The Bara Imambara was built in the year 1784 by the fourth Nawab of Awadh known as Asaf-ud-Daula. It was built as a part of a relief project for a major famine that took place in the year 1784. The Bara Imambara of Lucknow is one of the most famous monuments of this place. It is also called Asfi Imambara after the name of the Nawab of Lucknow who got it constructed. It is an important place of worship for the Muslims who come here every year to celebrate the religious festival of Muharram.
It is neither a mosque nor a dargah. An Imambara is simply a hall where Shia Muslims come together for various ceremonies, especially related to the Remembrance of Muharram. Muharram is basically a period of mourning for all Muslims, especially for Shias, and marks the anniversary of Battle of Karbala where Hussein-ibn-Ali, the grandson of Muhammad, was killed in a battle.
In 1784, the province of Awadh was struck by a famine of an unprecedented scale. So severe were its effects that not only the common man, but the nobles were also reduced to penury, many having nothing to eat. At that time, the emperor of Awadh, Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula, came up with a novel way of generating employment for the rich and poor alike. He summoned the best architects of the time and commissioned them to design a grand prayer hall for the city of Lucknow, the capital of Awadh. After short-listing the design created by Kifayatullah, an architect from Delhi, he laid the foundation of the most ambitious building of the province, the Bara Imambara.
It is believed that the Nawab employed more than 20,000 men for the construction of the complex. It is said that ordinary people used to work in the day building up the edifice, while noblemen and other elite worked at night to break down anything that was raised that day. It was a project that preceded a Keynesian like intervention for employment generation. Construction of the Imambara was completed in 1791. it was also the Nawab’s way of making sure that no one was ever out of work. Estimated cost of building the Imambara ranges between half a million rupees to a million rupees. Even after completion, the Nawab used to spend between four and five hundred thousand rupees on its decoration annually.
The complex also includes the large Asfi mosque, the bhul-bhulaiya (the labyrinth), and bowli, a step well with running water. Two imposing gateways lead to the main hall.