Tourists from all over the world come to ‘Imambara’ and it is the most visited place in Lucknow. This beautiful heritage architecture encompasses in itself mysteries and histories worth delving into. Every stone within this monument holds a secret. It is called as the ‘bhool-bhulaiya’ meaning labyrinth. It was built by the fourth Nawab of the Awadh Province, Nawab Asaf-Ud-Daula.
It took fourteen years to complete this structure. It was built with a noble intention. When famine struck the Awadh estate, the Nawab thought of building this structure, which will generate employment as well as provide food to people in return for their services. It was designed by the Architect Hafiz Kifayat Ullah. There are three halls in the Imambara.
Into the depths of history
In 1784, the province of Awadh was struck by a famine of an unprecedented scale. So severe were its effects that not only the common man, but the nobles were also reduced to penury, many having nothing to eat. At that time, the emperor of Awadh, Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula, came up with a novel way of generating employment for the rich and poor alike. He summoned the best architects of the time and commissioned them to design a grand prayer hall for the city of Lucknow, the capital of Awadh. After short-listing the design created by Kifayatullah, an architect from Delhi, he laid the foundation of the most ambitious building of the province, the Bara Imambara.
The mystery of Bhulbhulayia
When I first visited Bhulbhulayia, I was a kid and was quite afraid to venture into the labyrinth alone. I had obviously heard of many stories of people venturing there alone and never coming back. Of course, I had read Badshahi Angti by Satyajit Ray where Feluda (an iconic Bengali detective character) goes inside the Bhulbhulayia alone to hide a precious artifact. At that time I thought might be when I would be of Feluda’s age, I might be able to solve the puzzle of Bhulbhulayia.
So next time when we visited Lucknow, we thought of going there without a guide. Well, I am not confident of going inside all alone because I know my direction sense is extremely poor. But with Agni, we did give a try. Our guide told us that it is possible to go inside and come back also. He also gave us a tip as to how to find our way out. I don’t claim to make much sense of what he said, but Agni managed to understand and we were able to come out safe and sound. So yes, it is possible; though we did not venture much inside the maze.
The ingenious architect decided to work on reducing the weight of the ceiling by making it hollow – and that exactly how the Bhool Bhulaiya was born! Unlike the buildings to today, much pain was taken to design even this part of the building as beautifully as any other part of the Imambada. The result is a labyrinth of interconnected passageways and doors. There are about a thousand such passageways and most of them lead you nowhere but another passage. If you get into the labyrinth, it is quite easy to get lost and might take a while before you manage to come out. Many of these passageways open into windows which give you great views outside and some also take you up on the ceiling.
As a kid I was literally sacred of going here by myself, and there were so many stories of people getting lost (and never be found again) that even when I went as an adult for the first time there, I was initially apprehensive to go in by myself. Anyway, I did go though not very deep and managed to come out. I had already hired a guide and want to know all the stories about the place so next visit was with him. Well, he was just as how any guide would be – full of stories, some real, and many fictitious.
How to reach Lucknow?
Lucknow is well connected from all the metros and other major Indian cities by air, road and rail. Most flights will fly you via Delhi, with a small stop-over.
Train network is even better and virtually all trains from Delhi to East of India stop by in Lucknow.
Additionally, Lucknow is also well connected by buses. However, the roads aren’t great in UP so I would recommend it only for short distance travels.