Masjid India is perhaps the oldest standing masjid in Kuching, though the nearby Masjid Bahagian is built on a hill top that held an older structure. Masjid India is so named because the small Kuching Indian community requested the land to build the mosque from the first White Rajah, James Brooke, in the late 1800’s. Over time, the Indians, who were mostly traders, built shop houses adjoining one another around the perimeter of the deeded land, until the masjid was completely contained. Only a few modest signs mark the main entrances into the enclosed compound, such that upon subsequent visits I still did not notice them. Only after having my lunch at a “mamak” restaraunt and hearing the call again did I enquire from the shopkeeper where I might make salat. He directed me to the back of his store. Past the bathrooms, through the kitchen I went, till I stepped through a doorway and found myself on the grounds of the masjid.
The masjid is very modest. Grungy may be a better word. It is dimly lit, since the open spaces between the backs of the shops and the roof of the masjid have been roofed over with corrugated metal sheets to protect against the heavy seasonal rains. The rugs in the main hall look worn; only thin vinyl sheeting covers the bare cement in the outer prayer areas. The masjid is clad in wood siding thickly covered with greenish paint. The views away from the masjid terminate abruptly at the fading whitewash coating the rear ends of the shophouses. The mihrab is decorated with a blend of small greyish tiles more often seen in bathrooms. One formal entrance squeezes between shops selling scarves, clothes and the like. Another informal entrance is barely wide enough for a toddler to pass – most people must turn their shoulders to fit through (my toddlers are presented there for scale, with their aunty). It comes out in the bulk storage area of a spice and dry goods store.
The people inhabiting the area in the off hours add to the gritty feeling. In between prayer times, a few men can be found resting here and there. The masjid’s location at the end of several bus lines means many visitors are transient, on their way to somewhere else. The small number of blind people who eke out an existence around the district (by selling packets of tissues on a donation basis, actually a nice practice to prevent the appearance of begging) can often be found taking refuge from the crowds.
Despite all that, the masjid is surprisingly pleasant. It is quieter than you would imagine during the day despite the bustle outside. Something about its mystery and age make it very appealing to me. Among the relics not often found in masajid any more is a large drum called a beduk. As I mentioned elsewhere, such drums where used to draw attention prior to the calling of the adhan, in the days before microphones and loudspeakers. My favorite detail of all is the wudu area. The only unroofed area of the masjid, the middle of the wudu area is filled with potted plants making use of the “gray” wudu water that would otherwise go down the drain wasted, while enlivening the masjid with a bit of green. I would love to see this idea incorporated in other masajid. All in all, the India Street district is perhaps the earliest example of that modern Malaysian innovation, a shopping mall with a built-in prayer area.