I remember it being the biggest thing I had ever seen. All red sandstone with the off-white domes in the distance. I was raised in England and even lived in Karachi for a time but this was foreign to me. This was standing on the surface of Tatooine and staring at it’s suns. Massive, grand , endless, majestic — none of those words adequately described what I thought of the place when my Mum asked for my opinion. So I settled for a sound.
It looked to me what I thought the Sultan from Aladdin’s palace would look like in real life. In reality, it was the kind of Mughal architecture that probably inspired the Indo-Arabic world of Agrabah (as a kid, I wore out the tape of Aladdin our family had.)
In Karachi I grew accustomed to the eclectic mix of British and Indian architecture that formed the older parts of the city. There, I saw some amazing things; the Mohatta Palace, the Jehangir Kothari Parade and for the first real time — the beach. I’ll always remember living on the coast in Clifton then. Sadly the image that sticks in my mind when I used to sit on the balcony is of the oil spill off the coast that attached itself to the horizon. It’s better there now.
I mention all of that only to say that nothing in the capital sparked my love of architecture. Then, I was still set on my path to study the most virtuous of subjects — Computer Science. Perhaps I was too young but only upon coming back to Pakistan on a trip to Lahore one summer in 2008 did I understand what architecture was — or at least what it could do. In the case of the Badshahi Mosque, it inspired awe.
I entered the mosque through the Hazuri Bagh, a garden surrounded by the Badshahi Mosque, Lahore Fort, Samadhi of Ranjit Singh and the Roshnai Gate, on it’s 4 sides. After climbing the marble steps, and before entering the gate to the courtyard, I had to take off my shoes — it was a mosque after all.
It was probably around 25 degrees Celcius that day so I could feel the heat of the sun radiating back off of the red sandstone beneath my feet. Not that I cared. I was mesmerized by this place. All I could see was the red around me, the blue above and the white of the three domes waiting for me at the end of the courtyard. The city of Lahore didn’t exist outside of here — it was far too quiet to be in a metropolis. You couldn’t hear the honking of the taxis, the intoxicating smells of the nearby Food Street, or the chatter of the city.There you felt protected — secluded even. There was peace and quiet and everything a place of worship should have. There was only the Mosque.
My favourite part of the building, were the passages that existed in the walls of the courtyard. An all-white linear expanse of space, extending on for what looked like an eternity, each doorway geometrically identical to the previous one, the light passing into the space the same way each and every time. It’s like those dreams you have where you’re in a room and there’s a set of doors and no matter which you walk through you end up in the same exact room. Except here, it’s real.I suppose that’s why, in my memory, it sometimes feel like a dream.
That space encompases every quality of Islamic architecture that I love. The repeating geometries and patterns, the intricate detailing, the strong contrasts of light and colour. It was the kind of space you wanted to stay in just a little bit longer.
It was the first space I had ever been where I thought to myself, ‘I wish I could make something like this.’
Perhaps I’ve idealized this building in my memory. Perhaps I was young and naive and this was just a large open-air prayer hall. It never felt that way to me though. It was the first building I had ever been in that felt like more than the brick and mortar it was made of (or in this case, sandstone and marble).
I haven’t been back to Pakistan in over 2 years, and haven’t returned to the Mosque since that first trip. Since then I finished school and enrolled in the Architecture programme at the University of Brighton and will graduate next summer. Hopefully I’ll then have time to revisit the place that changed who I wanted to become and what I wanted to do with my life. So while I don’t suppose this technically classifies as a Religious Experience — it is perhaps the closest I’m ever going to get.