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The Imambaras of Lucknow

Gateway to Bahu Begum Ka Maqbara

Mantosh made quick work of the six kms to Faizabad and we were at Bahu Begum Ka Maqbara in 15 minutes. A shut huge wooden arched gate embedded in a dirty but beautiful structure welcomed us. The structure reminded me of the Naqqar Khana at Gol Gumbaz.  A rickety board close by said ASI maintained monument. We looked around. Small houses were all around. Seeing some women and a car a man came out of one of them and approached us. "We would like to see the monument" I said. "How will maaji enter?" he asked. "By car if it can go in" I replied. He opened a small inset door. We crossed the small gate by the time he opened the big main gate. At the far end stood the beautiful tomb. Columns of tall Palm trees lined a long driveway. 

Bahu Begum Ka Maqbara

Bahu Begum was the Queen of Shuja ud Daula, the Nawab of Awadh. And this tomb is a fine example of non-Mughal Islamic architecture. I had also read it was influenced by Rajput architecture. The balconies with their arched roofs at the top of the Naqqar Khana do look like the Jharokas of Rajastan. We could see a man squatting near the Tomb. ASI protected monuments have well kept lawns but this one had gone to the dogs. It was littered and as we tried to enter the Tomb the man shelling garlic cloves said we could not go in. I could see a cot inside and I was horrified. It looked like someone lived inside. Who was that man? And why was there a cot inside? 


We looked up and saw the beautiful fluted dome sitting on inverted petals and rows of cells on all tiers. We walked to the left of the tomb and took some pictures.  The walls are beautifully decorated so also the minarets. The board at the entrance promises a lot but we were afraid to step in. Very sad state of affairs. What could be a must visit monument is lost to the public.  The pictures on Wikipedia dated 2010 present a very different reality. The place looks clean with no squatters. And it has pictures of the inside too. What has gone wrong here? Why is it in this state of neglect?


Fish and Jharokas

We turned back very distressed. The Jharokas on the gateway on this side too were dirty. We now noticed fishes at the very top. Wonder what they indicated? I turned to look at the Maqbara and saw the man still squatting where we had left him. As we crossed the small gate, we noticed a similar gate on the other door too. The outer walls fared even worse. Tree trunks barricaded the entire complex. We saw arched cells all along its length.


Deeply saddened we drove off. Shuja ud Daula played an important role in our history. He is buried in Faizabad at Gulab Bari. He  won the Third Battle of Panipat and defeated the Marathas. And Bahu Begum was no ordinary Queen. She inherited huge wealth and  payed off the British when  the Nawab   lost to the British. After his death, her son Asaf-ud-Daula became the Nawab. But she refused to move to Lucknow when he moved the capital to Lucknow. Interested in Architecture and Urdu she took Faizabad to the pinnacle of its glory and ruled from behind the Purdah until her death. An article in DNAsays the property is in dispute. And is contested by ASI, Shia Waqf board and her descendant. But all I could see was a beautiful building being lost to posterity.  I have tweeted before and will tweet again to ASI and UP Govt about it.


The city of Lucknow is famous for Chikankari work and its Kebabs too but it stands apart for its a way of life that is royal, poetic and extremely polite. The word that best describes Lucknow is its tehseeb, meaning culture. This has been the essence of many Bollywood movies. It is a two-hour drive from Faizabad and with a loquacious and foot on the accelerator Mantosh we zipped through the towns en-route. We zipped past huge govt buildings on broad avenues and stopped at a Paratha and Lassi shop. My Amma had got me worried when she asked, “have you booked a hotel here too?” "No, we are flying home " I had replied. She wanted to go home and wanted Rice and Rasam. She did not want the Paratha and again had a Lassi. So did Mantosh and I. My brother's messages did not help. He wanted her sugar tested asap. I looked around for a Hospital. I asked the Traffic police for one and he gave me an address. I wanted to be in the city with access to medical help rather than sitting in the Airport. But my Amma kept saying she was ok and there was no need to worry.


So, we drove to the Bara Imambara. Mantosh was no good at asking people for directions and we ended up further away. I stepped in and we were directed to the main entrance of the Bara Imambara. Even as we stood taking pictures a man approached us and appointed himself our guide for a mere 30 rupees. Fell for that trick once again. He made us hire an electric auto for rupees 50 to show us around. I did not want my Amma walking anymore. We got in. Ten steps ahead we stopped at the 60 feet Rumi Darwaza. Rumi Darwaza is also called the Turkish gate and was built by Nawab Asaf-Ud-daula, Bahu Begum's son in 1784. Rumi Darwaza is modelled after Sublime Porte (Bab-iHümayun) in Istanbul and named after the Sufi mystic Rumi. 


One facade of Rumi Darwaza
Another facade of Rumi Darwaza

All this from Wikipedia. But the guide knew history and rattled off dates and names. Rumi Darwaza has two facades one on each side. On this side it was a three-tiered structure with three arched gates and crowned by a Rajasthani Chatri. We crossed it and from the other side it looked like a Paan (betel leaves) with cloves sticking out. The guides description has stayed with me. Look at the language. Poetic eh? An instance of Lucknowi Tehzeeb? It is incredible to see this transformation. The gates seem to be on the edges of a semi-circular hollow from this side. The guide cajoled me to pose for a picture. So, I now have a picture of me scowling in the hot sun against the Rumi Darwaza.


Husainabad Clock Tower

Close to the Rumi Darwaza is theHusainabad Clock Tower built in 1881 to mark the arrival of Sir George Couper, the first lieutenant governor of United Province of Avadh. It is modelled after the Big Ben and is the tallest in India. The mechanical clock still chimes after undergoing repairs in 2011. The Clock tower stands on the other side of a pond and theSatkhanda stands in line with the Clock Tower farther away. Satkhanda built by Nawab Muhammad Ali Shah in 1837 with Greek and Islamic styles was for moon sighting by the clerics. It started off with the idea of being seven storeyed but stayed at 4 storeys due to his death allegedly on a tour of the building. No other ruler bothered to complete it considering it to be a bad omen. In 2018 a renovation program completed it by adding three glass storeys to it.  The building may have been completed but it would have been prettier if the original material and plan had been implemented in toto. Come to think of it the entire area near the Bara Imambara looks very well maintained with clean cobbled streets all over and a lot of electric autos. And not to forget guides like ours preying on visitors. The moment I got into the auto he got in and drove us off away from the Imambara though we kept saying we would like to see it before we shopped. 


Five minutes later we stopped in front of a complex and asking my mom to stay back I followed the guide reluctantly through some narrow door into an alley of Chikankari Shops. He dropped me off at a shop and the owners took over. And they started showing me Chikankari dress material, Kurtis, saris etc. I had worn a yellow Chikankari dress to honour Lucknow and nothing they showed caught my eye.  I kept telling them my Amma was waiting outside and I had to hurry but they kept trying to entice me with material from other shops as well. Finally, I walked off saying sorry. The miffed guide brought us back, dumped us unceremoniously near our car and with a brusque "since you do not intend going into the maze, you go around by yourself" walked off. We had been right in front of the Imambara when we hired the auto. How cleverly we were guided away from it and then dumped in front of it! I had not learnt my lesson about these kinds of guides yet.  I left my Amma in the car under Mantosh's care and walked towards the Imambara alone.


An Imambara is a Shia hall for congregational prayer. It is also called a Hussainiya  and comes from Husayn ibn Ali, the third of the Twelve Imams and the grandson of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Husayn was killed at the Battle of Karbala on 10 October 680 CE in the fight for the leadership of Islam. Shia is the second larges Muslim sect and they are followers of Husayn ibn Ali unlike the Sunnis who believe Abu Bakr was the rightful Caliph after Muhammad.  Gyan from guru Wikipedia. We were in Shia land as the Nawab's were Shias.


Asafa ud Daula started the construction of the Imambara in 1784, the year of a devastating famine. It was started to provide employment to the people in those difficult years. Legend has it that all the work done by ordinary folks during the day was undone at night by the elite. The construction ended in 1791 and cost up to a million rupees. We need someone and something like this for our migrants in these Covid times. Who and what will it be? Time will tell.


Inner courtyard of Bara Imambara
Bara Imambara

The outer gateway with its majestic gates beckoned. It had the same two fishes at the top like Bahu Begum Ka Maqbara. And it had Jharokas as well.  I bought tickets for the Imambara and the maze and walked in. This is a very well-maintained monument, clean with green   lawns and trees with flowers. A very nice site map welcomed me. I paused before it to get my bearings.  As I crossed a similar second gateway a legend on a board says an Imam Bargah is a place for mourning and sorrow and goes into details of the killing of Husayn Ali.  A long driveway opens with a massive mosque to the right and a building with seven arched doors atop a flight of steps. And close to it is a footwear stand. I gave them my shoes and took the steps. People were everywhere, young, old, families, friends all.


Grave of Asafa ud Daula

Belgian Mirror

Replica of Karbala?


Stuccoed Roof

I entered a hall dazzling with Chandeliers, huge Belgian Mirrors and glittering Tazias. A Tazia is a replica of the tomb of Muhammad’s grandson carried in a procession during Muharram. Muharram marks the anniversary of the Battle of Karbala. Under a canopy is the grave of Asafa ud Daula. The walls are painted a pastel green and the all the doors are beautifully layered arches.  There were prototypes of various places with plastic flowers in vases before them. But all I recognize now is the one of Karbala with the help of Internet. The roof and walls all have stucco designs gracing them. Somewhere at the top is the Bhool Bulaiya, the maze but I was not going there. A guide would have helped but I was in a hurry. My Amma was waiting for me.


Asfi Mosque
Shahi Baoli

People were resting in the corridors near the huge Asfi Mosque, Asfi because Asafa ud Daula built it. I contented myself by getting the whole mosque in one frame. Opposite to it is the Shahi Baoli at the entrance of which I stopped. Shahi is royal and Baoli is a well and this was a step well. The guide called out, but I didn't follow him.  I walked away. With one last video of the entire courtyard I crossed the two gateways and came out. I walked out with a promise to myself that I would come back and check out this place with a guide. Opposite is the Naqqar Khana/Naubat Khana the drum house in red with fishes and Jharokas. And right in front of the gates our guide was trapping another family. He looked at me and winced. Perhaps he thought I would pick on him. As, I walked away I overheard the woman clearly saying they wanted him to show the Imambara first before any shopping. I returned to the car. My Amma was alright but she felt I had gone away for too long.


The Chota Imambara is close by and it was just 1 PM and we drove to it. A red gateway with loudspeakers, banners, boards cluttered it while a dome struggled to show itself through the gate that stood before us. Leaving my mom with Mantosh I walked to the gate. I stopped for the ticket and was told I had to cover my head. I was bare headed and had no dupatta with me. They offered a pale green one with silver lines and I wrapped it over my head. I had seen my friends doing it and I did it effortlessly.  I like this idea of providing appropriate clothing at places of worship when a dress code is mandate. How will they handle it in the post Covid era?  Food for thought.


Chota Imambara

Look at the Calligraphy
I walked in and a guy walked behind me offering to be my guide but refused, I did not have the time for it.  A dazzling white Imambara stood at the far end of a pond filled with clear water.  Two Taj Mahal like structures stood on either side of the pond. A fish like Anemometer turned in the wind on a smaller arch. Again, a well-maintained garden welcomed me.  I crossed a girl holding a chain for earthing purpose and walked in a trance towards the Imambara. It was bewitching. Two boys were refusing to use the pay and use footwear stand. They wanted to leave it at the foot of the Imambara unguarded and free. I left mine and climbed the steps. Beautiful calligraphy in white covered the entire facade.  I have seen a few words but here every nook and corner was taken. The entire facade was covered in it. I couldn't read a word of the Quranic calligraphy, but they were beautiful, and I stood along with others and admired it.  Finally, I turned and stood at the top of the pond for a long shot. So many cables and wires crisscrossing high up ruined the whole view.


What is the collection of Chandeliers? A dazzle of Chandeliers? Because the inside dazzled with them. They covered the whole roof. And in all colours white and blue and red and gold. There were floor chandeliers as well. Their reflection was a mishmash in a huge Belgian mirror.  Because of this dazzle it is also called the Palace of Lights. Built by Muhammad Ali Shah the Chota Imambara houses his and his mother's grave. They lie beside each other under a canopy. When a guide pointed out his crown to his audience, I went back to see it. It is made of fine filigree work in silver with a Serpecha and rested and was covered with a velvet pillow. Inside a glass cage was a crystal lamp stand.  A throne’s look was hidden beneath a gaudy cloth. And again, at the altars I felt the need for a guide.  


A dazzle of Chandeliers

Floor Chandeliers

Grave of Asafa ud Daula and his crown


I walked into a room and waited for a father son to finish a taking a selfie near a Quran in a glass cage. And I asked them about the coloured paper Mosque in the center of the room They looked at me skeptically and asked "From where are you ?" to my "Bangalore" they replied "this is the Tazia and haven't you seen one in Bangalore during Muharram?" I had not. They looked at me oddly as we dispersed.



I got a picture of the tomb of Princess Zinat Asiya  and the treasury opposite it. The treasury has ornate stucco work all over it per my pictures. I had not gone near them. The Husainabad Mosque with its fluted domes  stood at  one corner and its view was again marred by crisscrossing wires. The doorway to the Shahi Hammam[Royal Bath] was crowded. I excused myself made my way in. Inside in an open hall embedded in the ground is an almost ten feet tub. So, the King wallowed in it in public! And how tall was he? The guide seemed to be saying 7 feet.  Then why was the tub so big? He would drown.


Princess Zinat's  tomb

Husainabad Mosque
Shahi Hammam

My Amma wanted nothing for lunch and we drove to the airport. I called up the Car rental and settled his bill. I tipped Mantosh and got out of the car. He bent down to touch my feet and I was taken aback. He had been a great driver. He sought my Amma's blessings similarly and walked away. We entered the airport. And saw the Imambaras and the Clock Tower on the walls near the Airline counters. We had more than 3 hours to the flight. I went to a shop selling food and picked up 2 samosas for 130 rupees. Shocked at the cost of the stale samosas I told the Shop keeper "now I know why no one buys airport food" caustically and returned. Even this did not interest my Amma. I ate alone. I regretted not bringing the Banana's Mantosh had got for us. We had taken just two and returned all of them. A group of politicians stood talking nearby. They had come for the BJP convention and were waiting for the Mumbai flight. Our flight was after that.  The Air hostess let my Amma occupy the front seat rather than walk to our seats. My Amma fell asleep as the flight took off.  Almost 4 hours later my Amma had her first meal in so many days and relished the Anna Rasam that she had yearned for. We were home.

Kanshi Ram Gate

Lucknow airport

What a trip we have had! Two women traveled through notorious Bihar and UP and lived to tell the tale. Apart from the usual duping we were  never intimidated and never felt unsafe. Lets discount my hyper imagination in Prayagraj. I had worried I would drop my phone in the river. Nope it came back safe. I had worried purse/jewellery  would be stolen from us especially in crowded place. Nope it had not happened. We  had returned enriched with so many memories. Amma and I can keep reliving them forever now.

And you my readers have enjoyed the virtual tour just as much as our real one I hope.  Thank you and let us meet again on another journey.

Prev: Our Tryst with Ram Janmabhoomi, Ayodhya  Next: The Imambaras of Lucknow - gallery

This post first appeared on A Wet And Rainy Picnic, please read the originial post: here

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The Imambaras of Lucknow


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