Thursday, 20 September 2018

The Imambaras of Kolkata


Say the word Imambara to the average Bengali in Kolkata, and what he or she is likely to think of first, is the Hooghly Imambara. Prod a little further and the Nizamat Imambara will come up. Located in Murshidabad, it is the largest in Asia. The really well-informed will be able to name the Sibtainabad Imambara in Metiabruz where Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Oudh is buried. But what the vast majority of people in Kolkata don’t know is that there are some 20 imambaras in city, most with long histories and some are spectacularly beautiful. For Muharram this year I would like to highlight this unknown aspect of Kolkata.

 

WHAT IS AN 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. What is Muharram? Muharram is actually a month, the first month of the Islamic calendar and one of the four sacred months of the year. The reason non-Muslims in India know of only one day as Muharram is that that day is an official government holiday and is marked as Muharram in calendars. That day is the 10th day of the month and is known as the day of Ashura. Many historic events have occurred on the day of Ashura, but what the date is remembered for most of all, are the events that occurred on 61 Al-Hijra (10th October, 680 C.E.). On that day, in Karbala in present-day Iraq, a battle was fought between Husayn ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed and Yazīd ibn Mu‘āwiya, the caliph or “Khalifa”, the head of the Islamic caliphate and leader of the “ummah”, or Muslim community, leading to the death of Husayn.

Some Muslims had already formed a separate group over disagreements about who should succeed the Prophet. With the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, that split was complete. Those who thought Husayn’s father Ali should have succeeded the Prophet, came to be known as Shiaat Ali, meaning the partisans of Ali, and are today known as Shia Muslims. Shias form about 9.5% of Muslims worldwide, and Muharram is primarily a Shia commemoration. The mourning of Muharram, known as “azadari”, can take several forms. The most benign of them are chanting and beating your chest with your hands. The more extreme forms, called “maatam”, include self-flagellation with chains, blades and even swords. Another aspect of Muharram commemoration is the taking out of Tazia processions. Tazia are miniature faux-mausoleums, imitations of the mausoleums of Karbala, made of coloured paper and bamboo. At the end of the procession, tazias are usually immersed in a water body. In case such a waterbody is not available, the Tazia is taken to a Karbala ground. From the tank or the ground, the Tazia is taken to the Imambara and preserved for the following year. For more details, Rana Safvi recently wrote a great article about how the Shia Sunni split began on Daily O. If you want more details about the commemoration of Muharram, I had attended a Muharram “maatam” in Kolkata last year, and the article can be found here.

Zarikhana of Gol Kothi Imambara

WHAT TO EXPECT INSIDE AN IMAMBARA

In India, Imambaras generally face west, as opposed to mosques which face east. Inside, one may expect to find a large hall, usually rectangular. In the eastern wall, you will usually find niches which will be used for storing various paraphernalia which are used in Muharram processions. This area is variously referred to as the “zarikhana” or “zaridalan”. Among the things you will see here there may be coffins, which are supposed to represent the coffin of Husayn. There may also be images of his horse, Zuljanah. Also to be found inside Imambaras are replicas of the Husayn’s tomb, i.e., the shrine of Karbala. This is usually called a Tazia, but also a Zari or Zari Mubarak. It is not unusual for these replicas to be made of precious metals, especially if the person setting up the Imambara is affluent. In general, Imambaras are famous for being decorated with beautiful chandeliers and the articles stored in the Zarikhana can often be great works of art.

At this point I must make a special note about the Imambaras of Mominpore, because they do not seem to go by any of the rules. There are a half-a-dozen structures in the Mominpore area that locals claim are Imambaras, but all of them are tiny little one room structures which cannot accommodate a congregation larger than 6. In most cases there appears to be either an actual grave or a replica of the Karbala shrine. Researcher Sabir Ahamed and Mohammed Reyaz who teaches journalism at Aaliyah University both point to the peculiarities of the neighbourhood. Unlike Metiabruz, which has descendants from Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s family, Mominpore is home to mostly poor Muslims - daily wage earners and labourers. One would not expect grand edifices from people who have a hand to mouth existence. The other peculiarity is that a large number of the residents seem to be Sunni, not Shia. How Shia Muslims came to be involved in building and maintaining Imambaras, or participating in Muharram commemorations is anyone’s guess.

Most people who build Imambaras arrange for some means for their upkeep even after they are dead. The arrangement in most cases is a “Waqf Estate”. A waqf is “the permanent dedication by a person professing Islam, of any moveable or immovable property for any purpose recognized by the Muslim Law as religious, pious or charitable”. In very loose terms, a waqf for a Muslim is what a “devottar” property is for a Hindu. In both cases, the owner of the property is said to be God, and in both cases, the property cannot be sold, but can be rented or leased. Most often the Waqf Estate consists of properties that are rented out to shops etc, and that rent provides for the upkeep of the building and the pay of the Mutawalli or caretaker.

Replica of Imam Husayn's tomb in Bibi Anaro Imambara

VISITING AN IMAMBARA: THINGS TO KNOW

Most Imambaras are open from dawn to dusk. Between 9am and 5pm would be the ideal time. Often the Imambara will be attached to shops and one of the shopkeepers will have the key, and hence you will only be able to enter during business hours and on working days. There are no restrictions on non-Muslims when it comes to entry. In fact Hindus may often be seen participating in Muharram commemorations. Mention must be made of the Husayni Brahmins who fought for Imam Husayn in the Battle of Karbala and still take out Tazia processions. However, all common sense rules regarding places of worship apply to Imambaras. No smoking, no consumption of alcohol, no profane language inside. Additionally, while you may enter the premises or compound with your shoes on, you must remove them before entering the actual Imambara. Islamic norms of modesty must be observed and that means no shorts or sleeveless clothes for either men or women. Caretakers of Imambaras are usually open to properties to being photographed, but always remember to ask for permission. If the Mutawalli has appointed an underling to take his place, he will usually insist on calling his boss before granting you permission. But if you are humble and ask nicely, permission is easy enough to get. Don’t be too insistent in case permission to photograph, or even entry, is refused. Remember this is private property and a place of worship. The caretaker is well within his or her rights to refuse. 

Tabut - faux coffin representing Imam Husayn's coffin. Firdaus Mahal Imambara

THE IMAMBARAS OF KOLKATA

SIBTAINABAD IMAMBARA


Address - P-34, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah Road, Kolkata 700024
GPS - 22.549257, 88.284175

Built in 1864 by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the deposed King of Lucknow, this is a replica of the Bada Imambara of Lucknow on a much smaller scale. Above the main entrance, the Oudh coat of arms may be seen and immediately above it is the symbol of an open palm. This is called the “hamsa hand”, which is a Shia symbol referring to the 5 most sacred people in Islam. A marble plaque proclaims – “Mausoleum of the last two Kings of Oudh – Wajid Ali Shah (1847 – 56), Birjis Qadr (1857 – 58)”. The dates, of course, refer to the period that they were on the throne of Oudh. Through the entrance one reaches a courtyard with stairs on two sides. To the left are rooms that were once used as offices by Prince Nayar Qudr when he was administering the Sibtainabad Trust. Apart from that are rooms accommodating staff and caretakers. Straight ahead lies the main hall of the Imambara. On the Eastern side of the hall, behind 3 scalloped arches, lies buried Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the “last King in India”. Along with his tomb, this enclosure also accommodates a number of “tazias”. Images of the Nawab, verses of his poetry and images from Shia Islamic lore adorn the walls of the Imambara. A number of colourful chandeliers hang from the ceiling. The southern wall contains niches accommodating more tazias. On the western end of the room is a large display case containing a variety of memorabilia related to the Nawab, including a Qur’an said to have been copied by Wajid Ali Shah himself. Sibtainabad Imambara remains active and is fairly well maintained, although, not too many Calcuttans would be aware of its location or significance.

BAIT-UN-NIJAT IMAMBARA



Address -
GPS - 22°32'56.8"N 88°17'18.7"E

Bait-un-Nijat Imambara may be found on Garden Reach Road, near the Kamal Talkies cinema hall. The name Bait-un-Nijat means “house of relief” or “house of salvation”. Nawab Wajid Ali Shah had Bait-un-Nijat Imambara built in 1863 to commemorate Muharram with his family members. It is a single-storey building, with scalloped arches, green-shuttered doors, and cast iron railings. Unfortunately, it is in rather sad shape now. A portion of the roof has collapsed and the Eastern corner of the Imambara appears abandoned and unused. Some of the cast iron railing has broken off as well. Bait-un-Nijat once stood in the middle of a large open ground, but most of that has been taken over, the Nawab’s descendants say illegally, by car parks and a sawmill. Today, it is difficult to imagine that this was once frequented by a royal, and only those who know about it, or like me, go out looking for it, will ever find Bait-un-Nijat.

QASR-UL-BUKA IMAMBARA

Address – 18, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah Road, Kolkata 700024
GPS - 22°32'53.6"N 88°17'22.9"E

The name Qasr-ul-Buka means “House of Mourning” and newspaper articles suggest that it is a “ladies’ imambara”, although the Nawab’s descendants say this is not so. Perhaps this reputation is thanks to the fact that Qasr-ul-Buka was built by Akhtar Mahal Sahiba, aka Nawab Nadir Bahu Sardar Begum Sahiba, one of the Nawab’s two “nikah” wives who accompanied him from Lucknow. From the outside, while the rounded façade is interesting, it is dirty and decayed. But once you step inside, the sight that greets you is nothing short of stunning. The chandeliers and other glassware, the fabulous wall-hangings and carpets, all create a dazzling effect. To one end of the room stands the minbar. On the opposite end is a small room that once contained a tomb of Husayn’s daughter Sakinah, called Zindan-E-Sakinah, but it is being remodelled now. Qasr-ul-Buka is said to have been the first Imambara to have been constructed in Metiabruz. Like Bait-un-Nijat, parts of the property are being illegally occupied. Located near the intersection of Shyam Lal Lane and Garden Reach Road, the entrance to Qasr-ul-Buka is a little hard to find, thanks to the factory, but the Sibtainabad Trust, which now administers the Nawab’s properties, through a slow process of litigation is taking back these properties and arranging for their upkeep. Lucknow’s Safed Baradari, built by Wajid Ali Shah and now used for wedding receptions and similar events, was originally an Imambara and was also called Qasr-ul-Buka (more about Safed Baradari here).

BEGUM UMDA MAHAL IMAMBARA

Address – P-35, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah Road, Kolkata 700024
GPS - 22.549125, 88.283913

Located immediately to the West of the Sibtainabad Imambara is the Imambara of Begum Umda Mahal, one of the wives the Nawab took when he was in Calcutta. While the exterior of the Imambara is decayed, and the entrance is concealed by a number of shops, the interiors are surprisingly beautiful, albeit heavily damaged. The walls were once completely covered with vegetal and floral patterns created by sticking pieces of coloured glass onto the plaster. Unfortunately, almost half of the patterns have simply fallen off from rain damage and have been smoothed over. But what remains is fascinating enough. Attached to the Begum Umda Mahal Imambara is a mosque where prayers happen regularly. Behind the imambara is what is known as a “chhoti Karbala” – an open field where Muharram tazia processions usually terminate. Here too is another mosque which has been recently renovated. Both these properties are under the Sibtainabad Trust.

FIRDAUS MAHAL IMAMBARA


Address - B/98, Garden Reach, Kolkata, West Bengal 700024
GPS - 22.550634, 88.286496

While the name of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah is associated with Metiabruz since he spent the last years of his life in the area, most people don’t know that it is not one but two royal families who made Metiabruz their home. Shams-i-Jahan Begum C.I. (Order of the Crown of India), was the principal wife of the Nawab Feradun Jah Mansoor Ali Khan Bahadur, the last Murshidabad royal to be called the Nawab of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. The Begum purchased some 29 bighas of land in Metiabruz in 1880 and created this Waqf estate and Imambara named Firdaus Mahal, on 9th September 1898. The Waqf estate includes Bengali Bazar, Tukra Patty, and a big pond at B 72, Garden Reach, Kolkata 24. Shams-i-Jahan Begum was known for her philanthropy and she established a madrassa for girls named Shamshiya Zenana Madrassa and contributed a sum of 25,040 in 1895, for the construction of ladies hostel for female medical students named Lady Eliot Hostel in the premises of Campbell Hospital (now Neel Ratan Sarkar Medical College).

Among the people who have served as the Mutawalli for the Firdaus Mahal Imambara, there is Iskander Ali Mirza, who migrated to Pakistan and served as the country’s first President from 1956 till he was deposed by military dictator General Ayub Khan. Iskander Ali Mirza remained the Mutawalli till his death in 1969. From 1970 to 1980, Firdaus Mahal remained under the care of Nawab Syed Sadiq Reza aka Nawab Alam, grandson to Shams-i-Jahan Begum through her daughter, Afroz-un-nisa Begum. The present caretaker is Syed Nasiruddin Hussain Mirza, descendant of Shams-i-Jahan Begum’s other daughter, Sheher Banu Begum. I was met at the Firdaus Mahal Imambara by Syed Hasan Reza, great grandsons of Afroz-un-nisa Begum, who took time out to explain the family’s history to me and show me around the property.

For a lover of old architecture such as me, it is unfortunate the old structure of the Firdaus Mahal Imambara was torn down in 2011 and a new building was raised. While an attempt has been made to pay homage to the neo-classical architectural trends of Kolkata, through Corinthian columns etc, the Imambara as I am writing this, has not been entirely completed. While the structure is in use, the exterior has not been painted and inside the ceiling is bare. But it is a large space that can accommodate a considerable congregation and in the zarikhana there are some beautiful articles which are well-preserved. My eye was drawn in particular to a glittering picture of Zuljana, Imam Husayn’s horse, created on black cloth. I look forward to returning to Firdaus Mahal Imambara once work has been completed to photograph the exteriors. Nearby is the Shia Jama Masjid which also appears to be a structure of great antiquity.

UNNAMED DARGAH AND IMAMBARA (BINDU BASINI STREET)


Address –
GPS - 22.528799, 88.324684

Located deep in the heart (or should I say bowels) of Mominpore, this is a strange one. First, it appears to be an open air space that had only recently been covered. Second, it seems to serve both as a dargah and an imambara. Third, it does not seem to have a name. When Sabir Ahamed and I visited the place, it was empty, but open. Locals informed us that it remained open from morning to night. According to them Tazia processions would start from here upto around 2010-11. However, Salafi ideology seems to have become popular in the area of late, and therefore Moharram commemorations have become much more low-key. There are no inscription tablets anywhere in the compound and none of the locals have no idea when the place was originally built, or even who the person buried here was. The tomb contains some inscriptions which are now covered in a thick layer of paint. The Imambara appears to be in use and is well maintained.

PANJATAN IMAMBARA


Address - 8/H/4, Bhukailash Rd, Naptani Bagan, Mominpore
GPS - 22.529590, 88.318300

Attached to a factory on Bhukailash Road, the Panjatan Imambara is so tiny its almost cute. Unfortunately, it has recently been “renovated”, which in Kolkata means that the original structure has been obliterated in favour of ceramic tiles and mass-manufactured minarets. Inside, it is a one room affair. There is no minbar but on the floor there is what appears to be an imitation tomb. Whether or not this is supposed to be an imitation of the tomb of Imam Hussein, it is difficult to say. But from the flags etc around the Imambara it appears to be active and Tazia processions probably happen from here as well. Since I found it securely locked when we visited, there was no way to verify when the Imambara was constructed.

SOUTH KOLKATA HUSSAINI AKHARA COMMITTEE IMAMBARA


Addess - 9, Mominpore Road
GPS - 22.529056, 88.322145

Located near the crossing of Mayurbhanj Road and Mominpore Road, the South Kolkata Hussaini Akhara Committee Imambara is relatively modern. The board mentions the date of establishment as 1967. Unlike the other imambaras in the area, this is a rather modest affair, with a corrugated tin roof. In one room we found preparations for Moharram in full swing, while in the other, there was an imitation tomb, which was covered in flowers and cloth. Tazias are made here, the locals informed us, and requested us to visit during the month of Moharram when the Imambara would be decorated with lights etc.

UNNAMED IMAMBARA (MOMINPORE)

Address – 37A, Mominpore Road
GPS - 22.532630, 88.322545

Another one of Mominpore’s tiny imambaras, this one is unique because part of the frontage is open air. Inside an imitation tomb may be seen, which is decorated with flowers. The structure does have two rooms, but overall the structure is far too small to permit a minbar or anything similar.

UNNAMED IMAMBARA (NAPTANI BAGAN, MOMINPORE)

Address – Near 8A, Ekbalpore Ln, Naptani Bagan, Mominpore, Kolkata, West Bengal 700023
GPS - 22.531802, 88.323109

Located in the middle of a small open square, the Imambara in Naptani Bagan in Mominpore seems to serve primarily as the place of origin of Moharram processions. No one in the neighbourhood can recall when it was built or even if it has a name. The present structure has been renovated in the last few years, but during that renovation a heavy dome was placed on the roof which is now causing the whole structure to crack under the pressure. Inside its another small, one-room affair with an imitation tomb. No one in the neighbourhood knows when the structure was built. “I have been seeing it since my childhood” is the universal response when asked.

SERAJUDDIN ALI KHAN KARAMUNNESA BEGUM IMAMBARA

Address - 110B, Dr Lal Mohan Bhattacharya Rd, Entally, Kolkata – 700014
GPS - 22.559153, 88.371547

Known as the Kathal Bagan Imambara (Kathal = jackfruit, Bagan = garden) because of the area it is in, this may well be the oldest Imambara in Kolkata, but that isn’t what it’s famous for. The Imambara was set up by the late Qazi Sirajuddin Ali Khan and his wife Musammat Karamunnesa Begum who hailed from the state of Uttar Pradesh. The family has another Waqf estate in Unnao, in Uttar Pradesh says descendant Mirza Mustafa Ali. Like many Shia Muslim families in India, the family traces its origins back to Iran. The thing that most people remember this Imambara for is the fact that it was once visited by the great Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib. Not many know this, but Ghalib was in Kolkata for a short time, from February 1828 to August 1829 to discuss the matter of his pension with the colonial government (this was the capital back then). One of the things he carried with him was a letter for Qazi Sirajuddin. But when he arrived at the Kathal Bagan estate, Qazi Sirajuddin had passed away. So Ghalib met with his widow, Karamunnesa Begum and read her the letter from the other side of a “purdah” or curtain, since pious Muslim women of the day would not appear in front of men who weren’t from the immediate family.

The Waqf Estate was set up around 1803 and the Imambara was constructed of the imambara was completed around 1829. Apart from the Imambara, the compound also contains a mosque that remains active. Within a small, walled area, are the graves of Qazi Sirajuddin Ali Khan and Musammat Karamunnesa Begum. Ghalib is said to have read the “fateha”, the prayer made upon the death of a person. While the mosque and the Imambara have been renovated, both retain their original shape and architectural features. Inside the Imambara, the eastern wall contains niches within one of which is a replica of the Karbala shrine. Behind this wall there is a smaller room, which is meant for seating ladies, I was told. Unfortunately, in 1964 Kolkata was rocked by Hindu-Muslim riots. The origin of this was the hair of Prophet Mohammed going missing from the Hazratbal Shrine in Srinagar, Kashmir. As a result of this, there were anti-Hindu riots in Bangladesh, as a result of which there were anti-Muslim riots in Kolkata. During the riots, the Imambara was looted and much of the valuable antiques and furniture the Imambara had was looted. However, the structure remains intact and has been renovated and looks like it is in good shape.

HAJI KARBALAI IMAMBARA


Address – 10, Portuguese Church Street, Kolkata 700001
GPS – 22.578536, 88.353220

In terms of sheer size, Haji Karbalai dwarfs all other Imambaras in Kolkata. Located in a narrow lane to the east of the Portuguese Church, early information about the imambara is somewhat sketchy. The imambara was established by a rich Iranian merchant named Aga Kerbalai Mohammed sometime around 1856. Aga Kerbalai Mohammed was obviously a prosperous man, because he decorated his imambara with stunning Belgian glass chandeliers and mirrors much of which is still there. However, over the years it seems the men appointed Mutawalli did not do their job, the vast properties attached to the imambara as waqf estate came to be occupied by squatters and the building deteriorated to the point where portions of it actually collapsed. Legal action was taken against the Mutawalli in 1967. According to information on the website of the Shia Aoukaf Bachao Committee, when new administrators finally took possession of the Imambara in 2011 they found it near collapse. Some 15 lakhs was spent on repairing and strengthening the building. The ceiling beams were changed and the Zarikhana itself was renovated at the cost of another 2 lakhs. When the website was last updated, the total estimated expense of the repairs was 60 lakhs. The building itself has offices and storerooms (on the ground floor) which generate rent which supports the imambara which itself is on the first floor. Also part of the Waqf estate is the adjacent building, 5, Portuguese Church Street, another building on 1 Ismail Madan Lane and a burial ground.

Unless you go out looking for it, you are unlikely to run into the Haji Karbalai Imambara by accident. The road in front of it is extremely narrow and congested, filled with the kind of things and people one only sees in the mad commercial hug of Burrabazar. I spotted it from a distance thanks to the black flags above the entrance. A huge wooden staircase, typical of buildings in the area, leads up to the imambara which is on the northern side of the building. The building still isn’t in what I would call good shape, but it isn’t looking like it is going to collapse at any moment, which is a relief. The northern balcony contains several doors leading into the imambara. Above them hangs several stunning chandeliers and between them enormous mirrors. Above the mirrors are a strange twin fish motif, which looks rather like the Oudh coat of arms. Inside the space is almost cavernous and cool, thanks to the foot-thick walls. On either side of the colonnaded hall, are spaces which are used for storage and the zarikhana is to the left of the entrance.

One unique thing that I found at the Haji Kerbalai Imambara was a replica of Jannat-ul-Baqi. The Jannat-ul-Baqi or simply Al-Baqi is a cemetery in Medina which contains tombs of some of most important people in the history of Islam, including family members of the Prophet Mohammed. Unfortunately the structures of the cemetery were demolished by Saudi forces around 1926 and in spite of calls from Shias and Sunnis, no restoration has as yet been carried out. The replica is located in another smaller hall, on the ground floor to the north of the central courtyard. Around the replica are various other memorials to the martyrs of Karbala, including a shrine to the young Ali Asghar, recognizable from the bloody three-headed arrow placed above it. Above the entrance is a board with pictures of the Jannat-ul-Baqi before and after the demolition with the slogan, “May Allah curse Ibne Saud, the Devil and his followers”. While this may seem like strong language to an outsider, we must remember that this persecution symbolism is key to the Shia sense of identity. Muharram itself raises some very strong emotions.

BABUL HAWAIJ IMABARA

134, Mahatma Gandhi Rd, Kolkata – 700007
GPS - 22.579276, 88.358011

Located near the crossing of Mahatma Gandhi Road and Ramlochan Mullick Street, the Babul Hawaij Imambara is another of the Kolkata’s small imambaras with an uncertain history. It is presently operated by local Muslim shopkeepers and tradesmen, who belong to a local association named Anjuman-e-Shamshir-e-Abbasi. According to them, Babul Hawaij was probably an immigrant who settled in the area and was involved in the textiles business. The Imambara, they say, was founded in 1935. The structure is simple, unpretentious, but well maintained and I received a warm welcome here. Tazia processions emerge from the Babul Hawaij Imambara every year.

ANARO BIBI IMAMBARA

Address - Girish Chandra Bose Rd, Entally, Kolkata, West Bengal 700014
GPS - 22.553619, 88.366546

Located inside the lanes of Beniapukur, the Anaro Bibi Imambara was built in 1833 by Bibee Fazzaloon Nessa (Fazlunnisa), also known as Bibi Anaro. Little is known about her early life, but the mutawalli Kamran Bhai says that she had a sister named Anjuman Ara Begum, after whom Anjuman Road near Nonapukur is named. While Anaro Bibi built the imambara, her sister built the Bari Masjid of Anjuman Road. Anaro Bibi is said to have been married to a foreigner and was the owner of large amounts of property. One night she had a dream of a hand floating in pool of water, and took it as a sign. The hand is an important symbol for Shia Muslims. The hamsa hand represents the panjetan, or five most important people in Shia Islam, and is also known as the Hand of Fatima (daughter of the Prophet). Believing that the hand in her dream was a sign from God, Bibi Anaro had an imambara built. 

Within the premises of the imambara is said to be a well that miraculously fills up with water on the 14th of 15th of Muharram, and many people collect that water believing it to be holy. The Anaro Bibi Imambara has been recently renovated and while tiles etc have been added to the interior, the external architectural features of the building remain intact are interesting. Within a small room in the middle of the main congregation hall, the founder Bibi Anaro lies buried.

GOL KOTHI IMAMBARGAH


Address - 35, Rabindra Sarani, Kolkata, West Bengal 700073
GPS - 22.575989, 88.354413

Literally meaning “round house”, Gol Kothi gets its name from the cylindrical northeast corner topped by a dome. This accommodates a wooden staircase inside. The imambara occupies 2 rooms on the first floor, with the rest of the building being rented out to shops and for storage. Gol Kothi was founded in 1852 by a certain Sedi Aman Ali Khan and was in bad shape until a restoration in 2003. While I have reservations about the shades of green and blue chosen for the walls, what I did note is that there was stucco ornamentation on the walls containing Quranic verses, the names of the 12 Imams scared to the Twelver sect of Shias and the names of the Panjetan. Chandeliers and lampshades of great antiquity hang from the ceiling. The building at present is well-maintained and the imambara attracts a large congregation for Ashura. I had witnessed the mourning here in 2017.

BAGWALI KOTHI IMAMBARA

Address - 42, Rabindra Sarani, Kolkata - 700001
GPS - 22.575687, 88.354190

Of all the imambaras of Kolkata, Bagwali Kothi is one of the very few that has managed to maintain its heritage character and for that the mutawalli Ali Abbas Shirazi must be given credit. Muted colours, earthy hues and warm light from incandescent bulbs greets you as you enter. Located across the street from the Gol Kothi Imambara, Bagwali Kothi locals say gets its name from a large garden that was once attached to the building. All traces of the garden are gone, however, and the ground floor of the building has been rented out to shops and is used for storage. The Imambara occupies one room on the first floor. Above the massive wooden gate to the premises, a small marble plaque proclaims “Waqf estate of late Haji Mohammed Jaffer Ispahani”. From the name it is apparent that the founder was from Isfahan in Iran, one of many traders to have who settled in the former British capital. The plaque also contains the dates 1886 – 1894, which I assume are the dates when construction of the Imambara began and was completed. One special item of note inside the Baagwaali Kothi is a 100-year-old painting of the Battle of Karbala on leather which still hangs from the wall. Bagwali Kothi remains shut throughout the year, coming to life for the month of Muharram each year.

PRINCE MOHAMMED RAHIMUDDIN IMAMBARA

Address - 1, Prince Rahimuddin Lane, Kolkata – 700033
GPS - 22.504001, 88.345955

Among the more overlooked Imambaras in Kolkata, I have been passing the Prince Rahimuddin Imambara for years without ever noticing it. One look at the exterior is enough to confirm that the Imambara is from the Tipu Sultan lineage, because of its signature “Dakhani” style, which one also finds in the 4 mosques in Kolkata built by members of the same family. After Tipu was killed in the siege of Srirangapatna in 1799, the family was exiled to Kolkata and given land around the Tollygunge area, then known as the village of Russa Pagla. Family members still live and own vast tracts of land around the area, including the grounds of the Royal Calcutta Golf Club. Prince Rahimuddin was one of the grandsons of Tipu Sultan.

The imambara is located in a narrow lane on the western side of Deshpran Sashmal Road, near Tollygunge Phari. It is approached through the ornamental gateway that locals call Ghari Ghar. The imambara was built in 1865 and renovated in 2009. The interiors, although unabashedly modern, are tastefully done. There are two halls inside the single storey structure, with the marble minbar being located in the southern one. The zarikhana contains some beautiful and precious articles.

Wall of the Umda Mahal Imambara, Metizbruz

CONCLUSION

The natural question that the presence of such a large number of imambaras in one city would raise is, how many Shias are there in Kolkata? That is a question that is difficult to answer with any degree of certainty, because there are no official figures. The government records only Muslims, not going into details such as if they are Shia or Sunni or Bohra. But from photographs of gatherings in Metiabruz that I have seen, it would seem the numbers are larger than most people can guess. According to this article on the internet, there may be as many as 45 million Shias in India and many suggest that India is home to the second largest Shia population in the world, second only to Iran. M.A. Siddiqui in his thesis “Muslims of Calcutta” also points to the presence of a large numbers of aristocratic Muslim families in Calcutta, many of whom were Shia. If we look at the history of Muslim rule in India too, we will find that while the central authority, i.e., the Mughals, were Sunni, the local rulers, such as the Nawabs of Bengal and Oudh and the Nizam of Hyderabad were all Shia. Evidence of the Shia presence in modern India is the fact that the day of Ashura is a national holiday in India while the birthday of Imam Ali is a state holiday in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

What explains the massive Shia presence in India and comparatively small presence in neighbouring Pakistan, which is a Muslim state? In one word – secularism. In Pakistan it is not uncommon for the Shia to be attacked during Muharram processions and in general, throughout their history, apart from a handful of places, the Shias have been persecuted. As I write this I can hear in my head the booming voice addressing the Chitpur Ashura gathering last year – “yeh koi Pakistan nahi hai. Yeh hamara Hindustan hai, aur yaha humein azadari ka haq haasil hai” (this is no Pakistan. This is our India, and here we have the right to mourn). The irony of a Muslim country that persecutes Muslims and a country with an overwhelmingly Hindu population where their religious rights are protected – the wonder that is India.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh (with inputs from the #KnowYourNeighbour initiative of S.N.A.P.)

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

For their assistance in putting together this article, I would like to thank

  • Sabir Ahmed, Research Coordinator for Pratichi and member of S.N.A.P. and #KnowYourNeighbour
  • Mohammed Reyaz, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Journalism and Mass Communication, Aliah University
  • Mufti Shamim Shaukat, CEO, West Bengal Waqf Board
  • Shaikh Sohailuddin Siddiqui, founder, Break Free Trails
  • Shahenshah Mirza, great great grandson of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah
  • Shaikh Faraz, caretaker, Prince Rahimuddin Imambara
  • Mukhtar Zaidi, Anaro Bibi Imambara
  • Syed Irfan Abbas, Babul Hawaij Imambara
  • Nizam Hyder, Haji Karbalai Imambara
  • Mirza Mustafa Ali, Kathal Bagan Imambara
  • Syed Hasan Reza, Firdaus Mahal Imambara
  • Ali Abbas Shirazi, Bagwali Kothi Imambara
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