Among the most courtly Mughal monuments is a mosque built by Jahangir’s mother—the daughter of the famous Raja of Amber Bihari Mal and sister of Raja Bhagwant Das, later a grandee at Akbar’s court—who carried the title of Maryamuzzamani or Mary of the Age.
The earliest extant Mughal mosque is tucked away across the road from the eastern fortification of Shahi Qila (the fort). To locate this remarkable mosque, also known as Begam Shahi Masjid, it is best to follow the street opposite Akbar’s Masjidi Darwaza (Masti Darwaza in common parlance)/Akbari Gateway of the fort. This mosque is celebrated for two very important features: the double domes with which the prayer chamber is crowned, and the exquisite fresco paintings on the interior surface. The mosque covers an area 135 feet by 127 feet. Constructed of brick masonry and rendered with plaster, it is a massive structure representing a transitional phase of architecture between the Lodhi and the Mughal periods. The lofty aiwan gateway at the mosque’s north entrance, provides access to the courtyard (128′ x 82′), a few feet below the adjacent road level. Once boasting three lofty entrances (on north, south and east facades), the mosque today is hemmed in by later constructions, almost entirely concealing this jewel-like edifice.
The courtyard was originally enclosed by cloisters consisting of rows of cells on the north and south, some portions of which still exists. On the east along the gate is a 17-foot-wide platform, on which stands an enclosure consisting of an octagonal domed tomb and some other modern graves.
In the centre of the courtyard is a tank for ablutions measuring 31 feet 5 inches by 26 feet 3 inches, now much repaired. A modern roof of reinforced cement concrete supported by two rows of round pillars partially covers the tank. The courtyard must have been paved with brick tiles in usual Mughal fashion, but it has now been completely re-laid in modern brick. On the northwest and southwest corners beside the prayer chamber are the old staircases leading to the roof. Similar staircases on the northeast and southeast corners led to the roof of the cells. Only traces are left now.
The prayer chamber of the mosque is an oblong structure measuring internally 130.5 feet from south to north and 34 feet from east to west. It has five compartments divided by heavy engaged arches supported by massive jambs and surmounted by high domes. The central double dome is the highest, placed on a high, round neck (11 feet 1 inch). The double dome consists of two shells, the inner one being of stucco. A wooden frame connects the two shells for reinforcement. The outer shell (3.5 feet thick) has a small arched opening to the west. The front openings of the chambers, five in number, possess four central arches, the central one being the highest, with a high parapet and a projected frame. The whole outer surface of the front has been treated with thick lime plaster, creating decorative arched panels in recess.
Inside the prayer chamber, there is a series of high, deep arched recesses set in all five compartments on the west. The central mihrab has an engrailed arch treated specially with profuse stucco ornaments which are geometric, floral, and inscriptional. The half-domed niche of the central arched opening and the mihrab has been filled with low stalactites. The remaining four compartments have the same engrailed arch treatment, though comparatively smaller and less decorative.
At the four corners of the prayer chamber are placed small, square pavilions (6 feet 10 inches) with four arched openings surrounded by cupolas placed on octagonal drums. Originally, the cupolas were crowned with a low cresting and finials, like the five bigger domes over the main prayer chamber. These have now considerably decayed.
The mosque stands out for its unique fresco decoration, with which the whole interior surface of the prayer chamber is replete. The paintings are unrivalled for their delicacy, liveliness, perfection of technique, and variety of subject. The endless variety of geometric, floral, and inscriptional designs spread over the interior surface in a subtle colour scheme is not seen elsewhere. The surface has been divided into various panels of different shapes and dimensions according to the space available, and all the soffits, niches, squinches, arches, dome interiors, and apex are covered with these paintings.
The squinches have been provided with low stalactites painted with small flower twigs, while the adjoining areas are divided into arched panels which have bold interwoven floral patterns. Some of the borders of the panels have geometric schemes of decoration. The patterns have been mainly created by carving slightly incised lines in white. The interior of the dome has similarly been divided into honeycombed geometric patterns, filled with delicate floral tracery. The small space in between is filled elegantly with stars which bear some of the attributes of Allah done in Naskh characters.
The superb combination of colours is also noteworthy. Shades of green, ochre, red, blue, yellow, and black have been used with subtlety. The mosque possesses several inscriptions, both Quranic and non-Quranic, executed exclusively in plaster in high and bold relief, a characteristic first met with here among the historic Mughal monuments of Lahore. Among the non-Quranic inscriptions, the one executed over the arche of the entrance gate and one executed on the high facade of the prayer chamber are important, as they record the name of the founder and the date of completion of the mosque. The inscription in the entrance gate is in Nastaliq characters, and that on the facade of the prayer chamber is in Naskh-Suls.
It was due to the mosque’s utilization as a gunpowder factory by Ranjit Singh, that the mosque became known as Barudkhana Wali Masjid. It was not until 1850 that the mosque was restored to the Muslims of Lahore who were able to rehabilitate it with their contributions.