Decrypting the Crypt: Bhool Bhulaiya at Bara Imambara in Lucknow

posted in: Asia, Culture, Heritage, India, Uttar Pradesh | 106
First Published on November 16, 2017

“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. 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 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. Consider this as your Bara Imambara guide – a key attraction in the list of the historical places of Lucknow.

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 stepwell 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 and Rumi Darwarza as seen from the roof of 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

Bara Imambara Plan

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 first gate to Bara Imambara
Naubat Khana - a part of the main gate to Bara Imambara

Besides the lovely designs etched on the first gate, pay close attention to the chambers along the arched passageway that you pass. You will see a gong hanging there. As history goes, the place also had huge drums within the chambers. This is the Naubat Khana. The arrival of important guests was announced by the men here by beating the drum and the gongs. Some say that even time was announced in this manner. It is likely that you might miss that as it is a part of the ticketing office of this Lucknow attraction today.

The 2nd gateway to the entrance of the Bara Imambara
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 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. These are called as Lakhori bricks (Lakhauri bricks) and can be found in most of the monuments built by the Nawabs.
  • 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 2nd entrance to Bara Imambara as seen from the roof of 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. 😉

The Bara Imambara with the Bhool Bhulaiya

Three Chambers within Bara Imambara

The outer 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
Ceiling in the Chinese Chamber

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 Persian Hall 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.

Tomb of Nawab Asaf-Ud-Daulah
The tomb of the Nawab as seen from the upper corridors of Bara Imambara
The Tazia 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. There are the decorated Tazia – miniatures of the famed Karbalas that are crucial to the Muharrum festival. Ancient texts, portraits, photos and Candelabras decorate the rest of the hall. 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

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.

Read about the Gulab Bari – the abandoned grave of the forefathers of the Nawab in Faizabad. Before it became a garden of tomb, it used to be an important place in the erstwhile Nawabi capital for religious functions. Despite the ruins, the glorious architecture of the Nawabs is unmissable here. 


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
View of the other Lucknow landmarks from the roof - Asafi mosque and at the far end - Rumi Darwarza

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

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

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

The Shahi Baoli or the Stepwell of Bara Imambara

Emerging out, I discovered yet another challenge. This crypt wasn’t the only one within this Lucknow historical place. Hidden in the form of a stepwell, lay another fascinating structure of mazes and windows. The Baoli, as is called in the local language, was more than just a storage for water. It served as a hiding place for the Nawabs from the enemies. In the words of the guide – “The ones inside could see you but you will not be able to see them within”. 

The reflection of one of the windows in the Shahi Baoli of Bara Imambara

A flight of stairs led me down to the five-storied Shahi Baoli. It is said that the stepwell was connected to the River Gomti and used to have enough water through the year. They say that there were provisions for hot water here and it was used for baths. The various galleries and corridors within the stepwell has a few halls and resting rooms for people.

One of the many levels of the Shahi Baoli

With the sun setting on the other side of the Baoli, it was quite dark and damp inside. Once I was in, I realized that this maze could actually rattle a person. The guide told us a fascinating mystery connected to this well. With the riches of Nawab, came in the greed and envy of the British. They kept trying to get the maximum out of him. Fearing an attack on this treasure, the Nawab asked his treasurer – a Mool Chand Rastogi, to stash it within the monument. As ordered, the treasurer hid it all and threw away the key and map in the well.

The artistic windows of the Shahi Baoli

The treasure is rumored to be hidden even now – maybe in this crypt of the several others within the Bara Imambara. No one knows where. The treasurer is said to have taken the secret within him to his death. He apparently, committed suicide in this well. The British came and tried their best to find it but were quite unsuccessful.

If you like stories about the unfound treasures of heritage India, then you must read up about the Jaigarh Fort in Rajasthan. 

The CCTV feature of the Shahi Baoli

Wait– the mysteries of this monument is not yet over. The guide showcased its best feature just before we exited. He took us to one particular window and asked us to peer down at the little reflection in the water. We could spot a few tourists – one wearing a red t-shirt standing in the lawns of Bara Imambara. If you looked away and around, all you could see were the solid walls of the Shahi Baoli. This, in the guide’s words, is the “CCTV technology of the Nawabs“. It is the manner in which this window is positioned that it allows the people within the Baoli to see outside but the outsiders cannot see anyone within. 😉

A quick look at the Asafi Mosque

Asafi Mosque at Sunset, Bara Imambara, Lucknow

Besides the Baoli, don’t miss the beautiful Asafi (Asfi) Mosque at Sunset. The Orange glow that sets on it, makes the entire silhouette look fascinating. The mosque completes the Imambara set up as a religious monument. It is a key mosque that buzzes with activity during the Muharrum festival. As a non-muslim, I could not go in but walking around it, revealed its elaborate decor and construction.

One of the minaret of the Asfi Mosque

Shrouded with tales of its unique construction and the unsolved mysteries of its crypt, the Bara Imambara has my highest recommendation on places to visit in Lucknow. Even if you are in Lucknow for one day, you got to squeeze in 2 hours for this heritage destination. Try and get in here just around sunset as there are corners like the one below that glow in the setting sun.

Sunset at Bara Imambara

Well, I am sure that you are pretty convinced. Just so that you don’t forget, try pinning this up to your board as a must-do on a Lucknow tour. Message in and let me know which part of this monument was the most amazing for you!


How to get to the Bara Imambara in Lucknow?

  • 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.

Where to stay in Lucknow?

  • Among the various areas to stay in Lucknow, I recommend Gomtinagar. You will get plenty of hotels for every possible budget in this area. Also, the location is quite central to this city with enough of public transport available.  Consider booking through this link that will help me earn a commission with no extra costs to you.
  • In case you are looking at hotels near the Bara Imambara in Lucknow, then you can check them out through this website.

Travel Tips

  • Note the Bara Imambara Timings. It is open from 6 am to 5 pm only.
  • 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 displayed at the ticket counter itself.
  • 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.
  • It is advisable to combine your visit to the Bara Imambara with the other Lucknow historical places that are within walking distance. The linked post is a perfect Lucknow city guide.

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