The Amazing Story of Lucknow’s Bada Imambada

December 26, 2012 By:

Nawabs have taken a lot of bad rap in the press for being fat, drunk & kowtowing to the British. But here is a story that will warm the cockles of your cynic heart.

To be fair to the press, Asaf-ud-Daula, Nawab of Awadh also started as fat, drunk and gifting away territories to British. Asafuddaula was the fourth Nawab Wazir of Awadh. During his reign Lucknow acquired majestic status and there was the emergence of Shia culture that was in constant interaction with Shia lands of Iran and Iran resulting in Lucknow becoming a great knowledge centre. It is said that the luxury of Awadh rivalled that of Nizam’s Hyderabad.

According to historians, Asafuddaula used to laugh with no apparent reason, would abuse others and expected to be abused in return. We are aware of other interests of Nawabs but this is novel! He had immense respect for people who used filthy language and the more the obscene language the more he was pleased. He was juvenile, unambitious and would drink with his servants. Now this is a glowing example where class consciousness disappears and the bourgeoisie and the proletariats become one – another side effect of liquor. Only thing his father could get him to do was to learn archery – really!

Asafuddaula, however had another unbeatable attribute – generosity. It is said that even today shopkeepers in Lucknow open their shops with his name on their lips. Of the many tales of his generosity, the biggest one is as follows.

Story goes that Awadh was hit by a severe famine in 1783. There was general starvation in the Awadh area. So instead of saying that people who do not have rotis to eat, let them eat tunde kebabs – Queen Mary Antoinette said something similar like “Let them eat cakes” and lost her head on the guillotine – he started the construction of Bada Imambara. Not just the commoners but nobility which was feeling the heat of the famine also participated. This was something similar to our present day Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). Probably, Keynes and Jean Drèze got ideas from the Nawab on generating employment.

The Majestic Bada Imambada under the Monsoon Clouds

The Majestic Bada Imambada under the Monsoon Clouds



The famine lasted for a decade. To continue to generate employment, the construction also continued for the period the famine lasted. It is said that the commoners would erect the walls during the day. On the fourth night, the nobility would dismantle whatever was constructed. For their efforts the nobility also recieved payments. This ensured that work lasted and people did not starve. About 20,000 people found employment in this noble project. Now we know why Nawab’s generosity is part of local folklore.
Grand Entrance to Bada Imambada

Grand Entrance to Bada Imambada

Despite the continuous building and breaking, the Bada Imambada turned out to be magnificient. It rivalled the Moghul architecture. No iron or cement has been used in the building. The imambada boasts of one of the largest arched structure with no supporting beams. Under this vaulted chamber lies the simple grave of the Nawab.The grave of the architect also lies in the main hall. Asafuddaulah was truly generous and class blind.

Central Vaulted Chamber with Nawab’s Grave

Central Vaulted Chamber with Nawab’s Grave

If you are feeling adventurous, then go into the bhulbhulaiyaa (labyrinth) on top of the main hall with a guide. The bhulbhulaiya has 489 identical doorways and is possibly India’s only maze.

Try not getting lost in the Bhoolbhulaiya

Try not getting lost in the Bhoolbhulaiya

On one side of the imambada is the baoli. Though the baoli is at a 45 degrees angle to the main gate, you can see the reflection of the main street in the baoli water. You could not figure out the optical illusion or miracle. According to the guide, the reflection carries clear colors so that the guards inside could see the red uniforms of British soldiers at the main gate. Its just like a CCTV watching your front gate.

The other side of the imambada has the Asfi mosque with towering minars. The mosque was also built as part of the relief measures. Like what I have heard at Jhansi & Mandu, there is an apocryphal story about a tunnel here too which goes all the way to Delhi and Allahabad.

Minarets and Spires

Minarets and Spires

Asfi Mosque

Asfi Mosque

Just outside the main gate is the equally impressive Rumi Darwaza. The local municipal corporation ensures that you cannot get a single clear shot of the gate because of the strategically placed electric poles with avant garde posters, banners of local politicians and hanging cables.

Rumi Darwaza

Rumi Darwaza

What made the Nawab turn charitable and generous is unknown. There was a saying that if one does not receive from God then he will receive from Asaf-ud-Daula.

Getting There: Bada Imambada is in the heart of the city. Along with Bada Imambada, go see the British Residency.

About Nirdesh Singh

Nirdesh Singh has written 23 posts at Ghumakkar.

Never met a Fort I didn’t like and never missed meeting a Fort within 200 kms. I love history and archaeology and wildlife and nature and books. Wish I was a historian or archaeologist. Currently travelling and discovering India. Perfect day would be watching sea waves crash into rocks, climbing Machu Picchu in Peru, admiring Blue Mosque in Istanbul and hoping to capture that blue bird in camera.

41 Responses to “The Amazing Story of Lucknow’s Bada Imambada”


  1. JATDEVTA says:

    इस नगरी से अपुन का भी एक रिश्ता है। जिस कारण मुझे यह पसन्द है।

    • Nirdesh says:

      Dear Sandeep,

      Lucknow is a beautiful city. I discovered it in my second stint when the cloud of diesel fumes dispersed!

  2. Beautiful Log Nirdesh . Articulately explained . Wonderful story getting everybody involved. The picture of Asfi Mosque is mind blowing .

    Thanks for sharing

    • Nirdesh says:

      Thanks Vishal,

      Yes, every fort and monument has a story waiting to be discovered.

      It was a wonderful monsoon day at the Imambada.

  3. Praveen Wadhwa says:

    Yes indeed an amazing story and amazing pictures.
    We visited this place 2 years ago but not much was posted there as history and anyway one is on the mercy of Guides there who cook up their own stories.

    • Nirdesh says:

      Thanks Praveen,

      Storyboard was created from Wiki!

      It is a wonderful monument – Lucknow that time rivalled Rome and Constantinople in terms of grandeur. Most of the buildings were razed during the Mutiny time.

  4. Dear Nirdesh,

    I was literally laughing while rolling on the floor (i.e. my bed) reading the story of Nawab Saheb. But I have a complaint. You were not generous and finished the story-telling very soon. Ye dil mange more! Please do write more and more in your inimitable style and make us laugh and enjoy.

    Besides sheer enjoyment, you supplied a lot of info too. I have been to Bada Imambada while deputed to Lucknow during bank’s service. I was over-confident (of my so called intelligence) that I may find my way down unassisted from Bhool bhulaiya and insisted on trying again and again. But no way, I had to accept defeat and when I was guided ultimately, I learnt that I was committing the same mistake again and again. May be people deface the walls here and there to leave some leading marks so that they may know their way back !

    I didn’t find any jungle of electrical wires in your photo at Rumi Darwaza. How did you remove them? Painstakingly photoshopped?

    With lots of love,

    Sushant Singhal

    • Nirdesh says:

      Dear Sushantji,

      Your inputs are always valued.

      I did not try going into the Bhulbhulaiya. I am kind of scared of confined places and to walk in darkness with head bent is not my idea of fun.

      I just cant figure out the mental setup of people who deface the walls. Maybe they were dropped on their heads when they were babies. And these instances are very common among us Indians. The authorites can’t maintain them and we can’t treat them with respect.

      I can see some cables hanging in the photo! It was worse on the other side of the Rumi Darwaza! Also, you can see the jarring poles & posters!

      Thanks again Sushantji!

  5. vinaymusafir says:

    Well clicked photographs.
    Great to know about the Nawab.
    Cheers!

  6. Silentsoul says:

    Nirdesh tks for sharing the b’ful fotos and different stories of nawabs of Awadh.

    keep sharing

  7. Saurabh Gupta says:

    Thanks for the wonderful story.

    All the photographs look as it have been taken by professional photographer. Great work

    Information of nawab is really very interesting.

    Excellent presentation. Thanks.

    • Nirdesh says:

      Hi Saurabh,

      Thanks for the appreciation.

      For photos i have just two rules – framing and holding camera still when clicking!

  8. D.L.Narayan says:

    Wow, simply superb essay, Nirdesh. The pics are amazing too and I am kicking myself for not visiting this place during my only visit to Lucknow. You have captured the essence of a magnificent bygone era. When you compare the architecture with the architecture of the Mayawati era, it feels like a descent from the sublime to the ridiculous. I also love the fact that you wrote about the history of the Imambara too which actually adds a lot of value to the narrative and is essential to truly appreciate the monument.

    The history of Awadh (a Mughal corruption of Ayodhya which was further corrupted to Oudh by the British) is fascinating, especially the post-Mughal phase when the British gradually swallowed up the prosperous kingdom after systematically weakening and defaming the rulers. The negative comments about Asaf-ud-Daulah should be seen in this context. My personal favourite is the multi-faceted genius, Wajid Ali Shah, the composer of the thumri “Babul Mora”, the man who resuscitated Kathak and wrote a play called Kanhaiyya Radha ka Kissa and a great devotee of Lord Krishna. Yet, the British portrayed him as a debauched idiot who misruled since they were looking for a pretext to annex his kingdom. I do not know if any street in Lucknow is named after him, but he deserves it more than anybody else.

    As for building the Imambara during a famine, it was common in ancient India to deploy emergency funds for building temples and carrying out irrigation works in order to help their subjects survive famines and other natural disasters. The treasure stashed in underground vaults in the Ananta Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Kerala was for exactly this purpose. This is the reason why our temples attracted the likes of Mahmud Ghaznavi.

    Thanks once again for this lovely post.

  9. Nirdesh says:

    Hi DL,

    You are just amazing. Is there anything that you don’t know?!

    Okay about the new architecture in Lucknow, this is what I think:

    I know reams have been written about the millions spent on building these parks with elephants and statues especially in a chronically ill and deprived state. To me, building this involved cocking a snook at the elite class and giving the backward classes an emblem to feel proud about. India boasts of a treasure of temples, tombs, palaces and monuments. But they all belong to bygone era. What will the 20th and 21st century leave as its contribution which will last another 500 years? Maybe the Rashtrapati Bhawan or Akshardham temple. I am assuming that it was the common man’s money – looted, coerced, stolen or given – that went into the construction of Khajuraho, Qutab Minar and Taj Mahal. So why feel bad about the Ambedkar Park.

    You are spot on about the British cooking up History. And of course based on this mis-information, they annexed Awadh which was one reason for Mutiny – My next post will be on this aspect.

    Stories about Wajid Ali Shah too were perpetrated by the British – he was a connoisseur of fine arts, architecture, food and for propogating the tehzeeb of Lucknow.

    Yes, even I wonder how come Ghaznavi or for that matter the Portugese and British did not get to know about the treasure in the temple in Kerala. It was the same story with Timur or Nadir Shah who walked away with the Peacock Throne.

    Thanks for your lovely comments as always.

  10. Nandan Jha says:

    After the above conversation, let me get back to Imambada so that mortal souls like us do not feel left out. It is one hell of a building and there is no fuss when you visit this place. I say so to ridicule (sorry) so many of places where so much of hoopla is built (nice reception, expensive tickets, compulsory guide blabla) before you are even close to the outer wall so Bada Imambada simply overwhelms.

    We tried the labyrinth or the Bhulbhulaiyya and I think one of us was enough IQ to take us out. I am sure there is no way I would have made it on my own. Thank you for the tip around using the markings as a reference.

    Having said all this, I didn’t like the last 100 meters as you approach the main hall. You have to manage your way out of the beggars , this is right inside the campus. I believe the structure is managed out of a ‘trust’ and not by ASI. Waiting for ‘Residency’. (Interesting the ‘Dastarkhan’ street , not very far from Residency has more meat, literally)

    • Nirdesh says:

      Hi Nandan,

      Yes, Bada Imambada is a gem and needs to be promoted. The maintenance was great.

      The ASI Lucknow circle includes it in its list of monuments.

      Maybe next time I will try to overcome my claustrophobia and explore the Bhulbhulaiya.

      Beggars, dirt and us Indians – some hazards when visiting monuments!

      I will be sharing the Residency writeup shortly.

      Thanks, Nandan!

      • Nandan, you seem to have some wrong info about Bhoolbhulaiya (the maze) at Bada Imambara. Although I had gone there some 15-17 years before, I don’t remember feeling dark / claustrophobic at any point of time while wandering in Bada Imambada or bhoolbhulaiya. May be you are confusing it with some other place !

        • Nandan Jha says:

          You are right. It is not dark dark. I guess Nirdesh said that its a bit dark/shadowy. I was last there about 2 years back.

          • Nirdesh says:

            I saw some visitors along with a guide emerge from one of the bhulbhulaiya’s exits with flashlights.

            And I said to myself I cant do it.

  11. AUROJIT says:

    Hi Nirdesh,

    Enjoyed the post thoroughly. Pics are superb and very pro.

    Info about the Nawab Asafuddaula is really interesting. Yes, it is true that many parts of Indian history have been painted with Britishers’ brush and more honest accounts (like this one) would perhaps be steps in right direction.

    I would agree a bit less on justification about A Park because I feel the so-called park cocks a snook at every passer-by (and largely speaking, any denizen of this nation which boast of Khajuraho, Qutab Minar and Taj Mahal, among other more glorifying things) save the ones who have secreted away their conscience in the vaults of Swiss Banks.

    Creation of A park is the undertaking of an elitist cocking a snook at other elitist, while enacting a subterfuge to make a part of society believe that the outrageous act is being committed for their sake. It is a rabid act of self- aggrandizement, meant to glorify one or two persons and leaving it upon others to clamour for the imagined glory.

    I agree with you that monuments like Rashtarpati Bahwan, India Gate, Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty are meant to convey a message across the ages (100 or 500 years or more or less). But that has not led the creators/commissioners to place their over-arching poses/ postures/statues onto these structures. That is why the structures of A park is different (and not pleasantly so) from others.

    Then there is the factor of accountability…..perhaps Shahjahan was not accountable to the masses (I think even that may not be true since Aurangzeb sought an account of his expenses on TMahal)…but to measure today’s generation with that yardstick is perhaps a derision of our sense of democratic accountability.

    So perhaps we should feel bad about the A Park :-(

    Looking forward to next posts –

    Auro.

    Auro

    • Nirdesh says:

      Hi Auro,

      Thanks for the appreciation and your comments.

      Beautifully put. We all understand the angst. The same angst is responsible for the spontaneous widespread rage that was seen at India Gate.

      As for me, you build it, I will come see it!

  12. AUROJIT says:

    Hi Nirdesh,

    Enjoyed the post thoroughly. Pics are superb and very pro.

    Info about the Nawab Asafuddaula is really interesting. Yes, it is true that many parts of Indian history have been painted with Britishers’ brush and more honest accounts (like this one) would perhaps be steps in right direction.

    I would agree a bit less on justification about A Park because I feel the so-called park cocks a snook at every passer-by (and largely speaking, any denizen of this nation which boast of Khajuraho, Qutab Minar and Taj Mahal, among other more glorifying things) save the ones who have secreted away their conscience in the vaults of Swiss Banks.

    Creation of A park is the undertaking of an elitist cocking a snook at other elitist, while enacting a subterfuge to make a part of society believe that the outrageous act is being committed for their sake. It is a rabid act of self- aggrandizement, meant to glorify one or two persons and leaving it upon others to clamour for the imagined glory.

    I agree with you that monuments like Rashtarpati Bahwan, India Gate, Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty are meant to convey a message across the ages (100 or 500 years or more or less). But that has not led the creators/commissioners to place their over-arching poses/ postures/statues onto these structures. That is why the structures of A park is different (and not pleasantly so) from others.

    Then there is the factor of accountability…..perhaps Shahjahan was not accountable to the masses (I think even that may not be true since Aurangzeb sought an account of his expenses on TMahal)…but to measure today’s generation with that yardstick is perhaps a derision of our sense of democratic accountability.

    So perhaps we should feel bad about the A Park :-(

    Looking forward to next posts –

    Auro.

  13. The people over there had told me that in this vaulted chamber i.e. the hall, one didn’t need any PA systems to enjoy music. If you sit in a balcony and someone whispers at the far end, you can hear it clearly. This is what I call ‘height of architecture’ ! Our present day architects would do a great service to themselves if they try to learn the secrets of good old days architectures. No beams, no iron bars to support the roof of such a large hall !

    • Nirdesh says:

      Yes Sushanji, it definitely is an architectural marvel.

      It is said the architectural design was invited through competitive process.

      I dont think any other monument will have the graves of the king and the architect next to each other.

      Thanks.

  14. Sanghamitra says:

    Hi Nirdesh,

    Amazing post. the story and the history has been described wonderfully. You really have a thing for History.
    Thanks for sharing such intricate details.

    • Nirdesh says:

      Hi Sanghamitra,

      This is what makes History so special – tales of plunder & gore sharing pages with tales of largeheartedness & compassion.

      Thanks for the appreciation.

  15. D.L.Narayan says:

    @ Nirdesh, Auro and Sushant- Thanks for contributing to this lively debate.

    I cannot see the A Park as a tribute to the people who were discriminated for thousands of years on the basis of caste; it is, to me, an ego trip of a lady with a handbag. It is merely a gloating political statement, not a celebration of emancipation of the oppressed whose plight remains virtually unchanged. There can never be a greater monument to the disenfranchised than an egalitarian society; in South Africa, it is the dismantling of the apartheid which has more meaning than a towering statue of Nelson Mandela and in the US, it is the election of Obama to the most powerful office in the entire world.

    The lack of high-tech methods meant that construction of monumental buildings required greater skills and higher levels of creativity. Modern men depend on computers, cranes and high technology to create them so it is much easier. For accoustics, the ancient Golconda fort in Hyderabad is the last word in accoustics.

    Let me digress with an anecdote of Sir Christopher Wren who rebuilt the St. Paul’s Cathedral after the great fire of London in 1666. Tthe city authorities felt that his original design was not good enough to support its massive dome and ordered him to construct several more pillars to support it. He reluctantly complied. Several decades later, it was found that the pillars were a few inches short and did not support the dome. That was how confident this genius was about his structural design.

    Regarding modern architecture, I think that the Baha’i Lotus Temple in New Delhi is one of the most beautiful buildings ever built, anywhere, anytime. I am sure that when we regain our confidence as a Nation, we will stop blindly imitating the west and our creative genius will come to the fore, sooner or later.

  16. D.L.Narayan says:

    @ Nirdesh, Auro and Sushant- Thanks for contributing to this lively debate.

    I cannot see the A Park as a tribute to the people who were discriminated for thousands of years on the basis of caste; it is, to me, an ego trip of a lady with a handbag. It is merely a gloating political statement, not a celebration of emancipation of the oppressed whose plight remains virtually unchanged. There can never be a greater monument to the disenfranchised than an egalitarian society; in South Africa, it is the dismantling of the apartheid which has more meaning than a towering statue of Nelson Mandela and in the US, it is the election of Obama to the most powerful office in the entire world.

    The lack of high-tech methods meant that construction of monumental buildings required greater skills and higher levels of creativity. Modern men depend on computers, cranes and high technology to create them so it is much easier. For accoustics, the ancient Golconda fort in Hyderabad is the last word in accoustics.

    Let me digress with an anecdote of Sir Christopher Wren who rebuilt the St. Paul’s Cathedral after the great fire of London in 1666. Tthe city authorities felt that his original design was not good enough to support its massive dome and ordered him to construct several more pillars and he reluctantly complied. Several decades later, it was found that the pillars were a few inches short and did not actually support the dome. That was how confident this genius was about his structural design.

    Regarding modern architecture, I think that the Baha’i Lotus Temple in New Delhi is one of the most beautiful buildings ever built, anywhere, anytime. I am sure that when we regain our confidence as a nation, we will stop blindly imitating the west and our creative genius will come to the fore, sooner or later.

    • Hi D.L. aka Walking Encyclopaedia ! Is there anything which you already don’t know? You must be writing for several other publications too. I look forward to getting links for them. I don’t know how people can store so much of knowledge in their RAM which is accessible in real time whenever called for! It is really great to have you here among us. I can say proudly to my wife that I am here on the site to learn and not for ‘masti’ only! :D

  17. Ritesh Gupta says:

    Nice Place & Very Nice Post & Picture too. My some relative lives in Lucknow but never been here. your post is forcing me to go there….. and See Capital of U.P.
    Thanks for Sharing us…

  18. Nirdesh says:

    Hi Ritesh,

    Lucknow is a treasure trove and that too all within the city limits:

    Bada and Chota Imambada, Residency, La Martiniere Building, Saadat Ali Khan Tomb, Dilkusha Garden, Sikander Bagh, The Vidhan Sabha and of course the Ambedkar Park and Gomti Nagar.

    Thanks for the appreciation!

  19. Vipin says:

    Brilliantly presented, Nirdesh Ji! A beautiful blend of humour, history, crazy stories of nawabs & of course marvellous captures. Have been hearing about Bhulbhulaiya since childhood, will check this out soon…

  20. Amitava Chatterjee says:

    Great post Nirdesh and nice to read the other side of the Nawab of Awadh, Asaf-ud-Daula.
    Tx to all of you also for this knowledgeable debate…engrossing

  21. Nirdesh says:

    Hi Amitava,

    Thanks for the appreciation.

    There are million stories floating around every nook and corner of our monuments.

  22. punit sri says:

    2 person ka 300ru fees Bhoolbhulaiya dekhne ka kuchh samajh may nhi aaya..koi complain-Appeal nhi..her taraf loot hi loot hai..



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