Saibo Lebbe: The unlettered architect who designed and built Red Mosque



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By Dr. M. Haris Z Deen


Much has been written about the red mosque – colloquially called the ‘Samman Kottu Palli’ by the ‘Sonakha Muslims’ to use the term recognising the Moor settlers of Sri Lanka, which attraction tourists and visitors call the ‘red mosque’ due to its excellent mixture of red and white exterior colouring to the brickwork. This mosque is undoubtedly architecturally unique, aesthetically pleasing from all its sides and dimensionally appropriate as might have been designed by a qualified architect. Even the great architects of our time have the most admiration for this structure designed and constructed by an unknown, unlettered architect. Indeed, it is time that someone conducted a research to find out more about this person, the designer of a landmark feature in the heart of Colombo, before it is forgotten. This is my attempt at exploring the life of this great personality, Habibu Labbe Saibu Labbe, whose name stands proudly in a plaque in the premises of the undeniably great piece of architecture.


I have in vain rummaged the family photo albums for a picture of this remarkable man who is recorded as having designed and built the architecturally unmatched red mosque at Second Cross Street, Colomb. The only surviving descendent of Saibo Lebbe is his granddaughter Ummul Fahima, who lives in Mattegoda, in the Kottawa area.


Ummul Fahima cannot remember her grandfather who was dead when she was born but recalls what her mother, Saibo Lebbe’s only daughter Marhooma Ummu Ayman would often relate and wanted her to remember.


The area north of Colombo Fort was called ‘Pita Kotuwa’ – meaning outside the fortress. This area from the clock tower near Hunter’s Raleigh Bicycle shop at that time through Main Street was dominated by businessmen, mainly Muslims. Jezima’s, Zitan Stores, Hirdramani, Kundanmals, W. M. A. Wahid were some of the big names that have been mentioned as having stood tall on both sides of Main Street. The roads crossing the Main Street were called ‘Cross Streets’ – First Cross Street, Second Cross Street, Third Cross Street etc. On the east of Main Street South Indian traders were said to have stored their merchandise, while the opposite side was the domain of the North Indian Borahs and Memons. Historically, it is important to understand this mix, because although they were all Indians they had culturally different practices and were of two different sects – the South Indians were the followers of the Shafi’e school of theology while the North Indian Memons were followers of Imam Abu Hanifa. Because the Second Cross Street was mainly used for storage of merchandise it was called ‘Samaan Kottai’ in Tamil, meaning a fortress for goods, which was later corrupted to ‘Sammaan Kottu’ – ‘Sammaan’ being a nickname used for those of South Indian origin.


Saibo Lebbe, like his father Habibu Lebbe had been one of those who worked as a mason baas during the day and being learned in the recitation of the Qur’an would teach the children of these South Indian traders to read the holy book in the evening. At the same time Saibo Lebbe had been commissioned by these traders also to design and construct houses for them in Panchikawatte and similarly build a small place of worship in Second Cross Street, in the same location where the Red Mosque now stands. As a matter of interest I have also discovered that the Imams, who officiated in the mosques at that time were also craftsmen who did not depend on the meagre wages paid by mosque authorities but would work mainly as masons – a term that was used for builders who were adept at more than one thing. Incidentally, my grandfather, Ahamed Lebbe, who was one of them, passed on this trait to my father. One other person I knew was the one-time Imam of the Dehiwela mosque, Noohu Lebbe who was also a master mason. They not only built houses, mosques and other structures but also designed and what they were going to build.


Saibo Lebbe, who had gained the confidence of the South Indian traders, was commissioned to design and build a mosque at Second Cross Street. Saibo Lebbe’s daughter Ummu Ayman, related that her father had never visited any country outside Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon and did not have access to any literature on architecture. Even if such material had been available he would not have been able to make use of them according to daughter Ummu Ayman, who was married to Abdul Majeed, a head mason at the Colombo Port Commission at the time. When the mosque was built in 1908 Saibo Lebbe had to depend on black and white pictures and photographs given to him by the South Indian Traders who contracted him to build this masterpiece.


According to Marhooma, Ummu Ayman’s reminiscences related to me at one time, her father Saibo Lebbe hadn’t had the assistance of engineers or architects.


He had worked late into night drawing the structure based on the pictures. He would personally select the bricks that were to be laid and visit the site not only to supervise others but also to lay bricks to ensure that the joints between the brickwork were equally spaced throughout,


which gave the special effect to the finished product. His daughter remembered her father travelling to Puttalam to select timber which was treated teak for the internal pillars and satinwood for the doors and windows. Why he had brought them all the way from Puttalam she did not know.


It seems that the odd shape of the site made him worry about how he was going to accommodate all the features in a dimensionally acceptable manner. I was told that he overcame this by a mixture of short minarets and pomegranate shaped domical structures copied from black and white pictures of Indo Sarecanic monuments presented to him by his employers. By adopting a combination of patterns mixing and matching Saibo Lebbe built a masterpiece in the heart of Colombo. I have read many magazines on architecture; there are buildings with similar features but I could not find a single building that has such a combination of features incorporated in such a unique fashion. If there is one, I am sure that someone will correct me.


The sad end


After completing the construction of the mosque and on the day of its opening, Saibo Lebbe had stood on Reclamation Road from where he in great excitement had been admiring the structure. While doing so he failed to see a runaway Thirukkal cart which knocked him down killing him instantly. Inna Lillahi wa Inna Ilaihi Rajiuoon – "From Allah we came and to Him is our Return". According to what his daughter Marhooma Ummu Ayman revealed after a week of Marhoom Saibu Lebbe burial at Maligawatte Muslim burial grounds, the District Medical Officer (DMO) had demanded that the body be exhumed for a post-mortem. It was found that the body was as clean as on the day of death even without any marks of the cart having run over him!


It transpired that the Constructor Marhoom Saibo Lebbe had not executed the work for profit and had only required the payment for materials and goods and wages for those who worked there. Therefore, the Indian traders who commissioned Marhoom Saibo Lebbe to design and build the red mosque, presented the unlettered architect’s only daughter Ummu Ayman a 24 carat gold chain and a land with ten houses in Panchikawatte. The property was later transferred to the only surviving granddaughter Ummul Fahima. Habibu Lebbe Saibo Lebbe’s memory will continue to live as long as the mosque lasts.


Email: deenmohamed835@gmail.com


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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