| Site home | 

< Previous  |  Main contents  |  Section contents | Next >

[[ Other sections:  || Archaeology|| Architecture||  Arts and Crafts||  Cultural history||  || Folklore||  || Indigenous||  || Language & Literature||  || Living traditions||  || State & Culture  ]] 

Nakhoda Mosque, Calcutta. The enormous four-storeyed Nakhoda Mosque was erected in a crowded area of Calcutta in 1942 when the Muslim League and the idea of Muslim nationalism were popular among India’s minority Islamic population. The mosque is distinguished by an arched pistaq, which is flanked on either side by four storeyes of double-arched facades. The horizontal parapet is enlivened with kanjuras, and the bordering columns of the pistaq rising high above the roof are crowned by domed kiosks in the typical Mughal fashion. The floors do not extend fully to the qibla wall, so that the great central mihrab is visible from all floors. Faced with white marble and red sand stone the mosque has consciously reverted to the architectural style of the imperial Mughals who once held cultural and political sway over the whole of the sub-continent.

3.2.2 Imambaras

Imambara literally meaning a residence for the Imam is an assembly hall or a symbolic building for a Shi‘ite gathering to commemorate the tenth day (ashura) of Muharam, the day of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad at Karbala. Maharram is the first calendar month of Muslim year and ashura is observed throughout the Islamic world, particularly amongst Shii‘te communities as a mourning day. On the occasion the Qur’an is read, the tale of the tragedy is sermonised, elegies are recited and matom (lamentation) is made through beating the breast while carrying the tazia (portable model of Husayn’s grave) to and from the imambara in procession. The imambara appears to be an Indian institution originating in the 17th century of Mughal time. It was popularized in the Nawabi era particularly in the Northern region, now the Uttra Pradesh. Safdar Jang (1708-54) who built a house at Delhi for the purpose of celebrating the ashura was perhaps the first ruler to popularise such an institution. But it was not called imambara then. Asafullaula the grandson of Safdar Jang, built a smaller house at Lukhnow known as Imambara-i-Asafi. It is from then on that the word ‘imambara’ assumed popularity and is now widely known throughout eastern India including Bengal.

In the 19th century a large number of imambaras were built under official patronage in Bengal, particularly in Dhaka and Murshidabad, the two important long-term capitals. Other examples followed elsewhere mostly in private initiatives. At time it is said that there were 15 imambaras in Dhaka alone. Till the middle of the last century quite a number of them in miniature forms mostly symbolic, were seen in various parts

of Bangladesh including Dhaka, Manikganj, Kishorganj, Astagram, Saidpur, Thakurgaon, Rajshahi and Sylhet etc. The architecture of the large extant ones not of uniform plan or design show European influence, and as such although imagined by indigenous rulers are now examples of Colonial architectural specimens. European influences are particularly noticed in the round multi-foiled arches, in Tuscan pillars and in the tall shuttered doorways. Traditional Sultanate and Mughal character is seen in the chala roofs, in oriel windows, towers, domes and pavilions. The exception is perhaps the ‘Madina’ at Murshidabad which because of it’s typical distinctiveness has been included in Mughal architecture. The octagonal structure at Madhoil appears also to be a Mughal monument but because of it’s association with the traditional epithet as a karbala has been included in the present chapter with all other monuments of it’s kind known as imambaras and built in the Colonial period.

The Husayni Dalan, Dhaka. It is situtated in the old part of the city of Dhaka and is originally attributed to one Sayyid Murad of the period of the governorship of Shah Shuja, who, although himself a Sunni, was eager to preserve and patronise Shi‘ite

institutions. Traditions relate that Sayyid Murad, having seen al-Husayn in a vision Dhaka: Husayni Dalan


erecting a tazia khana, was inspired to raise the building, which he named Husayni Dalan. The original building as has been portrayed by D’oyly was a beautiful small Mughal structure, expanded to it’s present form in later times. The East India Company repaired it in 1807 and 1810, and the present Colonial structure must have been reconstructed after the earthquake of 1897.

The building stands on a high platform ascended by a flight of steps on the east and

consists of two main halls placed back to back. The shirni hall, facing south, is coloured black to indicate sorrow and mourning for the death of al-Husayn, and the khutba hall, facing north, has a minbar with seven wooden steps. In the latter hall are hung several religious symbols such as the panjah (sacred palm), the Buraq, the photographs of Imams etc. To these halls have been added subsidiary halls in two storeys on the right and left, probably meant for women. The southern facade of the building is flanked by two three-storeyed polygonal hollow towers, crowned by domes. In between the towers the verandah on the top floor is fronted by Tuscan pillars. The parapet of the building consists of coloured merlons, and over it’s four corners are four kiosks. The building as a whole gives a modern appearance with remnants of older architectural traits here and there.

From the first to the tenth day of Muharram, the Husayni Dalan becomes the chief attraction of the city. Mourners, including Sunni Muslims, assemble here, listen to sermons and join in passion plays crying ‘Ya Husayn, Ya Husayn’. On the ashura a great procession parades through the main streets of the city to a place in the western part of the city symbolically called Karbala.

The Great Imambara, Murshidabad. This huge imambara measuring 209m in length, is situated to the north of the Hazarduari Palace in Murshidabad and is the largest of it’s kind in Bengal. It was built in 1847 to replace an earlier one reported to have been built by Nawab Sirajuddoula.1 The south facade of the imambara is divided into two storeyes, the doors of the first being crowned with false multi-foiled arches, and the upper flat headed, all fitted with shuttered leaves. In the centre of the facade there is a flat-roofed fronton flanked by a pair of Tuscan columns on each side. The entrance arch is deep, semi-circular and is ornamented with multi-foiled cuspings. The entrance leads to an open quadrangle in the midst of which is the Madina described as a Mughal Qadam Rasul in the pervious section. The structure is crowned above the parapet by small turrets in the form of lanterns.

An abridged description of Sirajuddaula’s structure is reproduced here from A.H. Dani. ‘The building was a quadrangular one in two storeys. In the east, the hall or chamber facing west has been fixed as the place for Majlis. On the west, in the chambers facing east, were placed various representations of the tombs of the Imams, made of gold, silver, glass, and wood, and hundreds of “alums” (sacred flages or standards). During the Mahurram it is in this part of the building that verses from the


1. The structure built by Sirajuddoula has been recorded by Major J.H.T. Walsh in his A History of Murshidabad District (London 1902).

Koran are read day and night without least interval ... . The charmbers on the north and south were set apart as storehouse and workshops ... . The rooms of the second storey were surrounded with screens of mica on which were painted various designs of flowers, beasts, and men etc with thousands of cressets behind them ... . In the north and south chambers there were images, two in each, of Boraq representing him as having the face of a man and body of peacock. The tails of these Boraqs were made so high as almost to reach the ceiling. Instead of adorning the tails with feathers, they were bedecked with beautifully painted shields, china and silver saucers and hundreds of polished swords and daggers. Hundreds of candles were lighted near these shields at night to make them more conscious’.

The Karbala, Murshidabad. This imambara known as the ‘Karbala’ according to an inscription in an interior wall was erected in 1804 by one Ambar Ali Khan, probably a nobleman. A second inscription over the archevay entrance on the east side gives a further information that the structure was enlarged by Darab Ali Khan, ‘a highly placed court eunuch’ and a man of piety who left most of his wealth to religious institutions. This enlargement according to the inscription was made in 1854. The entrance of the structure is over headed by a multi-foiled stilted semi-circular arch and is flanked by two tall slender turrets of Mughal design. Within the interior on the west side verandah are seen Tuscan pillars of the type seen in the great imambara described above. The parapet of the building is in Mughal merlons which together with the entrance arch decorations form the only attractive feature in an otherwise plain structure.

The Imambara, Hughli. This imambara, originally a set of buildings erected in the last decade of the 17th century, was rebuilt with new structures in the late 18th century by Mirza Salahuddin Muhammad Khan, husband of Mannujan Begum, half sister of Haji Muhammad Mohsin who is much known for his ‘Fund’ and it’s contribution to public benefits. Mohsin inherited the childless Mannujan’s zamindari of Sayadpur, and himself being a celibate made an endowment of it’s proceeds to the fund created in his own name. Mohsin Fund was taken over by the Government in 1818, and out of this fund was erected the present imambara complex ‘featuring school, college, madrasa, mosque, hospital, market place, residences, tombs of Shi‘a personages, of Haji Mohsin and his family members in the fifties of the 19th century. The imambara itself as a structure in present time does not seem to have much significance than the name itself except the marble blocks of the buildings, inscriptional texts from the Holy Qur’an in appropriate places, precious furniture, carvings, chandelier-lanterns, the silver-plated pulpit in the mosque which symbolize the nature of exceptional reverence the imambara held at one time. The imamabra presently though not well maintained is still looked upon as an attractive tourist spot in West Bengal.

Imambara, Thakurgaon. This imambara still stands in a dilapidated condition in Sindurna Village of Rajpur Union. Two inscription tablets one in Bangla and the other in Persian are now in local custody recording it’s date of erection as 1215 BS and 1220 respectively by certain Shaikh Muhammad Raj, a descendant of Shaik Chan, a

Madhoil Karbala: ground

plan, drawn by Sultan Ahmed

zamindar of Sitalpur in Purnia District. The structure is raised on a platform, and measures 5.8m by 3.9m externally with doorways on all the four sides two on the east and west sides and one each on the north and south. It was a chauchala roofed building now broken and overgrown with vegetation. Although described as a ‘gateway house’ the building appears to be a complete imambara with an open inner space for placing the tazia in Maharram. In fact such imambaras in local areas are always small and symbolic in nature with no significant architectural details. The building with it’s visible features such as the multi-foiled arches and the form of the engaged round columns flanking the entrances is a typical Colonial building with traditionally Mughal and European character.

The Karbala at Madhoil. This building a rare specimen of an octagonal building in Bengal, is traditionally known as an imambara, locally called ‘Karbala’.2 It is situated at a village called Madhoil in Patnitala Upazila of Naogaon District. The editor of the present volume visited the spot in 1993 with some of his students. The building is situated near a bazar then looked desolate and ruinous. The ruins must have been more by this time.

The structure is a moderate-size building with a measurement of 5.1m each side. This measurement is of a platform over which was erected the main building, also octagonal with arched entrances, one each on the eight sides. Within this octagon is another octagon leaving a circumambulatory space of 1.2m around the inner octagon which is less than a meter in width in diameter in the centre. The inner octagon is thus very small, dark and is approached from a narrow doorway on it’s east side


corresponding to the main entrance from the east. The outer platform was also approached from this side through an ascending stair with three steps. The central octagon was covered with a fluted dome flanked by vaulted roofs but flat above on the sides.3

The plan of the building is so similar to that of the Dome of the Rock at Jerusalem and through it’s influence to the octagonal tombs of the Sayyid and Lodi period in Delhi that on seeing the monument one might to be tempted to identify it as an octagonal tomb. But on looking at the inner chamber, so small to accommodate a sarcophagus, precludes it at once from the possibility. The other and plausible explanation could be to regard it as a Qadam Rasul to accommodate the footprint of the Prophet or some sacred earth from the holy places like those already described in the Mughal Period. But the local tradition


2. In the context the octagonal building at Nauda with all it’s sides open with arched entrances could also be an imambara, dating in the late Mughal Period.

[[ Other sections:  || Archaeology|| Architecture||  Arts and Crafts||  Cultural history||  || Folklore||  || Indigenous||  || Language & Literature||  || Living traditions||  || State & Culture  ]]