Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Largest Mosque in Indonesia and in All of Southeast Asia: The Istiqlal Mosque

A large white building with a spherical dome on top was visible from the street by the central train station. I had just reserved a train ticket for the next day and I decided to walk towards the tall structure. It would not dawn on me until I reached the main building's interiors—its open and spacious five-storey prayer hall—that I had just walked in largest mosque in the largest Muslim country in the world—the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Istiqlal Mosque, Central Jakarta, Indonesia
The largest mosque in the largest Muslim country in the world: the Istiqlal Mosque

The Istiqlal Mosque, or Masjid Istiqlal, is the main religious structure in the capital city of Indonesia—Jakarta. The mosque has the capacity to hold over 120,000 devout Muslims. Its construction began after the independence of Indonesia from the Dutch in the mid-1900s. "Istiqlal" is Arabic for independence. It was opened in 1978 to the Indonesian population, of which, at 238 million, 86 percent is Mulsim. The mosque holds the title of the largest mosque in Indonesia and in Southeast Asia.

Istiqlal Mosque, Central Jakarta, Indonesia
Corridor of the Istiqlal Mosque right outside the ablution area, where Muslims wash themselves before prayer.

It was a quiet late afternoon and there was practically no one in the Istiqlal Mosque's premises as I entered its southern gates. The only two other people I saw were an elderly Dutch couple who were like me on holiday in the Indonesian capital. I realized, of course, that it was Ramadan in the Muslim world and there were still a couple of hours of sunlight. I would eventually learn, traveling in Indonesia during the holy month, that most people preferred to stay indoors during the day.

(Related post: Ramadan in Indonesia and Celebrating the Breaking of the Fast in the Largest Muslim Country in the World)

Thinking I was Indonesian, the Dutch couple came up to me and asked me a few questions about the Istiqlal Mosque. We were walking through the long corridor outside the ablution area. It was enclosed by walls decorated with stainless steel cylinders. Though I was a non-Muslim, I knew that the ablution area, present in all mosques, was a facility with fountains, small pools, and faucets used by Muslims to wash themselves before presenting themselves to Allah in prayer. I was only glad when we finally reached the main building's entrance where we deposited our shoes. The couple walked further ahead while I chose to stay back to appreciate the orange glow of the afternoon light.

Istiqlal Mosque, Central Jakarta, Indonesia
The marble pathway to the main prayer hall of the Istiqlal Mosque.

From the entrance of the Istiqlal Mosque, I made my way through a covered marble pathway. The pathway opened on both sides to large, empty courtyards. In a corner of one courtyard, a white minaret stood more than 90 meters high. It was the cool, dry season in Indonesia at the time and a breeze drove the tropical afternoon heat away. I could understand why there were people sitting, some sleeping, in this isolated pocket of the busy capital city.

Mesjid Istiqlal, Central Jakarta, Indonesia
The sole minaret of Istiqlal Mosque stands 96 meters high: 66.6 meters in marble and another 30 meters in stainless steel.

The pathway ended in front of a wide staircase and another pathway to the left. The left path led to a wide, almost vast, carpeted area, where I could tell people were praying. I did not feel comfortable invading other people's space in the moment they believed they bared themselves to their creator, so I chose to go up the second floor towards the balcony area. The four levels of balconies, I would discover, looked out over the carpeted area surrounding it on three sides. I could have not made a better decision that day.

Istiqlal Mosque, Central Jakarta, Indonesia
The main prayer hall of the Istiqlal Mosque can accommodate up to 120,000 devout Muslims.

Istiqlal Mosque, Central Jakarta, Indonesia
Locals and visitors in a quiet Ramadan afternoon in the Istiqlal Mosque in Central Jakarta

From the second floor balcony, I was high enough to get a full view of the main prayer hall of the Istiqlal Mosque. I was, however, still low enough to see the interior of the marble dome covering the main hall's roof. The dome's base was lined with Arabic script, lit yellow from below and emerald green above. The main front wall, which signified the direction of Mecca, connected to the ceiling through rectangular pillars which let the afternoon light in. The front wall also had three metalwork pieces in Arabic calligraphy. The right read Allah, the left Muhammad, and the center a passage from the Qur'an—the Surat Taha Verse 14: "I am Allah. There is no deity except Me, so worship Me and establish prayer for My remembrance."

Muhammad in Arabic Calligraphy, Istiqlal Mosque, Central Jakarta, Indonesia
Muhammad in Arabic calligraphy metalwork decorates the left side of the front wall of the Istiqlal Mosque's main prayer hall.

Allah in Arabic Calligraphy, Istiqlal Mosque, Central Jakarta, Indonesia
The right side of the front wall has Allah.

Istiqlal Mosque, Central Jakarta, Indonesia
The ceiling which holds the spherical dome connects to the front wall through pillars which let the afternoon light in. Beautifully.

Standing here taking in the majestic structure before me, I began to see the importance of Islam to the Indonesian identity. To construct a mosque of this magnitude right after gaining independence and, thus, a consciousness of a nation following three hundred years of colonization, religion must be important here. I realized that right then and there, I had just began my travels through the culture and history, not to mention the astounding landscapes, of my country's southern neighbor, Indonesia.

Some Tips on How to Go to the Istiqlal Mosque
  1. The Istiqlal Mosque is located in Central Jakarta. It is northeast of Merdeka Square, the spacious plaza in the center of town. From the backpacker tourist area around Jalan Jaksa, you can easily walk to the Istiqlal Mosque in 10-20 minutes (if you don't mind the vehicle fumes and the chaotic Jakartan traffic).
  2. To go to the Istiqlal Mosque by public transport, you can hail a bajaj (an autorickshaw, a tuktuk). From Jalan Jaksa, the ride should cost about 10,000 IDR (1 USD) and from Cikini area, about twice that. If you plan to take the Transjakarta Busway, do know that Istiqlal Mosque has a busway station right outside its southern gates where Line 2 buses stops.
  3. Non-Muslims are permitted to go in (even when there is mass, I think, so long as you remain quiet and respectful). Do cover up as this is after all place of worship. You will deposit your shoes at a counter by the entrance. Person at the counter may collect 3,000 to 5,000 IDR for keeping your shoes safe.

Which other places in the world have you seen religion and national identity intersect in such great architectural proportions?

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