A Muslim trail in Woking

by Siba Matti | 11 April 2008
Little children lying on a lawn in front of a stately white mosque, drawing it.

The first purpose-built mosque in Britain, built in 1889, is in Woking. Courtesy of The Lightbox.

On Remembrance Sunday, or indeed any memorial service reflecting on the lives lost during war, the efforts of Muslim soldiers in the Indian Army are rarely given a second thought.

During the First World War, more than one million troops were transported from India to fight on Britain’s behalf. Their forgotten history is the focus of Pavilion Revisited, a new exhibition by British artist Said Adrus, running at Woking’s Lightbox Gallery until March 2, 2008.

A work in progress, the show is just a small sample of an extensive body of ongoing work by Adrus, who has spent the last 20 years investigating the complex history of British Asians through war, migration, Empire, and issues of loyalty and affinity to a place and country.

An old photograph of young Indian soldiers in bandages sitting in old-fashioned wheelchairs on a green lawn playing cards.

Indian soldiers convalescing at the Brighton Pavilion after the First World War. Courtesy of the Royal Pavilion& Museums, Brighton & Hove.

He uses photographs, water colours and archive footage to trace the path of the Muslim soldiers, stopping at four key heritage sites across the south-east; the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, the Shah Jehan mosque, Horsell Common (the Musilm Burial Ground), and finally, Brookwood Cemetery.

Adrus, whose own father fought with the army in British East Africa (Kenya) during the second World War, was acutely aware of thousands of men who sustained severe injuries. Special hospitals, including the converted Royal Pavilion in Brighton, were set up to treat the wounded.

A video screen in the centre of a wall in a light and airy white modern gallery is elegantly framed by wooden plinths arranged in the shape of an Islamic arch.

Installation of the exhibition 'Pavilion Revisited' by Said Adrus at The Lightbox. The screen is surrounded by a geometric arrangement of wooden Qu'ran holders.

This has been recaptured in one of the most moving parts of the exhibition, a video installation framed by an archway of Qu’ran holders (known as riyal), which depicts mournful-looking, injured soldiers waiting for treatment.

Concerns quickly arose about how to dispose of the dead appropriately, and in accordance with their religious beliefs. Sikh and Hindu soldiers were buried or cremated on the coast, while deceased Muslims were brought to the Muslim Burial Ground in Horsell Common, located near the Shah Jehan Mosque in Woking. They were buried facing west, in the direction of Mecca, the holy city of Islam.

But after these graves were subjected to cruel vandalism and desecration in 1969, the remains were transferred to Brookwood Cemetery, just outside of Woking in Surrey, where more than 235,000 deceased rest today. Sadly, as the images on show highlight, the condition of both the burial ground and cemetery have somewhat deteriorated.

A red brick Islamic arch structure in an English woodland.

The Muslim burial ground in Horsell Common today. Local dog-walkers may not realise this site was once the final resting place for Indian soldiers who gave thier lives in the First World War. Credit Said Adrus.

Very little of the structure in Horsell Common remains intact, and the Grade II listed site is now wildly overgrown and in desperate need of conservation. Local organisations, including the Horsell Common Preservation Society, together with Woking Borough Council and the Muslim community, are working to try and restore the grounds, but it will undoubtedly be a long and enduring task. And like Horsell Common, Brookwood Cemetery has also been the target of vandals. Graffiti is visible on arrival and scattered liberally across the site, even on the actual headstones. However, the serene woodland setting is still as picturesque and peaceful as it probably ever has been.

Meanwhile the Shah Jehan mosque, which boasts a magnificent onion-shaped dome, has managed to retain its dignity. Designed in an oriental style, the building also features four turrets topped with emerald orbs, and exquisite gold embellishment. A true architectural masterpiece, the mosque represents the thriving Muslim community in Woking, with hundreds of worshippers visiting on an almost daily basis. Read and listen to oral testimonies from Muslims in Woking here. In addition, it also serves as an emblem for the thousands of soldiers who served and died in war.

Although the exhibition itself is not the largest of its kind, providing just a mere taster of British Muslim military history, it leaves the viewer with a palpable sense of intrigue, a desire to know more, and its purpose could not be clearer.“Fundamentally, the work touches on and references ideas about contemporary landscape in south east England, and the notion of memorial,” Adrus said of his work.“There is also a personal point of view – the photographs in a family album of my father in uniform while serving in the British army in the Second World War could not be ignored.”

Muslim history at The Lightbox

You can also find out more about the Shah Jehan Mosque, Horsell Common and Brookwood Cemetery in the Lightbox Gallery’s permanent display, entitled Woking’s Story. It features a Shamiana panel made by Woking Muslim Women's Association, an interactive display including footage of Eid celebrations in 1926, the Begum of Bhopal visiting the mosque in 1925 and the Id Al-Adha Festival in Woking in 1958. In this part of the museum the video installation by Said Adrus 'Lost Pavilion IV' is on permanent display.

The Shah Jehan

Black and white picture of an imposing mosque with a minaret.

Famous Muslim dignitaries from around the world have made official visits to the mosque throughout the 20th century. Luckily, it is situated 5 minutes walk from Woking mainline station. Image courtesy of The Firth Collection.

Britain’s first ever purpose-built mosque was commissioned in 1889 by Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner, to provide a place of worship for Muslim students and dignitaries at the Oriental Institute. During the first half of the 20th century, the Shah Jehan was crucial to the development of Islam in the UK, receiving many important and royal visitors. However, after the Second World War, there was remarkable influx of Muslim immigrants from British Colonies into Great Britain, and Islamic communities were established across the nation. By the 1960’s, the mosque’s status as a national centre had declined, and instead_ it served as a place of worship for neighbouring Muslim populations. But today, hundreds of followers visit the Shah Jehan to pay homage to their faith and to accommodate this, the mosque’s 70 person capacity has been supplemented with two nearby prayer halls, which can hold up to 600 people each, and are in constant use. Now a Grade II listed building, the mosque also welcomes visitors and offers guided tours for groups.

Horsell Common – The Muslim Burial Ground

A black and white image of an Islamic arch and decorative wall in an overgrown forest.

The Muslim burial ground in Horsell Common in the 1960s before the graves of Indian soldiers were moved due to desecration. Courtesy of The Lightbox.

The Muslim Burial Ground in Horsell Common, was built in 1917 when many troops from the Empire were fighting in France during the First World War. The site was chosen because of its close proximity to the Shah Jehan, and its structure emulates many of the mosque’s architectural features, including the majestic dome. It was purchased by the War Office after concerns were raised that Muslim soldiers were not being buried according to their preferred religious customs –most importantly to be buried facing west, in the direction of Mecca, the sacred city of Islam. Unfortunately, due to its remote and isolated location, the burial ground endured a great deal of vandalism over the years, and in 1969, following consultation with the Imam of the mosque, the decision was made to move the bodies to Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey. The Grade II listed site is now owned by the Horsell Common Preservation Society, which is working with the Muslim community and Woking Borough Council to restore and preserve the grounds.

A sign spray-painted with NF, the logo for the far-right, racist National Front Party.

Signs of vandalism at the site which fell into disrepair.

Brookwood Cemetery

About 30 miles south-west of London, situated between Woking, Guildford and Aldershot, lies the small town of Brookwood and its cemetery, famous for being the largest burial ground in Britain and probably Western Europe. Also known as the London Necropolis, Brookwood Cemetery was established by the London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company, and opened to the public on 7 November 1854, to accommodate the capital’s increasing burial needs. Around 80 per cent of the cemetery’s occupants were paupers, but as the lush grounds and surrounding woodlands have matured, it has attracted more interest from the middle classes.

Arabic writing engraved on a headstone.

A headstone and grave at Horsell Common that has since been moved to Brookwood Cemetery. Courtesy of The Lightbox.

Brookwood contains many extraordinary Victorian graves and memorials, as well as the largest military cemetery in the country and the oldest Muslim cemetery. As well as being the final place of rest for thousands of Muslims, the cemetery houses a whole host of other religious followers, from Catholics and Orthodox Christians to Hindus, Sikhs and Zoroastrians. Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner, artist John Singer-Sargent and the late Dodi Al-Fayed have also been buried at Brookwood. More than 235,000 people are at peace in the cemetery to date, and it is still in constant use today.

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