Colombo Grand Mosque: a union of faith and brotherhood | Sunday Observer

Colombo Grand Mosque: a union of faith and brotherhood

29 September, 2019
Main entrance to the Grand Mosque
Main entrance to the Grand Mosque

For decades, the area of Colombo 12 has been a densely populated community, with many wholesale establishments. From Armour Street, a short taxi ride would take you to New Moor Street, a busy area of traders primarily dealing in hardware and building materials.

As the taxi continued its journey, the sand coloured minaret (tower) of the Colombo Grand Mosque came into sight from a distance. Interestingly, I had passed by two other smaller mosques. The time was exactly 1pm and thousands of Muslim men were silently coming out of the mosque, on completion of the Friday prayers. It was good to see a few old men sporting reddish orange beards dyed with “marathondi” (herbal dye), maintaining an old tradition that has been passed down for centuries.

The main entrance of the mosque has a massive gate resting on two pillars displaying half crescents. A solitary palm tree enhanced the appeal of the area. An iron fence fixed on a sturdy granite half wall completed the right flank of this beautiful building.

In comparison to the much visited Red Mosque on Main Street, Pettah or the Ketchimalai Mosque in Beruwela, the outer appearance of this massive mosque was relatively simple, but at the end of my visit I would be convinced that her greatness lay in her simplicity. After being ushered into the administrative office, I awaited the arrival of the Imam, the resident chief priest.

Arabic footprints

Moulavi Shamsudeen Mohamed Thasleem is a tall man with an imposing personality. In a voice filled with kindness, he greeted me and we went in to his office. He began by outlining the historic period that saw the birth of a small mosque in Colombo “The origins of this glorious mosque is interwoven with legend, traditional stories and written historic records.

As you know, the Arab traders came to Serendib (Ceylon) long before the Portuguese and the Dutch. They settled in areas like Puttalam and Hambantota, where even today there are large Muslim communities. Initially, they traded in pearls, precious stones and spices, moving on to trade in elephants. They built trading posts dealing with the Orient and European ports.

These Ceylon Moors as they were later called gradually moved to settle in other areas like Beruwela, Galle and Kalutara.

This is true of these early Arabs. In his historical commentary, R.L. Brohier draws our attention to a map (reproduced) of the first Portuguese Fort built in Colombo in 1518. The map shows the presence of two lime washed mosques.

In 1505, the first recorded flotilla of eight Portuguese vessels anchored at the Bay of Colombo and their Commander had met the Sinhala King seeking his permission to build a trading post. By 1518, a person named Lopo De Brito was sent as the Captain of Colombo to enhance the defence of the Fort and also to compete with the trading Ceylon Moors. Some say during this period the Portuguese burnt the old cabook mosque. It is believed that in 1524 the Portuguese removed the artillery from the Colombo Fort and sent it to Goa, much to the delight of the trading Moors and others living in Colombo. The enterprising Moors rebuilt a new mosque on the hill where the present day Grand Mosque stands.

The Indonesian influence

When the Dutch wielded their influence in Colombo they did not tolerate the Moor community as the Dutch saw them as direct competition to their trade. Laws were enacted to gradually restrict their freedoms, forcing many of the Moors to leave Colombo. However, the mosque managed to maintain its presence. The Dutch East India Company wielded their influence in Indonesia, and noble families who resisted them were sent to Ceylon to live in exile.

One such wealthy family sent to Ceylon was that of Hooloo Balangkaya, who arrived here in 1790. He took up residence in Moor Street, Colombo. Subsequently, the British took control of Ceylon and they were more diplomatic and welcomed the trade of the Moor community.

Moulavi Thasleem said, “Soon the Moors were able to congregate at their beloved mosque. One of the sons of the exiled Indonesian nobles, Muhammad Balangkaya, was a qualified architect and a pious Muslim. He realized the need to extend the mosque since the number of worshippers had increased.

He wisely designed and renovated the mosque adding two new storeys which was a first in Ceylon”. Records indicate that in 1826 the Governor Lieutenant General Sir Edward Barnes had visited the mosque and congratulated the architect. Additional extensions to the mosque were done in 1973.

In the early days there was a cemetery behind the mosque, but the burial practice was discontinued in 1874, and a land for this was purchased at Maligawatte.

We walked into the main area of the mosque. Today, there are four floors for prayers and nearly 4,000 people can be accommodated. The massive white columns extend to the ceiling where they connect to a large dome.

The top of the dome painted in gold colour is visible from the outside. The spiral staircase leading to the 60 foot minaret tower is still in good condition. Decades ago, when there was no electricity, the Imam would ascend this tower and proclaim the ‘call to prayer.’ The Colombo city did not have many vehicles then, and thus there wasn’t much sound pollution. The president of the Management Committee M. Zubair showed me another unique relic a four foot cannon mounted on wheels which had been used since 1898.

In that era it was fired (only causing noise) to indicate the times of breaking fast during the month of Ramadan and also to indicate the beginning of the Eid festival. Even during the period of the First and Second World Wars the Government had given permission to fire this small canon. Today the mosque has modern communication systems. Moulavi Thasleem invited me to join him for lunch, my first meal in a mosque.

The 70 year old clergy explained, “I entered my religious studies in 1965 in Kandy and graduated in 1974. Later I attended the International Muslim University in Pakistan where they teach Imams. Much has changed in Colombo over the years”.

Another important task performed by the Colombo Grand Mosque is the confirmation of the ‘moon sighting’ to begin the fasting. Moulavis in coastal areas like Pottuvil, Akkaraipattu, Nilaveli, Kinniya and Mannar get reports from local residents about the sighting of the new moon. The Grand Mosque reconfirms these with eyewitnesses and then officially informs the nation’s Muslim community.

Solidarity in prayer

Adjacent to the mosque is an old building with intricate wood carvings. This is the 125 year old Hameedia Hall, which was once used as a classroom. In 1900 the mosque helped build a boys’ school which is today known as Al-Hameedia College. It was built by a philanthropist named M. Noordeen.

Another religious entity within the Grand Mosque is the Jamia Madeenthul Ilm (city of knowledge) a training school for young boys aspiring to be an Aalim (Muslim scholar) one day. The young boys come from all parts of Sri Lanka. Moulavi Thasleem said “We are Sri Lankans and we must always love our country”.

By 3 pm the assistant Imam proclaimed the ‘call to prayer’ and hundreds of faithful men and boys entered the mosque once again. As I went towards the gate many of them shook hands with me, while some embraced me in a greeting of brotherhood.

This is what we need, for all men to coexist together as we have done for centuries. Thus the magnificent Colombo Grand Mosque remains a radiant beacon of Islamic faith, guiding the Muslim community of the nation.