“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 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.
- 1 Introducing Bara Imambara
- 2 The Architecture of Bara Imambara
- 3 Three Chambers within Bara Imambara
- 4 When walls have ears at the Bara Imambara
- 5 Through the tunnels of Bhool Bhulaiya
- 6 On the roof of Bara Imambara
- 7 Finally – the challenge of Bhool Bhulaiya
- 8 A Quick look at the Asafi Mosque & the other attractions
- 9 Getting here
- 10 Travel Tips
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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. 😉
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 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”
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.
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
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.
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!.
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.
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.
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.
- Lucknow is easily accessible by road and rail from any city in India.
- There are plenty of flight operators including Jet Airways who have regular flights into the city. 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.
- 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 rest rooms, drinking water facilities and a small cafe within the premises.