Winner of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1986.
Patron: Rais Ghazi Muhammad
The Award is made in recognition of a significant attempt by a single individual to create a local centre of learning and building crafts by establishing, in the village of Bhong, in the district of Rahimyar Khan, a complex of buildings consisting at first of a small mosque, later converted as a prayer hall and library for women, a madrasa and residential dormitories for students and visitors. All the infrastructure required to serve the complex, such as roads and irrigation channels, were also built by him for the use of the people. After some years the grand mosque was conceived and constructed.
The complex, as it stands today, is fully utilised by the local population and its acceptability by the people has been well established. The madrasa is still functioning, although with less importance than in the past; at its peak, students came from Turkey, Afghanistan and Iran.
This tremendous effort of Rais Ghazi Mohammad extended over a period of nearly 50 years from 1930 to 1980, during which time he engaged specialised craftsmen in various trades from all over Pakistan, and master masons to decorate the buildings of the complex. He patronised and encouraged these craftsmen and set up a workshop for their training; and a large number of these craftsmen have been subsequently employed in the restoration of monuments by the government. Thus he made a monumental effort in the revival of traditional crafts.
The achievements of the master craftsmen over two generations deserve to be recognised. It is sometimes thought that the quality of the architecture produced lacks authenticity in a country with a long historical and architectural tradition. But the buildings are of particular interest because of the skill with which the craftsmen have chosen and brought together 150 vastly different materials and techniques. They have evolved a new kind of craftsmanship by choosing existing, manufactured elements and recombining them in original and judicious ways. This new creativity uses mass-produced elements to generate surprising meanings from new contexts and juxtapositions.
In giving the Award to this building complex the Jury wished to make an acknowledgement of the diversity that enriches society.
“Popular” buildings might be a little different from buildings derived from indigenous craftsmanship. The populace might love them, and, therefore, they have an immense significance for ordinary people — in spite of the fact that architects might hate them.
Completion of the large mosque concluded the complex which was started in 1932. Rais Ghazi Mohammad intended to create a congregational mosque that would appear as an outstanding building, a centre of learning, and an employment centre for building craftspeople.
The Bhong estate is in southeast Punjab, Pakistan. It covers several scattered villages, the most important being Bhong village where the landlord, Rais Ghazi Mohammad, has his quarters. This is a region of large estates and powerful landlords. It is hot and dry, but where irrigated with river water, it is fertile.
A wall surrounds the village of 5,000 inhabitants, the mosque complex, and the landlord’s compounds. Bhong is accessible by a small paved road and by train.
Early in the 1930s, Rais Ghazi Mohammad built a small mosque on his property. Later he undertook the construction of a palace for himself. While the palace was being built, he decided to demolish the mosque and replace it with a larger one. This larger mosque was built on a raised platform to prevent moisture infiltration from the ground and so that the palace would not overpower it. This mosque now shelters the women’s hall and the library. Rais Ghazi apparently felt that this building was not grandiose enough to compete with the palace and proceeded to build an even larger mosque on the same platform. This became the main prayer hall.
The great mosque was part of a complex conceived, directed and funded by Rais Ghazi over several decades. The development of this complex included the growth of infrastructure; a market, roads, installation of electricity, irrigation works and bus and railroad lines. In his compound, he built the palace, the mosques, a madrasa, and rooms for students, plus a house for family guests and service quarters.
Rais Ghazi wanted the mosque to be the most glorious of these buildings. Specialists were gathered from all over Pakistan and India. Master masons and craftsmen from Rajasthan; calligraphers and painters from Karachi. Craftsmen for the artificial stonework and most of the unskilled labourers were hired locally from Bhong.
LOCAL ARCHITECTURAL CHARACTER.
Excluding the urban examples, regional architecture is characterised by a rural type of one room, one storey, mud or baked brick buildings opening to a court enclosed by high walls, which may take additional buildings if needed. Decoration on the houses is subdued. It consists of some treatment of the main facade and of the ventilation openings. Villages are made of clusters of this type and their skylines are silhouetted with domes and small ornamental minarets of mosques. In contrast to the houses, these mosques have intricate and colourful decoration. Highly decorated, to the point of saturation, three-domed mosques with many small ornamental minarets accenting the corners and entrance are common in the Islamic part of the Indian subcontinent.
The mosques are on a three metre high platform which contains storage space and workers’ quarters. An ablutions pool, the school and guest accommodations are found at an intermediate level. The madrasa and student rooms are located even lower. The mosque garden surrounds the north and part of the east side of the complex. A private gate marks the entrance to the garden, along with a water channel which defines the main axis leading to the mosque.
The two mosques complement each other in terms of massing and shaping space. Some spatial relations are easily identified when looking at the plans. The proportion of the platform is based on a relation of 2:3, as is that of the courtyard in which the dimension “2” of the platform becomes the “3” of the courtyard. This and other relations are visible in the placing of the buildings and in their proportions.
Externally, the two mosques are treated differently. The small mosque is mostly covered with glazed tiles. The walls of the main mosque are lustreless materials — marble in the porch and marbleised cement tiles covering most of the building.
Internally, the mosques follow traditional models. In the smaller mosque, painted calligraphy and floral motifs on the walls and ceiling co-exist with marbleised industrial tiles.
Coloured glass and mirrors are used in the stucco and wood tracery of the walls and ceilings of the main mosque.
The mosque garden is geometrically organised along two perpendicular axes defined by ponds. The main axis connects the courtyard with the main gate to the village and is intersected in the middle of the secondary axis which leads to the side entrance of the garden. The ablutions area is set in a covered recess of the wall to the left of the main entrance. It consists of a row of taps and footrests along a shallow trough.
MATERIALS AND TECHNOLOGY.
When construction started, there were no roads, or electricity. Most of the materials were bought in bulk by river and then carried by ox cart to the construction site.
Materials and crafts ranged from the traditional (teak, ivory, marble, coloured glass, onyx, glazed tile work, fresco, mirror work, gilded tracery, ceramic, calligraphic work and inlay) to modern and synthetic (marbleised industrial tile, artificial stone facing, terrazzo, coloured cement tile and wrought iron). Bricks and wood, except for some Burmese teak, were locally aquired. Marble came from Peshawar and Quetta, except for black marble that was imported from Europe. Glass and mirrors came from Karachi; Multan supplied glazed tiles, mosaic, woodwork and painting.
Rais Ghazi used modern materials freely in the ancillary buildings, such as the gates, the small mosque and the porch of the large mosque. He applied only traditional materials to the mosque interiors. His intention was to represent as many forms of vernacular craft and Islamic religious architectural features as possible using a combination of traditional and modern materials. This intention was not founded on any specific theory of architecture or notion of a thematic treatment of materials and/or spaces. Rather, it was the articulation of one man’s internal vision. His insights guided every selection of material, every step of the execution.
The mosque complex performs well as a religious centre and as a focal point for community activity.
There are ample openings in the mosque on all sides and they are oriented to catch prevailing winds. Ceiling fans are used in the main prayer hall. Direct light is regulated by wood shutters and fanlights with coloured glass on wood tracery in the western side of the main prayer hall.
Materials were chosen with attention to quality, sound performance and ornamental value. The marble balustrades of the roof on the main mosque are finished only on the outside. This is a common cost-cutting device.
The mosque requires continuous maintenance. Ageing has already taken its toll on the glazed tiles from Multan. A shortage of water in the pool and in the ponds in the garden (because of the limited supply of electricity to power the pumps) has impaired the visitor’s appreciation of the building. This is especially unfortunate in the case of the forecourt pool since the water was to reflect the elaborate ceiling paintings.
Nevertheless, ongoing efforts to restore these elements are bound to enhance the overall effect of the composition.
The masses of the complex are imposing but do not overwhelm the neighbouring constructions. Creating a raised platform was a major achievement, since it provides a better scale for the relationships between the main and ancillary buildings. The overall conception, however, is quite eclectic in both design and style.
Rais Ghazi borrowed stylistic elements from monuments in Lahore, Iran, Spain and Turkey. He mixed these with the Western colonial elements of the I940’s, which appear in the guest houses and market. The borrowing from different sources is fanciful and unencumbered by any leitmotif or thematic structure. These are not cases of artful “resonances” or “echoes”. They are the product of a boisterous gusto reminiscent of the vitality and vulgar insouciance of the self confident millionaires of nineteenth century America. Decorative materials and techniques are equally eclectic. The palace is a hybrid of colonial architecture, local decorative techniques and modern materials. The local decorative techniques and elements are clearly kindred to the very lively decoration found on buses and jeepneys in this part of the world.
At times, it seems there is a purposeful design against an established order. For example, some of the medallions in the courtyard floor, made in regular diamond patterns of black and white marble are juxtaposed with other marble elements disposed at random. This makes the pattern look as if it exploded.
The ultimate purpose of the whole design is grandicsity which is manifested among other things through size, and the excessive emphasis on decoration, the choices of materials, the complexity of technique, sheen, and colour.
There are unpleasant features such as the aborted minaret that stopped at being the staircase to the mosque roof. The buildings lack discipline of essentials that would make them model pieces of erudite architecture.
The project satisfies the needs of the local population and increasingly attracts visitors.
The effect on the local environment was tremendous especially considering that the mosques were part of a larger complex. Infrastructures were developed. Workshops were set up to train craftsmen in skills that had until now been passed down from father to son. At the peak of construction, the project employed 1,000 workers and trained up to 200 craftsmen. The workshops helped to revive and preserve these indigenous crafts and have contributed enormously to the government’s conservation efforts.
Furthermore, it played an important role as a centre of learning especially before secular schools came to the region.
Rais Ghazi initiated Lunger, a practice that is continued by his family. It entails providing meals, and blankets for visitors to the mosque irrespective of their income as well as to students and to the poor of the village.
On the whole, the Bhong Mosque deserves attention, not so much for the architectural merits of composition or aesthetics, but because it reflects a statement of local, contemporary taste that runs counter to much that is dear to international and regional architectural theory and criticism. The issues it raises about the relevance of the intellectual pursuits of architects and critics as well as the inadequacy of unbridled populism help define an important agenda for practicing architects in the Muslim world today.