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Coral stone mosques: the last architectural masterpieces

The Maldives Independent spoke to renowned architect Mauroof Jameel following the publication of his book, “Coral Stone Mosques of Maldives, The Vanishing Legacy of the Indian Ocean.”



“Coral Stone Mosques of Maldives, an exhibition introducing the last of architectural masterpieces with illustrations by Mauroof Jameel” opened at the National Museum last week.

The Maldives Independent spoke to the man behind the exhibition and the recently published book about coral stone mosques of Maldives, subtitled “The Vanishing Legacy of the Indian Ocean.” Mauroof Jameel is an architect specialising in architectural heritage. After restoring old mosques in Malaysia, he spent the past five years researching coral stone mosques in the Maldives.

The exhibition will reopen Sunday and welcome visitors until June 8.

Fathimath Isha: What made you want to do this exhibition on coral stone mosques of Maldives?

Mauroof Jameel: From a very young age, I did some work on mosques. I was one of the team of six who worked on the interior woodwork on [the Islamic centre mosque]. I worked as a wood carver. Then, later on, I decided I wanted to be an architect and went for studies. That interest still remained.

So at some stage, I realised okay, coral stone construction, coral stone architecture and especially the coral stone mosques were the most important Maldivian heritage, and we have to preserve them at any cost. And you see the wrong thing being done to them, sometimes with good intentions – mosques getting extended, and their real authenticity getting lost. So these were sad things, and the important thing was to raise awareness. People need to start respecting these and make the effort to conserve these, and it has to be a joint effort.

Why I made this exhibition was, this is one chance for people to see all the mosques at one site, for they are so dispersed across the country that very few people see all of them. To make the effort to see it is a big effort too. So this exhibition and my recent book is also one place to start admiring the mosques and seeing all of them. After this exhibition, you will see mosques in a different way.

FI: I notice a lot of detail in your illustrations.

MJ: It is when you start looking into these details that you realise how sophisticated the work is. Malé’s Friday Mosque was built in 1658, that was built by Ali and Mahmood Maavadi Kaleyfaanu. They are master carpenters. Maavadi means carpenter, and Kaleyfaanu is the highest title in society. So they were master architects, and the oldest architects in the country – we have still not come close to that level of work.

FI: In your research, did you find external influences to the architecture of the mosques?

MJ: Just like our people, our culture, we are a mix of everything from this region. Even when you look at the Maldivian faces, you’ll see a little bit of African, Asian, Indian, Arab, South East Asian. And just like that, even our mosque is a mix of all these influences.

If you start looking into the details you can see the pediments have got a lot of similarities to pre-Islamic structures, but they don’t have the gargoyles and the animal structures that was in these temples. The roof forms are similar to Indian and South East Asian, and the decorative art is very Moghul.

There are similarities in coral stones from East Africa but you can see our structure is more sophisticated, there’s more depth. Theirs is a more simpler version. So ours is a combination of all this, put together in a more artistic way, so these people were very talented.

FI: What were the new discoveries you made about our history?

MJ: What I found were the links from this region. And the other thing is I started making these categories, there are four types of traditional mosques in Maldives. I am currently focusing on coral stone mosques.

There are masonry mosques as well. In most of our minds, it is not officially classified as a traditional part of the architectural heritage. About three or four years ago, Fadiyaaru mosque was demolished. So we are losing a lot of such heritage, and we have not catalogued this properly.

FI: Do you believe there is sufficient level of awareness amongst government officials or policy makers?

MJ: The level of awareness amongst everyone is not enough. There are not many architects who have gone into the field of heritage. When we talk about heritage in Maldives, most people ask, “What’s there as heritage? There can’t be much. Malé is congested, Malé doesn’t have heritage either.” 

Malé has been here for 1,000 years, there must be something here. Maldivians have survived for 4,000 years, there must be something. We simply haven’t seen that because many of them vanished. One reason is that we didn’t have permanent materials so it’s not tangible. But if you start studying selectively, you will see the heritage sites.

FI: Is there respect towards traditional mosques in the islands?

MJ: They have respect for their old mosques, but they don’t know the best way of looking after it, that’s the difference.

When their mosques get overcrowded, they want to extend with a fenda [porch or veranda]. They are happy if more people can pray in that mosque. But the authenticity of the mosques is getting eroded.

FI: Is it possible to keep the authenticity but also extend the mosques?

MJ: It is a very delicate balance. There are universal principles to follow in this form. There are two schools of thought: it is different in Japan and in the West. But there are universally understood protocols; I think people need to become aware of it for a start.

I feel the younger generation is more conscious about it, more sensitive to it. I feel like we can spread awareness about it and they can embrace it well.