Most of the great heritage structures in India are made of stone and some of them have an iron frame within. But in Avadhi architecture, brick and mortar has been shaped into impressive structures. —Vipul Varshney
Lucknow is full of grand architecture: the Rumi darwaza, once the entrance to the city, Chhattar Manzil, initially built for the Wazir, but eventually the residence of the Nawab, Sikandar Bagh, once Wazir Ali Shah’s summer residence, but now remembered as the spot where the Company massacred 2200 Indian soldiers, the immense Qaiser bagh complex, still impressive. However, the defining piece of architecture from Nawabi Lucknow is the Bara Imambara. It was built during the time of Asaf-ud-Daulah, the Nawab who moved the capital of Awadh from Faizabad to Lucknow in 1775.
The Bara Imambara impresses. As I entered through the Naubatkhana with its huge fish symbols, I was prepared for marvels. They are there, but they reveal themselves slowly. You enter a gate, skirt a large garden and enter a second gate. After this there is a long walk to the Imambara.
From a distance the Imambara looks beaten down by rain. As you approach you can make out a line of windows across the top. These are the external windows in the famous maze: the bhool bhulaiya. On the right is the Asafi mosque: its grand minarets and domes the colour of the surkhi which is the mortar binding the lakhauri bricks together.
Off to the left is the Shahi Baoli: a three story structure above the well which was dry on the day we saw it. We heard a guide telling his group that the well fills up when the Gomti river overflows. Since the baoli is within a few hundred meters of the river, it is possible that the level of the river water has something to do with the well. From the entrance about 50 steps leads down to a gate to the well, locked against visitors. We skirt the steps and walk straight into the second level above the well. This baoli is impressive in the abstract geometry of the repeated arches, and its interaction with the light, not in architectural decorations.
As we turn to go we see the Asafi masjid framed in the entranceway to the baoli. This is a mellow view: the stark lines of the mosque filtered through intervening greenery. It strikes me then that the Bara Imambara is a statement about state power: the architect, Kifayatullah, is conscious of the distances that one would have to walk from one part of the complex to the other. Only worshippers are allowed into the mosque, so we walk up to the main attraction.
The characteristics of Awadhi architecture are the absence of iron and beams, the use of vaulted ceilings, multiple entrances on facades, parapets on roofs. All of these are present in front of us. Below the impressive facade is a kiosk selling water, other bottled drinks, and packets of snacks. It has been a very humid day, and we have used up all our water. We stock up, and as The Family drinks her cola, I look up at the blank arches of the bhool bhulayia right above us. The maze is supposed to have 489 identical doorways, and utilizes the differences in the heights of various rooms below it for part of its effect.
The Bada Imambara is as impressive as I’d expected. The roof of the central hall is entirely without any support. This is even more impressive when you realize that there is no iron in the cantilevered roof: the 49.7 m by 16.6 m span is made entirely of lakhauri bricks, held together with mortar. A little search led to a paper on the material used written by some members of the Civil Engineering department of the nearby Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. The tomb of Asaf-ud-Daula lies under this impressive roof. This is flanked by two halls: the China hall is square at ground level, becomes octagonal higher up, then is sixteen sided at top, the roof of the India hall is segmented like an orange (although the word watermelon is used in various writings).
All that remained was a guided tour of the maze, and a demonstration of the impressive acoustics of the whispering gallery above the India room.