India in pictures
Bhul bhulaiya1:50 PM
While we were in Lucknow for Diwali, we headed to the Bara Imambara. I visited it in 2006 and never got to see the Labyrinth called Bhul Bhulaiya then. The reason was that the tourist guide seeing that My family and I were foreigners, was trying to charge us an insane amount of extra money to visit that part of the monument and I flat out refused. Now in 2014, I still pay the foreigner price to enter the monument, as apparently PIO doesn't give me the right to the Indian fare, the guy at the ticket stall explained that the building doesn't fall under the Archeological Survey of India and the PIO rule does not apply. Biut being with DH and BIL, I at least did not get charged anything extra to visit the maze.
One very interesting thing to bring to notice, is that while in company of foreigners only, I got the glorified, mythical history of the monument from the guard. A beautiful tale of how the building was a military building and the Nawab built it to protect the city, and how it was designed to watch invaders from afar...and how the Bhul Bhulaiya was a maze built with the purpose of providing an escape route to the Nawab while confusing the invaders coming after him. I studied architecture, I visited a fair amount of monuments in India and in Islamic countries. NOTHING fit in his tale back then, the building did not have any elements that suggested it was used as a fortress as the guide suggested.
It turns out I was correct of course, the guide that showed us the monument in 2006 not only tried to rip us off, he also lied about the history of said building. The Imambara complex was a project commissioned by the Nawab in a time of famine in the region to provide employment to the masses, and has always been a place with a religious purpose. Imambara means the house of the Imam, or hall of the Imam. The compound also has a big mosque, which is almost as big as the famed main building. The labyrinth on top wasn't an escape route destined to confuse the invader and buy time to the Nawab to run away either.
Having studied architecture myself, it became very clear to me upon that last visit what was the actual role of it. It is built over the larg roof of the great hall below. Hall that has the largest arched roof without support in the world. Like it was the case in a number of old edifice, including cathedrals in Europe, such feast of engineering is only possible throug a system of support, counterweights and arches to spread the weight of the building on its side. The Bhul Bhulaiya is nothing but an elaborate support structure to bring the weight of the unsupported roof to the side of the building allowing the whole thing to still be in one piece 700+ year later. it was never intended to be a maze, it just became one by accident, and it seems there is only one way in, and one way out. Climbing up there gives you a great view of the old city though, and is a lot of fun for children who will love walking in narrow hallways, some of them very dark.
The same principle of archways and pillar was also used underneath the building, as the Imambara has been built close to the Gomti river on marshy land, spreading the entire weight of the edifice through that same system prevented the structure from sinking into the ground. That part of the "maze" is however closed to the public it seems. Some areas of the underground structure were very secluded and people would get lost. The underground structure is also said to have a network of tunnels leading to Agra and Delhi, but people in Lucknow, as well as the guide we had all seem to agree it was a legend. there might have been a tunnel leading to the river and outside the city that actually existed though.
Regardless, the Bara Imambara is a feast of engineering and its sheer size made me wonder how many years it took to build it. The guide could not tell us exactly. A Google search lead me to get the approximate of 8 years, but it also added that it was rumoured that while the working class built the edifice during the day, the Noblemen worked at night to undo the work in an effort to not finish the building before the famine situation came to an end. All sources I checked, agreed that this was a social project meant to give work to those who had none during this very difficult period.
To me that real story is far more beautiful that the tale spinned by the first guide I had who thought foreigners would only be impressed by stories of military conquests.