For a city’s main attraction, the Id Kah Mosque — the largest in all of China, with a capacity of 10,000 worshippers on Fridays — looks modest. Supposedly dating to the 15th century, both its ‘ivan’ gateway and the flanking minarets have a curiously provincial, even rural aspect. There is none of the Ozymandian triumphalism of Uzbekistan’s Timurid, Shaybanid or Samanid skyscraping here, no imperial proclamation in stone of primacy of worship, no flying flourishes of the calligrapher’s art: this is essentially the spartan Islam of desert transients, a place to remember Allah and his Messenger without too much ceremony.

Yet, for all its quietly sedate airs, the Id Kah has been the center of many a mayhem at various times, even down to the present. But that’s another story.

Inside, the wooden-pillared hall and the vast courtyard are a haven of tranquillity and coolness. Especially coolness, shaded as it is by poplar, mulberry, and fruit trees. A clear pond completes the illusion of Eden.

At the time we visited — early morning — a battalion of women were cleaning and washing the grounds, and dusting the prayer carpets. In this arduous if necessary task, there was not a male in sight; such men as there were lounged languidly under the trees, eating melon seeds. As a metaphor for misogynistic apartheid the scene was as good as any.

A somewhat stunted watchtower with wooden stairs leading up stood in the grounds, with a curious English signboard saying “The Attic”. Although one carped at the slight departure from the orthodox definition of the word, belated reason told us that this was the muezzin’s station in times when the office was still functional. Today, calls to public prayer are banned, except (perhaps: we didn’t inquire) on Fridays. The grounds in front of the mosque, surrounded as they are by markets and shops — redolent of spices, scented teas, and meat in all it forms, both raw and cooked — serve as public socialising spaces.

About two miles outside the town, Kashgar’s other historical showpiece holds court, appropriately, in sepulchral seclusion. Quadrangular in shape, with a central dome and four corner towers, the Apak Khoja Mausoleum fares rather better than the Id Kah; at least something of Timurid influence seems to have seeped into this desert corner, for the structure is glazed all over with with coloured tiles, although the preferred tint here is green. The mausoleum houses the Khoja family tombs.

However, the mausoleum has another — and certainly more romantic — claim to fame. Here lies buried Iparhan (Xiangfei in Chinese), the fabled “Fragrant Concubine” of the Qianlong Emperor. Legend (or myth) has it that the girl in question, a grand-daughter of Apak Khoja, was offered to the Qianlong Emperor as a gift when he declared himself enamoured of her because of the fragrance of roses her body naturally exuded. Rival histories of course tell divergent tales, but whatever the truth, in course of time she became a conciliatory symbol between eastern Han and western Uighur after the emperor’s subjugation of Xinjiang in the 18th century, and when she died her body was brought back to Kashgar and buried in state in the Khoja family crypt.

Today both factions cheerfully gull tourists with the charming tale. And in any case, one can hardly quarrel: “Fragrant Concubine” is so deliciously suggestive.


K V K Murthy

K V K Murthy

K V K Murthy is a retired banker whose interests run to virtually everything except banking and money. He writes when the spirit moves him — which isn’t often. He reads at the same spirit’s bidding — which is insistent, unflagging and constant. He recently travelled in Central Asia, and lives in Bangalore.