Delhi's Jama Masjid: The Complete Guide

Jama Masjid, Delhi.
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A prominent landmark and one of the top tourist attractions in Delhi, Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque) is also the biggest and best-known mosque in India. It will transport you back to the time when Delhi was known as Shahjahanabad, the illustrious capital of the Mughal Empire, from 1638 until its fall in 1857. Find out all you need to know about Delhi's Jama Masjid and how to visit it in this complete guide.

Location

Jama Masjid sits across the road from the Red Fort at the end of Chandni Chowk, the once-grand but now chaotic thoroughfare of crumbling yet characterful Old Delhi. The neighborhood is a few miles north of Connaught Place and Paharganj.

History and Architecture

It's not surprising that Delhi's Jama Masjid is one of the finest examples of Mughal architecture in India. After all, it was made by Emperor Shah Jahan, who also commissioned the Taj Mahal in Agra. This architecture-loving ruler went on a building spree during his reign, resulting in it being widely regarded as the "golden age" of Mughal architecture. Notably, the mosque was his last architectural extravagance before he fell ill in 1658 and was subsequently imprisoned by his son.

Shah Jahan constructed the mosque, as the central place of worship, after establishing his new capital in Delhi (he relocated there from Agra). It was completed in 1656 by more than 5,000 laborers. Such was the mosque's status and importance that Shah Jahan called an imam from Bukhara (now Uzbekistan) to preside over it. This role has been passed down from generation to generation, with the eldest son of each imam succeeding his father.

Tall minaret towers and protruding domes, which can be seen for miles around, are distinctive features of the Jama Masjid. This reflects the Mughal style of architecture with its Islamic, Indian and Persian influences. Shah Jahan also made sure that the mosque and its pulpit sat higher up than his residence and throne. He appropriately named it Masjid e Jahan Numa, meaning "a mosque that commands a view of the world".

The east, south and north sides of the mosque all have massive entrances (the west faces Mecca, which is the direction followers pray in). The eastern gate is the largest and was used by the royal family. Inside, the mosque's interior courtyard has space for about 25,000 people! Shah Jahan's son, Aurangzeb, liked the design of the mosque so much that he built a similar one in Lahore, in Pakistan. It's called the Badshahi Masjid.

Delhi's Jama Masjid served as the royal mosque up until the mutinous events of 1857, which culminated in the British gaining control of the walled city of Shahjahanabad after a violent three-month siege. The strength of the Mughal Empire had already declined over the prior century, and this ended it.

The British proceeded to take over the mosque and set up an army post there, forcing the imam to flee. They threatened to destroy the mosque but ended up returning it as a place of worship in 1862, after petitions by the city's Muslim residents.

Jama Masjid continues to be an active mosque. Although its structure remains glorious and dignified, maintenance has been sadly neglected, and beggars and hawkers roam the area. In addition, not many tourists know that the mosque houses sacred relics of the Prophet Mohammad and an ancient transcript of the Quran.

How to Visit Delhi's Jama Masjid

The traffic in the Old City can be a nightmare but fortunately much of it can be avoided by taking the Delhi Metro train. This became much easier in May 2017, when the special Delhi Metro Heritage Line opened. It's an underground extension of the Violet Line and the Jama Masjid Metro Station provides direct access to the mosque's main eastern Gate 2 (through Chor Bazaar street market). Such an extreme contrast between modern and ancient!

The mosque is open daily from sunrise until sunset, except from noon until 1.30 p.m. when prayers are held. The ideal time to go is early in the morning, before the crowds arrive (you'll have the best light for photography too). Do note that it gets particularly busy on Fridays, when devotees gather for the communal prayer.

It's possible to enter the mosque from any of the three gates, although Gate 2 on the eastern side is the most popular one. Gate 3 is the north gate and Gate 1 is the south gate. All visitors must pay a 300 rupee "camera fee". If you want to climb one of the minaret towers, you'll need to pay extra for that too. The cost is 50 rupees for Indians, while foreigners are charged as much as 300 rupees.

Shoes mustn't be worn inside the mosque. Make sure you dress conservatively as well, or you won't be allowed in. This means covering your head, legs and shoulders. Attire is available for hire at the entrance.

Do bring a bag to carry your shoes in after removing them. Most likely, someone will try and force you to leave them at the entrance. However, this isn't compulsory. If you do leave them there, you'll have to pay 100 rupees to the "keeper" to get them back later.

Unfortunately, scams are in abundance, which many tourists say ruined the experience for them. You'll be forced to pay the "camera fee" irrespective of whether you actually have a camera (or cell phone with a camera). There are also reports of women being forced to wear and pay for robes, even if they are appropriately covered already.

Women who are not accompanied by a man may wish to think twice about going up the minaret tower, as some say they were groped or harassed. The tower is very narrow, with not much room to move passed other people. What's more, the wonderful view from the top is obscured by a metal security grill, and foreigners may not find it worth paying the costly fee.

Be prepared to be hassled by "guides" inside the mosque. They will demand a hefty fee if you accept their services, so it's better to ignore them. Likewise, if you give to the beggars, there are many more who will swarm around you and demand money.

The area outside the mosque really comes alive at night during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims break their daily fast. Special food walking tours are conducted.

On Eid-ul-Fitr, at the end of Ramadan, the mosque is packed to capacity with devotees who come to offer special prayers.

What Else to Do Nearby

If you're a non-vegetarian, try the eateries around the Jama Masjid. Karim's, opposite Gate 1, is an iconic Delhi restaurant. It's been in business there since 1913. Al Jawahar is another renowned restaurant next to Karim's.

Hungry but want to eat somewhere more upmarket? Head to the Walled City Cafe & Lounge in a 200 year old mansion a couple of minutes walk south from Gate 1, along Hauz Qazi Road. Another more expensive option in the Old City is Lakhori restaurant at Haveli Dharampura, also in a beautifully restored mansion.

Most tourists visit the Red Fort along with Jama Masjid. However, the entry fee is a steep 500 rupees per person for foreigners (it's 35 rupees for Indians). If you're planning on seeing Agra Fort, you may wish to skip it.

Chandni Chowk is insanely jammed and jumbled, with both people and vehicles. It's definitely worth experiencing though! Foodies will enjoy sampling the street food there at some of these top places.

If you're interested in doing something offbeat in Old Delhi, check out Asia's largest spice market or painted houses at Naughara.

Other attractions near Jama Masjid include the Charity Birds Hospital at Digambar Jain Temple opposite the Red Fort, and Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib near Chandni Chowk Metro Station (this is where the ninth Sikh guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, was beheaded by Aurangzeb).

If you're in the neighborhood on a Sunday afternoon, observe a free traditional Indian wrestling match known as kushti, at Urdu Park near Meena Bazaar. It gets underway at 4 p.m.

It's easy to feel overwhelmed in Old Delhi, so do consider taking a guided walking tour if your want to explore. Some reputable organizations that offer these include Reality Tours and Travel, Delhi Magic, Delhi Food Walks, Delhi Walks, and Masterjee ki Haveli.