One of the biggest attractions in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, is the imambara built by Nawab Asaf-ud-daula (1748-1797). Popularly known as the Bara Imambara, it is also called the Asafi Imambara in his remembrance. An architectural marvel, there are also interesting tales attached to it.
A plan to feed all
Construction of the imambara (and the neighbouring Rumi Darwaza) began in 1784 as part of famine relief. The region was in the grip of a severe drought and food was scarce. The nawab declared that people who offered their labour for the construction would get food as wages. While most people joined the work, the nobles were left out as they could not stoop to doing physical labour. So the nawab invited them to come in the darkness of night and partially damage what had been constructed by day and go back with their share of the food. That way, he also ensured that there was work to last the duration of the famine.
The architect’s fee
Despite being part of the famine relief project, the nawab had grand plans for the construction of the imambara. He held a competition for the best design and chose renowned architect Kifayatullah. When asked to state his fee, the architect said he wanted to be buried in the monument. The nawab granted his wish.
A large tract of land was earmarked for the construction of the grandly designed imambara. But in the middle of it was a hut belonging to a woman called Lado Saquum. She refused to budge as she used the hut to pray and house a tazia. The nawab promised her that the tazia would be returned to the same place after the completion of the imambara and would be the first to be carried out during the procession, a ritual followed even today, according to local people. The woman donated her land saying it was for a holy cause.
An engineering marvel
Although tomes have been written about the architectural excellence of the Bara Imambara, no words will prepare you for the surprise once you stand beneath the roof of the central hall. The huge roof with all its embellishments inside and outside is not supported by pillars, or girders. According to a popular tale, when French architect Major General Martin said the roof would collapse once the supporting framework was removed, Kifayatullah placed a cot underneath the roof and asked all frames to be removed a week before the actual opening. There was no accident and Kifayatullah emerged a winner. According to experts, the weight was distributed across the arches.
Hide and seek anyone?
The most popular attraction within the imambara complex is the Bhool Bhulaiyan, a warren of narrow vaulted passageways and low ceiling galleries, with 489 similar looking doors. The entire construction is like a maze and not all passages will help you come out of the labyrinth. Various reasons are attributed to the creation of the maze. Some say it is due to the different levels of construction involved, some believe it was for the air to circulate. It is always advisable to take a guide along with you. Often, the guides throw a challenge at the visitors urging them to come out of the maze in a given time and promise to rescue you if you fail to come out. Many take up the challenge with only a few succeeding in the attempt. However, if you have claustrophobia, think twice before you enter the maze.
Note: The Bara Imambara is located in old Hussainabad neighbourhood of Lucknow. You may refer to ‘Monuments of Lucknow’ – written by RS Fonia and published by the Archaeological Survey of India – if you want to know more about the architecture of the Bara Imambara and other monuments of the city.