Can one really argue the pleasures of sitting inside a monument, suspended in time, or a leisurely conversation with a local through whom the past lives on? Isn’t that how travel to places steeped in history should be like?
I am prone to believe there is only one unalloyed way to explore heritage precincts—on foot, on your own, and at your own pace. With no stringent “you have 15 minutes here” or the need to absorb a site amidst a non-stop rattle of facts and stories, some true, some crafted just to enchant you.
Last month, I also discovered no city deserves one’s space and slowed down pace more than Lucknow, where nothing much has changed inside its old city walls over the past 250 years. The mosques and imambaras are still functioning. Travellers from far and wide still gaze at its colossal monuments in wonder.
The city of Nawabs, did you know its name has its roots in ancient Hinduism? 3,500 years ago, Ramchandra, the hero in the epic Ramayana gave the area to his devoted brother Lakshman when he returned from his 14-year exile in the forest. Lakshman equalling Lucknow. Though the period between 1500 BC and 1500 AD is foggy historically, the city re-emerges in written accounts as a province in the Mughal empire.
As oft happens with waning realms, the appointed governors started taking over the Mughal provinces when the empire started losing its supremacy in the sub-continent. Lucknow fell in the hands of Awadh’s Nizam: Saadat Khan, from Khurasan, Persia, in 1722. Fifty-three years later, the city by the banks of the River Gomti became the capital of the Awadh Nawabs when Asaf-ud-Daula, the 4th Nawab, shifted his seat of administration from Faizabad to it. His rationale: He wanted to get away from his mother!
And thus, started one of India’s cultural epochs, in which the arts reached unbridled heights in creativity and scale. Though political allegiance shifted from the Mughals to the British East India Company in the ensuing years, art, music, dance and architecture flourished under the Nawabs. They transformed Lucknow into a fairy-tale land straight out of the Arabian Nights.
But Lucknow, as a city, was way too strategic in its location for the Company. Not satisfied with just allegiance, they removed the Nawabs from power in 1856.
If you have the time, and the inclination, this self-guided walk may just make you fall in love with the city, many times over. A day-long saunter, a coffee break at the only café in the vicinity, and thousands of photo-ops which really do no justice to the real thing, and you have one of travel’s most perfect memories. ❤
[Top: Detail, Inner doorway, Bara Imambara Complex.]
Starting Point: North side of Hardinge Bridge, Gomti River
The walk starts at the north end of the Hardinge Bridge, a deck-arch 103-year-old road bridge built over the Gomti River and still very much in use. Also known as Laal Pul or Pakka Pul, it replaced an earlier stone bridge. It was inaugurated on 10 January, 1914 by Lord Hardinge, then Viceroy of India.
Cross over to the southern end of the historical bridge.
Stop 1: Teele Wali Masjid and Tomb of Shaikh Pir Muhammed [Pakka Pul]
Having crossed the bridge, the snow-white Teele Wali Mosque and Tomb of Shaikh Pir Muhammed stand to your right. The oldest in the precinct, they were the last set of monuments built by the Mughals. Teele Wali Mosque, literally meaning “Mosque on the Mound,” was once part of a vibrant Islamic theological school with nearly 700 students at a time. The British razed the complex to the ground in response to the 1857 uprising but let the mosque stand. Its exquisitely painted halls are the site of a Sunni ritual held uninterrupted for the past 350 years—the Alvida Namaz [last Friday prayer of Ramzan].
The dome-topped Tomb of Shaikh Pir Muhammed (1674) next to it is dedicated to an Islamic saint who came to Lucknow when the city was still under the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s rule. Make a wish. It just might come true. 😊
Stop 2: Naubatkhana [Husanabad Road]
Once back on the main road keep to your right. Ahead of you is the Asafi Imambara to your left. But before you enter it, do stop and take a look at the magnificent edifice decorated with pairs of twirling fishes bang opposite, on the right—the Naubatkhana or Naqqarkhana or Drum House. A distinctive Mughal form of architecture, it once housed drummers and an orchestra to announce the hours of the day and royal comings and goings.
Factoid: The fish, a cultural element unique to Lucknow and Awadh, has its roots in “Maahi-Maratib,” a Mughal military honour with Persian roots. It was bestowed on kings and commanders, and took the form of a fierce-looking fish’s head mounted on a staff behind the recipient during war. So how did one fish turn into a pair in Lucknow? According to legend, two fish leaped into Lucknow’s first Nawab, Saadat Khan’s lap when he was crossing the River Ganga on his way to Faizabad. Considered a double dose of good fortune, it stayed on as a typical element of Awadhi art and architecture.
Stop 3: Bara Imambara Complex [Husanabad Road]
The Bara Imambara ensemble is without a doubt Lucknow’s magnum opus. Grand, elegant, with sweeping lines and charming details, it comprises of an outer and inner gateway, the Shahi Baoli, Asafi Masjid, and the most famous of all, the Bara Imambara itself with its tantalising Bhool Bhulaiya.
With a mainly Shi’a population since Saadat Khan’s time [he was Persian], the Imambara is a functioning shrine for Azadari, a commemorative event which defines Shia’s communal identity. Azadari is the mourning and lamentation rituals associated with Muharram, the remembrance of the martyrdom of Hussain, grandson of Prophet Muhammad, at Karbala in 680 AD.
Once past the two gateways, to your left is the formerly five-storeyed Shahi Baoli (1784). Now part of it buried under water, it started off as a water reservoir for the ongoing constructions at the complex. It was later turned into an exotic guesthouse with fountains, inlaid marble floors, and hot and cold water—the Shahi Mehmaankhana, as well as used as living quarters by members of the royal family. If you look into the waters at a specific point, you can catch the reflections of those at its entrance.
Built by Asaf-ud-Daula in 1784, the monuments in the Bara Imambara complex were made with Lakhanui bricks and lime plaster sans any wood or iron, half a million Rupees, and 20,000 workers over 14 years. The reason?
The brainchild of the 4th Nawab, it was conceived as a means to create employment for his subjects when strife and penury struck his state because of a terrible famine. The labourers piled up bricks all day, and the aristocrats pulled the edifice down every night, enabling everyone to stay employed for as long as was needed.
Designed by Hafiz Kifayat ullah from Mughal Delhi, the star of the complex is the Bara Imambara. Its central hall, 164 feet long and 49 feet high, is the largest vaulted chamber in the world. There is not a single pillar inside it; the roof is supported only by interlocking bricks. Asaf-ud-Daula lies buried in its centre.
But most visitors go in to get lost in the maze on its upper floors, the Bhool Bhulaiya, an architectural strategy to avoid excess weight on the ceiling. A lot is said of the need for a guide inside its convoluted passageways which eventually open onto the roof with spectacular views. May I suggest you do not take one.
Just keep climbing whatever steps you find to be going up. And half the joy is anyways of getting lost. Coming down is trickier where there is a specific number that need to be climbed down, and then up, and then down again with many of the corridors ending in dead ends or an unguarded window opening into the looming hall below. In this instance, for survival’s sake, ask for help. 😉
Stop 4: Rumi Darwaza [Husanabad Road]
Back on the main road, carry on further down Husanabad Road. You will pass the long gone Musafirkhana on the left, of which only the main gateway now remains. The rest of the edifice was demolished in 1857.
Straddling the main road right in front of you is Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula’s other masterpiece—the stunning Rumi Darwaza—Lucknow’s pride and the city’s icon. Sixty-feet-high, it was built in 1784 – 86, and marked the entrance to the Old City. It is said to be identical to an ancient gateway in Constantinople, Turkey. Filled with intricate detailed carvings, the front and back are different in design. Isn’t it beautiful?
Stop 5: Clock Tower, Picture Gallery, Hussainabad Talab, and Satkhanda [Husanabad Road]
Further down Husanabad Road, past Rumi Darwaza, is the heritage precinct’s second architectural ensemble to your right, all now painted red. The first to come your way is the 221-feet-high Clock Tower with a 14-feet long pendulum and a 12-petal flower-shaped dial. It was built in 1882 – 87 by the Hussainabad Endowment Trust to mark the arrival of the first Lieutenant Governor of the United Province of Awadh, Sir George Couper to Lucknow.
Facing it is the handiwork of Nawab Muhammad Ali Shah (1837 – 42), 4th King of Awadh. There’s the Lal Baradari built in 1838; now called the Hussainabad Picture Gallery lined with life-size portraits of the Nawabs of Awadh. In front of it is Hussainabad Talab with a small mosque and hammam at its corners. Behind the two is Satkhanda, an incomplete watchtower reminiscent of the Tower of Babel. Only four storeys high, construction had to be abandoned following the Nawab’s death.
Factoid: First simply called “Nawabs,” the Awadh rulers were given the added title of “King” by the British from Saadat Ali Khan (1798 – 1814) onwards. Nawab Muhammad Ali Shah was the 9th Nawab, but referred to as the 4th King.
Stop 6: Chota Imambara Complex [Husanabad Road]
Often considered to be more beautiful than the Bara Imambara complex, the Chota Imambara group of monuments stands at the tail end of Husanabad Road, past the Hussainabad Gateway. Smaller and more intimate, the poetic white edifices around the crystal-clear pond are filled with intricate carvings and exquisite calligraphy. They were all built by Muhammad Ali Shah.
The most important of all is the gold-domed Chota Imambara with its black and white calligraphy on the outer walls. It contains the King and his mother’s tombs, and is a venue, like its larger counterpart, for Muharram mournings. Two miniature Taj Mahals flank this centrepiece. One contains the tomb of his daughter, Zinat Aliya, whilst the other is a Jawab, built solely to maintain symmetry and lies empty. Interestingly, the one with the tomb is more staid and plain; the empty one more exuberant in its decoration. A white carved mosque completes the grouping.
Do take the time to wander inside the Chota Imambara and marvel at its collection of Belgian chandeliers and gilt-edged mirrors. Whilst at it, also don’t miss the painting, which I am told by one of the clerics, contains the entire Koran in a super-micro font point size.
Ending Point: Jama Masjid [Daulatganj]
At the main crossing ahead take the left road which leads to Daulatganj. A couple of hundred yards away to your left, behind a tangle of trees, perched on a rocky outcrop is Jama Masjid, the ending point of the walk.
Construction on Jama Masjid started during the reign of Muhammad Ali Shah as soon as he came into power, with the intention to surpass Delhi’s Jama Masjid in both beauty and grandeur. Unfortunately, he died before he could see his ambitions through. One of his wives, Malika Jahan Begum, completed the mosque in 1845; albeit to a much smaller, less majestic version of the original plan. Mughal in style with Hindu and Jain carvings, the functioning mosque with people praying, women chatting, and children playing is one of the loveliest I have been to.
And with this, we come to the end of the walk, a wee bit in love with the city of Nawabs called Lucknow. 🙂
- My above self-guided walk took me a whole day.
- For lunch I stopped at Arabicafe, a little cafe tucked inside the Hussainabad Gateway—it serves awesome cold coffee drenched in chocolate syrup!
- Etiquette: You need to cover your head and leave your shoes outside when entering an imambara or mosque.
- Non-Muslims and women are not allowed inside Asafi Mosque and Muhammad Ali Shah Mosque.
- Suggested reading: lucknowobserver.com, Nawabs of Awadh.
- To read my post on the 1857 Mutiny in Lucknow, click here.