The Red Mosque in Pettah | Sunday Observer

The Red Mosque in Pettah

In the heart of Pettah (Pita Kotuwa) is an iconic landmark, the Red Mosque. Located on Second Cross Street, it is known as the Rathu Palliya in Sinhala and Saman Kottu Palli (mosque for Muslims of Indian origin) in Tamil. This is also the oldest mosque in Colombo. Construction of the Red Mosque commenced in 1908 and was completed the following year.

Arab traders have been visiting Sri Lanka (or Ceylon) as far back as the seventh century. To them, the island was Serendib (Island of Rubies). They also called it Tenarisin (Island of Delights). Jazirat Kakut was another name given to the country by these early Arab traders, and it means the Island of Gems. These Arab merchants of yore sailed the boats called dhows to Sri Lanka in search of the priceless rubies and other precious gems. They also came for spices, pearls and many other things that the Pearl of the Indian Ocean had to offer.

By the eighth century, Arab traders had settled on the west coast. The first settlement was at Beruwela. Islam or the Muslim faith was their religion, and the first mosque in the Island was built here in 920 CE.

The prayer room in the Red Mosque, Pettah

They gradually settled in other parts of the country too such as the Kingdom of Kandy and the East Coast. The Muslim community in Sri Lanka swelled in the 18th and 19th centuries when the Dutch and British brought Javanese and Malaysian Muslims to work here. Muslims from Tamil Nadu in South India came here and became a part of the Sri Lankan Muslim community.

These Indian Muslims had much of their businesses in the commercial hub of Pettah, and it became a necessity for them to have a place to pray daily five times daily. They bought a plot of land for a mosque and commissioned a little known architect Habib Lebbe Saibo Lebbe to design the mosque. They also provided him with images and drawings of buildings in India .

Habib Lebbe was influenced by the Indo Saracenic and Indo Islam styles of architecture and the Red Mosque architecture is a combination of these with the influence of Gothic revival and neo classical styles. It is made of red brick interspersed with white bricks forming striped, jagged, chequered and spiral patterns.

A two storeyed building, it incorporates a clock tower.The domes of the Red Mosque are not like the ususal Onion shaped domes. They are in the shape of pomegranates.The Mosque has undergone refurbishment, and the lower walls and floors have been tiled. Another unique feature is that four massive teak trees have been used as supporting pillars. Subsequent construction has been taken to enlarge the mosque with a capacity to house 10,000 worshippers.

The Mosque was registered as a Trust when it was originally built and is still run as a Trust with Trustees appointed from the descendants of the original donors and Trustees. The Hadji Omar Trust has also helped the Red Mosque in its expansion.

A design similar to the Red Mosque can be seen in the old section of the National Eye Hospital though its colours are red and yellow.

This was built by Edward Skinner in 1906 prior to the building of the Red Mosque. The Jamed Masjid in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia is also said to be similar to the Red Mosque in Pettah.