dome, the minaret, and the mihrab, features common in mosques everywhere. Such architectural features imported by Muslims, together with the prevailing vocabulary of architecture of the region, gave birth to a unique Islamic architectural style. The climate of Bangladesh, available local materials, and skilled native craftsmanship were considered and explored accordingly by the Muslim builders. Since then, a unique type of mosque architecture has played a significant role in the history of the building art of Bangladesh.

Fundamental Principles of Islam and Their Interpretation in the Mosque

Muslims erected mosques wherever necessary to meet the fundamental religious requirement of congregational prayers five times a day. Thus, the mosque became the symbol and the central feature of the Islamic way of life, and it formed an inseparable part of Muslim settlements over the course of time. In a Muslim majority country like Bangladesh, mosques serve as the focal point of each neighborhood. Apart from their principal religious purpose, mosques also act as a nucleus of sociocultural activities and as a symbol of identity in a locality.

Any analysis of architectural design inherently deals with the properties of lines, proportion, surfaces, and forms arranged in space. Calligraphy, geometry, and garden design are the three fields in which Muslims have made marked contributions. Of the three, garden design has the least relevance to the design and development of mosque architecture. The spiritual divinity and the religious essence of Islam were successfully translated into mosque architecture with the help of different formal and geometric approaches. The purity of geometric form has been augmented and enhanced by calligraphy in lieu of animate decoration.

As a monotheistic religion, Islam differs from the Buddhist and Hindu faiths. Also, Muslims pray in large congregations. Their rituals are simple and do not permit any symbolism. Islam also discards a priesthood. These criteria historically encouraged an open mosque design, extrovert in nature, allowing light to penetrate rather than creating the mystic interior darkness common to structures of other religions. The mosque had clarity, a strong axiality (east to west), and had a sense of transition and purification through changes of levels and framing of views (Qureshi 1955, 34-35).

By contrast, Hindus and Buddhists accentuate symbolism, and their form of worship involves individual visits to the image of the deity where large congregations are not necessary. Hindus traditionally decorate their buildings with plastic modeling, images of deities, and lesser figures are often used as motifs of ornamentation. Decoration is as important as form and design.

Mosque architecture in Bangladesh rejected the introvert geometry and mysticism of Hindu and Buddhist temples. Islamic architecture emphasizes the use of color, geometry, and calligraphy. Prohibition of figurative ornamentation in Islam encouraged the calligraphic medium to flourish. The excellence in the work of calligraphy on the surfaces of mosques introduced an added dimension in ornamentation.

Although the component parts, which together constitute the mosque, have never varied basically in either function or meaning, the different architectural forms, features, construction technology, and available material generated a region-specific identity to this archetype in different parts of the world. For example, the traditional hypostyle plan of the mosque with an enclosed courtyard, an idea imported from western Asia, in many cases was abandoned in favor of designs more suited to local climate, tradition, and needs.

Mosque Architecture in Bangladesh and Its Different Phases of Evolution

The degree of synthesis of the prevailing Hindu and Buddhist architecture with the Muslim provided the Islamic architecture of this region with a new dimension. An Indo-Islamic style of Bengal flourished in mosque architecture. The newly introduced architectural features presented by Muslims such as domes, arches, minarets, mihrabs, and the extrovert nature of the mosques clearly distinguish mosque architecture from temple architecture, though in many ways the Islamic architecture of Bengal was influenced by prevailing Hindu styles. Throughout the Indian subcontinent mosque architecture has distinctive provincial styles characterized by indigenous art, tradition, culture, local climate, availability of material, and performances of highly-skilled local artisans.

The mosque architecture of Bengal is based fundamentally upon the building tradition of western and central Asia (Muktadir 1990, 75). Yet, Muslims were receptive to local potentials and the outcome was the creation of a unique architecture combining local skills, craftsmanship, and material with already accepted traditions. Through the analysis and examination of architectural elements, forms, layout, and building material, the mosque architecture of Bangladesh can be analyzed under the following four phases: (1) the pre-Mogul or Sultanate period (1204-1576 C.E.), (2) the Mogul period (1576-1757 C.E.), (3) the British colonial period (1757-1947 C.E.), and (4) the contemporary period (1948 to present).

The Pre-Mogul or Sultanate Period

Mosques were a new building type introduced to Bengal during the Sultanate period. Although the initial design ideas were imported from the West, a unique local architectural style rapidly developed (Hasan 1984, 253). Though Bengal later became a province in the Mogul Empire, earlier it enjoyed independent rule for about three and a half centuries. It was during this early period when the architecture of Bengal flourished and developed its own identity.

Four features serve collectively to differentiate the mosques built during the Sultanate period in Bangladesh. These features represent the modification of mosque design to accommodate the local cultural and environmental conditions of Bangladesh. The minaret has become one of the identifying features of mosque architecture in Bangladesh. Besides its primary function to ensure that adhan (call for prayer) can be heard from the maximum distance, it acts as a local landmark. It was not until the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries that the building of minarets became universal in Bangladesh (Frishman 1994, 40). In pre-Mogul and Mogul mosques of Bangladesh, with a few exceptions such as the Shat Gumbad Mosque of the mid-fifteenth century, there was an absence of minarets. Local scholars have attempted to explain this circumstance from several different viewpoints. Some say the minaret had been deliberately rejected in earlier mosques of Bengal as it was not found in mosques of Medina during the prophet's time. Another group of scholars suggests a geographical explanation. Most of Bangladesh is characterized by flat land and dense vegetation. Thus, minarets were not easily visible from any distance and therefore they had limited utility to mark the location of the structure.

Another unusual characteristic of pre-Mogul mosques of Bangladesh is the multiple mihrabs in the qibla (west) wall. Each mihrab corresponds to an aisle and doorway. This arrangement, which is not found in mosques, elsewhere, may be based upon the convention of a doorway corresponding to a niche for an image, a feature common to Hindu temples (Hasan 1994, 161). This design appears to be a case of cultural borrowing. The size of each of these mosque doors is also instructive. Elsewhere the doors are large, especially very tall, but in Bangladesh the doors are quite small even though large, false archways are traced on the facade of the structure. This change in mosque design is an architectural adaptation to the climate of Bengal, where monsoon rains would penetrate the interior if doorways were tall and large.

In most cases the site of a mosque includes a pond or a large tank. In the low-lying countryside: of Bangladesh the pond is a by-product of the mosque construction process. Large amounts of earth were needed to raise the land level for construction and to secure the site from periodic flooding. Also, large quantities of clay were required to provide the raw material for brickmaking. Except in city mosques where land is scarce, most mosques have large ponds. City mosques have only small ablution tanks or water taps.

The most readily available building material on the riverine and delta lands in Bengal is clay. The mosque architecture in Bengal shows the wide acceptance of brick as a building material. In other parts of India stone was the primary structural material. The mosques of pre-Mogul Bengal not only used brick as a construction material, but also the unplastered exterior was ornamented with brick and terra-cotta decoration, which was also common in temple architecture at that period.

The pre-Mogul mosques of Bengal are marked by ambitious planning, distinctive architectural features such as the pointed arch, a curvilinear roof and cornice, carved brick designs, and glazed tile decoration. Pre-Mogul mosques of Bangladesh may be classified in four separate groups (Hasan 1979): (a) the vault and domed type, (b) the square-domed type, (c) the oblong multi-domed type, and (d) the hut-shaped or curvilinear type.

The Vault and Domed Type

This type is characterized by hemispherical roof domes without drums, corner towers, curved battlements, stone carving, and the use of glazed tiles. The Adina Masjid (Bengali term for mosque) at Hazrat Pandua is a distinctive example of the earliest design phase. The large open courtyard at the center of the structure is surrounded by an oblong liwan (shaded portico) (Fig. 1). The design represents one introduced into Bangladesh from a drier environment. Rapidly, however, mosque builders accommodated the local monsoon climate by changing the original design to cover over the open courtyard by a series of hemispheric domes similar to those of the liwan. Such a change necessitated the breaking up of the central unobstructed floor space by a series of columns or pillars to support the roof domes (Fig. 2).


The phenomenon of an arched facade was introduced in Bengal during the Sultanate period. The vault over the nave of the Adina Masjid is one of the earliest attempted in Indo-Muslim architecture (Hasan 1979, 72). Currently in a dilapidated condition, this mosque illustrates brick-and-stone construction, where stone is used as a veneer to conceal the brickwork of the core.

Square-Domed Roof Type

The square-domed roof type of mosque from the pre-Mogul phase is distinguished by a cubical prayer hall (with or without antechamber), corner towers, wall paneling with offsets and recesses, mihrab projections in the qibla wall, curved cornice, stone casing, stucco design, glazed tiles, and moldings.

An excellent example is the Lattan Mosque at Gaur (1475). It consists of a 34 ft. square room with an 11 ft. deep antechamber (Fig. 3). There are three arched entrances on the east. The battlements and cornice are very gently curved, above which rise the three domes of the veranda and the large dome over the central hall. The middle dome of the veranda is of the chauchala (four-sided) type.


The four circular corner towers in the Lattan Mosque are characteristic features for pre-Mogul mosques. The curvilinear cornice, which is typical of later Bengali architecture, appears first in this mosque. The whole surface of the mosque was initially covered with glazed tiles in geometric patterns, but these have mostly disappeared.

Oblong Multi-Domed Type

Typical architectural components of this typology include a rectangular plan, aisles, bays, hemispherical domes, pointed-arched entrance, curved cornice, corner towers, paneled walls, stone casing, jali (semi-transparent screens) windows, stucco and glazed tiles, and stone chiseling. The Mosque of Baba Adam at Rampal, Dhaka (1483) is an excellent example. This six-domed congregational mosque has an oblong plan measuring 43 ft. x 36 ft. It is divided into two aisles by a three-arched colonnade running longitudinally (Fig. 4). The mosque incorporates a number of beautifully carved stone pillars. It also has a curved cornice and octagonal corner towers. The mosque is renovated, and the old ornamentations have unfortunately disappeared.


The Hut-Shaped or Curvilinear Type

The architects of pre-Mogul Bengal experimented with a unique roof structure commonly known as the hut-shaped or curvilinear roof. At an early period Bengalis evolved curved types of roofs made of bamboo and reeds to cover their humble cottages. The curvilinear form allowed flexible materials to assume shapes facilitating rapid drainage in this region of heavy monsoon rainfall. These roofs usually took two forms: do-chala (two slopes), chau-chala (four slopes). These forms of roof structure were translated into brickwork in permanent structures, and then in later periods incorporated into mosques, tombs, and temples of Bengal. Such roofs have been termed the "Bangla roof" (Fig. 5).


An example is provided by the Chhoto Sona Mosque (1493-1519). The interior of the mosque is divided into three longitudinal aisles and five bays by stone pillars. The middle bay, which is larger than the side ones, is roofed over by three Bangla (chauchala) roofs. The side bays are covered by hemispherical domes, the interiors of which show decoration copied from bamboo framework, a design which emphasizes the local character of the dome (Dani 1961, 138). The mosque has an open court and an arched gateway. The exterior of the brick walls is faced with gray basalt, the surface of which is carved to emulate contemporary terra-cotta design (Hasan 1994, 162).

The Mogul Period

Indo-Islamic architectural styles started in the imperial capitals of Delhi, Agra, and Fatehpur Sikri in the sixteenth century and appeared in the provinces as these areas were brought under the Mogul Empire. Although in every provincial context there were special features rooted in the vernacular tradition, the Mogul style in mosque architecture had a universality recognized throughout. In contrast to the buildings of the Sultanate period, which are characterized by regional identity, Mogul mosques followed an imperial tradition. The principal elements introduced by the Mogul architects were dominant central domes and tall axial entrances. Arches became graceful; four centered arches were introduced instead of the earlier two arches. Traditional terra-cotta art was replaced by reiterated plaster panels. Straight, horizontal panels substituted for the curved cornices of the pre-Mogul structures.

Bengal became a province of the Mogul Empire and was ruled from Delhi by the governors of Bengal (1576). Although the Moguls are termed "the great builders" in the history of Indian architecture, their efforts in Bengal were subdued compared to the ongoing contemporary architecture being practiced elsewhere in the subcontinent. The Bengali architectural tradition that had been generated during the pre-Mogul period, was disrupted by the Moguls. The traditional expression of brickwork with terra-cotta decoration was abandoned for the use of plastered surfaces. The typical three-domed mosques of the Mogul period replaced the multi-domed mosques of pre-Mogul times.

Mogul mosques are classified in the following four categories according to the varying ground plans and roofing patterns: (a) the single-domed type, (b) the bungalow type, (c) the three-domed type, and (d) mosques on a raised platform.

The Single-Domed Type

Perhaps the best example is the Allakuri Mosque (1680). It is located at Shaka and has a square plan with projecting fronts at the middle of each side, which provided doorways for the east, north, and south sides (Fig. 6). Four corner towers are each crowned by a plastered kiosk and parapet. The thickness of the wall keeps the interior cool. The dome is carried on squinches and is crowned by a finial (Fig. 6). The dome comes into its own with the Moguls and the influence of Persian design is clearly' seen. It also provides an easily recognizable symbol of empire.


The Bungalow Type

Churihatta Mosque (1649) may be taken as a typical example. It is characterized by a chauchala roof rather than domes, and has an oblong plan with four corner towers. Three doorways, formed by two successive arches, provide entrance from the eastern side. The facades are decorated with panels and a straight parapet.

The Three-Domed Type

The most common type of Mogul masjid in Bengal is the rectangular three-domed mosque. Either all the domes were uniform or the central dome was larger than the other two. Such a mosque style had its roots in Persia. One of the finest examples of this kind, where the central dome is larger, is the Lalbagh Fort Mosque (1678-79 C.E.), with an oblong plan (Fig. 7). The structure is roofed over by three fluted, bulbous domes, resting on drums. Three arched entrance doorways are adorned by cuspid arches. The facade is decorated with rectangular panels. The mosque is buttressed by four octagonal towers, capped by cupolas. Parapets are straight instead of the curvilinear cornice of pre-Mogul types.


Mosques on a Raised Platform

The Khan Muhammad Mirdha Mosque (1704-05) stands on a 16.5 ft. raised platform, supported by a series of vaulted chambers (Fig. 8). Of rectangular plan, it is a three-domed type with the prayer chamber in the upper floor level. The terrace is approached from the east by a flight of steps in front of the hall. The corner minarets are terminated with ribbed cupolas. Three squat shouldered domes cover the roof. Facades are ornamented with paneling. The interior of the hall is divided into three bays by two lateral arches, each containing a decorated mihrab.


The mosque architecture of the Moguls was terminated by the arrival of the British. Mogul political collapse was reflected in a general decline in arts, including architecture.

Mosque Design During the British Colonial Period

The architectural legacy of the British colonial period in Bangladesh is not very rich. In Bengal during the middle of the eighteenth century, the western region, particularly the areas in and around Calcutta, was the main focus of political and administrative power (Ahmed 1986, 22). The eastern part, which later became Bangladesh with its largely rural area, was neglected for about two centuries of British rule. From a completely different culture, tradition, religion, and background, the British rulers were always treated as alien, never being accepted by the local people. The British imported a new style of architecture. Among the religious buildings, a number of churches were built by the Christian Missions under the patronization of the government. Mosque architecture in Bangladesh, after the decline of the Moguls, was exposed to this new influence.

No longer the product of direction and patronage of the ruling class, mosques had become an architectural expression of the common people. Mosques built within this period were mostly initiated and supported by locally influential people. The period did not generate any specific innovative design characteristics. Most mosques followed the common Mogul style of a three-domed structure with an oblong plan and octagonal corner towers. A few, however, are significant for their extensive and elaborate ornamentation.

One of the most ornate and attractive mosques of Dhaka built during the colonial period is the Tara Masjid. Originally constructed in the late eighteenth century, :it was renovated and given an impressive look during the early twentieth century. It was initially a three-domed mosque with octagonal corner towers, the middle dome larger than the others. During the renovation, a northern extension was added with two more domes, which were completely irrelevant to the entire structure. Both the interior and the exterior of the mosque are highly decorated with colored tiles in various geometric patterns. Imported Japanese materials and China tiles were used for the ornamentation.

Contemporary Mosque Architecture

With the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) entered into a new era of development. Building activities during this period have been mostly utilitarian. Mosques have experienced two major trends in their architectural methods and developments, which can be characterized as mosques erected by the common people, and mosques designed by formally trained architects.

Mosques Erected by the People

Mosques are a part of the social life of the people of Bangladesh. They act as a community center and are a landmark for a community. To meet the religious requirement of congregational prayers five times a day, residents of a community need a mosque within walking distance. This necessity encourages them to take initiatives to erect mosques within each locality. These community mosques may be supported by wealthy local people, but all other members of the community contribute toward the construction, according to individual capability and desire. In most cases the builder or the designer of the mosque is guided by general religious norms for the mosque design.

Because of economic constraints, scarcity of land, and the absence of the involvement of trained designers, architectural features and forms in most of the cases, are neglected. Such mosques are usually constructed in stages depending on the availability of funds. Construction starts with building a simple shelter of temporary or semi-permanent nature, and gradually develops to the final stage with additions of different architectural components. A tall minaret is often considered essential as it makes the mosque a landmark for the locality.

These neighborhood mosques often expand vertically due to limitation of land. As they are initially developed in response to a common necessity and develop through different phases of construction, the planning and design issues are not well considered. As a result, the final product often lacks aesthetic appeal. In most instances, domes and minarets are not placed in what would be considered the proper place in the view of professionally trained architects. Minarets, sometimes springing from the roof, are visually isolated from the remaining structure. Baitus Sajud Jami Masjid is one such example (Fig. 9). Though the architectural and formal aspects of these mosques are not appealing, most are highly decorated with geometric and formal patterns and calligraphic inscriptions on their exterior facades, minarets, semi-transparent screens, window bars, and floors.


These mosques are far more than merely a place of worship and the product of the participatory efforts of the common people. Architecturally, they feature elements from Mogul styles and exploit the contemporary building technology and materials. These mosques, being a symbol of the society, represent the spirit of the common people, and are a spontaneous expression of the people's notion of architecture.

Mosques Designed by Formally Trained Architects

In recent years, an increasing number of mosques have been designed by formally trained architects. Analysis of these mosques reveals the architects' interpretation of the archetype. They are generally guided by concepts evolved from religious perspectives. Architects emphasize the sequence of spaces according to the function, axiality in plan, and openness and clarity of the forms of a mosque. A simple and rational approach to the interpretation of a mosque is the contemporary trend initiated in the early 1960s when the Baitul Mukarram Mosque was built (Fig. 10). Its plan was modeled on the holy Kaaba and also shows many fascinating features of Moorish architecture such as tall, slender pillars and horseshoe arches. The four-story prayer hall is designed as a cube and set on a high podium. This monumental religious structure is a significant landmark in Dhaka.


At the present time, professional architects are more concerned with the concept of form and space and the scale of the structure, rather than surface ornamentation. Fragmented exterior surfaces designed with familiar elements are employed to bring the building down to human scale, instead of a monumental or overwhelming exterior treatment. Savar Memorial Mosque in Dhaka District is a good example of such practices (Fig. 11). Another structure, Purto Bhaban Mosque in Dhaka explores the plastic nature of concrete and plays with clarity of space and quality of light and shade as well (Fig. 12). Other examples may be found where architects abandon the well-established norm of dome and minaret. Damra Factory Mosque near Dhaka and the mosque at the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute at Gazipur show such avoidance of traditional approaches.


On the other hand, some contemporary architects are exploring traditional architecture in terms of form, features, and the use of material and construction methods for designing mosques. The Rural Development Academy Central Mosque at Bogra and Bakshi Bazaar Mosque at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology in Dhaka are built with exposed bricks, which is an indigenous material of architecture of this region. Different experiments with the archetype reveal various aspects through which architects are trying to explore the available resources and at the same time consider the traditional and fundamental concepts of mosque architecture. The role of professional architects is encouraging because they are dealing sensitively with an archetype with 800 years of history.


This brief discussion of the evolution of mosque architecture in Bangladesh identifies certain factors that initiated the changes of architectural approaches over the course of time. During the pre-Mogul and Mogul periods, political power was the driving force for architectural development. Additionally, the need to adapt to local conditions can be seen clearly.

The Sultans of Bengal were sympathetic to local tradition, art, and culture, which helped the building art of that period to flourish with a regional identity. Both mosques and temples were excellent examples of using local materials, skilled technology, and forms. The Muslim Sultans blended consciously and delicately the imported West Asian Islamic styles with the well-established regional practice and enriched the architecture of that time.

The Moguls, following the Sultanate period, erected their best works in Delhi, Agra, and Fatehpur Sikri, neglecting Bangladesh, which was a remote eastern part of India. In fact, the trends and developments in regional sensitivity and indigenous approaches were interrupted with the advent of the Moguls. The imported Indo-Islamic style of the Moguls abandoned the highly developed terracotta decoration, curved cornices, and use of multi-domes in mosque architecture. But nonetheless, the Moguls did construct impressive mosques, tombs, and mausoleums.

With the introduction of the British colonial period, secular structures drew major attention. The different and opposite religious beliefs of the ruling class were another reason which discouraged the development of mosque architecture at this period.

As in any other field of architecture, mosque construction in the contemporary period has been influenced by the recent availability of varied building and finish materials. The modern building technology also has profoundly influenced development trends, although the climate of the region plays a vital role in shaping the spatial and formal pattern of mosques. Introduction of semi-open verandas, enclosed prayer spaces instead of only open courtyards, openness within the structure, cross ventilation, and recessed windows with adequate shading from sun and rain are appropriate responses of the architects towards the local climatic demands. In the case of contemporary mosque architecture, the desire and aspiration of the common people and their acceptance of innovative features offers a challenge to the skill, consciousness, and training of the local architects.


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Ishrat Islam is a doctoral student in Planning at the University of Akron, Akron, OH 44325.
Allen G. Noble is Distinguished Professor of Geography and Planning, University of Akron, Akron, OH 44325.

-Publication Information: Article Title: Mosque Architecture in Bangladesh: The Archetype and Its Changing Morphology. Contributors: Ishrat Islam - author, Allen G. Noble - author. Journal Title: Journal of Cultural Geography. Volume: 17. Issue: 2. Publication Year: 1998. Page Number: 5.

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