The Gomti flows languorously through the city that is as much a geographical place on this planet as it is a romantic symbol of all that is beautiful, artistic and genteel in the hearts of its citizens. Once the seat of Nawabs of Awadh, Lucknow today is a modern cosmopolitan and the State Capital of Uttar Pradesh.
And yet, underneath the façade of modernity, lie the legends and lore of Lucknow in all their sepia tinted glory.
With the gradual decline of the Mughal Empire in Delhi during the 17th and 18th centuries, Awadh, under the patronage of its Nawabs, started attracting artists and poets and chefs and craftsmen from all across the country and beyond. In 1775, Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula moved the capital of Awadh from nearby Faizabad to Lucknow. Arts flourished in the city like never before. The Nawab’s built splendid monuments, temples, mosques and kothis all around the city and Lucknow came to be the cultural capital of North India at the time.
Amongst the last of the major monuments built by the Mughals in Lucknow is ironically also said to be the location where Lucknow was founded first. The “Teele wali masjid, literally the Mosque on the hillock, or the Alamgiri Mosque rises majestically on a mound near the Gomti, where Laxman is said to have laid the foundations of the city. Though the exact dates of the mosque’s origin are uncertain, it is believed to be built by the subedar of Avadh, Sultan Ali, on the orders of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, sometime between 1675 and 1707. Unlike the constructions during the Nawabi period, this mosque is more somber in its architectural decorations.
Move a few hundred meters to the south and the imposing façade of the Bada Imambada, also called the Asafi imambada, comes into your vision. Built in 1784 by Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula, this Shiite tomb or mausoleum is one of the finest examples of the ornamented Mughal architecture in the region.
The Imambara is approached by an imposing square gateway surmounted by an octagonal pavilion, and the entire façade is pierced by a myriad arched window openings. The main imambara consists of a large vaulted central chamber containing the tomb of Asaf-ud-Daula. The vaulted chamber has no beams supporting the ceiling and is one of the largest such arched constructions in the world. There are eight surrounding chambers built to different roof heights, permitting the space above these to be reconstructed as a three-dimensional labyrinth with passages interconnecting with each other through 489 identical doorways. This part of the building is referred to as the Bhul Bhulaiyya and is probably the only existing maze in India. Ask around a bit and you can hear of legends associated with the place telling you of secret tunnels leading to the banks of Gomti, to Faizabad(the former seat of Awadh’s Nawabs) and even to Delhi. There is a large mosque in the complex and also a step-well or Shahi baoli.
The Asafi Imambada is to Lucknow what Taj Mahal is to Agra. Any trip to Lucknow is incomplete without a visit to this piece of living history.