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.
It is believed that the Nawab employed more than 20,000 men for the construction of the complex. The ordinary citizens worked all day to bring up the magnificent edifice; the elite, meanwhile, were made to bring down all of it during the night. This provided both anonymity and employment to the unskilled aristocrats; it was also the Nawab’s way of making sure that no one was ever out of work.
The construction – and the famine – lasted eleven years and resulted in a striking building of unprecedented scale called the Asafi Imambara – a place of worship for the Shia sect of the Muslims; primarily used during the mourning month of Muharram. We arrive at the Imambara on a pleasant winter morning, and find buntings and black flags from Muharram still intact, and the Tazia (a replica of the tombs in Mecca) waiting in the central hall for the next procession. Lucknow, according to our guide, is known world over for its grand Muharram celebrations.
The Bara Imambara stands quietly on a busy road in old Lucknow, oblivious to the chaos around it. Two levels of entrances, many lawns, and a large courtyard keep the din of the busy streets out, but the drone of hundreds of visitors, mostly school children, is hard to miss, as is the loud voice of our guide, Md. Arif.
“ Apne suna hoga ki deewaro ke bhi kaan hote hain, ab hum aapko dikhayenge kaise, ” he tells us in his typical Lucknowi style, as we stand in the courtyard waiting to climb up to the most fascinating part of the building, the Bhool Bhulaiya or the labyrinth. He has already shown us the three halls – China Hall, Persian Hall, and Kharbooza hall – which, unfortunately, look nothing like I had expected them to. The garish green-painted walls and the shoddily painted white ceiling, with untidy black borders, lend them the character of a badly maintained Haveli rather than an opulent monument. The outside, however, is compelling.
Believed to be inspired by the Persian, and, by extension, Mughal architecture, the Bara Imambara (there is a smaller one called the Chota Imambara too) has a distinct style. It has neither a central dome, nor minarets, but is dominated by arched doorways and windows with multiple small domes. It is the only building of such magnitude to have been built without the support of either beams or pillars. The entire weight of the monument is balanced on the arched doors, windows and corridors. The Bhool Bhulaiya, a labyrinth of narrow corridors, where we head to next, is nothing but a by-product of this unique architectural style.
Apart from carrying sound through its walls, Bhool Bhulaiya is famous for other things too – a maze of intricately interwoven corridors, impossible to manoeuvre unless you are a veteran or a guide, and a passage to the underground tunnels which supposedly lead to Delhi, Faizabad, and Allahabad (the tunnels were sealed after some British soldiers went in to look for the royal treasure and never returned).
We climb forty-five steep steps and reach the first level. The corridors are dark, narrow and cold. The floor is broken at many places and the walls bear testimony to many a love story. Arif shows us a blocked tunnel, leads us through a narrow corridor into a balcony, and demonstrates how the softest of sounds can be heard almost 50 metres away: standing at one end of the balcony, he tears a paper and lights a matchstick, both sounds clearly audible to us. We are then ushered back into the maze and led through multiple curves and turns into a long gallery where he whispers into the wall from a distance, and yes, we can hear that too. Next, we climb up another flight of steep, smooth stairs to the large terrace.
Unlike any other building with an arched ceiling, the rooftop of the Bara Imambara is flat and accessible. It is surrounded by an ornate boundary wall made up of small arched jharokhas (or windows) and provides us with a bird’s eye view of the complex, and the city beyond it.
To our left stands the imposing Asafi Mosque, with its unending linear stairs, intricate minarets, and curvaceous domes, and to our right, a stepped well called the Shahi Baoli. While the mosque is still in use, the baoli that was the source of water for the construction of the buildings, and surveillance (sitting inside one can spot the reflection of the activities at the gate in the waters of the well), is largely redundant. The guide tells us how the Dewan of the Nawabs had killed himself by jumping into the well in order to save the Nawabi treasure from the British (he had the keys to the treasure).
Beyond the boundary wall of the complex, we spot Rumi Darwaza, Teele Wali Masjid, Clock Tower and Chota Imambara – other icons of Nawabi splendour – decaying yet beautiful, just like the one we are standing in now.