Chota Imambara: Glittering Palace of Lights in Lucknow

posted in: Asia, Heritage, India, Uttar Pradesh | 68

If the Bara Imambara in Lucknow was about the brilliance of the dark, twisted passages of the crypt – Bhool Bhulaiya, then visiting its younger cousin was all about a glittering jewel of the night. The Chota Imambara did not pale in comparison to its giant predecessor. It, in fact, shone brilliantly in the depths of the night. A quick visit to this heritage monument was enough for me to justify why the Chota Imambara has been termed as the “Nawabi Palace of Lights”.

The Nawabi Palace of Lights - Chota Imambara in Lucknow

In my earlier post on my adventure through the Bhool Bhulaiya, I had mentioned that I was up for two choices at the end of that visit – one to visit the step well within Bara Imambara and the other to get to the Chota Imambara. I do regret not visiting the step well but I think it would have been a bigger one not seeing the Chota Imambara. However, while I loved what I saw, I could not finish seeing all in that one visit. I returned a year later to revisit this place and finish all that I missed the first time. I am sure that by the end of this post, you too, will know why you need to add this to your list of Lucknow attractions – maybe not once but twice and more.

History of the Chota Imambara

Not a palace but a religious landmark

Though this place looks like a palace, the Hussainabad Imambara or the Chota Imambara is anything but that. Built by the third Nawab of Lucknow –  Nawab Muhammad Ali Shah in 1838, this was meant to be a religious monument for the Shia Muslims. Besides being the place of the congregation during Muharram, it also houses the Tazia. Tazia is a representation of the graves of their religious leader and is carried in the Muharram procession after an elaborate decoration. However, that is not all that is to the Chota Imambara. This place is also, the resting place of its patron Nawab and his family.

The Hussainabad Gateway of Chota Imambara

The Hussainabad Gateway of Chota Imambara
The arches of the The Hussainabad Gateway in the palace of lights

The grand gateway of Chota Imambara is referred to as the Hussainabad Gateway. It also, functioned as a Naubat Khana or the place of reception. Huge drums were beaten to announce the arrival of the royalty. At gala reception also, had an orchestra playing, especially during important functions.

One look at these gates and there is no doubt how grand the insides are going to be. The Persian architecture is so evident in the arches and etching of this gateway. Two huge bronze statues greet you after you walk through the grand entrance, whose purpose is to look more than just beautiful. Confused? Hang on – as I explain.

If you look through the main entrance in the first picture of theHussainabad Gateway as it glittered even its reflection, Chota Imambara, you will see a metal arch in the center with windvane like above. I bet you think it is a bird. And if you are, I am going to have this sadistic pleasure of correcting you just as my guide had with me. For one, that is not a bird, it is the Nawabi symbol of fish. 2nd, this wind vane is a dual purpose instrument. One, of course, tells you the wind direction while the second is related to my earlier remark on the bronze statues at the gate being more than a pretty face.

The wind wane is made of lightning conductor that absorbs the current and passes it safely down to the bronze statues which are an earthing device. :-). Fascinating right?

Charbagh

The central line of fountains and hanging bridge of the Char bagh styled gardens of Chota Imambara

The Persian architecture continues in the form of the Char Bagh layout of the gardens here. I had explained this earlier in my post on the Humayun’s tomb and another place that you can see this is the Taj Mahal. The beautiful fountains in the garden are said to get water straight from Gomti river in Lucknow and while that is all lovely, the most charming bit that I found here was the bridge. It was kind of romantic, straight from those Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn movies. Sadly, the bridge was locked at that hour and I could not get my moment of glory on it.

Hamam or the Royal Bathhouse of Chota Imambara

The changing area in the Hamam

It was almost closing time that we managed to reach the Chota Imambara and hence, this tour was one whirlwind. The first that we explored was the Royal Bathhouse, near the Hussainabad Gateway as it glittered even its reflection, Chota Imambara. The Hamam was quite a well-designed bath house with separate areas for dressing up, massage, hot baths and cold baths. Our guide passionately explained the complex system of how the water was heated and kept insulated so that it was ready for the Nawab when he was. It was equally fascinating to discover the drainage system that started with the bathtub but continued across the whole building.

The bathtub in the Hamam of Chota Imambara

The Dual Taj Mahals at Chota Imambara

The mini Taj at Chota Imambara, Lucknow

Right next to the Hamam, on either side of the central fountains were 2 identical mini Taj monuments. Designed after the original Taj Mahal, one was the resting place of Princess Zeenat, the daughter of Nawab Muhammed Ali Shah and her husband. The one opposite to that was built as a symmetrical monument but served as a treasury of the Nawab.

The main building of Chota Imambara

The Jewel in the Night - Chota Imambara

It was the past dusk when we finally, walked to the main building of Chota Imambara. For me, that was perfect timing for it was easy to figure why a Russian Prince called this building as the Kremlin of India and why it was popularly called the Palace of lights. Illuminated, this building glistened against the night sky – pretty much like how a jewel would sparkle in the light. During the first visit, the Imambara sparkled under the yellow lights but during the 2nd visit, the yellow glow was replaced by the silvery sheen of white lights. Personally, I loved the golden glow that you can see in these pictures – not that the silvery effect was not beautiful.

Chota Imambara - one of the places to visit in Lucknow

The exteriors shone in that yellow light while the exquisite arches added the typical Islamic touch to this monument. Adding its Farsi touch to the palace of lights are the lovely tombs along the walls and in the center. What seems like intricate designs over the arches is actually Islamic calligraphy – basically various verses from the Quran. There are five doorways to the main congregation hall inside this building. This number of doors is significant in the Shia Muslim religion for it indicates the Holy Five or the Panjetan. You can spend a while enjoying the minute details around these doorways but eventually, when you step inside, your senses will be taken over with the treasures within.

The Congregation hall of Chota Imambara

The Azakhana within the Congregration hall

There are three basic sections within the main building of the Imambara Hussainabad Mubarak (the official name of the Chota Imambara).  The main hallway called Azakhana will take your breath with its colorful chandeliers that supposedly came from Belgium. Gilded mirrors, stunning lamps and more antiquities from Europe add to the glamour of this hallway.

Close up of one Chandelier
Belgian Lamp

Standing crystal lamps, colorful glassware and old clocks keep fighting for your attention. And while I was overwhelmed, I am glad to have spared a glimpse at the Nawab Mohammed Ali’s crown. Quite an exquisite masterpiece that is adorned with gems of various shapes and sizes.

Antique clock from Paris in the Azakhana
Crown of the Nawab in the Chota Imambara
Tomb of the Nawab

The same hall also, has the tombs of the Nawab and his mother. The caretaker who had appointed himself as a guide, also, pointed to various frames containing Islamic verses. Though he attempted to tell me the significance of those frames, my limited knowledge of the Islamic religion failed to make me understand it all. However, it was evident that they were a major part of their culture.

The Tazia at the Chota Imambara

The two smaller chambers in the Chota Imambara were homes for the Tazias. These are religious objects that are worshipped and taken out during the Muharrum festival. They are either sunk into a river or buried in the ground. A new one takes its place in the hall till the next festival. I am not sure why there were two of these but they were both lovely.

One of these halls was called Shehnasheen and had this raised platform to represent the Zarih – yet another significant object of Islam. Normally, photography is not permitted here but our caretaker/ guard cum guide allowed us to get a quick snap of the structure. Maybe coz it was closing time and he wanted to please someone before the day ended. Either way, am grateful to him for having spent a fair bit of time helping us make sense of the museum within this hall.

TheThe Hussainabad Gateway as it glittered even its reflection in the pools of Chota Imambara

We were chased out. Wanting to stay on more was not an option for we were literally the last people out. Reluctantly, we left but not without that last view – of the Hussainabad Gateway, lighting up the dark pool with its reflection.

By now, you know why I visited this place not once but twice. If life gives me a chance, I would want to still visit it over. Maybe it is just the beauty of the place, or maybe it is this feeling of being able to sift through more treasures to find another nugget. Whatever the case being, I am sure you guys are noting the Chota Imambara down in your list of Lucknow attractions.

Chota Imambara

Getting here:

  • Lucknow city is well connected to the rest of India by rail, road and air.
  • Click here to get the Chota Imambara on your mobile. You can reach this place by autorickshaw or taxi when in Lucknow. There are plenty of buses too, that stop here.

Where to stay in Lucknow?

  • Lucknow has plenty of hotels to suit your budget. You can book your Lucknow stay through any of the key websites.
  • There are quite a few hotels close to the Chota Imambara. You can check the reviews and book them through this site.

Travel Tips:

  • The best time to visit Lucknow is winters – October to February when it is not too hot. However, it is quite chilly then, so warm clothes are advised.
  • The Chota Imambara is open from 5 am to 6 pm every day. I would recommend visiting it around 5 pm so that you can see it illuminated.
  • You can use the same ticket that you have purchased at the Bara Imambara to visit the Chota Imambara. The ticket details can be found here in the travel tips section.
  • The two monuments are just around 1.5 km from each other. You can either walk the way or take a horse carriage. Along the stretch are several other sights that will interest you. You definitely need to stop by the Rumi Darwaza and the cursed tower – Satkhanda when you are visiting this.
  • There are plenty of shops and restaurants around this monument for you to try out. Public restrooms are available at the complex.
  • Photography is allowed everywhere except for the chamber where the Tazia is kept. If you are as lucky as I was, then the guide or the caretaker will allow you to grab a picture.
  • Though we did not pay for the guide, we did tip him a minimum for helping us out.
  • You will need to leave your footwear outside when entering the main complex of Chota Imambara.

 

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