Najaf and Lucknow: Faith Across Borders

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    Lucknow is known for its magnificent Imambaras or mosques, which attract thousands of worshipers during Muharram. But one of the most significant and historic imambaras that doesn't quite get its due is the ‘Shah Najaf’ , located in the Mashakganj area of Lucknow, on the banks of the Gomti river. Built in 1816, this imambara is a replica of Hazrat Ali’s (Son-in-Law of Prophet Muhammad) tomb and mosque in Najaf in Iraq - one of the holiest shrines in the world for Shias. In fact, so important is Lucknow’ss Shah Najaf, that it is believed that visiting this shrine is as good as going to the main one , thousands of kilometres away.

    The story of ‘Shah Najaf’ is closely connected to the history of Lucknow and the power struggles and intrigues between the Nawabs of Awadh and the British East India company in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

    The royal house of Lucknow traced its origins to Nawab Saadat Ali Khan (1680-1739), an adventurer from Nishapur in Korasan province of the Safavid empire in Iran. Under the patronage of its Shia Nawabs, who built mosques , shrines and Imambaras, Lucknow emerged as the most important center of Shi’ism in India, a status that it retains till this day.

    Following the collapse of the Mughal empire in the 18th century, Saadat Ali Khan, the then Governor and his successors became the de-facto independent rulers of Awadh, which was then one of the richest provinces of the Mughal empire. However, a turning point in the history of Awadh came when the armies of Awadh’s Nawab Shuja-ud-Daulah (1732-1775) and those of the deposed Nawab of Bengal Mir Kasim (r. 1760-1763) fought against the British East India company in the Battle of Buxar (1764) and lost badly. The accompanying Treaty of Allahabad (1765) would not only force Awadh to pay a huge indemnity to the British, but also give the British a foothold in the kingdom.

    Over the next few decades, after Buxar, the British East India company would have Awadh in its strangle grip and the Nawabs would concede more and more power, until they became mere puppets in the Company’s hands.

    History proves that ceremonial courts are often grander than ones backed with real power and might. Shorn of real power, the Nawabs spent much of their time, proving they were wealthy enough to build magnificent buildings, palaces, tombs, mosques and imambaras, first at Faizabad and then at Lucknow. This, even as the British East India company kept making demands on one pretext or the other and the Nawabs had to keep fulfilling the company’s insatiable greed for money.

    Nawab Saadat Ali Khan II (1752-1814), the second son of Nawab Shuja-ud-Daulah, became the Nawab of Awadh in 1798. Unlike his predecessors, Saadat Ali Khan, was a good administrator and he considerably improved the finances of his state through sound fiscal management. For instance, instead of delegating the tax collection to corrupt contractors as was done before, he instituted the ‘Amani system’ which meant that the state directly collected taxes from the public. As a result, when Saadat Ali Khan died in 1814, there was a surplus ‘reserve fund’ of a whopping Rs 14 crores lying in the treasury, inherited by his son and successor, Nawab Ghazi-ud Din Haider.

    Unlike his father, Nawab Ghazi-ud Din Haider was prone to wild extravagances and soon began to lavishly spend Awadh’s money on grand ceremonies and even grander buildings. He built a number of palaces in Lucknow, including the famous Chhatar Manzil palace on the banks of the Gomti river. However, his most significant construction was the Shah Najaf Imambara, that he built in 1816.

    It is said that the Nawab felt so sorry for the poor Shia pilgrims, who could not travel to the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf in Iraq, that he decided to bring Najaf to Lucknow . For Shia Muslims, Najaf is the third most important pilgrimage spot after Mecca and Medina, as it is here that the Imam Ali, the fourth Caliph of Islam and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad is buried. As per Shia religious belief , Adam (the first man) and Noah (of the Noah’s arc story), both holy figures in Islam, are said to be buried in this shrine. Being Shia themselves ( as opposed to the Mughals and the Nizams of Hyderabad who were Sunnis) the Nawabs of Awadh generously supported these Shia shrines in Karbala and Najaf, as a part of their religious obligations.

    Lucknow & Najaf’s deep connect

    Interestingly, one of the deepest connections between Lucknow and Najaf is something called the ‘Hindiyya Canal’. The sheer extent of the Nawab’s involvement in development of the Shia shrines in Iraq is recounted by historian Juan Cole in his book ‘Sacred Space and Holy War: The Politics, Culture and History of Shi'Ite Islam ‘ (2002). Cole explains how dry Najaf was and how it was transformed thanks to the building of the ‘Hindiyya Canal’ or ‘Indian canal’. Apparently, in 1780s, the Government of Awadh sent a remittance of Rs 5 lakhs through the Persian business firm of Haji Karbala Muhammad Tehrani, to construct a canal from the Euphrates river, that would bring waters to the dry Najaf city. The canal was completed in 1793 and was known as the ‘Hindiyya Canal’ (Indian canal) after its patron. The government of Awadh also had the main Shia mosque at Kufa in Iraq rebuilt. Apart from that it also built hostels and libraries for Indian pilgrims in Najaf.

    In 1801, Nawab Saadat Ali Khan II also sent a silver canopy for Imam Hussain’s shrine in Karbala. This was made in Lucknow and shipped from Bombay through British vessels. There was so much money being sent from Lucknow as endowments to the Shia shrines in Iraq, that it alarmed the Ottoman administration. As a consequence when by 1816, the Hindiyya canal began silting up, the Ottoman governor discouraged the Awadh government from repairing it. But right till the British annexation of Awadh in 1856, large remittance would be sent from Lucknow for the maintenance of the canal.

    Shah Najaf

    In view of the close ties between Lucknow and Najaf, it should come as no surprise that Nawab Ghazi-ud Din Haider built the ‘Shah Najaf’ in Lucknow, for those who could not afford to travel that far. He also built his own tomb as well as those of his favourite wives inside the complex in Lucknow . The Shah Najaf Imambara in lucknow was completed in 1816 and was richly decorated with canopies of gold, silver and crystal chandeliers. Legend has it that the ceiling of the Imambara had nine rods of gold of 40 kgs each! A magnificent silver tomb of the Nawab lies in the centre of the building and is surrounded by tombs of his wives. The tomb of his queen, Mubarak Mahal, who died in 1849 is also exquisitely decorated .

    Right next to the Shah Najaf imambara in Lucknow was the ‘Qadam-e-Rasool’, a shrine bearing a supposed footprint of Prophet Muhammad on a black stone, built in 1830 by Ghazi-ud Din Haider’s successor Nasir-ud-din Haider. It contained a sacred relic (the footprint) brought by a pilgrim from Arabia. However, the relic disappeared during the revolt of 1857, and the building today is completely in ruins.

    The story of how the Shah Najaf imambara is maintained till this day is very interesting. In Nawab Ghazi-ud Din Haider, the British India company found an easy going and gullible ruler with a lot of money. In 1814, they asked the Nawab for a ‘loan’ of one crore rupees, which was given and then followed with a second ‘loan’ request of another crore the following year. In order to flatter the Nawab and ensure that he continued to extend the line of credit, , they coaxed him to throw off the pretence of Mughal suzerainty, that Awadh rulers always maintained and declare himself ‘Padshah-i-Awadh’ or the ‘King of Awadh’ . In 1826, they again asked the Nawab to invest one crore and fifty lakhs in loan during the Anglo-Burmese war. In this way, the British kept taking huge sums of money from the Nawabs in the form of ‘perpetual’ loans - that were never paid back.

    Now the problem was that taking an interest on loans is forbidden in Islam. But the Nawabs also could not forego interest on such huge sums. To get around this, a series of loan agreements were put in place as per which the loans were to be considered perpetual, but the interest would be paid as maintenance for upkeep of religious buildings, for religious ceremonies, as well as pensions to the members of the Nawab’s household. This was known as the ‘Wasiqa system’

    Awadh was annexed in 1856 and the last Nawab, Wajid Ali Shah was exiled to Calcutta. During the revolt of 1857, Shah Najaf became a stronghold of Indian fighters. In the book ‘History of Indian Mutiny 1857-58’ (published 1890), a contemporary British historian, Sir John Kaye devotes a chapter to ‘Obstinate Resistance at Shah Najaf’. Facing fierce resistance from Shah Najaf, Kaye recounts –

    Success seemed now impossible. Even Hope and Peel (officers), these two men, iron of will and ready of resource, could see now way…. The dead and wounded were ordered to be collected and carried to the rear… the shades of the evening were falling fast.. the assault could not be continued.. But then, as a last recourse – the last throw of a desperate game – Adrian Hope [British officer] collected around 50 men and advanced to a portion of the wall where he perceived some injury could be inflicted…’ It was only with great difficult and a heavy loss of life that British manage to capture Shah Najaf. The British Commander, General Sir Colin Campbell wrote in his diary on 18th November 1857 about the Shah Najaf battle - ‘Never had there been a harder fought day’ and adding ‘It was an action almost unexampled in war’.

    Following the re-establishment of British rule in Lucknow, Shah Najaf was repaired and became a religious centre once again. In 1886, the British Government passed the Wasiqa legislation, which formalised the arrangement as in which the interest from the Nawab’s perpetual loans were given as pensions to Nawab’s descendants as well as to maintain the Bara Imambara, Husainabad Imambara as well as Shah Najaf Imambara. After India’s independence, in accordance with the agreement with the British government, the role was taken over by the Government of Uttar Pradesh. Even today, there were 1800 Nawab’s descendants who get paid amounts ranging from Rs 10 to Rs 250 as Wasiqa payments. Shah Najaf imambara is also maintained from the Wasiqa funds.

    Today, the Shah Najaf Imambara is dwarfed by it's larger counterpart the Bara Imambara in Lucknow, But Muharram is still observed with great pomp here. In fact, given the fact that Najaf in Iraq is more in news for the raging battles in the region, it is time to build on the legacy of this ode , to that Imambara!

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