Asafi Imambara - The Pride of Lucknow
by Dr. Khalilullah Khan
Courtesy: INDIA JOURNAL
The very mention of Lucknow the historical capital city of the state of Uttar Pradesh evokes images of a culture where etiquette still reigns supreme, where one is always respectful towards the other. But this culture has taken ages to evolve. Legend has it that Lucknow was founded by Lakshman, the younger brother of Lord Rama, the king of Ayodhya.
Lucknow has had a checkered history. According to historians, Mahmud of Ghazni who had invaded India, installed his nephew as Governor of Lucknow before returning to Afghanistan. In the year 1130, Lucknow came under the occupation of the Rajputs. After the Rajput, the Sheikhs, Pathans and the Sharqi Sultans of Jaunpur, in turn, ruled it. Thereafter, Lucknow became part of the Delhi kingdom under Lodhi dynasty. In 1732 the Mughals appointed Mohammed Amin Saadat Khan Burhan-Ul-Mulk as Lucknow's Nawab-Wazir. Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula, the fourth Nawab of this dynasty, shifted his capital from Faizabad to Lucknow.
The present city of Lucknow is situated on both the banks of river Gomati which is a tributary of the mighty Ganga. Lucknow mirrors the grandeur of its royal heritage. During the reign of the Nawabs of Avadh, music, poetry and theater were greatly patronized and Lucknow became a center of art and culture. It was renowned for its skills and crafts such as distillation of scents and fragrances, "chikan-saazi, zardozi" and "kamdani" a kind of delicate needlework on cambric cloth, muslin and fine silks. Earthen and silverwares and manufacture of silver and gold foils were some of the other industries of note. Visitors to Lucknow described it as a city of gardens. While "Dussehri", a world-renowned variety of mangoes, comes from neighboring Malihabad, there are hundreds of other varieties grown in the mango groves in its surrounding areas.
The distinguishing characteristics of people in Lucknow were their composite culture, a polite and formal manner of speech and address and a somewhat exhibitionist style of life devoted to luxuries and leisurely pursuits. Lucknow's famous poet Nasikh's figurative speech, his imagery and coinage of difficult words, and the greatest Marsia writer Anis' unsurpassed elegies occupy a place of distinction in Urdu literature.
The reign of Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula lasted from 1775 to 1795. Lucknow and its people prospered greatly during his rule. His rule is also marked by construction of a large number of beautiful and magnificent buildings of which the Bara Imambara or Asaf-ud-Daula's Imambara, Rumi Darwaza, Daultkhana and Beebapura ki Kothi are of special mention. These buildings carry the imprint of mughal architecture with the important difference that Lakhori bricks instead of stones and marble have been used in their construction.
In Islamic architecture, Imambaras occupy an important place after mosques and mausoleums. In the days of the Nawabs, there hardly was a "mohalla" (locality) in Lucknow that did not boast of a couple of Imambaras of note. The decoration and splendor of the Imambaras during the festive month of Muharram present a breathtaking sight. Glimpses of the royal patronage that these celebrations once enjoyed can still be had during Muharram. Apart from that "Majalis" (congregations) are held in these Imambaras on other days as well throughout the year.
As regards architectural features of Asafi-Imambara, Lakhori bricks and red limestone have been used in its construction. Mortar used for masonry works was reinforced by mixing in it crushed and pounded seashells, ground pulses, thickened syrup and "jaggery". The same mixture has been used in relief motifs of flowers, plants and fish decorating the arcades. This Imambara is located at a short distance from the "Chhota" (smaller) Imambara of Hussainabad. There is a huge and imposing gate between the two Imambaras, known as Rumi Darwaza. Both buildings are the pride of Lucknow. Asafi Imambara is perhaps the last big monument built in India symbolizing the Islamic architecture.
The construction of Asafi Imambara is said to have been undertaken in 1784 with a view to provide relief to people from severe famine. It is also said that work on Imambara used to be carried on during night so that men of respectable families and even "burqa"-clad women could also participate without attracting attention. It took several years to complete the construction. About twenty thousand workers are said to have been employed and it approximately cost 15 million silver coins.
The building pals were drawn up by Qifayatullah Shah Jehanabadi which have remained untraceable even to this day or else the mystery of its dark underground passages and chambers would have long been resolved. It is generally believed that anyone who once entered there never returned to see the daylight. Entrance to these passages has, therefore, been closed down.
Asafi Imambara is well-known for its immense proportions. After crossing its gateways one emerges into the spacious lawns of its forecourt. On the right side of the courtyard is located the Asafi Mosque, while on its left is a "baoli" (deep well). In front of an elevated Chabutra stands in imposing grandeur the magnificent three-storied building of the Imambara. The building is 302 ft. long, 163 ft. broad and 63 ft. high. It has a vaulted hall of great dimensions 163 ft. long, 53 ft. wide and 50 ft. high. It is remarkable that neither steel nor wood has been used in the ceiling. For support, its weight is distributed on bow-like arches. This hall is considered to be the largest of its kind and its arched ceiling a marvel throughout the world.
In the "Shehnashin" are housed the most valuable "Tazias" and "Alums". In the center of the big hall is located the tomb of Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula, while by its side lies buried his consort Begum Shamsunissa. There is yet another hall adjoining this hall. Both the halls are used for holding congregations. From the ceilings hang beautiful and valuable chandeliers imported from Belgium and England. During the month of Muharram, people from far and near flock to the Imambara to witness its illuminations and the ritual fire walking by the mourners.
The perforated arcade above the parapet of the monument is particularly spacious and has an air of architectural exuberance. From outside, a staircase leads to a series of rooms designed as a labyrinth, commonly known as "Bhul-bhulaiyan", in which there are many intricate paths.
"Burmi Darwaza", also known as the Turkish Gateway, serves as an entrance to the Imambara from its western side. This is reportedly a replica of a similar gate in Constantinople (Istanbul). Viewed from a distance, this gate, which is approximately 60 ft. high, looks like the half of a vast dome. It is an exquisite specimen of Avadhi architecture.