Saturday, 7 February 2015

Nadan Mahal: Lucknow's Oldest Monument

Located in the Yahiyaganj locality of Lucknow, the Nadan Mahal Maqbara is the oldest monument of Lucknow, dating back to the Mughal era. But finding it can be a bit of a challenge. When we told our auto-driver we wanted to go to there, he took us to a private house on the Nadan Mahal Road which had a cement airplane on top! If you don’t have Google maps when on tour (I didn’t), what you need to do is to get to Nadan Mahal Road, find an octogenarian Muslim (easy to tell them apart from the attire, fine flowing beards, and exquisite skull caps), and ask for the “Chishti sahib ka dargah”.

Nadan Mahal (right) and the Solah Khamba (left)

Mausoleum of Sheikh Ibrahim Chishti
Currently located within a well maintained park, there are four structures inside the Nadan Mahal complex. The one immediately to left of the gate, to the East of the complex, is the tomb of Sheikh Ibrahim Chishti, a Sufi saint of the Chishti order. It is a domed structure, raised on a low plinth. The outer walls are constructed of stone “kankar” blocks, which were originally covered with lime plaster, which is now mostly gone. The arched entrances however, are built of brick and lime plaster. Over the southern entrance is a green coloured tablet, with a few couplets written in the Nastaʿlīq script. Roughly translated, the tablet says the following – “Sheikh Ibrahim Chishti who was special and just one of many in history. He went from this mortal world to the immortal world. If someone asks about his death, tell him that he was the centre of his era”. The tablet puts down the date of death as 961 Hijri which corresponds to 1553-54 in the Gregorian calendar. The interior of the chamber is octagonal, with the tomb of Sheikh Ibrahim Chishti in the centre. There are arched openings on all four sides for purposes of ventilation, 3 of which are now closed. The exterior of the dome has recently been repaired and whitewashed, although no attempt has been made to re-plaster the walls. The original name of Nadan Mahal may have been Nidan Mahal, since Sheikh Ibrahim Chishti’s followers prayed for “nidan” or deliverance at his tomb. Sheikh Ibrahim Chishti’s tomb is still used for worship, and shoes must be removed before approaching it.

The "Solah Khamba"
There are two other structures in the Nadan Mahal complex, which are located to the South, and the one you approach first is called a “Solah Khamba”. The open pavilion derives its name from the sixteen (solah) fluted pillars (khamba) which hold up the roof. Brick and stone are used for construction, and the pillars have exquisitely ornamented bases and brackets. Among the brackets, there may be seen the form of an elephant’s head, or “gaja mukha”. While this is not strictly in keeping with Islamic tradition of not depicting anything living, this structure was probably built in the Mughal style which fused Hindu and Islamic elements. On the raised platform of the “Solah Khamba” are five graves, which are said to be of the descendants of Sheikh Abdur Rahim, the first Governor of Lucknow during the reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar.

Nadan Mahal (far left) with the Solah Khamba in the foreground
Immediately West of the “Solah Khamba” is the Nadan Mahal tomb, from which the complex gets its name. This is the tomb of Sheikh Abdur Rahim. According to Sheikh Mohammed Azmat Ali Naami Kakorvi’s historical account in Muraqqa-e-Khusravi written in 1282 Hijri (1866), Akbar had been warned by his astrologers that two particular days were inauspicious for him as emperor. To tide over the period of the curse, Akbar nominated Sheikh Abdur Rahim to be emperor for two days. As the period was about to end, the eunuch carrying the emperor’s clothes suddenly dropped dead! There was a cobra inside the emperor’s clothes! The relieved Akbar gave Sheikh Abdur Rahim the Lucknow “pargana” and some parts of Behraich (North-East of Lucknow in the modern day state of Uttar Pradesh). It seems the Sheikh had begun construction of the tomb during his lifetime. The tomb consists of a domed chamber, surrounded on all sides by a veranda. The central chamber of the Nadan Mahal, which contains the graves of Sheikh Abdur Rahim and his wife, was originally constructed as an open chamber, and was later closed with bricks. The exquisitely ornamented brackets which hold up the “chhajjas” (overhanging eaves, an architectural feature commonly seen in North West India) contain easily recognizable animal heads. The parapet was originally decorated with blue and yellow tiles, but most of it is damaged beyond repair now. Behind the Nadan Mahal, to it's West, are a number of unmarked graves. There was a brick structure around these graves at one point, that has long since crumbled.

Unmarked graves in the complex

Nadan Mahal is not a ticketed monument, and is open to all. But awareness about it seems to be fairly low. Since it is an active religious site, do be respectful, remove shoes where signs say you must, and try not to smoke or eat inside.

- 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 myfather’s flickr page here.

I am grateful also to Iftekhar Ahsan and his friend Samaneh Zand for their help with translating the writing on the tablet on the tomb of Sheikh Ibrahim Chishti. If you’re ever in Calcutta, consider taking a walk with Iftekhar’s Calcutta Walks.


Monuments of Lucknow – R.S. Fonia

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