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Lucknow Beyond Imambara – Dr. Samhita Sen

Like a well-written novel or a soulful ghazal, Lucknow gives me a different feel every time I pay a visit. As a college student I first time went to this historic city which amazed me in every step. From the colossal structures to the culinary marvels, the exquisite chikankari works (and the list is quite long), gave me all the reason to visit once more.

Lucknow is a city where myth and history run hand in hand. The city was of Shi’a Nawabs who rose in power when the later Mughals were struggling in the 18th Century. The city, famous for its unique ‘tehzeeb’, has been described as ‘City of Gardens’ or ‘The Golden City of the East’ or ‘Constantinople of India’. The glorious old charm of the city has been still retained by its rich and distinctive style of architectural heritage. The Bara-Imambara surely showcase the glory of the architecture of this beautiful city but the heritage of building activity goes beyond Imambara. There are many more edifices which are huge in size, have exquisite style and are unique in its purpose.

It is believed that the city of Lucknow, situated on the bank of river Gomti, was founded by Lakshamana, the brother of Rama. Another popular view depicts that it was some Bhar chieftain named Lakhana Pasi, who established this city in a much later period. Today one can find structures built during the time of Akbar (1556-1605 CE) in somewhat lesser-known areas of Lucknow. Edifices constructed during the time of Aurangzeb also can be seen. But the city started to thrive from the time of Nawab Asaf-ud- Daula (1775-1797 CE) and the beautiful poetry on stones and bricks flourished. 

Nadan Mahal Courtesy: Author

During the time of Akbar it became a ‘suba’ (province) of Mughal empire and the structures like the tomb of Shaikh Abdur Rahim alias Nidan Shah, popularly known as Nadan Mahal, Solah Khamba and Ibrahim Chishti’s tomb were constructed in the typical Mughal tradition. Some edifices like Akbari gate, Firangi Mahal, Machhi Bhawan and a mosque named Tile ki Masjid were built during the time of Mughal ruler Aurangzeb. Bulbous domes with inverted lotus finial on top of it, the use of red sandstone and voluted and pendulous brackets remind us of Fatehpur Sikri and Lal Qila. 

The architecture of Lucknow owes much to Nawab Asaf-ud- Daula (1775-1797 CE). He shifted the capital from Faizabad to Lucknow and started this immense building activity which created many myths and legends in this city. The huge palaces, gates and havelis which invoke our amazement were started to be built during this time. Bara Imambara and Asafi Mosque , Rumi Darwaza , Residency, Daulat Khana, Bibiapur Kothi are regarded as the architectural glory of Lucknow school of architecture. The Residency, Daulat Khana and Bibiapur Kothi were modelled after European buildings and it shows the influence of Britishers in this part of India.  

Bara Imambara and Asafi Mosque Courtesy: Sudipta Mallick
Rumi Darwaza Courtesy: Sudipta Mallick

In the third phase Nawab Saadat Ali Khan (1798-1814 CE), contributed a lot. His inclination towards the European architecture was reflected in the architecture of Chhatar Manzil and Kothi Farhat Baksh , Lal Baradari, Terhi Kothi, Kothi Baillie Guard, Kothi Hayat Baksh, Kothi Dilkhusha (Figure 5: Author), Begum Kothi, Khurshid Manzil and many others which have been renovated to a great extent. From this period onwards the penetration of Europeans in the administration is reflected in the edifices. The amalgamation of local styles and the European features created a unique school of architecture in this part of India. The British novelties who brought this style along with them allured the Nawabs who prompted the local architects and artisans to emulate its prominent elements in their creations. 

Kothi Farhat Baksh Courtesy: Author
Kothi Dilkhusha Courtesy: Author

The new architectural style in the late eighteenth- early twentieth century introduced a hybrid formation, in which ogee, arcades, slim minarets, fluted domes, and foliated arabesques are combined with attenuated pilasters, Roman round arches, Byzantine Corinthian capitals and Gothic triangular pediments. Kothi Roshan-ud-Daula, Kaiserbagh, Sikanderbagh and Alambagh are some of the finest specimens of this regional style of architecture created by later Nawabs and their associates. The edifices built during this phase had more Mughal impact, though in a transformed version and with lesser European features. Mention can be made of Tombs of Saadat Ali Khan and Mushirzadi, Dargah Hazrat Abbas, Shah Najaf tomb, Hussainabad Imambara, Kazmain, Karbala Dinaut-ud-Daula, Karbala Nasir-ud-Din, Tomb of Amjad Ali Shah etc. 

Tomb of Saadat Ali Khan Courtesy: Author
Tomb of Mushirzadi Courtesy: Author

The buildings constructed by the nawabs of Lucknow showcase remarkable variations of structures comprising of Palaces, Kothis, Summer palaces or garden houses, Mosques, Mausoleums, Imambaras, Karbalas, Baradari, Baolis, Canals, Bridges etc. Construction of Imambaras and Karbalas were an inseparable part of the distinct architectural tradition of the city since the nawabs who belonged to Shia sect of Islam, for celebrating the Muharram festivities as a state function in commemoration of the martyrdom of Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Few of the most venerated edifices of Persia also were reproduced in Lucknow like Shah Najaf, Kazmain, Dargah Hazrat Abbas (Figure 8: Author) etc. One of the most characteristic features of the Lucknow architecture is the construction of grand gateways which form an imposing entrance to magnificent buildings. Out of the surviving examples, Rumi Darwaza is the most spectacular and impressive one. Apart from that, mention can be made of imposing Akbari Gate, Lakhi Gate and Char Lakhi gate which bears the famous mermaid motif of Lucknow. The Nawabs and the wealthy nobles, as well as the European officers, built gardens sometimes with or without the summer house. Musabagh, Charbagh, Aishbagh, Sikanderbagh, Kaiserbagh and Alambagh are some of the finest examples worth mentioning which made the city of Lucknow very aptly known as the ‘City of Gardens’.

Dargah Hazrat Abbas Courtesy: Author

Lucknow is changing its look fast and furiously. The metro rail, imposing official buildings, the multinational food joints and malls are bringing in the development and globalisation in the city of Nawabs. The unfortunate part of this build-out is that famous names like ‘Kaiserbagh’ are now being replaced by ‘Parivartan Chowk’ in the minds of the local people. The Kababs are no longer eaten with pride and glory, on the contrary, non-vegetarian dishes are somehow looked down upon. The Bari Masjid or the Jame Mosque and other non-protected edifices of Lucknow are simply ignored as part of the architectural heritage of this Nawabi City. The famous Bada Mangal constructed by Begum Janab-e-Alia, wife of the third Nawab of Awadh Shuja-ud-Daulah and Hanuman temple built by Nawab Mohammad Ali Shah’s Begum Rabiya are grossly denied of their patrons. The famous Kazmain was built by a local aristocrat named Jagannath Rai, who was converted to Islam later on and took the name Ghulam Raza Khan. Nawab Wajed Ali Shah, as we all know, had an inclination towards Kathak dance and he used to play the part of Krishna in many of his dance drama. Holi and Diwali were equally celebrated with Eid and Muharram under the royal patronage.

It is undeniable that the glory of Lucknow is not only limited to the cuisine or architecture. The unique tahzib and its syncretic culture is something unparallel. 

Author : Dr. Samhita Sen has done her Doctoral thesis in the Nawabi period of Murshidabad from the Department of Islamic History and Culture, University of Calcutta. She has a keen interest in the medieval Indian art, architecture and culture. Her passion for the built heritage of India drives her to different parts of India for studying the structure as well as experiencing the diverse culture which is the main ethos of the country.

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Published inFeature WritingTravelogue

One Comment

  1. Mithu Karmakar Mithu Karmakar

    My heartiest thanks to Dr Samhita, it is just perfect!!

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