Asaf-ud-Daula & Imambara

Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah: a generous king who gave Lucknow its turning point

It is interesting to realise that the Nawabs of Awadh (present Lucknow), were peerless in a way that these kings were not known for their wars & victories as much as the unique Awadhi culture they embraced.  The era of the Nawabs of Awadh is known best for the exclusive cuisine it gave birth to and the architecture it left behind. And the Nawab who brought up this city as a pearl on the map of northern India, is the fourth Nawab of Awadh – Nawab Asaf-ud-daulah.

Born in 1748 as Mirza Yahya alias Mirza Amani, he became Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah on Jan 31, 1775 when he ascended the throne of Awadh as the Nawab of Awadh. He was the eldest son of the third Nawab of Awadh, Shujauddaula and the only child of his mother ‘Bahu Begam’.

Nawab’s childhood was spent in lavish & splendid Nawabi environment, which made him quite a spoilt kid. Nawab’s teacher Sharfuddaula made every possible effort to make him capable of his Navabaidada, but at that time Nawab couldn’t improve himself to this extent.

Although he was very much pampered by his mother when he was small, in his later years Nawab didn’t have good relations with his mother and grandmother. Often, he used to ask his mother for the complete ownership of the treasure left by his father, but his mother refused every time. Disagreeing by this, he started residing in Lucknow and thus, in 1775, he moved the capital of Awadh province from Faizabad to Lucknow. It is when he shifted to Lucknow that he built various monuments, including the famous Bara Imambara in and around the city.

Asaf-ud-daula was first appointed as Meer Aatish in the Mughal Empire. After that, on 18 February 1762 he was raised to the position of Director of Deewan e khas (a hall of private meetings of the royals). He also used to oversee the work of minister ship along with Raja Beni Bahadur from time to time.

Asaf-ud-Daula enthroned Awadh at the age of 26, after the death of his father, Shujauddaula.

It was Nawab’s keen fondness of constructing buildings, rather grand structures that he is the Nawab who established maximum number of notable structures in Lucknow.

When Nawab shifted his capital and transferred from Faizabad to Lucknow, he and his court took up their abode in Daulat Khana – a collection of buildings lying north-west of the Rumi Darwaza in Huissanabad. Being associated to Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula, these buildings are also known as Daulat Khana-e-Asafi; Daulat Khana means Nobleman’s mansion. The buildings cover an area of around 45 acres. The buildings are placed in an irregular fashion amidst garden and in between tanks.

Attached to Daulat Khana is Mahtabh BaghThis placed served as parade ground for the British after annexation. Though the garden disappeared during the 1857 uprising, but its traces remain.

In 1784, a terrible drought had hit the land of Awadh. Due to the calamity, the life of the people got disrupted. The citizen didn’t have any means to earn for survival. In those days, the people of Awadh lived with much pride and everyone didn’t accept alms. Thus, to provide them a source of employment, Nawab ordered the construction of the Imambara in Lucknow – popularly known as the Bara Imambara or Asafi Imambara. The act was a perfect instance of the generosity of Nawab Asaf-ud-daula.

Asif-ud-Daula - Muhorram

Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula at the Imambara listening to the sermons of the priest during Muharram. Quite in contrast to today when people wear black clothes in mourning, here they can be seen wearing all white. Probably the tradition of wearing black clothes in the mourning period of Muharram came much later.

In his desire to make a building which would be unique in structure & design, the Nawab called upon architects from throughout India to compete in building plans. It was Kifayat-Ullah, a well known architect whose designs were accepted and which resulted in an edifice which excelled at every level of magnificence and enigmatic architecture.  Standing peacefully on a busy road of Hussainabad in old Lucknow, the Imambara sees a large footfall of domestic as well foreign tourists throughout the year, although more in the winter season. The second floor of the building has a labrynith, the famous ‘Bhool Bhulaiyya’. The maze comprises of more than 1000 passages, some leading to dead ends, some to abrupt drops and some to the entry and exit points. It is said that it was moulded to puzzle the enemies if they enter the Imambara. The way to exit the Bhool Bhulaiiya was only known by Nawab and the architect Kifayat Ullah.

There is also a five-story step-well, known as Shahi Baoli, or the Shahi Hammam (royal bath). Presently, only two stories are visible as the rest three are submerged underwater. There is a saying that ‘even walls can hear’ and this spectacular architecture proves it true. The walls of the halls are built in such a way that even if you light a matchstick or whisper in one hall, the sound will echo into another hall. It intrigues and amazes the onlookers and visitors. The shrine of Nawab Asaf-ud-daulah is also placed within the monument. It took 6 years and 22000 people to build the Imambara complex.

Asaf-ud-Daula constructed the Bibiyapur Kothi, where he frequented to resort to his passion for hunting. He also built the beautiful Chunhat Khoti.

Nawab also had a liking for gardens and consequently planted many gardens in Lucknow. Rose was his favourite flower, to an extent that it was considered his weakness.

In Asaf-ud-Daula’s period, Lucknow appeared as a Gulistan, meaning a beautiful garden. He laid down many gardens and established mohallas (localities) around it.

The pomp and show seen in Nawab Asaf-ud-Dauala’s court was unparalleled. No other royal court could match the splendour & lavish styles of his court at that time. Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula’s collection of luxury essentials were not found or seen in any other place. During that period, Lucknow glittered like a chandelier and no other city in India could come at par with it. Soon, the exuberant displace of Lucknow’s architecture caught the eye of the whole world.

Asaf-ud-Daula at a court concert

Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula is seen seated in the court and smoking huqqua, listening to the court musicians entertaining him.

Roomi Darwaza, Badi Masjid, Sheesh Mahal, Aishbagh, Charbagh, Golden Bastion are some of the structures and gardens developed by the Nawab. He also constructed a canal through the Gomti River for the public.

One thing Asaf-ud-Daula is prominently known for is his immensely kind and charitable nature. Every day, in the morning he routinely offered alms to destitute and desolated people. He is quite famous for distributing muskmelons to the poor with alms placed inside. This act of putting alms in muskmelons drew a saying to his name which goes as 

‘Jisko na de maula, usko de Asaf ud dauala’

(One who is forsaken by God is bestowed by Asaf-ud-Daula)

Nawab also had a way with poetry and used to write the poems in the name of ‘Asif’. Famous poets like Meer, Zarat, Mashafi, Sauda were in his court. He also had library of around 300,000 books.

He also enjoyed watching kite-flying duels. It was at Baradari in Chowk where he used to sit and watch the kite-flying.

Despite not getting along well with his mother, Nawab invited her often to stay in Lucknow. For her, he built a separate palace named ‘Sunahara Burj’ meaning golden tower. She, however, never stayed here permanently.

Under the reign of the fourth Nawab, Lucknow emerged as a pearl on the map of Northern India with significant developments taking place here.

It can be convincingly said, he made Lucknow the capital of Awadh out of a whim which brought a sweeping change to the city and the people of this land were blessed by his administrative decisions for generations in row.