Lucknow, recovered

Lessons in conservation at the Sibtainabad Imambara

November 26, 2017 12:02 am | Updated 12:02 am IST

As a young girl, when I was studying in Lucknow, I would often go to Hazratganj to buy storybooks. Browsing through the collection in the market and buying a book would be the highlight of every week. I only had my eyes on the bookshops and never on the name of the market or the dilapidated gateway, which had once been impressive but now looked the worse for wear.

Even on subsequent trips as an adult, I never bothered to think about it till the day a Lucknow-based heritage activist and lawyer, Syed Mohammad Haider Rizvi, invited me to speak at an inter-faith assembly in Sibtainabad Imambara.

As a devout follower of Imam Hussain, I had visited almost every Imambara in Lucknow for the majlis, or assemblies, to commemorate his sacrifice, but never this one. I wondered why I hadn’t even know it existed. I soon found out.

Origin of the Imambara

Amjad Ali Shah was the fourth Nawab of Awadh and ruled from 1842 to 1847. Since he had a religious bent of mind, as a child he learnt Islamic values of faith and piety. His piety as a ruler earned him the sobriquet of Hazrat. The famous Hazratganj of Lucknow is named after him and that’s the area where he chose to build an Imambara which would also house his mausoleum.

It was started in 1847 and completed after his death by his son Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. It was named Sibtainabad as the two Shia imams Hasan and Hussain (grandsons of the Prophet) are known collectively as Sibtain.

When I entered, I found myself inside a huge open area from where I could see a compound with a beautiful Imambara, a congregation hall for assemblies where Imam Hussain is mourned.

The Imambara architecture comprises a main hall (with additional halls depending on the size) where the mourners gather, a raised shahnasheen (platform) where the taziyas and alams (replicas of the shrine of Imam Hussain and his standard) are kept. A pulpit would be kept on one side for the speakers who would speak of the tragedy of Karbala.

The reason I had never been to this Imambara when I was living in Lucknow soon became clear. Once a beautiful Imambara covered with fine carpets, silk curtains, priceless art treasures and exquisite chandeliers, it was vandalised in 1857 during the First War of Independence. Nawab Amjad Ali Khan lay buried here in a vault under the central hall, forgotten by all.

It was even used as a church by the British officers till 1860, while the Christ Church was being built, and Lord Canning attended a service in the building.

In 1919, it was declared a protected monument by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Despite this, it was sold by one Sultan Bahadur in 1921, who claimed to be a descendant of Nawab Amjad Ali Khan, to the Lucknow Improvement Trust (LIT). The LIT, in turn, allotted the surrounding land for residential purposes. The Imambara fell into disuse and disrepair.

The main Imambara post-1947 was used as a workshop and storehouse for furniture as well as by the government census office. A motor workshop had sprung up outside.

In 2008, Rizvi was appointed the joint mutawalli by the Shia Waqf Board and he started the long fight to free it from encroachment and illegal occupation. He took recourse to judicial avenues and slowly, with the help of Right to Information applications and public interest litigations, he succeeded. Then came the task of restoration, which was undertaken by the ASI.

The splendour inside

The approach to the Imambara is through the gateway and into an open space which gives way to an enclosed court. The Imambara stands on a high platform and its arched façade looks very impressive, with its delicate floral stucco and stained glass doors. The inner walls, which had got blackened with neglect and abuse, have been lovingly restored, and its green and white paintings and stucco work are exquisite. The roof and “its beams, which formed a vault over the grave of the late king, had collapsed in a heap of rubble,” according to a 1945 report. It once again supports beautiful glass chandeliers.

A recurring motif on the archways inside the halls is a painting of the Prophet’s celestial steed, the ‘buraq’, that carried him to heaven on the night of ascension. The master mason, Ansaruddin, traced out the designs and restored the paintings and stucco work very carefully.

Preservation of our heritage is our fundamental duty as it is an important source of history of the era in which these buildings were built. If other ‘lost monuments’ received such dedicated and methodical renovation, they could also be rehabilitated and restored to us.

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