It was already late afternoon. We were halfway through our day-long trip, stuffing ourselves like peckish chipmunks with cakes and chips en route to Hooghly Imambarah. We had no time to waste pausing at a restaurant although there were a few good ones around. Relieved to find a nice parking spot, we entered the majestic edifice after paying ₹5 per person as entry fee at the gate.
Board a Bandel Local or Bardhaman Local ( main ) from Howrah Station. Get down at Bandel Station. And voila…! Rickshaws, totos, and autos will be at your disposal. Take whatever you prefer and in no time you will be at Hooghly Imambarah.
The place where the Imambarah stands today housed a simple one-storied prayer hall once. A Persian merchant named Agha Mohammed Mutahar built it. He called it ‘Nazargarh Hossein’. Afterwards, Mirza Salauddin Khan, his son-in-law extended the building by adding a part called ‘Taziakhana’ in 1735. After a century, in 1841, upon the time-stricken ruins of this structure which was once Haji Mohammed Mohsin’s favourite place of worship, construction of a new edifice was started with the help of Mohsin fund. This is the Hooghly Imambarah as we know now.
Haji Mohammed Mohsin —we all may have heard his name at least once in our lives. He was a munificent philanthropist — a legend who set an example of benevolence and generosity in entire Bengal. Living his life for ‘God and Man’ as he said himself, this saintlike individual brought enlightenment of Western edification here long before Raja Rammohan Roy and Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar.
His acts of charity are countless. They include establishing numerous gruel- kitchens and donating to government funds during The Great Famine, providing financial support for building schools, colleges and charitable hospitals and many more. As I remember him so fondly, I should also mention that Hooghly Mohsin College where I completed my graduation was one of them.
In 1806, he created a trust called Mohsin fund that is till today providing poor students with aid. After he passed away in 1812 and after manifold disputes, Syed Keramat Ali became a ‘Matwali’ or guardian to the fund. He was an eminent and erudite architect. The design of Hooghly Imambarah was done under his supervision.
Hooghly Imambarah is basically a congregation hall for Shia Muslims. It is a marvelous vestige of medieval art and sculpture. Syed Keramat Ali garnered inspiration from European architecture while planning its design. On top of the entrance there is an enormous clock tower designed like a minaret of a castle with a height of almost 150 feet. There are two staircases with 152 stairs on each side, one for men and another for women to climb up the tower. Unfortunately, it was closed when we visited the site.
The clock itself is astounding. Syed Keramat Ali bought this clock from the famous M/s Black & Hurray Co. of London in 1852 for ₹11,721. The markings on the clock are in Indo-Arabic. It needs two adults for winding once a week. Not shocking though; for the winding key alone weighs 20 kilograms. It consists of three bells. Two smaller ones and a large one. The small ones chime at the quarters and the large one at hours. It is still in a perfect shape, reckoning time neatly.
The whole structure of the Imambarah is two storied with numerous rooms on either sides of the courtyard. In the middle of the precinct, there is a water reservoir and a fountain. We heard that various exotic and colourful species of fish were kept here. But we were disappointed to see its rundown condition. The water was no longer transparent, it was sort of greenish in colour. The fountain was not working. There was a Turkish Bath inside the premises. With some ruined domes and broken stained-glass panels, it has become a sorry remainder of the glorious days.
The main attraction of Hooghly Imambarah is the ‘Zaridalan’. It is the congregation hall. Right in the middle of it was a wooden throne-like seat for the preacher. It was adorned with intricate artistry. The walls of the hall were engraved with dictums from The Holy Quran. There were more than one beautiful Belgian glass lanterns in the ‘Zaridalan’. Photography inside ‘Zaridalan’ is prohibited.
We came across another very interesting part of history. Just beside the Hooghly river, in the backyard of Imambarah, there is a three feet high Sun-dial. It is said that, in earlier times the slab that worked as the time pointer was made of pure brass. After it was stolen one day, a stone slab was erected which you will see nowadays.
Hooghly Imambarah opens everyday at 8 a.m and closes at about 5:30 p.m except for Friday. On Friday, it remains closed for tourists. You will come across some typical eateries around like restaurants, fast food centres, and sweet shops.
The grand old days have passed. And this is evident from the moss covered walls and the peeping of the peepul trees from cracks and crevices of the ancient monument. Although it had already been acclaimed as a ‘Heritage Building’, you can feel the administrative laxity and nonchalance throughout your visit. Nevertheless, the remnants of the radiant past will grip you.
The deserted corridors, the ancient hanging lamps, the last rays of sun emanating from the orifices of the terrace everything ended up making us nostalgic. As the clock chimed, we came back to our senses. We had another place to cover before evening falls. And so making our final bow to Hooghly Imambarah, we set off right away.