The Institution of the Imambarah
The need for a physical site where the partisans of Imam ‘Ali could publicly mourn his martyred son, Husayn, brought into being the Great Imambarah and smaller similar structures. Nawab Safdar Jang raised a building for this purpose in Delhi, though the term imambarah (Urdu for house of the Imam) had not then come widely into use. During Shujacu'd-Dawlah's reign ,Aqa Baqir Khan constructed an imambarah in Lucknow for his nephew, a high Mughal official, and the edifice served as a model for the Husaynabad Imambarah almost a century later. The north Indian imambarah of the eighteenth century may have been influenced by the Iranian Husayniyyah , or takiyyah , and by the south Indian cashur-khanah .
The court invited architects to submit designs for the Great Imamabarah, the winner being the Delhi architect Kifayatu'llah. Because neither the Mughal emperor nor the nawab-vizier controlled Rajasthan any longer, the sort of marble used in the facade of the Persianate Taj Mahal proved unobtainable, and Kifayatu'llah was forced to have his engineers fall back on more native Indian techniques. They used clay bricks and stone, with ingenious mud molding that allowed the architect to achieve an immense, unsupported ceiling "more durable. . . than our most scientific Gothic vaulting."12 Mashhadi estimated the cost of the building at half a million rupees, but the Iranian traveler Shushtari put the Imamabarah and mosque complex with its lavish decorations at a million rupees.
Isfahani also attested to the huge expenditures made by the nawabi court on the Imambarah and its ornamentation. He said that even after the building's completion in 1791 (A.H. 1205) the nawab spent four or five hun-
dred thousand rupees on its decoration annually. Hundreds of gold and silver replicas of the Imam Husayn's tomb in Karbala were placed in the edifice as offerings to the Imam, along with innumerable glass chandeliers and candelabra. These offerings left no room for spectators and mourners to sit in the main hall. Valentia wrote that the Imambarah was stunningly illuminated with candles during the month of Muharram, and that in various parts of the building believers said prayers. He remarked that "every evening all unbelievers and followers of Omar, Othman, and Abu Bakr were anathematised, to the edification of the Hindoos, who, on this occasion, crowded there in great numbers."
Asafu'd-Dawlah's courtiers emulated his construction program in their own areas, so that in every neighborhood they put up new mansions, imambarahs , and mosques. Hasan Riza Khan built an imambarah and a mosque, and as soon as his mosque was ready he transferred Friday prayers there from his palace. Later they were held in the large mosque Asafu'd-Dawlah constructed next to the Great Imambarah. Most of Lucknow's Shi‘i grandees, the likes of Afarin ‘Ali Khan, Tahsin ‘Ali Khan, Ramadan ‘Ali Khan, and Tajammul Husayn Khan, built imambarahs in this period, as did many Sunnis and Hindus. In the early 1800s some 2,000 large imambarahs and 6,000 smaller tacziyah-khanahs embellished Lucknow. The eminent Shi‘i cleric Sayyid Dildar ‘Ali Nasirabadi constructed an imambarah in the early 1790s, which became a major center of religious culture and a burial site for many Shi‘i ulama. For the notable class, imambarahs performed many functions. They served as places for ritual mourning and worship, as literary salons, as personal monuments, arid as family cemeteries. Increasingly the endowment (waqf ) of such buildings became a secure means of passing on wealth to future generations, since they could not then be sold and any income associated with them could be assigned to descendants as remuneration for supervision. This institution also provided employment to subaltern ulama, who served as caretakers and read Qur'an verses for the deceased.
Notables spent much less on such buildings than did the nawab and his immediate circle, however. For instance, Mirza Jangali had a monthly allowance of Rs. 3,000 from his brother, Nawab Sacadat ‘Ali Khan. He bought a
piece of land in Patna toward the end of his life for Rs. 3,000 and built a mosque and an imambarah on it. He appointed Rs. 50 per month for a manager, a caretaker, and the expenses of Qur'an readings and prayers. When the Mirza died he was buried on the grounds of this complex. Later nawabs continued the pension to his descendants, including the money for the upkeep of the imambarah and the mosque, but the British cut it off because of the family's involvement in the 1857-58 rebellion. In contrast to Iran, such endowments rarely came under the supervision of the high ulama. In the case just cited the deceased's own sons supervised the endowment.
The elegiac poetry that dominated the religious culture of the imambarahs gave more public exposure to poets and reciters than to the staid ulama. Asafu'd-Dawlah's court attracted numerous poets and reciters of elegies (marsiyyah-khvans ), who came to hold an important place in public life. Mirza Muhammad Riza, a friend of Hasan Riza Khan's and the greatest reader of elegies in his day, used to chant from the Qur'an at the commemorations of Nawab Shujacu'd-Dawlah's passing held by his widow in Faizabad. Elegy reciters, such as Mulla Muhammad Shushtari and Shah Husayn Vilayat, came to Lucknow from Iran, and found appreciation at the nawab's court. Asafu'd-Dawlah appointed Shushtari, a poet and rawzah-khvan with some clerical training, to recite elegies in the Great Imambarah. An expert in music (an art forbidden by the legalistic ulama), he had a beautiful voice, which could melt peoples' hearts.
Poets, such as Mirza Raficu'd-Din Sawda and Mir Taqi Mir, began making their way to Lucknow from fading Delhi, where they often turned their talents to religious elegiac, or marthiyyah , poetry. Some, such as Miyan Sikandar, Gada, Miskin, and Afsurdah, began specializing in the marthiyyah . In the late eighteenth century poets replaced the four-line form of the Urdu elegy, favored in the Deccan, with a more reflective six lines, beginning a transition to the almost epic feel of the mid-nineteenth-century elegies- of Imam Husayn.
The poetry had both a literary and a ritual purpose. As ritual, reciters read it at mourning sessions as a means of making present the eternal, sacred time of ‘Ashura', when the Prince of Martyrs redeemed Muslims with his
blood. The rhythmic character of poetry lent itself to this task better than prose, the mourners working the rhythms into their fiagellations. The symbolic appeal of Husayn for the Shi‘is of Awadh, who felt themselves to be in exile from Arabia or Iran, is well demonstrated by one of Mir's verses. Imam Husayn stands facing his bloodthirsty foes after the loss of most of his supporting troops, holding his infant son, ‘Ali Asghar. He addresses the Syrians, saying:
I now swear to you an oath
that I shall restore my honor
I shall go elsewhere, having left this Arab
army; I shall make India my abode.
Even Sunni scholars, such as Mawlavi Mubin Farangi-Mahalli (d.1810), made contributions to devotional literature mourning the Imam Husayn. Shi‘i ulama worked the events of Karbala into their sermons, and produced studies of the tragedy based on Arabic oral reports from the Imams.
The development of the imambarah as an architectural form under the patronage of the nawabi court and courtiers provided a crucial meeting place for Shi‘is. The Shi‘i community, previously scattered and reticent, could now come out in public to commemorate the death of its Imams. Although the notable classes met in salons in any case, Shi‘i tradespeople and laborers might otherwise have had no place to make one another's acquaintance. The imambarahs and smaller buildings, as well as the homes of believers, became centers of new Shi‘i social networks and places where displaced Sunnis and Hindus could adopt Shi‘ism.