The cacophonous sound of the city’s traffic is punctuated by the soothing call to prayer. Although the prayer calls on Muslims to congregate at the mosque for the five daily prayers from dawn to dusk, many a times a non-Muslim can be seen, hands clasped, eye shut and lips mouthing a prayer in silent fervor to God. Many a times, I’ve wondered what they say but never dared to ask. The Dewatagaha Mosque or Town Hall mosque as it is fondly called is a space for reflection, faith and spirituality, regardless of your religion.
Its mysterious allure continues to attract individuals from all walks of life throughout the day. I stood beside the lady, who seemed to be in her mid 40s, pleading to God in Sinhalese. She sighs after every sentence only to open her eyes and close them again. I watch as she ties a piece of green to a giant oil lamp next to the shrine. I believed she was making a wish.
It is not uncommon to find Tamils or even Sinhalese frequent the mosque. One non-muslim who was told his hand would have to be amputated owing to a medical condition, came to the mosque and made a vow that if the hand healed without amputation, he would donate a gold replica to the mosque. It did and the gold replica of a hand lies among gifts donated by devotees.
In front of the oil lamp is the shrine of the sacred saint, draped in colourful green cloth, donated by worshippers or devotees, in the ornately-crafted dome in the oldest part of the mosque. Historians say the grave was discovered in 1802 but it is believed the saint, who arrived from Arabia on a spiritual mission, was buried there more than 200-300 years before that.
The gravesite, according to folklore, was discovered by a female oil seller (different versions of this tale speak of a Sinhalese woman and a Tamil woman), when she tripped on a root of a cashew tree while walking through the cinnamon forest, smashing her clay pot.
The clay pot served as her only means of livelihood and she was so exhausted from weeping wondering what she was going to feed her family that evening, she had fallen asleep.
She had woken to voices from nearby, although she saw no one around. Moments later she was bewildered to see an old man with a long grey beard in a flowing green garb beside a Dewata Gaha (which means a tree near a passage).
“Fetch a pot”, he had instructed her and when she returned with a new pot the stranger pressed the earth with his foot and oil gushed out. The woman in wonderment collected the oil and went away profusely thanking the stranger, according to Muslim scholars. In 1847, a visiting foreign spiritual preacher had identified the grave as that of Sheikh Usman, also called Holiness Seyyidina Sheikh Usman Ibn Abdur Rahman as – Siddiq Voliullah.
The dome was built in 1885 while a resting place for pilgrims was built in 1905 adjoining the mosque by a Tamil gem trader fulfilling a vow after he found his stolen jewellery and gems. Legend has it that the Town Hall, which lies alongside the mosque, had been built by the British in the shape of the Dewatagaha dome.
The architecture of the building, reportedly dates back to 1885, with Moghul influences, as described in articles by M. B. Mohamed Ghouse, a Muslim scholar. The main entrance with parapet walls on either side facing the main highway opens into the passage to the shrine room.
The pigeon tower is a square like structure, 36 feet tall said to have 500pigeon holes to shelter dozens of numerous pigeons. Worshipers are often seen feeding the birds.
The Dewatagaha mosque has played a vital role in the spirituality of Sri Lanka. Dozens of religious leaders visiting the mosque from abroad have blessed Sri Lanka over the years. Political leaders and other dignitaries have all sought the blessings of this saint. The tri-forces often visit the mosque on red-letter days to seek the blessings from the All mighty.
However the mosque does not discriminate. It does not matter who you are, because when you are pouring oil to the pot or tying the green cloth, what matters is your prayer and praise to the All mighty.
Religion is often viewed as a personal relationship between the individual and the all powerful. The number of devotees and the diversity of their faiths personify this powerful yet silent relationship.