Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh
The Bara Imambara is, depending on who you ask, the largest mosque in India. However, an Imambara is technically not a mosque but rather a Shia ceremonial building used for the commemeroation of the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammed. This tremendous building, a public works project which ran for years in order to keep people employed during a time of economic stress, is the seventh largest Shia shrine in the world and the largest outside of Iran or Iraq.
The city of Lucknow was one of the largest cities that remained consistently in the territory of India’s major Muslim realms. It was part of the Delhi Sultanate almost for its entirety, and was later part of the core territory that remained under Mughal control right up until the very end. Because of this Lucknow had one of the most important Muslim communities in India for many centuries. It also had one of the most important Shia communities east of Persia.
In the 18th century, Lucknow was under the rule of a dynasty of governors of Persian ancestry who practiced the Shia form of Islam, and in 1775 the governor Asaf-ud-Daula moved the regional capital from Faizabad to Lucknow. He proceeded to spend much of his energies and money turning Lucknow into a magnificent city, adorning it with palaces, public buildings and mosques.
In 1784, a terrible famine struck northern India, and the people of Lucknow witnessed terrible economic hardships. In order to ameliorate their problems, Asaf instituted a public works program to provide employment to as many as possible. The centerpiece of his efforts was the construction of the Bara Imambara in honor of Husayn ibn Ali. The project took six years to complete, after which the governor continued to spend generously in order to keep people employed upgrading the building.
Asaf-ud-Daula’s efforts were largely successful and helped to keep the city of Lucknow from economic disaster. Although many of his projects are now gone, a few are still standing, including the Bara Imambara, a testament to his efforts. It is the foremost of a number of Imambaras for which the city is world famous.
The Bara Imambara is a very unmosque-like structure, appearing much more like a palace than a religious building. The outer wall, consisting of multiple layers of archways, is reminiscent of the Colosseum in Rome. An enormous gate allows entrance to the structure. The Imambara is fronted by lush greenery, with more inside the courtyard. The front of the main building with its rows of framed windows gives the structure a hint of European flavor. There are no minaret towers adjacent to the Imambara.
The interior of the Imambara is a grand space, again more reminiscent of a European palace, with its high decorated ceilings, many windows and colorful furnishings. One of the Imambara’s hidden treasures is its maze of secret passages, doors and rooms, some of which interconnect with long passages to other buildings in the city and beyond. Some areas are no longer accessible due to people who have gone missing. Also inside the Imambara is the tomb of Asaf-ud-Daula.
The Bara Imambara is located near King George’s Medical University on the northwest side of Lucknow, approximately 250 miles southeast of Delhi. It is open daily from sunrise to sunset. The cost of admission is Rs500. Web: www.up-tourism.com/Lucknow (official tourism website of Uttar Pradesh).
Right next to the Imambara is another one of Asaf-ud-Daula’s projects: the Asfi Mosque. Lucknow is the city of Imambaras, and there are several others in the city, notably the Chota Imambara.