India in pictures

Bhul bhulaiya

1:50 PM

Bhul bhulaiya, Bara Imambara in Lucknow

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.

12 comments

  1. Hmmm.......so the bhul bhulaiya was the Mughal version of the Gothic 'flying buttress'.
    A lot of the old Mughal buildings have long & sometimes large underground passages. I wonder if these didn't serve as a sort 'air conditioning' system with cool air coming out much the same way cool air comes out of a cave on warm days.

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    1. It indeed was the same as the Gothic flying buttress (thanks for giving me the English name I couldn't find). And it is quite possible that the underground structure also served a cooling purpose. In the Bara Immanbara there is also a step well, and I wonder if some of the water that would come each time the river overflew was. To also directed toward the well from that very same network of arches, it wouldn't be the first building in the world to use the pillared structure under the foundations to also store water. If I remember well the Opera House in Paris did have a similar structure that not only served to support the building weight on an equally soft ground while still storing water which was said to be kept in case of a fire. And there are several underground water tank in Europe and the Middle East having the same type of architecture too.

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    2. Anonymous1:02 PM

      I would not personally visit such a place without a guide. I had a few anxious moments in Ellora caves. Most of them are dark, smelling of bats. There are people to help you "you go through that passage, then you can get down from the second room". Easier said than done. The entire place had an eerie feeling. You felt as if someone is watching you. I usually do not like dark, confined places. Another problems in historic buildings in India is that they have staircases which are steep without railings. The staircase usually ends at the floor of the upper storey. Getting up is easy, but when you get down you have to literally crouch to get a foothold on the steep stairs. Most old people would not even attempt such a thing. The stairs are often broken, stone slippery and poorly lit. Ellora caves did not have paintings like Ajanta, so they could have used some lighting.

      Delhi has a lot of historic places from the muslim era. You will find a tomb in the middle of posh colony. These are used by couples for rendezvous. Some lesser known gardens and monuments are famous for these activities. That is why many families avoid them. The couples in turn inscribe their names on the walls. In a country where privacy is at a premium, people go overboard in these monuments. We understand temples but we do not understand monuments especially muslim era buildings. We don't know what to make of them.

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    3. We took a guide, beside the sign says that taking a guide is compulsory for couples, I think it is so to discourage the kind of behaviour you spoke of. The Bhul bhulaiya has a lot of dark corners for couples to find some privacy. And yes sadly, the walls are scratched with names, phone numbers and a lot of stupid nonsense like Rajesh loves Priya and other immature scribbling. I find it really sad to see such disrespect for India's cultural heritage

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    4. Anonymous10:03 AM

      In India we face the what moral dilemma. Public display of affection is looked down upon. Frankly speaking it makes me uneasy too. So, the couples have not choice but to choose places like monuments, rocks or desolate places thereby exposing themselves to anti social elements. Sometimes, the moral brigade or the police harass them.

      You must have heard about the "Kiss of Love" campaign. It started from Kochi, traveled to Kolkata and recently it was held in Delhi. Young couples gathered to kiss each other, as an act of defiance to moral policing. I personally find it very obscene but I guess moral policing is obscene too. The majority of people in India lie in the gap between both these extremes, and they agree with neither of the two views. I may not like PDA but I will definitely not beat someone up for that. Unfortunately, some people have developed a weird sense of modernity in India which is neither here not there. These are the "liberal fanatics".

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    5. PDA is not exactly liked in Switzerland and most of Europe, despite what movies would love people to believe. Kissing in public is really not done commonly, unless you are a rebellious teenager with your first love. Holding hands yes, a quick hug yes, kissing? As in mouth to mouth kissing? Not really, we do the kick nano second peck on the lips at the most. But people of both gender will greet each other with two kiss on the cheeks very commonly if they are relatives, or very good friends. That said, just as you pointed, moral policing as it happens in India is wrong, and I think it will only encourage people to want to break barrier more.
      Frankly as a westerner from the so called evil West I find it laughable that what is aped in India when it comes to PDA is the Hollywood larger than real life, super tacky version, it really isn't done by normal non fictional people in daily life.

      Like you, I find myself very uneasy seeing over the top PDA in Europe we roll our eyes at teenagers who do it, because it is a bit silly. but we also know that to a teenager, their first boyfriend/girlfriend is a big deal, it is their first act as an independent "adult", this behaviour really goes away on its own after a few years without any policing because the whole novelty of it goes away too. The same way teens and college kids go into teddy bears and heart ballons for valentines. Once an adult (a real adult) V day is far less of a big deal, and it usually involves a nice dinner in a grown up restaurant, or going out for a play or movie, or even a concert, rather than cheapo, super silly toys.

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    6. Anonymous3:45 PM

      The problem is we do not know our culture and we definitely do not know the western culture. But what we do know is the oppression in the name of Indian culture. Thus, the need to rebel. With this emotion comes total disregard for objectivity. Some people have unflinching faith in western culture or whatever we try to follow in India and and equally unflinching hatred for all things Indian. These are more dangerous than the conservatives because they have lost all objectivity. In India we do not analyse social problems, we are more interested in fashionable rubble rousing. God knows when we will become mature and develop a practical understanding of 'modernity'. We are like the little children in the the nursery ryhm "Round the Mulberry Tree". Here the Mulberry Tree is the western culture.

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    7. There is indeed no objectivity whatsoever in India today, and the need of the hour would be for all sides to start thinking and reasoning better. I always get this feeling that India is in that teenager rebellious phase, where old things are by default stupid, fads, no matter how stupid they are must be followed blindly, and when things go wrong go with this teenage classic tag line "This is so unfair, the entire world is against me" which is always fare from the truth

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  2. Anonymous1:07 PM

    I found it hilarious how the guide lied to you about why it was built. Total slumdog millionaire moment!! :-)
    Although I'd forgive the movie makers because anybody would sympathise with a kid. Thanks now I really won't listen to any of these so called guides who just clueless about their own country and trying to fleece foreigners. In fact the next time I go sight seeing I won't entertain any guides or sales people shoving their ridiculous knick knacks at us.

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    1. The problem is that in that monument, they pretty much force a guide on you, they are all registered and wear name badges inside the premises now. And if you are with anybody of the opposite gender, the consider you a couple. Couples are forbidden to enter the Bhul Bhulaiya without a guide in order to prevent couples from going ina. Dark corner to indulge in intimate activities. I have seen young couple seek isolation in parks over Mumbai where it is far more open, so that precaution would actually make tons of sense in a dark maze. What they should care about though, is that all their guides are educated properly about the history of the monument and resist the urge to give the legend story of it as a fact when the visitor is a foreigner. Sales people, I ignore them, never bought a single thing from one ever, they all sell the same crap you would find in emporiums at an inflated rate.

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  3. Anonymous3:15 PM

    hi there, came across your blog, its very interesting, i had never known about its existence until recently, i am sure, the tunnels have a mystery of their own constructing a mile long tunnel at that point of time would have been so difficult, anyway nice work.

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