Saturday, 6 December 2014

Bada Imambara, Lucknow

Jisey naa dey Maula, usey dey Asaf-ud-Daula

(He who is denied by Allah, is provided for by Asaf-ud-Daula, a proverb of Lucknow)

In 1722, during the reign of the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah (one of the lesser Mughals), Mir Muhammad Amin Musawi, a.k.a. Saadat Ali Khan I was made governor of Awadh or Oudh province. Awadh, deriving its name from Ayodhya, was one of the 12 subahs or provinces that Emperor Akbar had carved out of his empire, for administrative efficiency, between 1572 and 1580. The grandson of a rich trader from Khorasan (in the North East of modern day Iran) who had migrated to India, Saadat Ali as his father before him, rose rapidly through the ranks thanks to military prowess, and found favour with the emperor. With him began the line of the Nawabs of Awadh. His son-in-law, Muhammad Muqim, a.k.a. Abul-Mansur Khan Safdar Jung succeeded him in 1737, and Safdarjung’s grandson, Muhammad Yahya Mirza Amani, a.k.a. Asaf-ud-Daula ascended the throne on the 26th of January 1775.

View from Bada Imambara's terrace

That same year, Asaf-ud-Daula moved the capital of Awadh from Faizabad to Lucknow, and had various monuments and buildings constructed in and around the city. Many of those monuments survive today, but for sheer grandeur and scale, few can match the Bada Imambara. 10 years into his reign, Asaf-ud-Daula faced a devastating famine. As his starving subjects turned to him for aid, Asaf-ud-Daula came up with one of the earliest examples of Keynesian economic intervention. He would not give them charity, he told them, but he would provide for them if they were willing to work. And thus began the construction of the Bada Imambara. Asaf-ud-Daula, it is said, hired two groups of workers. One would build during the day; the other would dismantle during the night; with the emperor paying both groups. The modern day biryani (a rice and meat dish that is to India what pizza is to America), is said to have been born out of the need to feed this massive workforce. Completed in 1891, the Bada Imambara remains standing to this day, and is the pride of Lucknow.

Located in the Hussainabad area of Lucknow, which has a large number of monuments, the Bada Imambara can be reached easily via car or auto-rickshaw (or Tuc-Tuc if you will). For reasons I am yet to understand, every local we met, warned us against taking a ride in the “tanga”, the horse drawn carriage commonly seen on Lucknow’s streets. While the Archaeological Survey of India is responsible for the maintenance of the monuments of the area, they remain under the aegis of the Hussainabad and Allied Trust, who charge you for entering their properties. Modestly priced tickets grant you entry into 5 monuments in the Hussainabad area – Bada Imambara, Bhool Bhulaiya, Baoli, Chhota Imambara and Shahi Hamam and the picture gallery.

The Nahbat Khana or Nakkar Khana

If you’re approaching from the North, or from the East, once you hit Hussainabad Trust Road, the first structure that you’re likely to notice is the Rumi Darwaza, which completely dominates the area. The Bada Imambara is barely a hundred metres away. Your car will drop you right infront of the Imambara, and to your right will the imposing brick red structure called the “Nakkar Khana” or “Nahbat Khana”. This was the place where music would be played for special occasions and the arrival of the king or other important dignitaries would be announced through the playing of drums. It is a three storeyed building, containing a number of cells inside, made of “lakhauri” bricks, and decorated with lime plaster. The roof has two “chhatris” on either side. The dual fish motif, part of the coat of arms of Awadh state, may be seen on the exterior. To maintain symmetry with the Nahbat Khana, Asaf-ud-Daula had two gates constructed to the Imambara, the first of which is directly opposite.

View of the main gate from atop the Nakkar Khana

The main gateway has three arches and a rectangular plan, similar to the tripolia of Mughal gateways. The dual fish motif can be seen here again, set in lime plaster. Miniature domed arches may be seen on its raised parapets, with square turrets at the corners. A series of fluted domes on the side walls end in octagonal bastions. The domes, if you notice are topped by what looks like an inverted lotus, something which is very typical of Islamic architecture in India. Through the gate, you enter a spacious forecourt, at the end of which is yet another tri-arched gateway. It is through that gate that you finally enter the courtyard containing the Bada Imambara.

The second gateway

Inside the Shahi Baoli
Nothing, but nothing, can prepare you for the sheer scale of what greets you beyond the second gate. Straight ahead is the Bada Imambara, beautiful and absolutely symmetrical. On your right, facing the east is the Asfi Masjid, the mosque named after Asaf-ud-Daula, and to your left, on the eastern side of the compound, is the Shahi Baoli, the royal stepped well. Turn left first, to explore the baoli. The rectangular boali structure has seven levels, and as you enter, you see three of them. These are the three which are above water. Go further in, past the rectangular block and you enter an octagonal block, built around the pit of the well, with cells and passages at every level. The lower four storeys of this block were supposed to be under water. The water, which was used for both drinking and for the gardens, is almost all gone today. But if you go in with a guide, and I recommend that you do, he will show you a small portion which still contains water, and demonstrate the genius of Kifayat-ullah, its architect. The water being highly reflective, there are cells inside the octagonal structure from where a seated archer would be able to see, aim for, and hit, anyone trying to enter the baoli, while remaining completely undetected himself. This, your guide will tell you, in extremely flowery Urdu, was the colour television of its age.

The Bada Imambara

Exit the baoli, and proceed down the central path to the massive staircase leading you up to the Bada Imambara. An Imambara, also referred to as a Hussainia, an Ashurkhana or Imambargah, is a congregation hall for Shia commemoration ceremonies, especially those associated with the Remembrance of Muharram. The Nawabs of Lucknow, being originally from Iran, were Shia Muslims and Lucknow remains a predominantly Shia city. On the land on which the Bada Imambara stands today, there once stood the hut a woman called Lado-Saquum. Instead of evicting her by force, Asaf-ud-Daula sent men to enquire what she wanted in return for her land. She demanded no monetary compensation since the land would be used for a noble purpose, but simply requested that the Nawab take responsibility for her Tazia. A Tazia, a representation of the tombs of Hassan and Hussain, who were killed in the Battle of Karbala, on the 10th of October, 680 A.D., are carried by Shia Muslims at the head of processions taken out to mark the occasion of Muharram. Asaf-ud-Daula honoured Lado-Saquum’s request, and her Tazia, still kept inside the Bada Imambara, leads all Muharram processions in Lucknow.

Bada Imambara's "Chinese" Hall

Tourist at Bada Imambara's "Watermelon" Hall
As you ascend the steps of the Bada Imambara, you will find a place where you can keep your shoes. You will be given a token in return, and at the door, you will be assigned a guide. I highly recommend availing yourself of the guide’s services, simply because it is so much fun. The Hind/Urdu speaking guides are showmen in their own right, and will begin by showing you the Bada Imambara’s three halls. The one to the East is called the Chinese Hall. While it is mostly empty, the domed ceiling is beautifully decorated. The central hall, called the Persian Hall is the largest. Almost 50 metres long, 17 metres wide and 15 metres tall, the hall’s ceiling is entirely unsupported. There are no columns, no pillars, and no iron or wood is used in the construction. The extremely heavy roof is supported by, believe it or not, air cushions. It is the largest unsupported hall in the world, and its acoustical properties are such that inspite of all the noise at the ground level, it is possible to hear a match being struck, or a paper being torn at the other end of the hall. The guide’s demonstration of this never fails to make jaws drop. The guide will also tell you about the unique masala or mortar used to building this massive edifice. While “surki” or brick dust is used, some of the other components are “urad daal” (a lentil), rice husk and “khaane ki gond”, a tree gum which is a common component of the sweetmeat, “laddoo”. Buildings made of food? Only in India! When originally constructed the French Maj. Gen. Claude Martin (of La Martiniere fame) had expressed doubts about the integrity of the roof. Such a large and unsupported structure he feared would collapse when the supporting wooden scaffolding was removed. To silence his critics, in a true “Nawabi” gesture, Kifayatullah ordered his own bed to be placed under the roof and lay in it when the supports were removed. I wonder how many modern day engineers would have such confidence.

Bada Imamabara's Persian Hall. Asaf-ud-Daulah's tomb under the canopy, far right

On the rear wall of the Persian hall, in recesses, are ornate and beautiful Tazias, while in the centre, on the floor, surrounded by a metal railing are the simple graves of Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula, his wife, and Kifayatullah himself. When the Nawab asked his architect for his fees, the noble Kifayatullah had refused material compensation, asking instead for “do gaz”, or a grave plot. Thus is it came to be that the servant, in death, was laid next to his master. The next hall is called the Watermelon Hall, from the decoration of its domed ceiling, which we are told resembles the fruit. But the main attraction, especially for Bengalis such as me, lays above the main the main hall, spread across three levels.

Inside the Bada Imambara's Bhool Bhulaiya

Tunnel inside Bhool Bhulaiya
Ascend a steep flight of stairs to the East to enter a unique labyrinth above the main hall of the Bada Imambara. With narrow low ceiling galleries, vaulted passageways and 489 identical doorways, this is the Bhool Bhulaiya. For fans of Satyajit Ray’s detective character Pheluda, this is a must see. In Ray’s novel Badshahi Angti (The Emperor’s Ring), Pheluda hides a priceless ring within the passages of the Bhool Bhulaiya. He must have had a prodigious mind indeed, for the best of us would be hopelessly lost, not to mention frightened, within the claustrophobic confines of this maze. True to form, the guide will ask you if you think you can navigate your way out of the maze. You will try. You will fail. And then, like Moses leading the Israelites of out Egypt, your guide, who will keep vanishing like a conjurer from time to time, will lead you out. If your knees are in supremely bad shape, or you suffer from very serious claustrophobia, do consider skipping this part of the tour. But if you think you can grin and bear it, go for it. It is huge fun!

Leave your shoes with the caretakers, and exit the Bada Imambara building, to explore the final monument within the complex; the Asfi Masjid. With its two towering minars on either side, its grand elevation and its ornate stucco work, the Asfi Masjid is quite easily the most magnificent and eye-catching structure within the entire complex. One wonders if Asaf-ud-Daula wanted to rival Delhi’s Qutub Minar. If he did, I must say, mission accomplished old chap, and that too, in style! A board in front of the mosque proclaims “Non Muslims are prohibited from entering the mosque”. Not quite as welcoming as Calcutta perhaps, but nonetheless, you may roam the courtyard freely, and this will satisfy most of your needs, especially the photographic kind.

The Asfi Mosque inside the Bada Imambara complex

A word of advice to photographers. Do carry what is called an “ultra-wide angle lens”. I was carrying my Canon EF-S 10-22 f/3.5-4.5 and it was a wise decision. Most of the photographs you see here were shot with that lens. The buildings are so huge, that inspite of the spacious courtyard, you will have trouble getting everything in a shot, and will end up cutting stuff out. The Bada Imambara’s three terraces, one upper and two lower, offer particularly magnificent views of Lucknow, and the Imambara complex. It took me about 5 hours to tour and photograph the whole place, so come prepared to spend the better part of a day here, and come early for good light. Do remember to collect your shoes on the way out!

- by Deepanjan Ghosh


Explore more photographs from my Lucknow trip. Check out my Flickr album


I am grateful to my friend, Devankan Chakraborty for being my guide around Lucknow, to Kalpajeet Bhattacharya for his hospitality, and to my father Debashish Ghosh, and sister Deepshikha Ghosh for accompanying me, and providing valuable inputs while shooting the monuments. Check out my father’s flickr page here.


Monuments of Lucknow – R.S. Fonia

1 comment:

Shalini said...

Is it true that you can be heard on other side of walls inside bhool bhulaiya?