When I bought the tickets and got ready to enter the main hall of Bara Imambara,I was told that one was supposed to take off one's shoes before entering. It was a cold morning, and it was raining. So, the terrace at the entrance was cold and wet. But like everyone else, I obediently took off my shoes and socks. That reminded me of my visit to the Badshahee mosque in Lahore on one hot day in summer when one could hardly put one's bare feet on the stones of the open terrace that had absorbed all the heat throughout the morning, and yet I had done so in order to get into the main precincts of the heritage monument. So, here also, I got my entry into the Imambara, although I have to admit that it was not very comfortable walking barefoot on the floor of the ancient building.
Yes, I finally was in Lucknow, the city of the Nawabs,a city renowned for its cultural heritage embodied in rich literary tradition, music, art as well as cuisine. The city established itself on the map of India during the 18th century when the kingdom of Awadh was established in 1722. Of course, the first capital of Awadh was Faizabad, and Lucknow became the capital much later when the fourth Nawab of Awadh, Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula shifted the capital there. The city is known for its monuments erected by the Nawabs on the banks of the river Gomti (the same name as that of a river in the eastern part of Bangladesh).
The cultural heritage of Lucknow was not limited to the patronage provided by the Nawabs to poets and artistes; some of them were artistes themselves. For example, Nawab Wajed Ali Shah was a Kathak dancer. Apart from the rich cultural heritage provided by the Nawabs, the city continued to preserve its place by producing famous singers like Begum Akhtar and poets like Javed Akhtar-not to speak of a large number of singers and dancers that strengthened the Lucknow gharana.
Given the kind of reputation mentioned above, Lucknow was always on my “to visit” list. And the opportunity came in early 2014 when I went there for attending a seminar. I had made it known to the host that I should be given the opportunity to see at least the major landmarks for which Lucknow is renowned. And I was not disappointed.
One would of course be disappointed if one expected to see heritage monuments scattered around in Lucknow. In fact, when I passed through the city on my way to the guest house of the Indian Institute of Management some 20 km away from the city, it looked just like any other of the developing world. But I was not disappointed when I went to the older part of the city and approached the Bara Imambara. Depending on the side from which one approaches this monument, one may pass through the magnificent Rumi Darwaza-an arched gate with detailed work on masonry. It was drizzling and rather cold when I got off the car in front of the main entrance of the Imambara. One crosses two gardens before coming to the main block of the monument. And when I bought tickets, I opted to see three parts of the complex – the main hall, the building known as Bhulbhulaiya(a labyrinth which is attached to the main hall but with a separate entrance) and Jal Mahal.
Inside the main hall of the Imambara, when the guide was showing me the Taziya that is used every year for the procession of Muharram and was describing the history of the tragic event at Karbala (which some historians say was the first civil war in Islam), the sad part of the early history of Islam came alive in front of my inner eyes. Apart from the fact that Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula's tomb is located right in the middle of the hall, there is nothing so remarkable about the hall of the Imambara. However, its height was quite noticeable, and I also wondered why there were small windows so high up on the wall on one side of the hall. But the mystery of those windows was resolved a little later when I went to the adjacent building known as Bhulbhulaiya.
I have to say that Bhulbhulaiya is a real maze, and I would not have been able to find my way in and out without the help of the guide. Also, without the guide, one can easily take the wrong stair cases and climb many more flights than is needed to come to the roof top (I took the shorter climb of 45 steps).He took me through the narrow winding corridors of the building, showed the various rooms, and explained the intricacies of the architecture of the whole building and its various corners, arches and domes. He also demonstrated how in some places one could hear whispers from quite a distance away (like we hear telephone calls today). Towards the end of the tour of the building, we came to a narrow balcony from where one can look below and see the main hall of the Imambara. When he lit a matchstick at one end of the building, I could hear the sound quite clearly from the other end. I also passed by the windows that I saw from the ground floor of the hall high up on the walls, and realized that they were actually designed to provide the necessary ventilation to the rooms of the Bhulbhulaiya as well as the main hall. One really has to give a lot of credit to the designers of the building considering the fact it was built more than two hundred years ago.
Jalmahalis an annex to the Imambara and was probably used as a living quarter. What is remarkable about this part of the complex is a water tank at the entrance where reflections are created of anyone entering the building, and the reflections can be seen from rooms inside the building. Clearly, this was a security device, and it made me think whether security and threat of intruders were major issues at that time. The building also had a tunnel (not shown to visitors now) that provided exit to another side of the city, indicating that possible attacks by enemies were real threats.
There is a saying in India: If Benaras is the city of morning, Lucknow is the city of evening. In the good old days, tranquility of mornings in Benaras used to be broken by tunes of classical and devotional songs coming out of temples and homes while evenings in Lucknow were famous for songs and dances performed by tawaefs (dancing girls).I did not want to finish my tour of the city of Nawabs without a look at the area where they used to spend their evenings. I refused to be discouraged when my local friends said that the culture of dancing by tawaefswas no longer there, and the area where they lived and performed was completely transformed into just like any other quarter of the city. So, I went to the chowkfrom where started the narrow alleys that once used to house the quarters of the tawaefs. Only some of the buildings or their facades bore any resemblance to what I saw in movies likePakeeza, for example. Now, the streets are lined by shops selling all kinds of things like mobile phones, bicycle parts, and the like – not by the meethaiwalas or the paanwalas; and there was none peeping from the windows upstairs. I sighed and said to myself, perhaps I am late by 100 or 150 years! Of course, the institute that organized the seminar had also arranged a cultural evening that included ghazals sung by Begum Akhtar and patriotic songs written by Javed Akhtar. Although that was in no way a substitute for a traditional Lucknowi evening of music and dance, it was still quite enjoyable.