During my frequent visits to the villages and towns of Pothohar to document painted murals for my forthcoming book Wall Paintings of Pothohar, I visited many mosques, tombs, temples, gurdwaras samadhis and havelis. I recently came across a magnificent and historical Jamia mosque at Chountra Sodaghran, which is adorned with marvelous paintings. Chountra Sodaghran is a small settlement of the Mughal community in Bhimber Trar village near Gulberg Residencia Housing Scheme in Islamabad. Chountra Sodaghran is located about 6 km east of Gulberg Residencia in Zone-V, Islamabad. The village is believed to have been named after Mirza Sikandar Khan alias Saudagar, who was a famous merchant (saudagar) of Bhimber Trar village. It is believed that the grandfather of Mirza Sikandar Khan, Amir Khan, was probably the first person who migrated from Jhansi to settle in Bhimbar Trar. His son Murid Khan became notable in the area. According to Zahir Akhtar of Chountra Sodaghran, Murid Khan had five sons, and descendants of his three sons now live in the village.
Mirza Sikandar Khan was a famous merchant of Chountra Sodaghran in Bhimber Trar village. He had established his main business in Lucknow. Apart from expanding his business from his village to Lucknow, Mirza Sikandar Khan later expanded it to China. He was not only a successful merchant but also a pious person and an ardent follower of Khawaja Abdul Karim (d.1936). He built an imposing mosque in his village. It is said that there used to be a small mosque in the village in 1800 AD, when the settlement was probably founded by his father Murid Khan or his grandfather Amir Khan. The small mosque was demolished and the foundation of a grand mosque was laid by Mirza Sikandar Khan between 1840 to 1845. It was told by Mirza Zaheer Akhtar of Chountra Sodaghran that Mirza Sikandar Khan brought the masons and painters from Lucknow. According to Mirza Banaras Hussain and his brother Mirza Muhammad Sabir, oral historians and village intellectuals of the village, the masons were brought from Jhansi. Whether masons and painters were brought from Lucknow or Jhansi, the mosque was marvelously built and painted aesthetically from the inside, reflecting the artistic finesse of the masons and painters.
It took five years to complete the Jamia mosque of Chountra Sodaghran. The mosque is built of stone which was brought from the hills of Bhimber Trar. Stone was the main material that was used in the majority of the mosques in Pothohar, which were built in the villages and towns that lie close to hilly areas and hill streams – where the stone was readily available. The Jamia mosque of Chountra Sodaghran is also such a stone-built structure which is noted for beautiful engraving and painting in Bhimbar Trar and neighboring villages in Islamabad. Apart from the Jamia mosque of Chountra Sodaghran, one can also see similar stone-built mosques in other villages and towns of Pothohar. Some stone-built mosques can be seen in the villages of Mona, Fim Kassar, Kot Iqbal, Siral and Minwal in the Chakwal district. All those mosques are noted for their stone carvings and paintings. The majority of these mosques are decorated with floral and geometric designs.
Stone-built mosques were also found in Gujar Khan tehsil, but the majority of these mosques have now either been rebuilt or renovated. I have seen similar stone-built mosques with intricate engravings at Padhri village in Sohawa tehsil in Jhelum district, Maira Sharif in Pindigheb tehsil in Attock district, and several other villages in Chakwal and Rawalpindi districts. In Islamabad’s capital territory, one can also see a few stone-built mosques of which the earliest one is located at Bagh Joghian on the right bank of the Soan River and opposite the Pharwala fort. This edifice is locally called Mai Qamro mosque, which was probably built by the royal Gakhar lady, Mai Qamro. The Mai Qamro mosque was probably built in the first quarter of the sixteenth century.
Originally, the Jamia mosque of Chountra Sodaghran was a single-domed structure with three-arched entrances leading to the main prayer hall. It has also two minarets that rise from the thickness of the wall. Some additions were made during the renovation in 2009 and 2010. The additions include one extra dome and verandah. The main entrance to the courtyard was also renovated. the interior of the mosque is adorned with paintings. The interior of the mosque was not renovated; hence the paintings are preserved in their original condition. Floral and vegetal designs decorate the interior surface of the walls. There are two painted panels on the northern wall of the mosque, which depict stylised floral vases flanked by handheld water vessels. Another panel shows a stylised floral vase flanked by glasses on a stand.
On the southern wall of the mosque are also two painted panels. The first depicts a domed structure probably a shrine from Jhansi or Lucknow from where the painter/s were brought to paint the mosque. It is more likely that painters might have painted the shrine of their patron saint from their town or village. Generally, one can see depictions of shrines in the tombs of Sufi saints in Pothohar. But there are also exceptions where one can see depictions of shrines or holy sites of pilgrimage on the walls of mosques in Pothohar. One can see a painting of Karbala on the southern wall of Kot Iqbal mosque in Chakwal district.
Floral scrolls, vases on stands or without stands (both simple and stylised), and fruits and vegetables on dishes or stands appear on the western and eastern walls of the mosque. Apart from depictions of floral vases, water vessels and domed structures, one can also see another interesting motif of stylised pillars on the eastern and western walls of the mosque. Calligraphy is also superbly made on the walls and ceiling of the mosque.
One can also see paintings in the mosque of Kot Fateh Khan, Wah Gardens, Malai Tola in Attock district, and Jamia mosque in Rawalpindi town, Minwal, Kot Iqbal, Mona, and Fim Kassar in Chakwal district but fresco painting of Jamia mosque of Chountra Sodaghran has its own sophistication, elegance and choice of colour scheme which makes it more appealing and distinct from others and gives visual delight to the visitors. And visitors expressed their feelings in writings on the walls of the mosque when they first visited the mosque in 1911, 1923, 1924, 1954, etc. The names, villages and years when the visitors visited the mosque are all preserved on the walls of the mosque.
According to Mirza Zaheer Akhtar, Mirza Sikandar Khan was a devout follower of Khwaja Hafiz Abdul Karim (d. 1936) whose shrine is located at Eidgah in Rawalpindi town. Mirza Sikandar Khan died in 1905 and was buried in the courtyard of the mosque. He left behind one son, whose name was Mirza Hafiz Talib Hussain, and he died in 1922 without an issue. He was also buried in the mosque and his grave is located close to the outer northern wall of the mosque.