Asifi Imambara

Asafi Imambara

(Detailed Write-up including, Asafi Mosque & Shahi Baouli)

Asafi Imambara, Lucknow

Asfi Imambara or the Great Imambara is a stately building pronounced to be the one of the most imposing in the world. It lies within the area known as the Mucchi Bhawan Fort long ago demolished. It was built by Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula in the year 1784 at a cost of a crore of rupees (about one hundred thousand pounds). Only a few years before his father, Shuja-ud-Daula, had transferred his royal residence from Fyzabad to Lucknow, so that there was scope in plenty for the erection of magnificent buildings.

The Great Imambara was constructed as a famine relief measure for the stricken populace. The Nawab caused architects throughout India to compare for the plans, stating that the building was to be unique in structure and that it was to surpass every known building in grandeur. The designs of Kifayat-ullah, a well-known architect, were accepted and the work was commenced. It is said that to afford relief to some of the noble families who, without detriment to their social position, could not be seen engaged in such menial labour, payment was made at night in the dark, without inquiry concerning the identity of the recipient.

With the exception of the galleries in the interior no wood is used in the construction. The central apartment is said to be the largest vaulted hall in the world. The inside measurements are a hundred and sixty-three feet long by fifty-three feet broad by forty-nine and a half feet high, and the walls vary from ten to sixteen feet in thickness and contain passages long since closed.

It is believed that there are large underground chambers, but the passages leading to them have been blocked up since the last century. From the central chamber a staircase leads to a series of rooms designed as a maze. Above these again is a flat roof.

The Imambara is approached by an imposing square gateway surmounted by an octagonal pavilion, and the entire façade is pierced by a myriad arched window openings. Beyond the three doorways in the base lies a garden quadrangle. At the end, steps lead up to a portal similar to the first. Three fine wrought-iron doors leads to second garden terrace on the left of which is a line of cloisters concealing a well, very old and very deep, built in grandiose style, with a balcony above and steps leading to the water’s edge. In the centre of the main chambers is the tomb of Asaf-ud-Daulah. Near him lie the remains of the architect.

“Imambara” is a general term for a building in which the festival of the Moharram is celebrated, sometimes used, as in this case, for a mausoleum. In the contrast to a “masjid” which is un-ornamented that the attention of the worshipers shall not be distracted from their prayers, an “Imambara” is a building dedicated to the memory of the three Imams, Ali and Hassan and Hussain, his sons, and lavishly decorated in their honour. Colonel Newell says of the Great Imambara that its usual daily routine is that of any well-ordered museum or historical show-place. Once a year, however, it awakens from this official lethargy. All its myriad crystal chandeliers burst into sudden flame, and the tomb and tazias assume still further splendours in the honour of the Moharram.

Bishop Heber, who visited Lucknow in 1824 when the Great Imambara was about forty years old, describes it thus: “this tabernacle of chandeliers was hung with immense luster of silver and gold, prismatic crystals, and coloured glass, and any that were too heavy to be hung rose in radiant piles from the floor. In the midst of them were temples of silver filigree, eight or ten feet high and studded with precious stones. There were ancient banners of the Nawabs of Oudh, with sentences from the Korean embroidered on the cloth of gold; gigantic bands of silver covered with talismanic words; sacred shields studded with the name of God; swords of Khorasan steel, lances, and halberds; the turbans of renowned commanders; and several pulpits of peculiar sanctity…”

In 1856 the Rev. Henry Polehampton described the “Imaum Barrah” as “a large quadrangle, about the same size as ‘Tom Quad’ at Christ Church, surrounded by very beautiful buildings. At the farther end is the King’s tomb. It is contained in a large hall full of all sorts of curiosities. There are many immense chandeliers from England, remarkable only for size; and a wooden horse, from a saddler’s shop in Calcutta, is highly prized. With all this there are some beautiful shrines of silver. The King’s tomb is one. It is about eight feet long and four broad, all silver, as also is his mother’s. In the court are tanks of water, something like those at the Crystal Palace; and by the side are creepers trained, and the prettiest is a little red flower… At the Imaum Barrah end of the city the streets are very wide and, thanks to the English, perfectly clean and hard. The steward of the palace that is richly endowed took daguerreotypes, the early form of photographs, and was a very gentlemanly man, a Mohammedan, and most liberal. He won’t take anything for his likenesses. He gives you freely as many as you want, and takes no end of trouble.”

During the reign of Nasir-ud-Din Haider two square courts extended in front of the building of the Imambara, decorated with tessellated pavements. The inner was raised several feet above the outer.

The Durgah, five miles from the King’s palace, contained the metal crest of the banner of Hussain, and on the morning of the fifth day of Moharram people of all ranks and classes went in procession to visit it. The procession from the Royal Imambara was most magnificent, preceded by six or eight gorgeously caparisoned elephants, and escorted by military guard. Following them came a man bearing a black pole upon which two swords hung from a reversed bow. Then came the King, the male members of his family, and his Moulvis. Behind them was led a white Arab horse wearing a richly embroidered saddle cloth and trappings of solid gold, with reddened flanks to imitate arrow wounds, and finally many servants and followers.

Imambara is now under a trust. Various ceremonies take place during the year and at each of these, food or sweets are distributed among the audience and on the ninth day of the Moharram illuminations continue throughout the night. The Trust sends about eighty pilgrims every year to Karbala, each of whom is given a hundred and fifty rupees. During the month of Ramzan food is distributed daily to over six hundred people. Families living in reduced circumstances are given allowances and lodging in the Rais Munzil.

Asafi Mosque: Much the largest mosque commissioned by the Nawabs in the 18th century, was that by Nawab Asaf-ud-daula, as an accompaniment to the Bara Imambara. It is situated in the second forecourt of the Bara Imambara, to its north-west side and at an angle to its main axis. This mosque is approached by an imposing flight of steps, which lead up to a terrace of stone.

The plan of the mosque is a highly elaborated version of that of the early Nawabi mosques and consists of a series of ten chambers, connected to one another on all sides (except towards the closed west wall) by large arches. These chambers are arranged in two parallel rows of five chambers each, along a north-south axis, thus giving the superficial impression that the building actually consists of two vast, rectangular halls. In fact, the pair of chambers lying at the centre of the composition, of which the western one faces the mehrab-wall and of which the eastern, turns out on a close inspection to be larger than all others. The piers dividing the chambers have enormous thickness, but their surface moulding is not complex; roofs are vaulted; the materials used in the interior are throughout brick and stucco, now coloured white; floors of stone; and no wood seems to have been employed. The decoration in the interior is confined to floral and geometric stucco bands, in a manner permitted by Islam; but a striking feature is the use of coffering in ceilings, in a style reminiscent of ceilings of the east and west chambers of the Bara Imambara.

A towering work, the Asafi mosque has a spacious east elevation dominated by a large foliated arch, whose spandrel is adorned with arabesques. This is flanked on each side by a row of five arched doorways, which terminates in octagonal minarets rising to a great height and surmounted by arched canopies with conical heads. The accent on the verticality conveyed by the minarets is somewhat counteracted, however, by their width, by their division into three stages, and by the decorative details on their faces. The mosque’s roof has an uninterrupted register of arched kiosks, somewhat recessed from which are the onion-shaped domes with fluting and with the copper finials. The domes are also set apart both from one another and from the minarets, rather in the manner of Shahjahan’s Jama Masjid in Delhi than in that of early Nawabi mosques. The Asafi mosque’s domes also have, unlike those of earlier Nawabi ones, culminating ogee outlines.

The north and south elevations of the mosque are relatively free of decoration; so, too, is the west facade, which is sub-divided into three parts by slightly projecting central bay in which an interesting motif appears in relief: three arches surmounted by three domes, surely a symbolic reference to a mosque. The west front reveals how deep were the deep foundations upon which the mosque was built; these rise from the bed of a stream, and were evidently so raised as to bring the mosque to a uniform level with the Imambara.

If the mosque is a dominating composition with an aura of grandeur about it, it yet seems difficult to resist noting the changes of form and in style that have taken place in design of Friday congregational mosques since the high age of Mughal architecture. This becomes immediately obvious when we compare the Asafi mosque with Jama Masjid erected in Delhi in Shahjehan’s reign. Though both edifices have employed much the same compositional elements and have submitted to the same decorative orthodoxy imposed by Islam, there is a world of difference in the statements they make. For, whereas in the Jama Masjid the profiles are sharp and clear and the adornments crisply executed, in the Asafi mosque, the ornament is woven in sinuous, linear forms, and the cupolas have acquired fluid contours. Then, on their east or show fronts, the ratio of their central arches to their flanking arcades they offset, are also dissimilar in the two works. And, of course, altogether different materials are used in the two works; sandstone and marble in Delhi, brick-masonry and stucco in Lucknow.

It is important, nevertheless, to bear in mind two other aspects of the Asafi Mosque. First, it will have appeared more attractive in its pristine condition, as its “chunam” (stucco) façade, whose easily manipulative surface also accounts for its generous ornamentation, has largely lost its complex. For its great size and its grand platform surely enhance the splendour of the Imambara’s main-court. Of course, as its style also recalls that of some portions of the Imambara, it may be altogether reasonable to suppose that Kifayatullah, the architect of the Bara Imambara, was also responsible for the Asafi Mosque. Kifayatullah was a product of the Mughal school of architecture, who remained unaffected by the European manner, is obvious. It is, however, equally clear that his approach to style was not quite to be shared by the Nawabi architects of the 19th century, whose oeuvre were increasing ostentation works. Consequently, the Asafi mosque became a stylistic watershed in the history of Nawabi architecture, as the mosque-design was dramatically changed from the traditional designs.

Royal Well (Shahi Bouli) : The Shahi Bali built on the left flank of Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula’s Imambara in Lucknow is a typical Hindu architectural design. There is little doubt that it was built by Hindu kings, though at present it is an integral part of Nawab Asafuddaula’s Imambara.

According to a legend, during the great famine of 1787 Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula the fourth Nawab of Awadh, built this Shahi bawali near Macchi Bhawan, along with the magnificent Imambara, Bhoolbhulaiyan, Roomi Gate and Asafi Masjid. There is yet another school of thought advocating that the Bouli was in existence when the construction of Imambara was taken up and that it was made part of Imambara complex after renovation. There appears to be some substance in this latter belief since ruins of ancient buildings are frequently unearthed in the adjoining area around the present Hussainabad Inter College. These ancient constructions bear a striking similarity to the architecture of Shahi Bouli.

The approach to the Bouli is through a high portal having an un-ornamented arch (Mahrab). Beyond this portal are a series of stairs descending down to the water reservoir. On either flank are rows of three storeyed Mehrabs. Water flows into the Bouli through a large Shah-Jahani Mahrab.

There is a multi-chambered summer palace in the interior, built around the large circular and large deep well. The entire building complex has been constructed with the Lakhori bricks. Its layout exhibits a rare architectural excellence. A part of the circular palace lies submerged in water.

There are interesting folklore connected with this bouli palace. It is served as a traditional summer resort for the royal guests visiting Lucknow. Warren Hastings, one of the distinguished guests of Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula, was also kept and entertained at this palace. For controlling the flow of water, the inlet of water in the bawali was later covered with an iron plate. The most interesting legend about this bouli is about the keys of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s treasury. It is said that while abandoning Lucknow, the Nawab arranged to throw the keys into this bouli to keep them falling in the hands of the British captors. The Shahi bouli even today a significant status among the ancient buildings of Lucknow and is considered the oldest bouli of the area.

Source: Historic Lucknow- Sidney Hay; The Architecture of Lucknow and its Dependencies, 1722-1856-Banmali Tondon; Monuments of Lucknow- Yogesh Praveen.