Monday, 28 September 2015

Chota Imambara, Lucknow

Lucknow’s Chota Imambara, also known as the Hussainabad Imambara is located a short distance away from the much larger Bara 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. But while the Chota Imambara is indeed “chota” or small, it is magnificent and opulent in its own way.


The story of the Nawabs of Lucknow, the capital of the erstwhile state of Oudh or Awadh, begins in 1722, during the reign of the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah (one of the lesser Mughals). A rich trader from Khorasan (in the North East of modern day Iran) migrated to India. His son, Muhammad Nasir Musawi, joined the Emperor’s army, and rose rapidly through the ranks. But it was his grandson, Mir Muhammad Amin Musawi, a.k.a. Saadat Ali Khan I who was ultimately 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 Chota Imambara owes its existence to the 9th Nawab, Abul Fateh Moin-ud-din, a.k.a. Muhammad Ali Shah. It was meant to serve as his final resting place.


The short stretch of road in front of the Chota Imambara is commanded by two gates, both of which were under repair and reconstruction when I visited in 2014. While these gates are smaller than the magnificent Rumi Darwaza, they are beautiful and ornate. Through the Mughal style main entrance, the first thing you will notice is a water channel running right up to the Imambara itself. On both sides of the water channel, casting beautiful symmetrical reflections in the water, are two replicas of the Taj Mahal of Agra. On both sides of the gate, you will find brass figures, holding what appear to be, chains hanging from the gate. These figures are not there purely for decoration; they are in fact a very elegant form of earthing! If the gate got hit by lightning, the current would be passed by the chains to the figures and returned to the ground.

To the left of the gate is the “Shahi Hamam”, the royal bath. Our guide explained to us how a complicated system of drainage had been created to channel hot water into the Nawab’s gigantic bathtub. He even showed us where His Royal Highness used to take a dump! The Shahi Hamam is now being restored by the Archaeological Survey of India. To the right of the gate is a small but beautiful mosque. Like many other sites in Lucknow, the Mosque is active and has a sign which says “Non Namazis are prohibited from entering the Mosque”. I found the sign a little offensive and mentioned it to a local. He seemed embarrassed by it and said that he himself was not happy that it had been put up. It was no way to greet a guest, he said. The only reason something like this would be required, he said, was to prevent the faithful from being disturbed during prayers. I was able to walk around the Mosque without hindrance and was able to take photographs as well. As for the two Taj Mahal replicas, only one of them contains the graves of Muhammad Ali Shah’s daughter and her husband. The other is empty and is built as a “jawab”, to create a pleasing architectural symmetry.

In 1875, H.G. Keene wrote that the Chota Imambara had “a vast repository of mirrors, lustres, etc., the greater part of which still remains. During the disturbances of 1857 it escaped the shocks of war; but the more valuable part of its furniture, the gold and silver plate, was taken away by the trustees themselves, to aid the rebel cause.” These mirrors and chandeliers, which are still seen, displayed in the main hall of the Chota Imambara today, are spectacular and most of them come from Belgium. In the centre of the main hall are the graves of Nawab Muhammad Ali Shah and his mother. The smaller chambers adjacent to the main hall contains Tazias and other objects of worship. There is also the spectacular throne where the Imam is seated when delivering a sermon. The fluted columns, the vaulted ceilings, and the beautiful calligraphy on the exterior of the Imambara are worth taking some time out to admire. The Shiite Durud and other religious texts are represented in the calligraphy, in Arabic, Naskh, Thuluth and Tughra scripts. On top of the Imambara is the commonly seen Islamic style dome with a lotus bud finial.


Across the road from the Chota Imambara is the incomplete monument known as the “Satkhanda”. Although the name has the number 7 in it, the Satkhanda only has 4 floors. This structure was meant to provide a clear view of the moon during the holy month of Ramzan. Nawab Muhammad Ali Shah, our guide said, was having this constructed for his daughter. However, only 5 years into his reign when he suddenly died, on the 7th of May 1842, work on the Satkhanda stopped. It was considered unlucky and no future King would touch it, which is a pity because the four tiers of the Satkhanda can be seen to have four different architectural styles. The ASI was working on the structure when I visited Lucknow.


Although the ASI lists Chota Imambara as a heritage building and historic site, it is still an active place of worship and as such is under the care of the Hussainabad Trust. Tickets purchased at the Bara Imambara gives you access to the Bara and Chota Imambaras and the Picture Gallery. Tickets are priced at Rs. 25 for Indians. The Chota Imambara is open from 6 am to 6 pm. Do remember to be respectful and not to smoke, drink or eat while inside. Shoes must be taken off before entering the Imambara building and you may be required to cover your head. Guides are available at the gate, and I advise that you avail their services. If you’re into photography, please carry a wide angle lens, you will need it. Also do note that you may not be allowed to photograph the Tazias inside the Chota Imambara.


I am grateful to my friend, Devankan Chakraborty for being my guide around Lucknow and to Kalpajeet Bhattacharya for his hospitality. Check out more images from Lucknow on my father’s flickr page here.


Monuments of Lucknow – Fonia, R.S.
A Handbook for Visitors to Lucknow – Keene, H.G.

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