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A Muslim Pagoda in South India: Community, Aesthetics, and Religion at the Nagore Dargah


· Torsten Tschacher Freie Universität Berlin (Berlin, Germany)


07/28 | 15:30-15:50 UTC+2/CEST


The Nagore Dargah, tomb-shrine of the 16th-century Muslim saint Shah al-Hamid in the town of Nagore in south-eastern India, is one of the most important as well as impressive Muslim pilgrimage sites in southern India and Sri Lanka. Particularly striking are the five soaring minarets surrounding the shrine, build during the 17th and 18th century under the patronage of Muslim and Hindu donors. The peculiar style of these minarets inspired Muslim architects in Southeast Asia and possibly also in Yemen to model minarets constructed along the same lines. But while the impact of the architectural style of the Nagore Dargah in the Indian Ocean region has been at least preliminarily mapped, another question still remains to be answered: how did this peculiar style come into being? In this paper, I will suggest that an impressionistic observation made more than a century ago, likening the Nagore Dargah’s minarets to Chinese pagodas, may have been closer to the mark than the observer realized. As I hope to show, the Chinese impact on this particular Muslim shrine suggests continuities in the aesthetic traditions of the local Muslim community in Nagore, a mercantile community with long historical contacts with Southeast Asia and China, which may have converted from Buddhism to Islam. The minarets of the Nagore Dargah thus would simultaneously act as symbols of the continuity of the community’s identity and of its embracing of Islam.