Decrypting the Crypt: Bhool Bhulaiya at Bara Imambara in Lucknow

posted in: Asia, Culture, Heritage, India, Uttar Pradesh | 92

“It’s pretty impossible to get out of that maze without help” – That is what my friend told me after threw up a challenge at me. This was a few years ago when she had visited the famous labyrinth of India – Bhool Bhulaiya and she could not stop gushing about how elaborate it was and how anyone could lose their sense of direction here. She said that she was pretty sure that even with my sense of direction (Which I am proud to say is fairly good) would not be able to get out. I had to wait for a couple of years to take that one and when I did, I discovered more than just the labyrinth. I found a gorgeous heritage monument – the Bara Imambara in Lucknow.

The entrance to Bara Imambara, Lucknow
The entrance to Bara Imambara, Lucknow

The moment I accepted the challenge, I read up on the Bara Imambara on Google. As much as I wanted to head to Lucknow then, the opportunity presented itself only this year when Lucknow became our first stop enroute the Epic Indo- Nepal Road Trip. While the rest of my team was waiting to reach Lucknow to satiate their salivating taste buds, I had strapped on my camera, tightened my belt and donned the hat of Indiana Jones. All to set to take on the archaic challenge my friend had set on me. What happened follows with my thrilling exploration of the stunning Bara Imambara.

Introducing Bara Imambara

“Bara” means big while “Imambara” refers to a Shrine for the Shia Muslims.  The Shrine is essentially, for the Muharrum festival where the Shia Muslims commemorate the death of the grandson of Prophet Muhammad. The Imambara is where the Muharrum procession concludes and this one was built by the Nawab of Awadh – Asaf-Ud-Daulah in the 1780s. The huge complex of the Bara Imambara includes much more than just the Imambara. It includes the Asafi Mosque, a step well or a Bawli and the famous labyrinth – Bhool Bhulaiya. The same complex now even, houses the grave of its creator – a fine memory for this structure wasn’t just built for religious purposes but is a symbol of the benevolence of a worthy ruler.

Asafi Mosque at Bara Imambara
Asafi Mosque at Bara Imambara

Legend has it that Lucknow was hit by a famine and that affected the livelihood of people here. It was then that Nawab Asaf-Ud-Daulah commissioned the Bada Imambara. This helped the needy with their daily earnings. As astute that he was, he did not forget the noblemen. Their job began at night and it was to break down whatever was built during the day. This helped keep work going and what could have taken a lesser amount of time, took 10 plus years to build. A perfect balancing act that is now symbolized by this timeless monument.

The Architecture of Bara Imambara

The first gate to Bara Imambara
The first gate to Bara Imambara

From the moment we walked in through those elaborate gates of Bara Imambara, I knew that this place was going to throw up a lot of stories and surprises. The grand structure behind those sprawling gardens was calling out to us to get closer and start exploring. In fact, the structure that I saw had me fooled. I assumed that was the main building but it, in fact, was the main gate to the Bada Imambara. There were actually two gateways to this monument – one that I had just passed and the second that I had in front of me.

The 2nd gateway to the entrance of the Bara Imambara
The 2nd gateway to the entrance of the Bara Imambara
The arched entrance to Bara Imambara with the Fish Symbol of the Nawab
The arched entrance to Bara Imambara with the Fish Symbol of the Nawab

Note the fish etched onto the gateway – this was the symbol of the Nawabs and you will find them on most of the structures commissioned by the clan. The arched windows and the gateways led to another sprawling layout where to my right I had the grand Asafi Mosque while straight ahead lay the Bara Imambara. There are plenty of interesting and unique facts about this structure that makes it one attraction in India that you should not miss. And most of them are related to the architecture.

  • The entire structure of the Bara Imambara has no metal or wood used. It is in fact, made of edible material like daal, limestone and Rice Husks
  • The high ceilings have no beams supporting it. In fact, the Bara Imambara is considered as one of the World’s largest arched structures.
  • To give support to the high ceilings, the structure was made hollow and the roofs are of different heights. This led to the accidental construction of the Labyrinth – the Bhool Bhulaiya.
The Bara Imambara
The Bara Imambara

What? Did I just tell you that this fascinating structure – my place of mission,  was constructed not by design? However, that is a fact and frankly, a bit disappointing. I was hoping for some tale of how it was made to confuse the enemies and strategic reasons. Nonetheless, soon my disappointment was dissipated. For then, came the interesting stories of this labyrinth but after it was constructed. 😉

Three Chambers within Bara Imambara

The first corridor of Bara Imambara
The first corridor of Bara Imambara

Shoes off and bare feet on a scorching floor outside the Bara Imambara, is enough to get anyone to rush right into the building. The corridor that greets you before the main chamber has this cooling effect on you with its pale green interiors, high painted ceiling and the colorful lamps that hang from it.

The Chinese Hall in Bara Imambara
The Chinese Hall in Bara Imambara

This is where we started off with our guide who explained that there three main chambers inside the Bara Imambara. The first one on the left (East ) was the Chinese Chamber, the central long Chamber called the Persian Chamber and the last chamber on the right or the West called the Kharbooza Chamber or the Watermelon chamber. I don’t think my guide liked it when I asked him why those names for he did not have a plausible reason except for that their names were owing to their appearance. I am a little skeptical even about that for there was nothing really Chinese about that Chinese Chamber. 😉

Persian Chamber in Bara Imambara
Persian Chamber in Bara Imambara

The name of the Persian Hall, befits the hallway for at least there were some elements of Persian design within it. The central chamber is the one that houses the tomb of its creator – both its sponsor, Nawab Asaf-Ud-Daulah and its architect – Khifayatullah. The story of its architect is one of those stories that I was referring to earlier. Apparently, this building design contract was awarded to the winner of an architecture design concept hosted by the Nawab. And when he had completed the building, Khifayatullah was questioned on whether the ceilings would hold up without the beams. To this he said, place me right below it and it will still not fall.

The tomb of the Nawab in Bara Imambara
The tomb of the Nawab in Bara Imambara

The central hall has several other interesting artifacts that you need to watch out for. This includes certain paintings and candelabra that have eternal flames lit around the tombs. Our guide zipped us through it and whisked us to the first level of this Chamber for some more magic.

When walls have ears at the Bara Imambara

Through the narrow passages along the steep stairs, you are ushered onto the sides of what parapet that overlooks the central hall. We were all asked to stand in silence in a single file so that the magical properties of this hall could be demonstrated. I think this is when all the guides in the Bara Imambara become dramatic and begin their spiel by saying – ” Have you heard of the saying that Walls have ears? This is where we will demonstrate the same

Persian Hall in Bara Imambara
Matchstick lit at the other end of the Persian Hall in Bara Imambara to be heard where we were standing

A matchstick was lit at the end of the 50m hall and through that silence, you could hear it right where we stood, at the other end of the hall. Such were the acoustics that a secret told within these walls would not remain one 😉

Through the tunnels of Bhool Bhulaiya

1000+ ways to get in but only one way out! That is what I remember our proud guide telling us. As he led the way out from the main building to enter the steep staircase to the famous Bhool Bhulaiya. He told us that there were over 480 doorways that led to various tunnels within the Bara Imambara and also, away from it to as far as Delhi, Agra and Faizabad – the latter being the capital of Awadh.

The narrow passages of Bhool Bhulaiya at Bara Imambara
The narrow passages of Bhool Bhulaiya at Bara Imambara

Our guide took us in groups to show several of those narrow tunnels and regale us with stories of how various people, including the British have got lost in those tunnels, never to be found again. Thus, a lot of these were now closed to the public. He said a lot of them had even died here owing to the claustrophobia that the low and high roofs and narrow passageways created. The dank interiors definitely do not help the cause but in the end, that does makes the labyrinth so deadly. Me ? I could feel the adrenaline pumping for I was getting close to my challenge.

On the roof of Bara Imambara

One part of the roof of Bara Imambara, Lucknow
One part of the roof of Bara Imambara, Lucknow
View of the Asafi Mosque and the rest of the Bara Imambara complex from the roof
View of the Asafi Mosque and the rest of the Bara Imambara complex from the roof

Three lefts, two rights and we were out on the roof with its intricate windows called the Jharokhas. The numerous arched doorways opened up to both sides of the building from where you could see not just the rest of the campus but also, the city of Lucknow. The minarets and the entire structure served well as a watchtower, which I suspect would be one of the uses this place was put to. The flat roof could also, possibly be one of the places that were used for prayers, with the Asafi mosque so close by.

The scenic jharokhas of Bara Imambara, Lucknow
The scenic jharokhas of Bara Imambara, Lucknow

Finally – the challenge of Bhool Bhulaiya

Having spent a few cool moments (and literally so with the evening sun and the breeze), we finally got our challenge. Our guide ushered us back into the labyrinth and gave us 5 minutes to get ourselves out to the ground floor before he was to rescue us. The funny thing was I was quite ready and confident about it. Somehow, the human GPS in me was working well and confidently I made my turns to emerge out at the staircase that led us back to the ground floor in less than 5 minutes. And yes, you can applaud now! For Challenge completed successfully!.

Bhool Bhulaiya, Bara Imambara
Challenge completed – getting out of Bhool Bhulaiya, Bara Imambara

I suppose I am ready for those underground passages now if someone could let me in. This challenge was way too simple! 😉

A Quick look at the Asafi Mosque & the other attractions

Emerging out, we had two choices with our explorations. Either head to the Bawli or the stepwell or ditch it for a tour of another epic monument – the Chota Imambara. I was in half a mind to make a dash and see the step well also, but our guide did say that doing so would make me miss the other place. I just chose to behave myself and go with the popular vote of visiting the other place. I frankly think that it was not a bad choice but I suppose I will always have that feeling of incompleteness for not having seen the Bawli.

Asafi Mosque at Sunset, Bara Imambara, Lucknow
Asafi Mosque at Sunset, Bara Imambara, Lucknow

Besides the Bawli, don’t miss the beautiful Asafi Mosque at Sunset. The Orange glow that sets on it, makes the entire silhouette look fascinating. I would have loved to stay a while more to get the right light but well, you get the picture.

Sunset at Bara Imambara
Sunset at Bara Imambara

Somehow I have this feeling that I will be back in Lucknow for more and if that happens, I am definitely going to the Bara Imambara again. I do have some unfinished business here. And as for your folks, don’t miss anything in this gorgeous monument. It will be so worth your memories.

Getting here

  • Lucknow is easily accessible by road and rail from any city in India.
  • There are plenty of regular flights to Lucknow. You can well book those.
  • Once in Lucknow, you can either take a rickshaw or a taxi to get to Bara Imambara. The exact location of the place can be found here.

Travel Tips

  • The entrance tickets to the Bara Imambara costs INR 50 for Indians and INR 500 if you are a foreigner. The camera charges are extra.
  • It is advisable to take a guide here. The guide charges are as below
  • You will need to remove your shoes once inside the Bara Imambara. Temple socks are available at a cost.
  • Steer clear of the low parapets in the Bara Imambara for your own safety.
  • If you are claustrophobic, please let your guide know in advance for the labyrinth can trigger the same for you.
  • There are restrooms, drinking water facilities and a small cafe within the premises.

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92 Responses

  1. Yogi Saraswat

    Wow ! Really a beautiful place ! Me too was there in April month of this year but could not write a single word about it . Great clicks indeed

  2. Obsessivemom

    Your pictures are beautiful. Sending you a big thank you for making this monument from my hometown look so amazing. Trying to find my way through the Bhool Bhulaiya is part of my childhood memories.

    • Ami

      Oh, that is so encouraging. Thank you for the appreciation and I truly loved finding my way through this. Cheers.

  3. Ryan Biddulph

    What a gorgeous place Ami. How neat too; the place is entirely edible, so if you cannot find your way out, you can eat your way out LOL 🙂 I would likely do what you did though, finding your way out in 5 minutes. As soon as I am on the move – traveling, in buildings, etc – my mind begins computing like the Terminator’s programming. I see images of where I was, and the direction in which I am heading, and it becomes easy to backtrack and find my way back.


  4. Bhushavali

    Whoa! I’ve heard about the place, but somehow never bothered to look up about it and I’ve never been to Lucknow so far as well. Thanks for this detailed account on Bara Imambara. Made of edible materials and has no beams for high ceilings? That’s intriguing and really wanna check it all out myself!

    • Ami

      It’s so fascinating Bhushavali . Even though accidental, it’s perfect. Hope you get to go soon

  5. hertraveltherapy

    What gorgeous architecture. I found it particularly interesting that it’s made out of edible products instead of traditional building materials! I think I would get a bit overwhelmed by the labyrinth but it looks beautiful and interesting nonetheless.

    • Ami

      It sure is unique and lovely. I do hope you get to see it for yourself one day. Thanks for stopping by

  6. Lisa

    Seeing places like this make me want to visit India! I still haven’t been, but this building is so impressive and full of history and detail. Can you enter a mosque if you’re not muslim? I remember this from when I was in Morocco.

    • Ami

      You are right about not allowed to enter the mosque if you are not a Muslim but you can enter the Imambara and trust me.. That is something. Thanks for stopping by Lisa

  7. Sherrie

    That building is gorgeous! Funny that it took you less than five minutes to get out of the labyrinth. The entire complex looks like an amazing place to visit.

    • Ami

      I know …it adds punch to the whole trail, doesn’t it? And there are plenty of reasons why your imagination would run wild here.

  8. Joanna

    What an amazing architectural masterpiece! For some reason, the interiors do remind me of some of the European palaces. Maybe because of the wall colors? The rooftop is so pretty as well and the views over the entire complex are stunning. You definitely nailed the labyrinth game, getting out in 5 minutes 🙂

    • Ami

      Thanks Joanna. Maybe it is just the color of the walls but this place is so Mughal or Indian in its architecture.I do hope you visit here and try the labyrinth for yourself.

  9. Jen C.

    Wow, the details on the structures look amazing! Great job on successfully solving the challenge. Kudos to you too on taking great photos and remembering the details while being in a maze.

    • Ami

      It was actually a piece of cake 😉
      It was fun to be honest and I hope you get to try it yourself.

  10. Medha Verma

    Kudos for completing that challenge! It’s something I’d love to try as well, I quite trust my internal gps too 😉 I’ve never been to Bara Imambara and was enthralled to read the story. Considering it is not very far from my home town (Delhi), it might be something I’ll put my list of places to explore next time I’m back home. Thanks for sharing!

    • Ami

      The road to Lucknow from Delhi is so beautiful…for driving. A beautiful highway and given that, you should head there soon. Lucknow I believe, is lovely in winters.

  11. Raghav

    You’re really captured the heart of Lucknow beautifully in your post and the photographs. A true princely state it has so much history attached to it and the architecture and legends associated are extraordinary. The Bara Imambara and the famous Bhool bhulaiya do make for a amazing day out, or more in case you get lost on the maze.

    • Ami

      Ha ha…the guides ensure you are flushed out easily. But it is fun and beautiful nonetheless. Thanks Raghav for stopping by

  12. Meg Jerrard

    Haha I lose my sense of direction when I’m hiking in my backyard so I can’t even imagine trying to find my way out of the labyrinth here! So I wonder if when exploring those tunnels you would still find human remains. How creepy to think!! Congrats on finding your way back to the ground floor – I definitely would have needed rescuing 😀

    Bara Imambara is a stunning complex – the architecture of the first gate makes it look like a palace. The sight of the sunset hitting the Mosque is just beautiful.

    • Ami

      It is a lovely place Meg and one that I hope to visit again and at leisure. Thanks for stopping by Meg

  13. Jyotirmoy Sarkar

    Amazing virtual tour experienced through this post with beautiful captures, probably visiting in coming January.
    The place is so beautifully designed,awesome.

  14. Familyearthtrek

    Haha what a fun read! Bravo for finding your way out within 5 minutes. Did the rest of the people got out? It is really beautiful place to visit! We have been traveling three month in India but we never got the chance to visit Lucknow! To be honest, I am not sure we will ever get the chance!

    • Ami

      I understand that.. India is huge… Staying here itself we find it difficult to see it all. Hope nonetheless… Never know. Thanks for stopping by

  15. lisa

    India is my favourite country in the world because of its history and spirituality. This is a photographers dream and I loved your pictures and the way you write, Good job!

  16. Jitaditya

    Just loved these images!
    Lucknow Imambara is one of the monuments that I have always wanted to visit but I have never been able to make it to Lucknow.
    I heard of Bhool Bhulaiya in my schooldays while reading about Talatal Ghar in Assam. The later was believed to have been inspired by Bhool Bhulaiya to build the maze underneath the palace.

    • Ami

      Thanks Jitaditya. I am pretty sure that you will love discovering the place as I did, especially since you have heard of. It

    • Ami

      Actually this area has a lot of other interesting places to see and yes, you will need one full day for it all. The Bara Imambara can be done in 2-3 hours.

  17. Samir

    It’s so beautiful. I never heard about this town before, so for me it’s quite new, and i’m shocked that in Lucknow lives more than 2 millions but on your pictures it’s so green 🙂

  18. Alli

    This looks like a very special place to visit! I love the colours on the inside, and the etchings along the walls! I can definitely see the Persian influences in the designs 🙂

  19. Hannah Vu

    OMG so magnificent! I love these wonderful photos, they captivate my soul. Wish one day I could have a chance to visit there.

  20. Abhinav Singh

    I am so happy to see a blog on my city. Since it is close to my house, I have been here so many times. Winter is the best time to go here. Come to Lucknow again and I will be your host this time.

    • Ami

      The tunnels is what makes this place the most interesting and you never know where they lead to 😀 Hope you visit soon.

  21. Elisa World in Paris

    What a fascinating place! At the beginning I thought you were talking about a labyrinth-garden so I was looking for green pictures, lol. So congratulations for the successful challenge, now you need to ask your friend to propose you another one (more difficult if possible!)

    • Ami

      Yep, waiting for her to get back on another one, maybe this time in Paris 😉 Thanks for stopping by Elisa.

  22. Lydia Smith

    It’s a challenge indeed. I couldn’t agree less , Bara Imambara is gorgeous. The building is architectural goals. And lol, your story made smile all through. I’d like to visit Bars Imambara but not for the challenge, I might get lost.

    • Ami

      Glad you enjoyed my virtual tour. And as for the labyrinth, you might just surprise yourself. Hope you get there sooner to try it out.

    • Ami

      I am so glad to hear that you enjoyed my story here. This place might surprise you for you might just be able to find your way. Go on and try it out.

  23. Jayce Cairo

    The place is huge! I love how the sculptures are so intricate! That lone tunnel was bit creepy though. Hehe. But how did you manage to get photos without people?

    • Ami

      Like I told someone Jayce, with over 400 plus doorways, you are bound to find a passage without anyone 😉 Thanks for stopping by

    • Ami

      He he,like I told someone, with 400 plus doorways, you will find one that has no one 😉 Thanks for stopping by, Jayce.

  24. Anna

    I would love to visit this place. However camera charge extra is not so impressive.

  25. Sandy N Vyjay

    Nawabo ka shahar Lucknow is a place that we would love to visit but have somehow missed getting there many times. The Bara Inambara of course is a gem of a place, so finely etched, a masterpiece in stone. The Bhoolbhalaiya lookslike a challenge, not sure if our natural GPS is as good as yours. Great that you were able to emerge within 5 minutes from the labyrinth.

    • Ami

      Thanks guys. This place is quite magical and you will be surprised how easy the labyrinth is. Give it a shot.

  26. James

    Bars imambara is a stunning building. When I visited India for 6 months I missed Lucknow. I really wish I’d gone to visit this building. It’s definitely on my itinerary next time!

  27. Samantha

    Enjoyed your post and good job on getting out in less than 5 mins. I think I would still be wondering around, lol. Seriously though, it look beautiful and your pictures a wonderful. Thank you for sharing.

    • Ami

      Thanks Samantha. Glad you enjoyed the post. Trust me the place is just gorgeous. Hope you can visit it for yourself.

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