Memorable labyrinth of Bara Imambara, Lucknow – Bhool Bulaiya

Roof top view of the Bada Imambara complex

Lucknow, the capital city of Uttar Pradesh, India, is synonymous with the reign of the Nawabs, Bada (Bara) Imambara, the Rumi Darwaza, and of course the famed Chikan work. But apart from all these, the city epitomizes my idea of slow travel, slow cooking, and leisurely eating. The city of Lucknow and its people vouch by and take pride in their nonchalant attitude, and, as someone from Hyderabad, I could instantly connect with this trait!

I had a great time staying there for a couple of years. From gorging on the piping hot samosas and maska bun of Sharma ji’s tea stall to devouring the basket chat of Royal cafe and ganjing aimlessly; almost all our winter weekends went in satisfying our hunger and shopping pangs. And, to fix our hunger for history and culture, we often ventured on road-trips to Ayodhya, Neemsar, and Varanasi. 

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Disclaimer: Most of the information on the Imambara was shared by our guide and a local gentleman. The photographs were shot with an old camera by me almost a decade back. Hence the resolution may not be of high quality. I have tried to showcase some recent photographs of the place, to appreciate the restoration work done by the authorities on this monument, over the years.

Lucknow’s Bada Imambara – A photo tour

I’ve always found a connection between the city of Nawabs-Lucknow and the City of Nizams-Hyderabad. From architecture to the cuisine, there is more than one similarity between these two places. But then, I haven’t seen anything like the Bhool Bhulaiya of Lucknow before!

So, come with me as I take you on a photo tour of the sprawling Bada Imambara Lucknow complex.

Let me confess… before our trip to the Bada Imambara, we hadn’t heard or were aware of the meaning of an ‘Imambara’.It is only during the trip that we got to know about the importance and relevance of an Imambara. Hence, let us embark on this photo essay, immediately after clarifying two main aspects of the Imambara in Lucknow.

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A view of the entrance to the Bada Imambara

1. Is Imambara a mosque?

The answer is a big ‘No’. An Imambara is a place for conducting ceremonies by the Shia community of Muslims, especially during Muharram — the first month of the Islamic calendar.

While the first day is considered auspicious and celebrated as the harbinger of a new year, the tenth day of the month is commemorated as a day of mourning. The tenth day or Ashura marks the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, who is the grandson of Prophet Mohammed.

Roof top view of the Bada Imambara complex
Rooftop view of the Bada Imambara complex

2. Are the Lucknow Imabaras, the only Imambaras in India?

Again, the answer is a ‘no’. As the Imambara is a place to celebrate or commemorate an occasion for the Shia Muslims, you can find the Imambaras in places where the Shias are in considerable numbers and had reigned during a bygone era.

For example, Hyderabad has a majority Shia population, hence there is the vibrant Badshahi Ashurkhana, which is again an Imambara. And, so does Murshidabad in West Bengal, which has the expansive Nizamat Imambara.

A brief history of Lucknow

The origins of the city of Lucknow goes back to the Ramayana period, when Lakshman of the Ikshvaku dynasty and the brother of Lord Rama, is said to have founded the city of Lakshmanpuri on the banks of river Gomti.

A fief ( a piece of land) supposedly given by Lakshma’s brother is still known as Lakshman Tila, although a mosque was built on it during the Mughal period by Aurangazeb’s governor of Awadh – Sultan Ali. It was named as the Aurangzeb mosque, though locally is known as the Tila Masjid!

It may well be true as Aurangazeb goes down in Indian history as one of the most intolerant and destructive of the Mughal emperors.

However, the contributions of the later Nawab dynasty to the city of Lucknow has been immense, with respect to architecture, arts, literature, music, and dance. They heralded a wave of renaissance and catapulted the Lucknow to the top!

You may want to read about Ayutthaya temples and ruins, a place that’s been inspired by Ayodhya nearby Lucknow in India.

Who built the Bada Imambara complex at Lucknow?

The Bada Imambara complex of Lucknow consists of two floors of the Imambara, the bhool-bhulaiyya (a labyrinth of corridors in which people get lost), the bhoali (step-well) and a mosque. This complex was built under the rule of Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula, the Nawab of Awadh. Hence the Bara Imambara is also known as the Asafi Imambara.

During the famine of 1785, Asaf-ud-Dauda conceived the idea of building this expansive Bada Imambara complex, to provide employment opportunities to the people of Lucknow. It’s said that the Imambara took 11 years to be built.

There is a weird story associated with the construction process, as narrated by our guide. It’s said that while the poor built the structures during the day, the aristocrats on the behest of the Nawab, used to pull it down by night so that the latter could be provided with employment. A totally illogical workaround, if you ask me of its relevance!

Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula is also the same Nawab who had shifted the capital of Awadh from Faizabad to Lucknow. The architect of the Bada Imamabara complex was Kifayatullah, who is also rumoured to be the cousin of the TajMahals architect!

Entrance-Bada-Imambara
The second entrance to the Bada Imambara complex

A guide to understanding the artistic Bada Imambara complex

As I have already mentioned, the Bara Imambara complex consists of various sections and each serves a purpose. From the Naubat khana at the entrance to the Bhool Bhulaiya on the top floors of the Bada Imambara, each of the structures has its significance.

The architecture of Bara Imambara

The Bara Imambara is built with Persian influences which by default leads us to the Mughal architecture. However, it has got its distinct style with no minarets and domes, the duo archetype of Mughal architecture. Built entirely of Lakhauri bricks, it shares its distinctness with innumerable other monuments in India built out of the same material.

I would also like to partake with you all some interesting facts, about the architecture of the Bara Imambara that was shared by a local gentleman.

  • There is no usage of iron in strengthening the structure of the Bara Imambada.
  • The central hall is devoid of any beams or columns for support. The entire weight of the main building rests and is balanced on the arched doors and windows, apart from the corridors.
  • The monument has two levels of entrances that are triple-arched.

You may want to read about the magnificence of the 1000-year-old Gangaikondacholapuram site, where burnt bricks used for construction have been excavated.

Another view of the mosque
A mesmerising view of the city, the river Gomti, and the other tombs!

Dual entrances to the Imambara complex

The first gateway and the second way are sure to enthrall the architecture connoisseurs with their intricate engrailed and pointed arches, Rajasthani styled jharokhas and floral motifs.

Keen observers can also find the official emblem of the Nawabs – a motif of twin fish, on each of the three arched entrances of the gateways.

The main building of the Bara Imambara

The main building of the Bada Imambara has three storeys and is built on a raised platform. And, there are seven arched openings (doorways) in the Imambara to usher the guests inside. The huge doorways give an inkling of how large the inside hall would be to the visitors. 

Nine halls encompass the whole of the Bada Imambara main building, and the central hall is the largest of all.

Entrance-bara-imambara-lucknow
The entry to the main building

The central hall of the main building

The central hall on the ground floor of the Imambara is said to be decorated with stucco work adorning the walls- again made of Lakhauri bricks. It consists of interiors and walls made of a mixture of lime and mortar without the help of any wood or metal (as told by our guide).

It is flanked on either side by the Chinese hall that has a Chinese saucer-shaped ceiling, and the Indian hall sometimes called the Kharbuza hall, respectively. By the way, did I tell you that the Chinese saucer as named by my guide, didn’t even look remotely Chinese nor any of the halls?

A canopy over the grave of Nawab Asaf-Ud Daula lies in the central hall with has an inverted boat-shaped ceiling. The interiors aren’t as impressive as the facade and exteriors!

Bara-imambara-central-hall
The grave of the Nawab!
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The halls are adorned with intricately carved chattris and parapets
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Another hall flanking the central hall of the Imambara

The first level of Lucknow Bara Imambara

After a tedious climb of forty-four (or forty-five) steep steps, we reached the first level of the Imambara. Our guide took us through narrow passages and showed us how the faintest of sound or whisper gets amplified even at 40-50 meters away. To demonstrate this, he walked to the fag end of the tunnel and tore a piece of paper, then lit a match-stick, and the sounds of both the actions were clearly audible to us.

However, the corridors were poorly lit and there were ‘Paan-stains’ everywhere. Typical of Lucknow  and Hyderabad monuments(a gentle reminder- this was in 2010!)

Request to tourists: Do not litter around at heritage monuments and public places. Maintain them neat and clean. Let us be more responsible!

Lucknow-bada-imambara-hall
The large central hall

Bhool Bhulaiya of Lucknow

Next, we headed to the Bhool-Bhulaiyya, a labyrinth of corridors and walls. Our guide challenged us by saying that it would be impossible to find our way out of it this cryptic construction of the maze. However, being good navigators, we did easily find our exit.

But I am sure, it would have confused the intruders in those times, which ultimately was the purpose of building such a maze. After all, the Bhool Bhulaiya has got 1000 passages with many of them leading to dead ends.

I would recommend that you tag along with a guide to zigzag through these passages, lest you get lost in the labyrinth of the Bhool Bhulaiya!

Corridors of Bhool bhulaiya
Corridors of the Lucknow Bhool bhulaiya

The rooftop of Bhool Bhulaiya labyrinth

After successfully meandering through the labyrinth of the Bhool Bhulaiya, we were lead to the rooftop of the Bada Imambara’s main building which was flat surfaced. I recollected that this Imambara, unlike the other Mughal monuments, did not have any domes. 

And, from this view, we could glimpse of the labyrinth of corridors and passages of the Bhool Bhulaiya, which is said to have  489 identical doorways. Well, who could be the source of all this information? Of course, who else but our friendly guide!

We were told that some of the passages lead to tunnels, following which – people used to safely land inside the city of Allahabad, Faizabad, and even Delhi. All these tunnels are now sealed by the authorities.

Request to tourists: If you are claustrophobic to dingy spaces, inform your guide at the Imambara accordingly. He will take you on a tour of the building avoiding those spaces.
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The hundreds of doorways of the Bhool Bhulaiya
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Rooftop of the second level
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The various faux exits of the Bhool Bhulaiya

A glimpse of the Asafi Mosque

The Mosque is beautiful with lengthy linear steps and intricate minarets and carvings. It is not open to non-Muslims, though. So, I have nothing to share on this structure apart from that it is beautifully built!

Trivia on Asafi Mosque

The entrance served as a location for a famous scene in the Sunny Deol starrer ‘Gadar-Ek Prem Katha’ (a popular Bollywood movie)

Lucknow-Bara-Imambara-roof
The mosque

Shahi Baoli of Lucknow Bada Imambara complex

The baoli or baouli, means a stepwell in English. The baoli of Bada Imambara is not in use any longer but had once served as a source of drinking water, during the times of the Nawabs.

It is a seven-storied structure, with three floors above and four floors underwater. A staircase connects all the floors and it supposedly also has a heating facility for the waters.

The guide informed us that one of the Dewans had killed himself here to save the royal treasury…Well, that definitely sounded eerie… but then not as spooky as our trip to the most haunted fort in India 

As it was getting dark inside the step-well of the Bada Imabara due to a cloudy evening, we bid a good-bye to our guide as well as the complex. 

Baoli at Bada Imambara
Step well or Baohli of the Bada Imambara

Practical information for planning a visit

  • The Bada Imambara and the Bhool Bhulaiya are worth a visit — to dwell and explore some fascinating stories of yore, history, and architecture. Of course, for breathtaking views of the city too!
  • The best season to visit would be either during the monsoons or winters.
  • Brace yourself to stand in serpentine lines at the entrance, during winters though.
  • Entry is restricted for women into the Asafi mosque.
  • There are some new dress codes in place for entry in the Imambara. You may want to check on the ever-changing rules on this.

How to reach the Imambara in Lucknow

  • Lucknow is well-connected with the rest of India by flights, trains, and road-ways.
  • Upon reaching Lucknow, you may opt for a taxi or a cab. 
  • It takes approximately 45 mins to an hour from the airport to reach the Bada Imambara complex. However, it just takes close to 20mins by road, from the Charbagh railway station of Lucknow.

Imambara timings

The Bada Imambara is open throughout the week from 5 am-6 pm. Entry fee for Lucknow Imambara

End of the Bara Imambara tour

During our three and half years of stay in Lucknow, we managed to visit the Bada Imambara just once, and that too for a mere 3-4 hours inside the Bada Imambara complex. I am sure with the latest shift in government’s focus on tourism and preservation of heritage sites and monuments, these structures would have got a face-lift. 

I am waiting to visit Lucknow again very soon. And I hope to re-discover and explore more of the Lucknow Bada Imambara in the near future.

Me at the Lucknow Bada Imambara

Hope you enjoyed reading about this amazing complex housing the Labyrinth aka the Bhool Bhulaiya of Bada Imambara!

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13 thoughts on “Memorable labyrinth of Bara Imambara, Lucknow – Bhool Bulaiya”

  1. Thanks for sharing this wonderful blog. You have given very good information about Lucknow. Lucknow is a historical city of India. It is famous for its Nawabi beauty and culture.

  2. Pingback: Never Ending Musical Notes of the Singing Hills - Dainkund

  3. Lucknow – my home! Your post made me nostalgic. I could remember all my trips to Imambara. Do visit again. 🙂

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