Husainabad Imambara

(Also called Chota Imambara – Detailed Write-up including a brief on calligraphy)


Towards the west of the Great Imambara and Roomi Darwaza is one of the beautiful buildings of Hussainabad. Whenever a reference is made to Lucknow, the discussion invariably leads to its exquisite, inimitable ‘tehzeeb’ and its beautiful Imambaras. Perhaps Hussainabad Imambara is one of the most adorned Imambaras of Lucknow. It was built by king Mohammed Ali Shah- the third ruler of Avadh(Oudh). Among the contemporary architecture of Hussainabad, names of Jalukhana, Shahi Hamam, Hauz, Shahi Kuan (Royal Well), Rasad Gah, Meena Bazaar (Ladies Market), Inn, Shatkhanda, Rais Manzil, Sharif Manzil and Gendkhana are worthy mention. The architectural complex of Hussainabad was in those days considered as the ‘Babylon of India’.

The main gateway of Hussainabad bears the typical ‘tripolia’ like structure in vogue in those days. In the inner chamber of Imambara, there are the tombs of King Mohammad Ali Shah and his mother. The overwhelming appeal of Chhota Imambara lies in its interior decoration and furnishings comprising exquisite chandeliers of Belgian glass. During Moharrum, these are lit on the night of the martyrdom. Rainbows of light glittering through the numerous glass artifacts present an ethereal and enchanting spectacle.

Silver ‘Mimber’ has been kept in the Imambara for seating the elegist and Imams of melancholic recitation (majlis). In one of the chambers the famous silver brocaded wax ‘tazia’ is kept. Sandalwood and ivory ‘tazias’ are also kept. All round broad and gold framed full size mirrors are hanged. Crowning the Imambara, a dome structurally golden coated and floral designed. On the crest of the dome is built the traditional emblem of Awadh(Oudh), showing rising sun in the midst of the crescent moon. On the outer dark coloured walls, holy verses are shown in delicate geometrical scroll work popularly known as Calligraphy*. The Imambara is enclosed in an elegant compound wall. Entering the compound, one comes across a beautifully laid garden and a canal.

On entering the Chota Imambara a visitor attention is drawn to the emblem of Awadh kings and a ‘brass fish’ hoisted to indicate the direction of wind. Contiguous to the ‘Gulam Gardish’ there are mutually facing ‘Deewan-E-Khas’.

In the corner of the compound there is a small but beautiful golden dome mosque. A ‘Shahi-Hamam (Royal Turkish Bath)’ is built in front of this mosque. In construction of this simple elegant structure, marble has been used for floors, tank and arches.

The Taj Mahal is internationally famous for its architectural splendours and marble works. Hussainabad also has its own version of Taj Mahal coated with spotless white lime; the glittering mausoleum stands on high rounds and adjoining the canal. It was built by the third king of Awadh (Oudh) for his daughter Jenab Alia.

The ornate scroll work depicts verses from Quran, on the inner arches reminds one of Taj Mahal. The wall of this tomb too show inlay of floral and geometric motifs. Shells have been used to give polish and shine to the doorways and walls. Chequered network of marble tiles of somewhat inferior quality adorn the floor. Amidst, lies the grave of the princess. On either flanks of latter, grave of other family members have been built. A similar tomb is built opposite the main one.

While on one hand ‘tomb of princess’ reminds one of Taj Mahal, the Hussainabad Imambara itself exhibits a pronounced influence of older architecture of Awadh(Oudh). The main portal of this Imambara is beautifying with two large size brass statues of a European female.

Muhammad Ali Shah ascended the throne of Awadh (Oudh) on July 8, 1837. During his short regime, he built the magnificent buildings of Hussainabad. The metalled road connecting Dilkusha to Hussainabad also came into existence during his rule. Maintenance allowance was fixed out of the state revenue for the citizens of Lucknow migrating to Karbala. Mohammad Ali Shah died on 16 May 1842 CE and was laid to rest Hussainabad Imambara besides the remains of his late mother Malika Aliya

Calligraphy :
Arabic, Persian and Urdu calligraphy is practiced to present the written word in different styles in the most beautiful form. This art is known as ‘Khattati’ and the calligrapher practicing the skill or art is known as ‘Khattat’. It is also known as ‘Kitabat’ when writing is done merely for copying manuscripts for a Kitab (book) and the scribe, who does the copying, is called ‘Kaatib’. People who had a good handwriting and took up the profession of writing messages or documents legibly were identified as ‘Khush-nawis’. Their job was known as ‘Khush-nawisi’ (since ‘khush’ means good, and ‘nawisi’ is writing).

There is a large variety of styles in which inscriptions could be written or inscribed in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu. Seven of these styles are usually practiced by Khattats. In the past, when patronizing a Khattati was in vogue, a master Calligrapher, who excelled in all the seven styles, was bestowed the honourific title of ‘Haft Qalam’ (Haft = seven, Qalam = pen). The seven styles are Kufi, Naskh, Sulus (Thuluth), Taliq, Shikasta or Dewani, and Nastaliq.

It should be noted here that the competence of a practicing calligrapher was measured by his competence and skill in accurately reproducing alphabets and words in the exact form that they were originally depicted by the master Calligraphers. This practice was termed as ‘Tahsili’. A Shagird (apprentice) was placed under a practicing Khattat as his ‘Ustad’ (tutor) to learn the art and follow the rigid manner of reproducing words and texts in the ‘Tahsili’, i.e., the conventional form. He was permitted to join the profession and practice independently only when the tutor recommended him as being proficient in the art. In Iran, there is a traditional convention that calligraphers are required to obtain a license from the prescribed authority to practice the art of Khattati as a professional.

It would be useful to know here that in the practice of Tahsili calligraphy, any variation or modification of the original form of alphabet and the method of joining the alphabets in their shorter forms to form a word in a particular style has been accepted in only a few rare cases when it was insisted upon by repeated demonstration by an established Master calligrapher and accepted by eminent Master calligraphers of the time.

The rigid practice of Khattati in the Tahsili form provided little scope for imagination and innovation. However, later a non-conventional practice of Calligraphy, known as the ‘Ghair Tahsili’, was developed where a calligrapher could use his imagination and artistic inspiration to make an attractive presentation by shortening, stretching, bending, or squeezing the conventional shape of alphabets and words with an intention to confine an inscription within a specific space or design. At times, the presentation could be a device where the real inscription and its mirror image were combined to create a unique and pleasing design. All such designs were known as ‘Tughra’. The calligrapher designing them was referred to as a ‘Tughra Nawis’, while the art of designing Tughra came to be known as ‘Tughra-nawisi’ or ‘Tughrakari’. Initially, Tughras were designed as inscriptions confined within geometrical shapes. They became an artistic and decorative feature as embellishments in the exterior and interior parts of Islamic buildings such as mosque, madarsa, khankhahs, and mausoleums. Tughra soon came to be accepted in an iconic form because they had the attributes of God, or the names and titles of holy personages inscribed within their design. A large number of Tughra designs were produced (and reproduced) on paper or cloth with inscriptions that had phrases and short prayers like Surah-e-Hamd, Ayat-ul-Kursi, and Nad-e-Ali. They soon became popular among devotees because they were low-priced and portable.

A further development was seen in the thirteenth century when Tughra came to be specially designed as an official logo and seal of the ruling Ottoman Sultans for their Farman (Ordinances). An innovation and artistic presentation in Tughra designs was thereafter observed in Iran when Tughra-nawis began exploring their imagination for designing Tughras in the form of recognizable objects. These designs depicted books, lamps, leaf, flowers, bouquets, plants, vases, or an outline of a structure. They were also seen to configure living things in the outline such as a bird or animal. Tughras in this form depicted a pigeon, falcon, peacock, lion, tiger, horse or camel in their design. However, one rarely saw a Tughra depicting a human form. Sheila. S. Blair (Islamic Calligraphy, 2008) has used the term ‘Zoomorphic’ for this form of calligraphic presentation.

The inception of Muslim rule in India also brought calligraphers. They were proficient in the conventional Tahsili form of calligraphy used particularly for copying verses of the Holy Quran (in Arabic) in the Naskh script. However, they also worked as scribes for writing Persian in the Taliq and Shikasta scripts because it was the official language of the court and administration. With the rise of Urdu, Nastaliq, which was a script formed by the combination of Naskh and Taliq, also came in use.

Arrival of Tughra and Tughra-nawisi in Lucknow
Lucknow became the capital of Awadh (Oudh) when the fourth Nawab, Asaf-Ud-Daulah shifted his capital from Faizabad to Lucknow in 1775 CE. During the Nawabi rule, Lucknow developed as one of the important centres of calligraphy in the country and, probably, the sole promoter of Zoomorophic Tughra and Tughra-nawisi in the country. The reason for this was that the local calligraphers were highly impressed by calligraphic designs in the non-conventional (Ghair Tahsili) decorative form of Tughra that came to Faizabad and Lucknow from Iran and Iraq, usually bearing representations of Shia faith. They were brought by Haj pilgrims and traders and were displayed with pride in the Imambaras during Muharram. With a demand for similar Tughra decoration in Lucknow, Tughra-nawisi found a firm ground to flourish and local calligraphers began copying foreign Tughras, and those with an artistic imagination started producing innovative designs.

Tughra on religious structures in Lucknow
Like other places, in Lucknow, too, calligraphers were required to demonstrate their calligraphic excellence in the Tahsili form to present verses from the Quran in larger size as inscriptions on religious buildings. Lucknow saw a Tughra inscribed on a religious building for the first time when an Imambara was built by Mir Zain-ul-Abidin Khan during Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah’s rule. The Imambara was decorated with Tughra in the Ghair Tahsili form with attributes of Allah, the titles of the Prophet and the name of his daughter, Fatima, along with the names of twelve Imams. The Tughras were placed in such a manner that they could be visible and appreciated by the people who assembled in the hall of the Imambara for Majlis (Melancholic Recitation).

Surprisingly, Tughra decoration did not find favour with members of the ruling dynasty in Awadh, who originally belonged to Iran, where Tughra-nawisi had been highly developed and from where calligraphers of repute came to India. An example is the famous Amanat Khan, the designer calligrapher of the Taj Mahal who came from Iran. Among the rulers of Awadh, it was the third King of Awadh, Mohammed Ali Shah (1837-1842), who appears to have insisted on decorating his Imambara with Tughra designs in the first instance. Probably it was the influence of his wife Malka Jahan, who was herself an excellent scribe that she chose to deploy extensively Tughra decoration of different forms on the exteriors of Hussainabad. Malka Jahan had been tutored by a female scribe, Zaina Begum, the wife of a well known Khush-nawis of the time, named Mohammad Ali. Unfortunately, an Imambara that she was building did not go beyond the foundation stage. Had her own Imambara been completed, it would have presented some of the best specimens of Tughra-nawisi.

Tughra-nawisi flourished in Lucknow for quite some time. A collection of Calligraphic specimens presented by Munshi Devi Prasad ‘Sahar’ in Azrang-e-Chin, published in 1875, has a good number of Tughras in the Ghair-Tahsili form. In 1914, a journal on Indian Art, published in London, mentions Tughra designed in Lucknow. We also find illustrations of glass panels with Tughra designs painted in various colours and those etched on mirrors with designs produced in the city. Specimens exist as logos and monograms specially designed by the Tughra-nawis for their patrons, mostly nobles and officials of the court and other wealthy patrons. Tughra designs made in the form of pigeon and horse, embroidered with white thread on a contrasting background of red, green or blue muslin or silk are also seen in some Imambaras of Lucknow. Examples of artistic use of Tughra designs with the phrase, Bismillah, cast in metal fixed for display on wood or hung on wall surface was also quite popular and available in Lucknow until two decades ago. They are rarely seen in the market now.

Aadab Lucknow
Cafe Dissensus : Tughra Calligraphy in Lucknow and Calligrapher-Syed Azeem Haider Jafri