Adaab everyone! *Adaab is a greeting in Urdu that literally means respect.*
I have a lot of pictures I want to show you and stories to tell in this post. So much is happening! This post will mainly focus on some of the incredible places I've seen, and the photos will be interspersed with facts and anecdotes, and occasionally some rants.
Over a week ago we went to the imambaras (it is so crazy to think that was more than a week ago - feels simultaneously as if it has been longer and shorter than that!). Imambaras are huge beautiful shrines built by Shi'as. Lucknow is famous for its two imambaras, common pilgrimage sites for shi'a Muslims in the region. The Bara Imambara (big imambara) was completed in 1784 by Asaf-ud-Daula, the Nawab (ruler) of Lucknow at the time. The architect was apparently a relative of the architect for the taj mahal and there certainly is a mughal flavor to the architecture. On the bara imambara complex there is also a huge mosque, which only Muslims could enter to use for prayer. There is also a large gate called the Rumi Darwaza. Darwaza is the Urdu word for the door. I think it's such an elegant word for door!
When you enter into the Bara Imambara you have to take off your shoes and climb up 45 stairs, which feel like a lot more on a hot Indian summer afternoon. Inside the stone walkways, though, the ground is cool and the dimensions and light are mezmerizing.
However, up on the rooftop your soles will burn. The quick dash across smoldering stone is totally worth it though for the view, looking over the Bara Imambara complex down to the Gomti River that ambles through Lucknow.
Inside the Bara Imambara is a great architectural mystery which has made this place a potential nominee for the UNESCO World Heritage Site certification. The great hall in the center of the building has no wood, metal, or stone beams to support it. On top of that, rows of glass candelabras hang from the ceiling.
The Bara Imambara is famous for its bhulbhulayah (labyrinth in Urdu). It's a building that functions as a 3-dimensional labyrinth, with passages interconnecting with each other through 489 identical doorways. Apparently there was a pond at the bottom which only someone positioned in the labyrinth could see, so someone at the center of the labyrinth could see when someone was at the entrance but the person entering could not. Isn't that cool?
Isn't it great to be a foreigner? See price below:
Then there is the Chota Imambara. This imambara is smaller but much more ornamented and beautiful in an entirely different way than the Bara Imambara. It was built by Muhammad Ali Shah, the third Nawab of Awadh (the state that Lucknow was the capital of before independence), in 1838.
The complex has beautiful gardens and ponds, and the style of buildings seems to me more European than Mughal, but with that touch of bright Indian color.
When you enter into the Chota Imambara, the bright purple ceiling is filled with beautiful glass chandeliers of all shapes and colors and sizes.
The imambaras struck me as so beautiful and so alive, as a place of spiritual renewal and recent history. It was also very interesting to see the differences in aesthetic qualities and architectural styles from one nawab to the next, merely around half a century apart. One was mughal and regal and had the warm abrasive quality and detail of an old man's suntanned wrinkled cheeks. The other was smaller but bursting with color and ornamentation, as bejeweled and happy as a wedding party. I would definitely go back before I leave Lucknow.
A week later I went to another complex of monuments in Lucknow, these only completed in 2009. Ambedkar Park was the massive project of Mayawati, former Chief Minister for Uttar Pradesh, the state for which Lucknow is the capital. Uttar Pradesh happens to be the most populous state in India, and simultaneously one of the poorest. The Memorial Park happens to be located in the neighborhood in which I am living for the summer, Gomti Nagar, which I found out is the largest planned residential colony in India. The Park controversially cost over 7 million rupees to construct and its entirely built with red sandstone brought over from the state of Rajasthan way in the North West of India!
The park costs 10 rupees to enter (about 15 US cents), and once you enter through the second gate and into the complex, you feel like you left Lucknow and are now in a new world of silence, cool breezes, emptiness, and smooth earth-colored stone. It is a very peculiar space indeed.
Inside the buildings you will find larger than life statues. Below you see a statue of Mayawati - and how much larger it is than the average person. Self-aggrandizement or a rare Indian giant?
Mayawati's political symbol is the elephant so you will see elephant statues everywhere!
Inside, large statues of important community members, revolutionaries, and contributors to Indian politics tower over napping locals taking respite in the shade as the afternoon haze sets in.
It was amazing to see beautiful carvings and monuments that seemed like something I would find in an archaeological park or centuries-old tourist destination. This memorial park is only 5 years old!
My tour guide through this place was my ever patient and friendly zabaan dost (language partner). She is a local university student and so helpful with my Urdu. I spent four hours with her last week, speaking Urdu almost non-stop, and we actually understood each other and were actually having conversations about our families and movies and what I think of India and Urdu - IN URDU! I really feel like we are becoming friends. She gets added praise for exploring hot hazy Lucknow with me during ramadan, as she fasts from sunrise to sunset with not even a drop of water to sustain her. That strength of faith is admirable!
However, at one point the heat became too much so we found a random dude in all that emptiness who took us to a water pump, so she could at least cool down her face and feet.
She is so friendly that we also struck up a conversation with this security guard, Gulam Rasul, who was very curious why an Indian girl was showing around this camera-toting blonde girl during the hottest part of the day. He ended up giving us his number in case we want a free ticket in next time. My language partner told me that this is what real Indian people do: they help each other out and are incredibly friendly.
As we left I posed under some hindi lettering that I didn't understand but that my language partner thought looked really pretty. I was feeling pretty happy to leave this strange, desolate place and return to the colorful, chaotic India I have gotten to know in the past weeks.
It really saddened me to see such a huge place, worth so much money, practically empty in the most populous state in India. To think of all that building material, all those abodes, standing empty and silent, devoid of life and death and the circles that keep us going, while millions of people in this state are either homeless or live in shacks and can only dream of a stone-supported home. Who does such a monument benefit? The archaeologists who try to understand its meaning centuries into the future? The locals who seek out a rock-hard 10-rupee napping spot in the summer heat? I had difficulty seeing the point of it, since when I was there it seemed to be too large and stark of a space to nurse the intimacy of life. Then again, in a crowded and dirty place like India, clean stone and a lack of people are probably a huge relief. Nonetheless the cost of this building project, in my opinion, far outweigh the pros. What do you think?
Later this week I will try to post about my visit to a sufi shrine and mango grove, and a review of the hotel we stayed in to celebrate the 4th of July. Hopefully I'll have it posted before Friday, but it's a busy week! On Wednesday I'm going to visit a local NGO as part of the program, on Thursday my language partner is taking me to the science center in town, and on Friday I fly off to MUMBAI for the weekend. So excited for everything, but especially Mumbai!
Khuda hafiz for now!