Bada Imambara or Asafi Imambara
In one of the earliest studies dealing with eastern and Indian architecture published in 1910, James Ferguson observed 'If mass and richness of ornamentation were in themselves sufficient to constitute architecture, few capitals in India could show so much of it as Lucknow. It is, in fact, amazing to observe to what an extent this dynasty filled its capital with gorgeous buildings during the one short century of its existence'.
In fact it was the fourth Nawab of Awadh, Asaf-ud-Daulah who made Lucknow the permanent capital. He is also credited with its initial beautification and glorification. He was the first to build many beautiful palaces, gardens, religious and secular buildings of importance during his rule from 1775 to 1797.
One of the earliest building and largest one constructed by Asaf-ud-Daulah was the Bara Imambara. Formally known as the Imambara-e-Asafi in honour of its builder, it is still the largest building complex in the old city. The Nawab decided to build the Imambara as an act of religious piety and a measure of relief for his poor subjects affected by the severe famine of 1783-84. It provided employment to nearly 22,000 people at a time.
To encourage menfolk of respectable families, who felt embarrassed on being recognised as labourers in daylight, the Nawab directed that the construction work be continued after sunset, through the night, when men could work in semi-darkness and could not be identified. Most of those who worked through the night were unskilled workers and the work done was not upto the mark. This sub-standard work was demolished during the day and rebuilt by skilled workers.This may appear to be an arrangement that caused a lot of wastage, but it was not to be so. One of the nobles in the service of the Nawab, Tahsin Ali Khan, begged him to allow him to cart away the rubble with which he built a large mosque. This mosque known as Tahsin ki masjid still exists near the Akbari gate in Chowk area of the old City.
It took six years and nearly a crore of rupees to complete the extensive Imambara complex that was designed and planned by the architect Kifait-ullah from Delhi, then known as Shahjahanabad. The architecture in the Indo-Sarcenic style has a harmonious blend of Moghul and Rajput features.
The complex comprises two stepped gardens with tall gateways and a series of arched doorways (ghulam gardish) in the boundary. It has a big mosque known as the Asafi masjid. Shia muslims gather there to offer prayers every Friday and also hold the annual namaaz on the occasion of Eid and Bakrid.
The complex also has a Baoli palace that was built over a reservoir initially made to store water for construction work. The Nawab used the five storey palace as a mehman khana, a guest-house for his distinguished visitors. Only a small part of this building now remains.
Opposite the main entrance of the Imambara, a naubat khana which was built to station drummers who struck their nagaras (small drums) to announce the hour of the day on normal days and announced the arrival of the Nawab or his distinguished guests on special occasions.
Two lofty gateways were also built on the east and west side. Today only one of them, the Rumi Darwaza, on the west survives. The other gateway was destroyed by the British in 1858 when they converted the Imambara complex into a fort. The main Imambara building was then used as an armoury and heavy guns were moved on its floors.
The main hall of the Imambara is 162 ft. in length and 53 ft. 6 in. wide.The arched roof of this vaulted hall is acclaimed as an architectural wonder, because no beams or intervening supports appear to hold the 16 ft. thick slab which is estimated to be 2,00,000 tons in weight. The ceiling of the hall is 50 ft. high above the floor.
The main hall has two verandahs (galleries) adjoining it, on the north and south. The closed verandah on the south is elevated and is used as platform called Shahnashin for placing the Zariand Taazia (paper, wood or metal copies of the tomb of Imam Hussain at Karbala) and other religious adornments such as gold and silver standard and ornamented banners that may be seen in plenty in the Imambara. The hall has a gallery on the top on all four sides.
On the other two sides, the main hall is flanked by octagonal compartments nearly 53 ft. in diameter. The one on the east has windows and balconies (Jharoka) in the Rajput style. The other compartment, on the west, is known as the kharbuzawala kamra. Its ceiling is radially ribbed like the lines on a melon fruit. It is believed to have been fashioned in this manner to honour an old lady who eked her living by selling melons. The related story describes her as the owner of a small piece of land that came in the way of the plans of the Imambara. On being persuaded to sell her land to the Nawab, she finally agreed on the condition that each year during Muharrum, along with the grand taazia of the Nawab, a taazia should also be placed on her behalf at the Imambara.The Nawab not only promised to honour her wish, he also provided a permanent compartment in the Imambara to house her taazia. While no authentic account of this story is available, the story appears to have some credence in the fact that even today a taazia known as Budhiya ka taazia is placed in the Imambara.
The main hall of the Imambara also has the grave of the builder. According to his wish, Asaf-ud-Daulah lies buried in the basement below the hall. [Later his chief wife Shams-un-nissan was also buried here. It is not correct that the architect Kifait-ullah is also buried here]. The main hall is richly furnished with large mirrors, chandeliers, lamp stands and other accessories purchased by the Nawab from European traders at an exhorbitant cost.
The Imambara is actually a building where Shia muslims assemble to honour Imam Hussain (the his martyrdom on the 10th of Muharrum 61 Hijri (680) at a battle in Karbala. He died fighting against the forces of the governor Yazid, refusing to surrender to his unethical demands. Thus the lunar month of Muharrum is a period of intense activity at the Imambara. On the first of Muharrum a black flag is hoisted atop the Imambara and in the afternoon huge Taazias are perambulated around the Imambara complex, accompanied by a regal procession. On the 7th of Muharrum the followers of Hussain chanting 'Ya Hussain' walk barefoot on a stretch of burning coal [laid in the Imambara grounds].
Majalis (religious discourses) are held each day during this period of mourning. The buildings are profusely illuminated on the night between 7th and 9th Muharrum. On Ashoor, the 10th of Muharrum, Taazias are taken to burial grounds (called Karbala) and again forty days later, on the occasion of Chehellum.
Apart from the magnificence of its structure, the Bara Imambara has a curious attraction in the form of Bhul Bhulaiya. It is a labyrinth [built over the galleries that support the roof] with a series of closed narrow passages and an intricate network that connects them to four sets of staircases that suddenly change direction, going up or down to confuse. Only one of these staircases, when negotiated correctly, leads to the roof on the top, from where it is convenient to come down by a normal straight staircase. Visitors often loose their way in the Bhul Bhulaiya, therefore no one is permitted to go there alone, without the official guide.
Hindustan Times, City Scan, A Time in History