Chota Imambargah or Imambargah Hussain Mubarak is a popular tourist destination in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, but serves a more significant role in the history of Lucknow’s Muharram traditions. Locals say “Muharram ke pehle das din yahan ke bawarchi khane ki aag jalti rehti hai” which loosely translates to bring light to the fact that the royal kitchen at Chota Imambargah is operational without a break in the first 10 days of the Muharram.
Muharram ul Haram is the first month of the Islamic year. On the 10th day in the year 61 Hijri (680 AD) Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet was martyred along with his 72 followers in the Battle of Karbala (Iraq) against the army of Yazeed, then ruler of Syria. The day is widely known as Ashoora. Shia Muslims and followers of Imam Hussain mourn in this month to commemorate the tragedy. This tragedy is re-lived by every mourner of Hussain each year through Azadari (set of mourning rituals in Muharram).
Muharram traditions developed by the Lucknow Nawabs are world famous and intact to this day. It is here in majalis (a gathering of mourners with organised sermons/lectures on the tragedy of Karbala and Islam) that the events are commemorated by everyone who feels for Hussain and his companions. After the majalis, tabarruk (offering of food or water) is distributed to the azadars (Mourners). tabarruk distribution from the royal kitchen quarters is believed to have started by Nawab of Lucknow Muhammad Ali Shah who set in place Hussainabad Allied Trust and Endowment Deed in 1836 to sustain Muharram and Ramzan traditions and protection of monuments he built. Since its inception the Hussainabad Allied Trust continues to sanction funds for tabarruk distribution.
The first tabarruk distribution from the royal kitchen was worth sixty five thousand rupees back then and included a dish of Mutton Pulao (A rice dish with goat meat), 10 Tandoori roti (bread made in a clay oven), a bowl of Tale aloo ka salan (fried potato in gravy) and another clay pot of kheer (milk pudding) which was received by the mourning Nawabs (members of the ruling families), Taluqadars (land owning aristocrats) and other distinguished personalities of Awadh. Soon after the tabarruk was opened to Lucknow Azadars, the Trust regularized the offerings to be vegetarian so as to make it accessible to all. Tale aloo ka salan or daal (lentils) servings with bread was fixed for distribution.
During my visit to the kitchen quarters at Chota Imambargah in 2019, I met with Syed Murtuza Hussain aka Raju Bhai, in charge of a team of forty-five cooks and a long-time associate with the Hussainabad and Allied Trust. As he walked us through the historical kitchen quarters, he shared: “Not only has the menu been kept intact over the years, but the food is cooked in the very same place, for all 10 days. The only change that the tabarruk distribution has seen is that earlier the Trust would have its own cooks preparing the meals but 2016 onwards, they gave out the contract on lease to whoever could bid for providing the service at an optimum price and quality. We prepare about 5000 portions for distribution each day, which includes portions for around 350 royal family households of Awadh and all the azadars who attend the majalis across Imambaras.”
“Azadars who attend the majalis or come for the food distribution are from all faiths and we want to respect Imam Hussain’s message of generosity to all humans while we remember him”, added Raju Bhai. Each portion consists of 2 Tandoori Rotis and a sikori (Mud Bowl) containing Salan or Daal, depending on the day’s menu. Use of sikori is not just traditional but imitates the humility of Hussain and his family. This set of items is distributed across three main Azadari centres of Lucknow, Chota Imambara, Bada Imambara and Shahnajaf Imambara. The four other centres that this kitchen caters to are Gaar Wali Karbala, Saadat Ali Khan ka Maqbara, Kazmain and Imambara Malka Jahan where traditional breads baqarkhani or sheermal are distributed as tabarruk.
Both the traditional breads are quite different from the tandoori roti and weigh at least 750 grams per piece. Their ingredients include large quantities of desi ghee (clarified butter), milk and saffron infused milk mixed in plain flour. The other point of difference is that the tandoori roti cooks quickly over a high flame of burning wood in the oven, whereas baqarkhani and sheermal take longer to cook over a low flame in a coal fuelled clay oven. An essential step in baking these breads is that saffron infused milk is sprinkled on the breads as they bake on the inner walls of the oven to impart to it the pale orange colour and its unique fragrance. The Chota Imambara kitchen produces nearly 7000-8000 tandoori rotis each day for ten days straight.
While sheermal and baqarkhani collectively amount to 11-12 quintals daily and are baked in a separate quarter called ‘sheermal khana’. Nearly twenty bags of flour ½ quintal each go into the making of these breads and a workforce of twelve men knead an almost impossible amount of dough by hand. Raju Bhai’s team consists of loha pighlane wale (iron smiths) as well who are also part time bread makers and work on 4 tandoors in the kitchen. He shares that since these men are accustomed to working in high temperature conditions, they are the best suited for this job. It also gives them an opportunity to earn more than they regularly make in their daily wages.
Tale-aloo ka Salan is fried in desi ghee and 3-4 quintals of potatoes are prepared each day. Each serving consists of 2 potato pieces in gravy. Tabarruk for the royal households get 6-7 potato pieces. Ghee helps to set gravy in the bowls, which eases the distribution process while the dish in itself is cooked in deghs (deep round bottom heavy vessels) over wooden fire. Potatoes need to be immersed completely in fat so that they cook evenly crisp and deghs facilitate mixing huge quantities of gravy. All food is prepared and cooked overnight while the distribution is done following the 9am majalis at the Imambaras. This routine has been followed unchangeably for the first ten days of Muharram every year from 1836 until 2019 after which Covid19 outbreak cast its shadows on the distribution.
According to the lunar cycle, Muharram was observed in August which also coincided with a massive surge in Covid-19 caseload in Uttar Pradesh in 2020. As a result the Uttar Pradesh government banned all juloos, majalis and tabarruk distribution that are central to Lucknow’s Muharram azadari. This year too, the kitchen fires have not been lit, following the government’s advisory and ban on public gathering in the light of the coronavirus outbreak. While Muharram observances in other parts of the country might be centric to the Muslim community, Lucknow azadari has made its mark for its plurality. Where people from all walks of life and different cultures and representations participate in processions, install taziya (replica of Imam Hussain’s Mausoleum) in their home and attend majalis to commemorate Imam Hussain’s martyrdom.
The important question remains – Will the royal kitchen go back to its bustling service in the future, or, will this be yet another end to a community-building tradition.
Taiyaba Ali is a Delhi-based food writer and home-baker. She is passionate about food origins and blogs at Sil-Batán. Follow her food escapes on Instagram, here.
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