The Great Imambara is classified as Nawabi architecture -this last phase of Mughal architecture -indicating the demise of an empire and its cultural product. Nawabi architecture is divided into two phases: the first towards the end of the eighteenth century is characterized by grandiose and stylistic buildings; the second in the nineteenth century is distinguished by the incorporation of European elements.
The Great Imambara created in the first period of Nawabi architecture, is one of the few buildings in Lucknow devoid of European elements. Nawabi architecture resulted in a period of political flux when the Nawabs of Avadh had disassociated themselves from Delhi but fell under British control. Though they were reinstated as rulers, the British held real authority. The nawabs, however, relieved of all serious responsibilities as rulers were able to lavishly patronize architecture. As a result, the Great Imambara was built to grandiose scale, but in some aspects suffered from superfluous use of ornamentation.
The Great Imambara is part of the Asaf al-Daula Imabara complex that contains a mosque, courtyards, gateways and a 'bawali' or step-well used as a summer palace. It was built as part of a famine relief program following the famine of 1784. The complex is one of the earlier attempts in Lucknow to imitate a Mughal complex and incorporates high-arcaded battlements even when security was not a concern.
The complex is entered through the Rumi Darwaza while leads into a courtyard that connects to the main courtyard through a triple-arch gateway. The Great Imambara is on axis with the triple arch gateway and occupies the southern extreme of the main courtyard while the Asafi mosque takes up the western. The imambara is a unique architectural form that is used for ceremonies performed by Shia Muslims to commemorate the death of Hussain, grandson of Prophet Muhammad, at Karbala in 680 A.D.
It is a rectangular brick and mortar structure and in plan is divided into nine chambers. The central chamber is the largest and measures 164 feet by 52 feet (50 by 16 meters) and is over 49 feet (15 meters) high. The eight chambers surrounding the central bay are considerably smaller in both area and height and are more for circulatory purpose. The long central chamber has a concrete vault while the remaining bays are treated in a variety of roofing techniques. The arched roof of the central vault is built without beams, making it one of the largest concrete shells in the world. The central chamber contains the grave of Nawab Asaf al-Daula and is the only imambara that has six entrances into the central bay as opposed to the conventional five.
The exterior façade of the imambara is problematic due to its monumental scale. The central bay and two flanking bays rise above the surrounding bays resulting in a stepped façade. The first level has arched openings and blind niches with octagonal towers marking the internal division of the bays on the exterior façade. The second level tries to break the scale of the façade by having a series of undersized arched openings, arches with latticework at the parapet, guldastas (ornamental minarets) and chattris (small kiosks). The disproportionate scale between the two levels renders the ornamentation of the façade as weak, and combined with the stepping back of the levels serves only to emphasize the ostentatious scale of the building.
The numerous openings, however, have made it possible to create a unique feature in the form of a labyrinth. The imambara is popular amongst its visitors for the 'Bhool Bhooliya' or labyrinth that is formed by the many balconies and passages that branch off from 489 identical doorways.
Alfieri, Bianca Maria. Islamic Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent, 279, 278. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2000.
Das, Neeta. The Architecture of Imambara, 13, 14, 16, 45, 65, 67, 69. Lucknow: Lucknow Mahotsav Patrika Samiti, 1991.