Parts of Lucknow are like Bangalore, almost like M.G. Road. The city has nice shops and restaurants. Parks and gardens are plenty. The roads are better than in Bangalore and traffic flows smoothly. Being the capital of Uttar Pradesh, it has many government state offices which seem to be located in a newer part of town. This part of town is beautiful and clean. It is easy to get around by city buses, auto-rickshaws and shared tempos. By first impressions, Lucknow is lovely city.
There is a museum in town but not many seem to know of this place. I refer to my map. It appears to be close to the zoo. I hire an auto-rickshaw to the zoo instead hoping to walk to the museum.
‘Can you tell me where is the museum?’ I ask a traffic policeman nearby. The entrance to the zoo is crowded with families. Cars are honking wildly. One guy trying to drive past a queue snaking through a narrow entrance into the zoo.
‘The museum is inside the zoo,’ tells the policeman while being a passive onlooker to the traffic before him.
So I have to buy a ticket for the zoo. It has been ages since I visited any zoo and I have no interest in admiring caged wildlife. I see a sarus crane in a little cage. It has space for a little stand. There is no flight for this crane. I spot a tiger. It is fat and bulky. With regular feeding, it has not hunted for ages. It goes around marking its territory within the confined space of its enclosure. The sloth bear looks bored and frankly quite pathetic. I look into the eyes of a chimpanzee and feel only sorrow.
I head to the museum paying a separate entrance fee. The zoo crowds are here too. Children run around wildly through the galleries, touching exhibits at will. Teenagers play songs on their mobiles loudly. I see a wonderful sacrificial horse sculpted in red sandstone. There is a beautiful Varaha avatar, a group of Satpamatrikas, Tara and Avalokiteshwara. The Buddhist gallery was unfortunately closed. The museum is poor compared to Patna’s own. The exhibits are also not properly introduced or explained.
Near the GPO are statues of Gandhi, Patel and Ambedkar. As you pass these statues, you feel that Lucknow was an important part of India’s road to independence and nation building. Close by is the statue of Deen Dayal Upadhyay, a name that somehow touches a part of my distant memory. I cannot exactly place him – was he a freedom fighter, a social worker or a writer?
But the true magic of Lucknow lies in its monuments. It is these monuments that take you away from the present into a past full of history and revolution.
Amjad Ali Shah Mausoleum
This is a 19th century brick structure covered with lime plaster with stucco work. In the days of the past the work would have been colourfully painted. I learn that the British captured this place in 1858 and took away many of its chandaliers and other precious items. It remained in this neglected state for long. Today it is in a ruinous state but work is underway in an effort to restore the monument. This is not an abandoned structure. Prayers are offered at this mausoleum.
This is also known as the Imambara of Sibtainabad and later renamed. The guy at the monument tried to explain to me what an imambara is but I could not understand his Hindi words which were mixed with Urdu. From what I can gather, an imambara is a mausoleum of an important person, perhaps a saint, where prayers are offered and ceremonies are held. This is different from a maqbara, which is a mausoleum for remembrance without special religious significance.
For example, Taj Mahal is a maqbara but not an imambara.
Architecturally it is quite plain with a facade of high pointed arches with an articulation of cusped arches above each arch. What really is exciting about this structure is the modern day approach. I walk along a busy road lined with shops old and new, shops selling modern fashionable stuff and enduring traditional stuff. Suddenly in their midst is an arched gateway that leads to a narrow lane. I walk passed it and find myself at another gateway. I enter through its central arch to come to a full view of the mausoleum. This is the magic of Lucknow. It hides and reveals its history within the folds of modern day city landscapes.
Saadat Ali Khan Mausoleum
Saadat Ali Khan was one of the Nawabs of Oudh. His tomb is set within a large park. Some friends are at this park in the late afternoon. They are playing cards. Others are simply taking a nap on the lawns or chatting with friends. The traffic is continuous on two sides of the park while the other two are quieter.
The mausoleum itself is a decent looking building of a rectangular plan. Further rectangles project out of the building on all four sides, with three bays in each side. Some bays are closed, others are open. This gives the monument a look of both closed and open. The monotony of the structure is broken by a running parapet wall at the first level and also around the base of the central dome. The main dome is fluted. The look of this monument comes from the parapets which have domed turrets, domed octagonal kiosks, little domes over open arches and little kiosks with bangla roofs. Otherwise, the building is quite ordinary.
This is within the same complex as the mausoleum of Saadat Ali Khan. It belongs to the wife of Saadat Ali Khan. It is essentially a rectangular structure but it gets the look of an octagon due to the corner towers. This too is a key difference from the other monument here which does not have corner towers.
The corner towers project out of the chamfered corners of the main building. The corners towers are topped with domed kiosks. The scheme is continued by four corner domes in miniature around the central dome. Looking at the structure at an angle of 45 degrees, the effect is very similar to the maqbara at Junagadh.
The parapet wall on top is a running open arcading topped with miniature domes. I quite like this one.
Imambara Shah Najaf
It is close to sunset. I hire a cycle rickshaw to take me to this place. The place is about to close but I am allowed to have a quick look.
A high wall surrounds the monument. An impressive gateway leads into it. The arched cloisters have a certain lightness and purity. The place is clean and quiet. Inside, I am impressed by the vast array of colourful chandeliers handing from the ceiling. The main dome is low and squat. In fact, from the outside we can already see that it is not the typical onion shaped dome rising from a cylindrical drum.
Pilgrims come here to pray. A priest shows them around and expects some offerings in return. Multi-tiered structures are lined up at the back. These are made of papier-mache, cardboard and cloth. They are decorated to achieve an effect of resplendence. Muslims are fond of resplendence, be it decoration of articles or the dresses they wear.
This morning I chose to walk to Bara Imambara, passing old parts of the city. Along the way I saw first hand the grubbiness of old Lucknow. Just before I come to Bara Imambara, I pass a flower market. Markets are filthy places with a steady stench filling the air. But this market is different. Fragrances waft the air. The place is also a riot of colour. Jasmines, carnations, lilies, roses, chrysanthemums, daisies are some of the flowers here. It is a wholesale market. People come and buy in sack loads.
‘How much are the jasmines?’ I ask a vendor as I take a picture of him with his goods.
‘These are Rs. 30 per kilo.’
‘Roses are only Rs. 20 per kilo. It’s more than roses?’ I ask.
‘There is nothing more expensive here than jasmines,’ replies the vendor.
Chrysanthemums are much cheaper at the rate of Rs. 4 to 6 per kilo.
A little outside this market, I get the first view of the Asafri Masjid. It stands in the same complex as the Bara Imambara. The three domes and two minarets are beautifully framed by vegetation from where I stand. I am on a bridge over a filthy canal. I cannot believe what I am seeing but this canal appears beautiful in its filth. The credit goes to the discarded loose flowers floating downstream from the flower market. They float along as unconscious offerings. Something as beautiful as a flower can transform even filth with its beauty.
Bara Imambara is a massive structure with an imposing facade. What I like here is a running parapet wall on top with arches and miniature domes. Without this, the building look quite plain and even uninteresting. I take a view of the inside. On either ends are octagonal spaces rising to elegant domes. Interesting here are balconies opening into the space from higher levels. These two spaces are quite different from each other. The central hall is large with a running corridor at a mezzanine level.
The question to be asked is, ‘How does one get to these balconies and corridor?’
For this there is a staircase to the left that leads to what is called Bhool Bhulaiya. Apparently this is not just a movie name. It is a labyrinth that gives access to the balconies and corridor of Bara Imambara. It also gives access to terraces above from where wide views of the city can be obtained. I am pestered by the guides here.
‘I will give you a discount. You pay only Rs. 110 instead of Rs. 150,’ he says with persistence. He’s been behind me for fifteen minutes now.
‘I would love to explore it on my own,’ I tell him. What good is a labyrinth if you cannot get lost? I am hoping to get lost.
‘There are ___ entrances/exits, ___ passages, ___ corridors, ___ wrong paths and only ___ right ones,’ he vomits this list of numbers to scare me. ‘You will get lost. If you get lost and we have to get you out, it will cost you Rs. 200.’
‘I am sure I can find my way out even if it takes a few hours,’ I tell him.
In fact, the labyrinth is very hard to get lost. The reason is that sooner or later you will hit the terrace or an open corridor. Even on the inside, if you come out to the central balcony or one of the little balconies in the two ends, you know exactly where you are. What’s more, even if you take a wrong path, it will soon lead to a dead end. You can easily retrace and try another turn. You just cannot get lost.
There is much that can be written about the architecture of Bara Imambara but I am going to summarize by saying that other than the main building, its approach via majestic gateways add to the overall grandiosity and scale of the monument. I actually entered the complex by a small passage at the back after passing the flower market. So I got to see the gateways last on my way out. Then I came back for one last look of the main building.
I didn’t expect to find a stepwell in Lucknow but here is Shahi Baoli right next to the Bara Imambara. The well shaft can be approached by a long flight of steps but these are not interspersed with kutas as in the traditional wells of Gujarat. Three levels of arcaded walkways flank this flight of steps on either side. Around the well shaft are arched corridors and passages that go around the shaft. These are on multiple levels.
Thus the approach to the shaft is in two ways: either walk along the flanking walkways and descend down or take the flight of steps directly to the shaft.
This monument is under maintenance. The well is dry. Decorative work is minimal.
This can be seen from the terraces of Bara Imambara. I first saw it from the backside and the structure is quite enigmatic from this angle. There are turrets sloping down from the center to the sides. It appears that the roof has collapsed but a closer look tells the truth.
The central arch is massive and is flanked by two smaller arches . At its top are these turrets with lotus finials that span out the outward curve of the arch. Nothing like this can be found anywhere else in India, not that I know of.
Walking out of the Rumi Gate into older parts of town, I pass the Chotti Imambara. This is the most beautiful building in all of Lucknow. That’s what I think. It has a grey facade and a metal dome. Beautiful calligraphy and arabesque designs decorate the facade. In one particular part f the facade, it is possible to look at different type of arches in a single view – pointed, rounded, narrow cusped, wide cusped.
A clean pool reflects the monument. Three other beautiful monuments are set within this complex.
The main gateway is different in one aspect from what I have seen elsewhere – the arch is cusped with a framing articulation which is pointed. This scheme is reversed from the common scheme seen in other monuments.
I continued my walk through old parts of town and by chance passed the Jama Masjid. This is yet another impressive monument with external reliefs that are worth some study.