They say it is a confusing maze, a place where you should not venture alone. You might get lost in its numerous passageways. Yes, there are almost 1000 passageways and 489 identical doorways at Bhul Bhulaiya in Lucknow. It is an intriguing architecture, built to support the massive central hall of the Bara Imambara. With so many fascinating facts and the mystery of Bhul Bhulaiya in Lucknow in my mind, we arrived at Lucknow after we completed the Rupin Pass Trek successfully.
I had wanted to visit the city since long and so I extended our leave for a couple of days and included Lucknow in the itinerary. Each time I visit Lucknow, I gradually fell for the city. With its historic grandeur, architectures, tonga rides and food, the city is an absolute delight for me. And yes, like many others, Bhul Bhulaiya at Bara Imambara in Lucknow is my major attraction in the city.
- What is Bhul Bhulaiya ?
- History of Bhul Bhulaiya
- Architecture of the Bhul Bhulaiya
- The mystery of Bhulbhulayia
- When walls have ears
- Walking through the corridors of Bhul Bhulaiya
- The terrace of Bhul Bhulayia
- The challenge and mystery of Bhul Bhulaiya
- Other attractions at the Bara Imambara
- How to reach Lucknow:
What is Bhul Bhulaiya ?
Bhulbhulayia is technically the labyrinth and the most amazing part of the Bada Imambara. There are people who visit Lucknow to visit the Bhulbhulayia. So what does the word Bhul Bhulayia mean? While I did not find any direct meaning of the word, the closest meaning would probably be ‘a place where one forgets the way and gets lost’.
History of Bhul Bhulaiya
In 1784, Lucknow (known as Awadh then) was struck by a famine. It was so severe that the common men were left with penury. Food was scarce for both the common men and the nobility. Asaf-ud-Daula was at that time the Nawab of Awadh. He was known to be an unambitious man fond of drinking and having eccentric interests. But he was known to be a generous man. So instead of saying something similar to “Let them eat cakes if they don’t get bread” like Queen Mary Antoinette, he did something unique. He commissioned the construction of Bara Imambara to generate income for the poor and unemployed. The famine lasted for almost a decade and the construction too lasted for that period. It is said that in the morning the labourers used to build the structures and at night the noblemen used to bring it down; so that the labourers were never out of work during the famine. The Nawab had employed almost 20000 people for the construction of the impressive Imambara.
After almost a decade of construction, the grand and impressive structure was completed. Also known as the Asafi Imambara, it is a place for the worship for the Shia Muslims. They gather at the Imambara for various ceremonies especially the Muharram.
Architecture of the Bhul Bhulaiya
As I had mentioned before, Bhulbhulayia is a part of the Bara Imambara in Lucknow. The entire Imambara along with its courtyard is a stunning place. And the Bhulbhulayia definitely steals the show. There is a reason why this labyrinthine network of corridors and 489 identical doors were made. It was decided by Nawab Asaf-ud Daula to construct the central hall without any supporting columns. He wanted to build a huge hall where people could pray together. So the Central Hall measuring 170 ft X 55 ft X 15 ft was built without any supporting columns! Such a huge structure would require supporting columns to bear the load of the ceiling and the mammoth dome if built by conventional building methods.
It was the sheer ingenuity of the architect Kifayatullah that he decided to reduce the weight of the ceiling by making it hollow. And this is how the Bhul Bhulaiya was born! The Bhul Bhulaiya was built in such a way to accommodate the design of the central hall. The Bhul Bhulaiya at Bara Imambara in Lucknow consists of a maze of intricately interwoven corridors – a path-breaking into multiple paths and they break down into other paths. The whole building was constructed in an exclusive way. There are windows placed at strategic points so that there is no dearth of ventilation and light during the day time. All these were done keeping in mind the structure of the Central Hall of the Imambara!
These corridors are quite impossible to manoeuvre unless you are with a guide. It is said that there is a passage leading to an underground tunnel going all the way to Delhi, Faizabad and Allahabad. These tunnels were later said to be sealed by the British after they did not find the royal treasure. Well, I do not know the truth; they might just be hearsay!
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.
As you enter the labyrinth, the guide will take you up a flight of 45 stairs. This is the starting point of the tour to Bhul Bhulaiya. The guide then took us to different passages and corridors. He also showed us the hidden tunnel leading to Delhi. All the while, he told us interesting stories and trivia about the place.
When walls have ears
This is where you could actually see the style and flamboyance of Lucknow. The guide tells us in his inimitable dramatic style about the proverb that ‘even walls have ears’. And then he goes on to demonstrate the same. He took us to a gallery like place where we stood at one end and he goes over to the other end. He lights a matchstick and we could hear the sound standing at the other end. Such are the acoustic system of the gallery that the sound was carried over 50 metres!
Walking through the corridors of Bhul Bhulaiya
There are several narrow tunnels, but interestingly all of them were well ventilated. The guide told us about the stories of how British soldiers got lost into the maze and never returned back. There are a few passages that are closed and out of bounds. The narrow ceilings and the dimly lit passageways did give an eerie feeling. All of them look identical. But that is what makes this place so exciting and interesting, isn’t it? What do you think?
The terrace of Bhul Bhulayia
A little here and there and then we came to the roof of the building. The roof is a beautiful place with the intricately designed windows or jharokas. From the rooftop, you can see the whole complex. The Rumi Darwaza, Asifi Masjid, Hussainabad Clock Tower as well as a stunning view of the Lucknow city by the Gomti River can be seen from the rooftop.
The challenge and mystery of Bhul Bhulaiya
The guide brings us to the labyrinth and then asks us to find the way down. Before that, he did give us a tip. He told us that we should follow the paths that would lead to direct sunlight. That would lead us to the starting point. He pointed us another interesting fact. While we climbed the 45 stairs to enter the labyrinth, we actually climbed up to the second floor and not the first floor. The people usually overlook this. So while coming down, a person usually remembers that he has to go downstairs, and not come up to the second floor where the stairs led from the entrance. From the terrace, while coming down, there would be a point where we had to climb up to the second floor and then come down again at the entrance on the ground floor! Sounds confusing? Well, it sure did to me. But as I said, Agni found out the way and so did a lot of others. Well, I would leave it to you to find your way to and fro from the maze of Bhul Bhulaiya. It is your discovery.
Other attractions at the Bara Imambara
There is the Asifi mosque, the Baoli or stepwell and also the Chhota Imambara all vying for your attention. We went around Bada Imambara leisurely and then also visited the Chhota Imambara, also known as the Hussainabad Imambara. If possible, please stay till the sunset at the Bara Imambara. The sunset behind the Asifi mosque is simply beautiful.
Lucknow is an impressive place. One visit is not enough to appreciate the city of Nawabs. We are sure that we would definitely come back again and discover its beauty and charm. And in the end, one more place ticked off the Feluda list! Yay!
Timings of Bara Imambara, Lucknow: The Bara Imambara remains open from sunrise to sunset. The Bhulbhulayia opens a little late.
Entry Fees of Bara Imambara, Lucknow: The entry Fees is INR 25 per person (Indian) and INR 500 for foreign tourists
Guides: I would advise taking a guide with you. They do tell us a lot of interesting stories. But I would definitely not advise you to believe everything they say!
You have to open your shoes to enter the Bara Imambara. It would be good if you wear socks.
If you are claustrophobic, please let your guide know the same. The Bhulbhulayia can trigger claustrophobia.
Carry water with you. It will nearly take 2-3 hours to explore the compound.
How to reach Lucknow:
Lucknow is well connected with other major cities by air, road and rail. Lucknow is very well connected by trains from Delhi and Howrah.
Once you are in Lucknow, you can hire a tonga (horse pulled carriage), rickshaw or car to reach Bara Imambara. We had hired an auto to visit the various attractions of Lucknow for the day.
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