Take design of leaf, flower and geometric pattern; add calligraphy in Arabic and Bangla. Think the best hardwoods from Myanmar, Assam and Tripura: coarse-grained sal, pungent teak and robust lohakath. Picture a building of such intricate collaboration of construction and decoration that has survived for over a century. Then one might be able to imagine Pirojpur's Momin mosque.
Built between 1913 and 1920 by Moulovi Mominuddin Akan and situated in Udoytara Burirchar village of Mathbaria upazila, the wooden Momin mosque is quite possibly the only one of its kind to be declared a national antiquity site. The archaeology department made the determination in 2003.
Some four years later repair work was undertaken, including painting; but since then the
structure has witnessed neglect. There are signs of decay.
It is said that Mominuddin had an aged relative who had saved money for their pilgrimage to Mecca but was ultimately unable to make the long journey. The relative decided instead to offer their savings for the building of a mosque of beauty, to replace a smaller mosque made of wood and straw.
After locating the best hardwoods from afar, Mominuddin hired 22 expert carpenters from the area of Swarupkathi upazila, which was then called Nesarabad, which was renowned for timber workers. It took them seven years to complete the building.
Nowadays woodworms are eating their way through the intricate carvings, with some of the previous repair work completed by the archaeology department also suffering damage. “Every day we have to clean the mosque up to eight times as wood dust falls continuously to the floor,” says the mosque's current imam, Md Nizamul Haque Harun, who is a grandson of Mominuddin.
On the three outer walls of the rectangular mosque meanwhile, the design craftsmanship is barely visible thanks to the effects of rising damp and the moss growth.
Locals have tried to protect some parts of the outer walls by draping polythene. “Rainwater seeps into the wood and damages electric equipment inside the mosque,” says Harun. “The polythene is there to stop the water damaging our microphone.”
Water also drips inside from the tin roof during rain showers, he adds.
He shows three places inside where cracks are visible; other designs are obscured by cobwebs.
“We also need a boundary wall to maintain the site properly,” the imam says.
According to Afroza Khan Mita, Khulna region's director of the department of archaeology, the previous repair work included affixing a new tin roof, adding a wooden ceiling and restoring damaged wall design, as well as colouring the wooden walls. “After the work was completed,” she says, “we received some complaints from locals and an investigation committee visited the mosque on 10 December 2014.”
The committee recommended the construction of a shed of Thai plastic at a distance from the main mosque to accommodate worshippers. “It is under consideration,” she says.
“We have an honorary employee charged with regular maintenance of the mosque,” says Mita, “but he has not been performing his duty. We hope to send another employee every three months from our regional office to monitor the mosque's state of repair.”
But, according to Mita, locals also have a role to play. “People keep vessels, buckets, brooms, clothes and towels sporadically inside the mosque, which mars the aesthetics of the site.”
Moreover locals have built an extension at the mosque's entrance without the department's consent. “It's really difficult to protect an antiquity site if locals don't cooperate,” Mita says.
“The Momin mosque can only fit about 30 worshippers,” explains Harun. “So we needed to add a cement platform to accommodate the crowd for Friday prayers. Even with that additional space people sometimes have to say their prayers outside the mosque.”