Bara Imambara: Symbol of a Nawab’s Generosity
Can a ceiling 50 feet high, 16 feet thick and weighing 2,00,000 tons stay aloft without a single pillar or beam to hold it up? Kifait-ullah, the architect hired by Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula, not only thought it possible, but the spectacular, vaulted ceiling of the Bara Imambara he designed in Lucknow is still wowing visitors 240 years after it was built. It is said to be the largest unsupported, arched hall in the world.
Concealed in this very ceiling is its secret and the most exciting feature of the Imambara. It’s a Bhool Bhulaiyaor labyrinth, which comes with a rather sinister rider – do not enter alone!
The Bara (‘big’) Imambara, along with beautiful palaces, parks, gateways, gardens, mosques and mausoleums, was built by Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula (r. 1775 – 1797) after he shifted the capital of Awadh from Faizabad to Lucknow in 1775 CE. A place for religious gatherings, it is the largest building complex in the old town but its size and beauty are not its only stunning features. This fabulous edifice grew out of the Nawab’s love for his people and represents his unstinting generosity.
Starting in 1784 CE, Asaf-ud-Daula built the Imambara as an employment-generation measure during a devastating famine that struck in 1783-84 CE. It is said that 22,000 people worked on its construction, it took six years to complete, and it cost the treasury one crore rupees.
– The Nawab loved his people so much that he decided that construction would take place only after sunset, to preserve the dignity of the nobility who had fallen on hard times and also participated in its construction.
Since many of the men who worked at night were unskilled, their sub-standard work was demolished during the day and the structure was rebuilt by skilled workers.
Built in Indo-Saracenic style, the Imambara complex includes many structures. There’s the imambara itself, whose central hall is 162 feet long and 53 feet wide; the magnificent Asafi mosque; a stepwell or baoli; two imposing gateways; and impeccably maintained gardens.
The main hall of the Imambara has two verandahs, one at the north end and the other at the south end. On the other two sides, the hall has large octagonal compartments. The west-facing compartment is known as the Kharbuzawala Kamra after its design, whose ceiling is radially ribbed like the lines on a melon. The story goes that it was designed to honour an old woman who eked out a living selling melons.
A popular legend says the elderly woman owned a small plot of land that stood in the way of the Imambara when it was being built. When she was asked to sell her land, she agreed on condition that a taazia (replica of the shrine of Imam Hussain) that she kept in her home be installed in the Imambara along with the Nawab's grand taazia, during Muharram. Not only did the Nawab agree, he also built a permanent compartment to house her taazia in the central hall, the Kharbuzawala Kamra.
Although mostly legend, there appears some truth to the story as a taazia known as Budhiya Ka Taazia is still keptimambara to this day.
The Imambara serves a dual purpose. It is where Shia Muslims assemble to observe the rituals associated with Muharram every year. In this time of mourning, majalis (religious discourses) are held every day. The Imambara is also a mausoleum as it houses the graves of Asaf-ud-Daula and wife Shams-un-nissa. It houses a third grave – that of its architect, Kifait-ullah.
And, finally, the Imambara’s most intriguing feature, its Bhool Bhulaiya. This is a labyrinth inside built across three levels above the ceiling of the central hall. The maze keeps the ceiling hollow and light, which is one reason it does not need pillars to support it. Devilishly deceptive, don’t you think?
This elaborate network of corridors is made up of a thousand passages and more than 489 identical archways and doorways. One wrong turn and there’s no saying how long you’d be going back and forth, climbing up and down its many staircases, in search of a way out! Occasionally, you will come upon a window or a vent that offers splendid views of the Imambara complex – an interesting way to spend those seemingly endless hours.
If you don’t lose your way, and make it to the top of the Imambara, you will be rewarded with a breathtaking view of Lucknow. You will see many of the city’s gems all in one panorama – the famous Rumi Darwaza, Asafi Masjid, Husainabad Clock Tower and more. Brace yourself for a soul-stirring experience.