The Colombo Grand Mosque, situated in Hulftsdorp – Colombo, boasts a vaunted history as the very first mosque within Colombo. While its more recent history is well known, its earlier history is much lesser known. But here we give you the whole story behind it:
The Creation of the Mosque
Many centuries ago, when trade commenced through the seas along the silk route and the spice route, Sri Lanka (or Tabrobane as it was called then) was a centralized trading hub that was much sought after within the seas. All traders and travelers going to the Eastern oceans from the Western seas, and vice versa stopped here. Along with native traders of the island who sent their own spices and wares to the main ports for trade, and some foreign traders who decided to capitalize on the opportunity and establish trading bases in Sri Lanka, the trading zones of the island at that time had some of the rarest finds and all the most popular trade items from around the world.
So it was no surprise that the Arabians, who were primarily traders and who also had a huge demand for spices within their own countries, visited olden day Sri Lanka and were avid traders here by the 500s AD. This was even before the religion of Islam came into being with the birth of the Prophet Muhammed (Sal), who then went on the holy journey from Mecca to Madeena in 622AD. As a result when Islam spread around Arabia, Sri Lanka was one of the first external countries it spread to.
According to ancient chronicles, the Islamic religion’s spread in Sri Lanka was initiated by the arrival of two Arabians from the royal family of Yemen in 640 AD. One disembarked at the Manthottam area in Mannar, while the other got down at Beruwala, down South. Their arrival marked an almost immediate spread of Islam within the localities.
As the story goes, in the 8th century AD an Arabian Khalifa named Haroon Al Rasheed had been keeping close track of the Muslim population in Sri Lanka and their needs with regards to education and prayer. He realized that there was a steadily growing Islamic population in the town of Colombo, due to its being one of the key trading ports of the island. Hence, in 797 AD he sent one of his men – Khalid Ibn Baqaya – to Sri Lanka with strict orders to build a Mosque in Colombo and do something for the educational needs of the Muslims in the area. Accordingly, the very first mosque of Colombo was built in great style, with a spacious Muslim burial ground alongside, and named Colombo Grand Mosque. Khalid Ibn Baquaya also organized a large number of educational programs that benefited the Muslim populace and increased their learning.
The First Record of the Mosque
Over a century passed, and the mosque became popular among Muslim traders. Notable amongst the was Abu Baqaya who came to Sri Lanka from Egypt to engage in trade and then met his death in Sri Lanka in the year 948 AD. He was buried in the attached burial ground next to the Colombo Grand Mosque. His name gained great importance many centuries later in 1827 when the British Colonial Officer, who served as Chief Justice for Ceylon, found Abu Baqaya’s Arabic inscribed tombstone among relics that had been moved from the old cemetery by the Dutch. This became the earliest proven physical record of the mosque’s existence during that period of time, over a thousand years ago. The tombstone is kept for viewing in the Colombo Museum today.
The Portuguese Era and the Mosque
Then the Colombo Grand Mosque disappears from the annals of history for some time, and no written or physical records were found about anything of note occurring. The next record of the mosque appeared over half a millennia after the death of Abu Baqaya. The arrival of the Portuguese and their subsequent invasion marked the beginning of a turbulent period of history for Sri Lanka. They arrived in Colombo during their initial expedition, by which time there was also another mosque in Sri Lanka. In an illustration of the Portuguese Fort built in 1518, reproduced by Mr. R.L. Brohier in his “Historical Series” – No 1 as part of the flyleaf, the Colombo Grand Mosque is clearly shown along with the inscription ‘…a flotilla of eight Portuguese vessels anchored in the Bay (Colombo) on November 15, 1505, the Commander of the expedition saw, beyond a rummage of masts and spars of smaller shipping and off the shore marred by a crescent of sand, clusters of huts hidden by foliage, some cadjan godowns and two lime-washed Mosques.’
The Fort was built by Lopo de Brito, who was sent by the Portuguese Governor of Goa (India) to be the Captain of Colombo. The aim was not only to take military control of the area and strengthen their position against the Sinhalese, but also to compete against the Moors (as the Colombo Muslims were called at the time) in trade. In 1520, Portuguese-controlled Colombo suffered an attack from the King of Kotte, Vijaya Bahu, who was trying to destroy the Fort for their effrontery. However, the Portuguese won and made the king withdraw due to their superior weapons and artillery. As a show of domination, they burnt almost the entire town of Colombo which included the trading stores and homes of many locals, along with the two mosques as a way of making the Moors despair.
However, the bloody friction between the Sinhalese and the Portuguese continued, and added with the fact that the Portuguese were not able to gain a significant trading advantage over the Moors, the King of Portugal sent orders in 1524 to dismantle the Fort as a waste of resources and told the Portuguese forces in Colombo to withdraw to Goa. This was a matter of great joy to the Moors and they soon rebuilt a small mosque as replacement over the ruins of the old mosque.
In time, the Portuguese found that it served their interests better to cooperate and even be friends with the Moors, and many Moors were given high official positions – making them flourish in the war-time climate that ruled the country.
The Dutch Era
The riches and glory of the Moors did not last. The Dutch invasion put an end to it. The Dutch were not happy with the Moors for several reasons. Their former support and cooperation with the Portuguese. Their non-Christian faith. And their trade and business acumen. The Dutch East India Company which was funding and controlling the invasion of the Portuguese controlled countries, were doing it for the profit and resources. They were not willing to have their business rivals within Colombo where much trade occurred. They banned the Moors from living within or owning property in Colombo.
As a result, the Colombo Grand Mosque slowly became empty and a place of abandonment. In the meantime, during the peak era of the Dutch, many Indonesian kings, princes, nobles and aristocrats were sent to Ceylon in exile for their acts of rebelling against the Dutch East India Company branch in the area.
176 people from 23 families, along with their family heads, were exiled to Ceylon. Amongst them were the King of Gowa (current area of Sulawesi, Indonesia) Raja Gosman of Oesman, his minister Hooloo Balangkaya, and their families who all arrived around 1790 AD. Who could know that they would later be the soul of revitalization for the Colombo Grand Mosque?!
The British Era and the rebuilding of the Colombo Grand Mosque
The British Rule was established in Ceylon in 1796, and by 1804 the Moors were able to state their grievances against the Dutch and attain the sympathies of the British. The diplomatic Englishmen were very quick to cordially invite them back into Colombo, and publish a code of Muslim Laws for the protection of the Moors in residence within the city. The Moors joyfully rousted any remaining Dutch residents within the business centre of Pettah in Colombo and settled there in the scores.
Meanwhile, the Indonesian exiles – including the Minister Hooloo Balangkaya and his family – were firmly entrenched in Ceylon and most had no wish to leave. The son of the minister was named Muhammad Balangkaya, and he had a great interest and affinity towards the Moorish community having grown up with them. He married a Moorish wife against the wishes of his family, and had many sons and daughters. Muhammad wished to do something for the Moorish community. He took note that the only mosque in Colombo at that time, the small mosque down New Moor Street was vastly inadequate for congregational prayers of the large and growing Moorish population. As an excellent architect and pious Muslim, he took personal action.
Balangkaya enlisted the support of several Moorish friends to help fund the project, and then enlarged and redesigned the entire mosque. The mosque was renovated into an elegant two-story structure with high arches, pure white walls and a graceful tower. The current Colombo Grand Mosque is completely his far-reaching design and was the first mosque of its kind in Colombo. The design was so beautiful and unique that, on its completion in 1826, the British Governor of Ceylon at that time (Lieut. General Sir Edward Barnes) who visited the mosque highly commended Muhammad Balangkaya on the excellence of his work.
Several decades later, in 1897, an additional wing to the Mosque was constructed by Mr. I.L.M.H. Muhammad Mohideen who was managing the affairs of the Mosque. This wing was originally known as "kanjee maduwam" on account of it being used as the place for the distribution of "kanjee" (rice porridge) during the breaking of the Ramadan Fast at sunset every year during that special period of time.
The End of the British Era and entering the Modern Era
The Balangkaya family continued to keep close relations with the mosque. The youngest son of Muhammad Balangkaya, Tuan Bagoos Krawan Balangkaya was born in 1827. He went on to be qualified in Islamic Theology and became a scholar (Alim) succeeding to the position of Khalifa in Colombo. On his death, his remains were interred in a shrine within the Colombo Grand Mosque premises.
Records show that in 1918 the mosque took up the democratic method of electing the Management through a meeting of important congregation members. A group, consisting of some of the leading members of the congregation of The Colombo Grand Mosque met on Friday, March 17 1918, after the Jumuah Prayers. They discussed the improvement of the management as the financial status of the Mosque was in a depleted state. The outcome of this meeting was that, for the first time in the history of the Mosque, discipline and methodology were introduced into the management of the Mosque. This was achieved by the establishment of a set of rules and regulations which allowed the Mosque be handled by a Trustee and a Management Committee, in addition to defining in detail their powers, responsibilities, and duties.
After an election at this meeting, Mr. I.L.M.H. Muhammad Mohideen was elected the first Trustee, unanimously, since he had already been handling the affairs of the Mosque for many years before and was acclaimed to be a very prominent benefactor and supporter of the Mosque. A committee of 45 members was also elected which comprised a Managing Committee of 16 and a General Committee of 29 members.
In the years afterwards, a school for Muslim boys was newly established on the premises of the mosque and named Al-Madrasathul Hameedia. In 1921 the name of the school was changed to the Hameedia Boys’ English School. In 1959, the new wing from 1897 became used as classrooms for the school.
The mosque received renovations in the 1900s, although the structure was maintained.
Things to See at the Colombo Grand Mosque
The mosque’s architecture, has little to no resemblance to the other mosques within Colombo or Ceylon, and is a revelation onto itself. Though the structure does not appear too old due to renovations in the late 1900s, the current mosque does indeed have almost 200 years worth of history within its walls – not counting the previous Colombo Grand Mosques that were destroyed or built over.
The old Mosque Cannon is a landmark in the history of the Colombo Grand Mosque. The original Cannon was installed in circa.1898 and was in service for quite a period of time, fired to indicate the times to break Ramadan Fast and to indicate the start of Eid (festival). The Cannon was mounted on a wooden base that was movable on wheels and this has stood the rigors of sun and rain for more than half a century. Later when it fell out of order, and the present Cannon was donated by a hardware merchant of Pettah named A.A. Abdul Raheman, who was also a member of the managing committee. The Cannon continues to be fired until this day.
The ancient burial grounds that were present within the premises of the Colombo Grand Mosque for over a millennia, were discontinued in 1874 on the orders of the British government. In the meantime a block of land of over 1.25 acres in extent was purchased in Maradana, on Aug 12, 1875, not only for the purpose of building a Mosque but also to be used as a cemetery for the burial of the dead from amongst the members and families of the congregation of the Mosque. This ground was used for burials after the closure of the cemetery at the Colombo Grand Mosque. The present Symonds Road Mosque was built on this site and burial was discontinued here on May 21, 1975. The present Maligawatte Muslim Burial Ground was purchased on October 12, 1974 and this land became the cemetery from this date and is in use even today.
However, the location of the old burial grounds can still be seen.
The history of the Colombo Grand Mosque will not be complete without the mention of the famous Muslim School, Hameedia Boys’ English School, which has been a part of the Mosque itself from its inception. The foundation of the building was laid by the then Turkish Consul in Ceylon on August 31, 1900. The founder of the school was I.L.M.H. Noordeen, a great philanthropist and a leading member of the Muslim community, who built it with the assistance of some of his Moorish friends.
The school saw the education and rise of many leading Muslim men who went on to play major roles in the society of Sri Lanka. Currently the school has achieved great distinction, both in the sphere academic studies and sports.