A binding legacy


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IT is only recently that the world has learnt that the Shia are predominant in countries other than Iran. In India they are scattered, as they tend to be in much of the world. For just under a hundred years however, Shi’ism enjoyed a unique ascendancy in Lucknow, Awadh. Once a province of the Mughal empire, its governors in the eighteenth century, later transformed as independent rulers, were Shia. They had once come from Iran. Burhan-ul-Mulk was appointed by the Mughal emperor as governor of Awadh. He, however, established his own court in Faizabad and assumed a manner of independence as other Mughal governors did in the wake of a tottering Mughal empire.

Under the Nawab Wazirs of Awadh, at first in Faizabad, and later in Lucknow, Shia observances achieved a unique distinction and prominence, one which embraced and influenced the entire population of Awadh. It is important to briefly appreciate the historical reasons for the various beliefs, rituals and traditions in order to better understand the culture of Shi’ism and therefore the significance of the places of congregation like the Imambaras.

One of the most important and pivotal figures in Shi’ism was Imam Hussain ibn Ali. Hussain was the Prophet’s grandson and a model of piety and emulation for the Shia. His life and more importantly his martyrdom has given the Shia a distinct identity and has been one of the main influences in the evolution of the Shia and Shia thought.

It was the tenth of October 680 C.E. and also the tenth day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, in the sixty first year since the Prophet’s hijra, or migration, from Mecca to Medina. Hussain was martyred in battle alongside all the male members of his family, barring one son who was too ill to fight. He had refused to accept Yazid’s suzerainty, as doing so would have been a fundamental betrayal of the essential tenets of Islam. Yazid was the second caliph of the Umayyad dynasty and is widely acknowledged by both the Shia and Sunnis to have been a debauched, amoral tyrant. This refusal to compromise the principles of his grandfather, even in the face of profound suffering and certain annihilation, became the incomparable metaphor for truth and integrity.

Almost immediately, the news of the massacre of the Prophet’s family spread throughout the region. People were aghast that such merciless treatment had been meted out to the Prophet’s grandson and to his family. In Kufa, a military garrison town where the Shia population had invited Hussain to lead their revolt, people realized that they had betrayed the trust of Hussain and so in retaliation there was a surge of anti-Umayyad anger. This rebellion had a domino effect and soon revolts ignited through-out the Arabian peninsula and other Muslim lands.

While all these overtly political revolts were taking place, in Kufa and on the plains of Karbala, a small number of people collected to remember and mourn Hussain. This had far deeper and longer lasting implications than the various political movements. A group of Kufans could not bear the guilt of having betrayed the Prophet’s grandson and so decided to mourn and weep for the slain family of Hussain. These people called themselves tawwabun, or penitents and went to Karbala with blackened faces, dishevelled hair and torn clothes, all the while wailing in the memory of the martyrs of Karbala. The plains of Karbala became the first Imambara.


Azadari, or the practice of mourning the martyrdom of Hussain, in Lucknow is practiced in special halls called Imambaras and over time developed a distinctive style. A congregation at an Imambara, which follows a fairly precise procedure, is called a majlis. Sozkhani or the singing of marsiyas or elegies achieved an unparalleled beauty and excellence during the rule of the Nawab Wazirs of Awadh. The musical origin of sozkhani was the Hindustani classical tradition of vocal music and its concept of ragas. However, the singing was not accompanied by any instruments.

The elegies sung were poetic compositions devoted to the martyrdom of Hussain by some the finest poets that have lived in India and in Persia. Mir Anees, Mirza Dabir, Ishq, Ta’shuq are just some names. These literary masterpieces which are sung (sozkhani) are also declaimed (Tahtul-lafz-khani) from the pulpit. This unique art, whether sozkhani or Tahtul-lafz-khani (art of recitation) has virtually faded away mainly because the Urdu language has been successfully wiped out in India. Some of the Imambaras were specially built so that acoustically they supported the cantor’s voice and amplified it.


The Asafi or Bara Imambara, the biggest azakhana in Lucknow, was built by Asaf-ud-Daula in 1784. It is one among countless others, big and small, in Lucknow, several of which were built by Hindus, Jhaolal’s Imambara being well-known. Originally, the Asafi Imambara was commissioned because there was a devastating famine in 1783 and the Nawab wanted to provide work for people who had no other means of sustenance. According to legend, the men and women would work throughout the day and then at night the nobles, who too were affected by the famine, were called to demolish one-fourth of the structure. This was done so that work was constantly available for the poor.

The architectural style of the Asafi or Bada Imambara rivals that of some of the other great monuments, which were built by the Mughals. Great pains were taken in order to ensure that no European style elements crept into the construction. The entrance is a triple-arched gate that leads to a sprawling garden, at the end of which is the actual building.

The main hall is an architectural marvel as it is an unsupported, un-vaulted roof, built without any stone or steel supports and is said to weigh approximately twenty thousand tonnes. The method employed in the construction of the roof involved the use of vaults to support the weight. Only brick, rubble and mud were used and after they had set, the centring was removed. This in turn created a three dimensional labyrinth with four hundred and eighty nine identical doorways above one of the largest unsupported roofs in Asia. The architect of the Imambara, Kifaitullah, a Persian, designed the structure so that three different halls were housed under the same roof. The China Hall is square at the ground level; it then becomes octagonal and the ceiling is sixteen sided. The Persian Hall is in the middle and on the other side is the India Hall, which resembles a watermelon.


The Imambara was built in order to hold various ceremonies related to Muharram, such as the recitation of marsiyas or elegies, which are always in memory of Karbala. This is where the ulama or clergy delivered their sermons to crowds that could exceed ten thousand. In order to ensure that everybody heard the recitations, the acoustics in the Asafi Imambara were designed so that a whisper at one end of the main hall could be clearly heard at the other. There are many legends about the Imambara. One of the most widely cited stories is that near the well complex which is a seven floored structure, the five floors that are permanently submerged under water have tunnels leading to the Gomti, the main river in Lucknow, and to Faizabad, once the seat of power of the Nawab Wazirs.

Down the road from the Bara Imambara, a descendent of Asaf-ud-Daula, Mohammad Ali Shah built a smaller Imambara. Built in 1837, its construction was also a means of providing relief and employment to the poor who had been ravaged by yet another famine. The complex also houses the tombs of Mohammad Ali Shah and his two daughters. Although the Chota Imambara, as the name suggests, is much smaller than its forerunner, it still has many of the original chandeliers and is an exquisite sight, especially during Muharram.


The Imambaras mentioned above are just two examples of large public azakhanas. However, most Shia houses too have some sort of Imambara, whether it is a simple cupboard, which houses a replica of the shrine of Hussain (taziya). Two other Imambaras which are equally famous and visited by the Shia during and after Muharram are the Imambara of Agha Baqar Sahib and Imambara of Ghufran Maab.

Every Thursday evening after sunset, hundreds of Shia and members of other denominations go to the Imambara in order to give alms to the poor and pray for the intercession of the Imams and Prophet on their behalf in order to absolve them of sins and grant them their wishes. Some Imambaras attract more people because they carry long association as places where the supplicant’s wishes are granted. Other are believed to be places where miracles take place. An Alam, or standard of war that is now used in Muharram procession, was found in the ground over which was built Agha Baqar’s Imambara. It is an especially popular site regardless of religion for both Muslims and Hindus visit it throughout the year. The Alam preserved in a special room is believed to have relieved suffering and granted wishes for well over a century

The Imambara of Ghufran Maab is situated in the Chowk area of Lucknow and is run by the descendents of Ayatollah Ghufran Maab, after whom it is named. It is one of the most popular centres of aza in Lucknow as it is run by the Imam-e Juma’a, or the leader of the congregations of Shia, in Lucknow. Traditionally, Shia Islam has always encouraged a diversity of opinions and a multiplicity of clerics in order to prevent any one person exerting undue influence. Nevertheless, there is a loose hierarchy whereby some clerics carry more weight than others. Today, Maulana Kalbe Jawad Sahib is the Imam-e Juma’a of Lucknow and looks after the Imambara of Ghufran Maab. During the first ten days of Muharram, he reads a majlis every day to a crowd of thousands.


The Shia throughout the world will always keep the memory of Hussain alive but it is important for all Indians and not only the Shia to honour our ancestors who have left us legacies that are now often neglected and therefore disrespected. Unlike some other religious establishments, Imambaras have always been open to everyone regardless of caste, creed or religion and have never discouraged anyone from partaking in the various ceremonies. Indeed, during the months of Muharram, both Sunnis and Hindus take an active part in the processions and also openly weep in remembrance of Hussain.

Today, one often hears about various religious establishments banning the entry of the non-faithful to their houses of worship. While these views are to be respected, it is vital to acknowledge and understand that the Imambaras of Lucknow, where anyone can enter at any time, have served as a binding thread in the diverse social fabric of India. Even today they are frequented throughout the year by people of all faiths and thus serve as symbols of peace and harmony. As Indians it is our duty to help preserve these monuments which have been an integral part of Lucknow’s culture for the past couple of centuries.