The Chhota Imambara under renovation

lakhauriarch

The Chhota Imambara dates from 1838, ie, the reign of Nawab Muhammad Ali Shah. The graves of the Nawab and his mother are inside the Imambara. You pass through a large gate before coming to the Imambara complex. Unlike the Rumi Darwaza, this gate is not in great repair, so you can actually see how lakhauri bricks and lime mortar were used to build these enormous arches. I took the photo above so that I could study the technique without putting a crick in my neck. The construction is really impressive.

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As one enters the complex through the Naubatkhana, the hamaam lies to the left. This is a beautiful space with lovely blue and rose coloured walls, elegant tiles and windows with green glass which let in a lovely modulated light. The CFL bulb hanging above the bath was wholly unnecessary during the day. The hamam does not seem to be in use today.

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One of the most elegant parts of this complex is the Jawab opposite the grave of Muhammad Ali Shah’s daughter, Zeenat Algiya. It was attractive in the half-light of the monsoon, when I took the photo above. It remained attractive when the clouds blew away and the evening sun came out to play on the white exterior.

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The Chhota Imambara belongs to the Husainabad Trust, which has now started on a well-meaning exercise to renovate the main structure. We saw the arches above the lovely carved wooden doors being renovated. The older construction was of lakhauri brick and mortar, as you can see in the photo alongside. The structure of this arch is similar to that of the large arch in the photo on top.

ci-cementarch Unfortunately, these lovely old arches are being replaced by modern ones in reinforced cement, like the one on the left. The new arches are not ugly, they are quite nice and modern; but they efface the history of the structure. I hope that the detailed plans of the old structure remain in some architect’s studies. In future if the Trust wishes to return to a historically more accurate restoration they would come in useful.

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The Imambara contains elegant pieces of Arabic calligraphy in the form of birds. However, what left us stunned was the gaudy collection of lamps. I’ve never seen so many lamps and chandeliers, apparently all from Belgium, collected into such a small space. The effect is overwhelming. The Family asked a caretaker whether they are all lit sometime. We were told that they are lit during Muharram. We were invited to come and join the queue to devotees who flock to see this marvel. It must be, indeed.

What does one do in Lucknow?

As a tourist in a new town you want to do four things: see what there is to see, eat what is special to the place, shop local, and watch what people do in that place. Our aim in Lucknow is no different. So what do we do?

What there is to see

The tourism posters have just a few things to show off. The Rumi Darwaza is a gateway to heaven, they promise. Romantic tourists write informative but breathless posts about the Bara Imambara, the Chhota Imambara, Shahzadi ka Maqbara and the Dewa Sharif. I came across a very informative blog post with lots of photos and a long list, with descriptions, of places to see in Lucknow; this is by far the best link I’ve found till now.

The Bara Imambara has a lovely genesis story attached to it. The blogs about it talk of the Asafi mosque and the maze called the bhool bhulaiya. I discover that there is a baoli (step well) inside the Imambara. I remember a childhood story of my aunt and mother being startled by a conversation heard inside the whispering gallery, carried right around it by the unusual acoustics of the place. This story stayed with me through school when I studied acoustics.

The Chhota Imambara is often only mentioned in passing. But a photoblog showed lovely photos of the hamaam (baths) in it. Others mention the chandeliers, and the tombs of its builder, Mohammad Ali Shah, his mother, and daughter, Zeenat Asiya.

What there is to eat

Awadhi cuisine is legendary. I cannot believe a food blog which counts Shahi Tukra with Pineapples among Nawabi Lucknow’s cuisine. This lapse makes me believe that the same blog is also wrong in counting chicken curry among the traditional Nawabi recipes.

The roadside eatery known as Tunday ka kabab has become famous in the last decade. It must be good, but it is certainly less than a century old, and I’ve not read a convincing article which connects it to the old cuisine. In fact an interesting blog connects Tunday with Bhopal. I have great memories of a shami kabab in Bhopal, so I can well imagine that Tunday’s kababs will be good.

Rahim seems to be the noor in this taj. We will not be able to taste the winter specialty of Nihari at Rahim’s, but certainly we plan to stop by to taste their other kababs and Pasande. The description we read made us think that Rahim would deliver on the true Awadhi cuisine. Descriptions of the food in this city take me back to childhood memories of baqar khani and shirmal rotis, chaat and Lakhnawi biriyani.

Life in the city

Is Lucknow really the second happiest town in India? Which is the happiest? Patna? [Surprise! It is Chandigarh.] No matter, people watching will be fun, if there are people out during the monsoon.

Little is said any more of the courtesans of Lucknow, whose time passed long ago. Their music, thumri, and their dance, kathak, has now been absorbed into mainstream culture. Bollywood has won, and Lucknow has its share of multiplexes. Is there other entertainment? Theatre everywhere seems to wilt under the shadow of Bollywood; but, delightfully, there is an attempt to nurture theatre in Lucknow.

Uttar Pradesh has about one sixth of India’s population. So it is not a surprise that in Lucknow, its capital, construction is booming. One construction company’s website tells me that Lucknow is a hot-spot of job creation. This could be the reason for the mall boom, at a time when they are going bust in Mumbai.

UP gets a bad press for crime, although for years statistics have shown that per capita there is more violent, and sexually violent, crime in Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. But there are some new developments in Lucknow which leave me cold. Apparently Lucknow is India’s most surveilled city. Also, Lucknow police has acquired pepper spraying drones to control mobs.

Shopping

We are unlikely to wander into the malls of Lucknow. I guess quite a bit of our shopping will be devoted to chikankari. Around the main tourist spots, ie, the two Imambaras, the chowk, and Aminabad, I’m told that there are jungles of small shops selling cheap chikan and minakari. These are probably interesting places to soak in the atmosphere, although in the monsoon one will probably soak in a lot of less savoury material. But maybe the quality of work is better in Hazratganj and in SEWA outlets. Of course, we can be surprised, and we will definitely keep our eyes peeled for pleasant surprises. Then there are the boutique shops which are whispered about in the grapevine which The Family’s whatsapp is tuned to.