The Legend of Bhool Bhulaiya at Bada Imambara in Lucknow

A labyrinth of about a thousand passageways, the Bhool Bhulaiya at Bada Imambara in Lucknow, has intrigued traveler as well as architects for the last two hundred years. The fourth Nawab, Asaf-Ud-Dowhala, commissioned the building during the drought year of 1784 AD to help the poor make a living. However, from the time it was finished, it became a symbol of pride and grandeur of Lucknow.

But what does the word ‘Bhool Bhulaiya’ mean? It’s not an easy word to translate, and it sort of means ‘a place where you can forget directions and paths and get lost’! :)

story legend bool bhulaiya bada imambara nawab lucknow india travel
A beautiful view inside the Bada Imambara

Who were the Nawabs?

To understand anything about Bhool Bhulaiya better, it's important to know about its builders - Nawabs. Quite surprisingly, it was only during my most recent visit to Lucknow that I understood who Nawabs actually were. I always assumed that they were kings who existed at the same time as Mughals, and somehow managed to live peacefully with them so close by at Delhi.

Asifportrait2 - Asuf ud Daula story legend bool bhulaiya bada imambara nawab lucknow india travel
Nawab Asif-ud-Daula by Zoffany (ref: Wikipedia)

The term Nawab comes from the Perisan word Naib which basically means Deputy. Nawab was a title conferred by the Mughals to their deputies across North India. It was a title for males only and the female equivalent was begum (the most famous of them being Begum Nazrat Mahal). With the mutiny of 1857, the Nawabs and their domains went into decline, though the title didn’t disappear. It became a family title and even now you can find true blue Nawabs in Lucknow, though with little power or money.

What is an Imambara?

It is neither a mosque nor a dargah. An Imambara is simply a hall where Shia Muslims come together for various ceremonies, especially related to the Remembrance of Muharram. Muharram is basically a period of mourning for all Muslims, especially for Shias, and marks the anniversary of Battle of Karbala where Hussein-ibn-Ali, the grandson of Muhammad, was killed in a  battle. Imambaras are present in many other parts of Asia - in Bahrain and UAE they are called ma’tam and in Central Asia they are known as takyakhana. Some of the biggest and most significant Imambaras in the world are now located in India and Pakistan, which also have sizeable Shia populations. 


story legend bool bhulaiya bada imambara nawab lucknow india travel
The entrance to the Bada Imambara
story legend bool bhulaiya bada imambara nawab lucknow india travel
The Bada Imambara
story legend bool bhulaiya bada imambara nawab lucknow india travel
The complex from top, the mosque on the left

History of Bhool Bhulaiya

The history of the Bhool Bhulaiya is closely linked to the Bada Imambada. In the late 18th century Avadh was reeling under severe drought and to provide employment to his people, Nawab Asaf-Ud-Dowhala decided to build the Bada Imambada. You can think of it as very similar to MGNREGA  (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act). There are many other buildings in the country which were built with this purpose, including Aga Khan Palace in Pune.

story legend bool bhulaiya bada imambara nawab lucknow india travel
Another view of the mosque
story legend bool bhulaiya bada imambara nawab lucknow india travel
The passageway to the Bhool Bhulaiya

The guide will tell you that it was designed by architects called especially from Persia (modern day Iran) which was a prominent Shia kingdom back then, but the truth is a little different. Once the Nawab decided to build the mammoth building, he invited bids and it was won by Hafiz Kifayat ullah, an architect from Shahjahanabad (present day old Delhi) who was already a famous man then. Work on the building started in the 1784 and finished fourteen years later.

So why was Bhool Bhulaiya built?

Even as the architects spent days, weeks and months designing the Bada Imambada and the other buildings in the complex (including the mosque and the step-wells), the architects were given an interesting challenge to work on. For prayer purposes, it was decided to build the Central Hall (170ft x 55ft) without any columns! Its a very large structure and building it by conventional means would have required columns to bear the load of the ceiling, including the mammoth dome.

story legend bool bhulaiya bada imambara nawab lucknow india travel
Passageways of Bhool Bhulaiya
story legend bool bhulaiya bada imambara nawab lucknow india travel
View inside the Bada Imambara

The ingenious architect decided to work on reducing the weight of the ceiling by making it hollow - and that exactly how the Bhool Bhulaiya was born! Unlike the buildings to today, much pain was taken to design even this part of the building as beautifully as any other part of the Imambada. The result is a labyrinth of interconnected passageways and doors. There are about a thousand such passageways and most of them lead you nowhere but another passage. If you get into the labyrinth, it is quite easy to get lost and might take a while before you manage to come out. Many of these passageways open into windows which give you great views outside and some also take you up on the ceiling.

As a kid I was literally sacred of going here by myself, and there were so many stories of people getting lost (and never be found again) that even when I went as an adult for the first time there, I was initially apprehensive to go in by myself. Anyway, I did go though not very deep and managed to come out. I had already hired a guide and want to know all the stories about the place so next visit was with him. Well, he was just as how any guide would be - full of stories, some real, and many fictitious. I also interviewed him and you can read about him here.

Tips


  • Timing: The Imambada opens at 6am, though the Bhool Bhulaiya opens only at 9am. Reach a little before 9 and explore the entire complex as there are many more places to see and photograph. Interestingly each has its own unique story.
  • Guide: I guess its fun to hire a guide, though I would not advice on trusting all that they say. They are not expensive and depend on tourist to make a living, and I guess that’s what pushes them to talk more about the legends than actual history.
  • Photography: It’s one the best places to photograph in the city, especially if you love architecture photography. I took all the pics using just my iPhone but I think they would be way better if you could use a DSLR.
  • What to carry? A small backpack with camera, chocolates and water would be sufficient for the trip. You can be done within 2-3 hours though I recommend spending much more time there.

story legend bool bhulaiya bada imambara nawab lucknow india travel guide
And finally a selfie with my guide :)

How to reach Lucknow?

Lucknow is well connected from all the metros and other major Indian cities by air, road and rail. Most flights will fly you via Delhi, with a small stop-over.

Train network is even better and virtually all trains from Delhi to East of India stop by in Lucknow. 

Additionally, Lucknow is also well connected by buses. However, the roads aren't great in UP so I would recommend it only for short distance travels. 


Where to stay?

I have stayed at many hotels in the city and here is the one I can recommend. It's certainly a premium hotel for Lucknow and despite some issues with the stay once, I still like them a lot :) 


Another hotel where I have stayed a few times is Lineage in Gomti. You can check them out here:


If you are a budget traveler, then this third option might work better. This is where I stayed on my last Lucknow visit.

Comments

  1. Lovely post, Sid...and though your pics were taken with phone camera, they are amazing! Thanks for sharing...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks a lot Kat! Phone cameras are so handy, they are slowly replacing the need for a DSLR on the road :)

      Delete
  2. Ah Lucknow... I wonder when I get to visit her....nice post... love all the legends these guides tell us.. but they are fun :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree! Stories from guides are often much more interesting than the actual story. It's best to know both :)

      Delete
  3. Wonderful post, marvellous pictures and a great story.

    Congrats for your blog.

    Hugs from Spain.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I have been to Lucknow many times but never got chance to visit Bhool Bhulaiya, will surely visit it next time.
    Nice post and superb pics.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Swati :) Lucknow is such a beautiful city. To me Bhool Bhulaiya is interesting mainly from the historical point of view the most...do let know how your visit goes :)

      Delete
  5. Interesting post on Nawabs, Imambara and Bhul Bhulaiya, am yet to visit Lucknow.
    Do check out EPIC channel it you haven't yet. A superb TV channel on Indian history, heritage, culture, food and more, am sure you would like it..

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not to forget the pics, amazing shots as always :)

      Delete
    2. I am sure you will enjoy Lucknow :) And thanks for suggesting the channel...since I rarely watch TV, it wouldn't have happened while surfing!

      Delete
  6. Very interesting facts and a nice story, Siddhartha. Wish I too get to visit the place someday....superb pics :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Anupam! Lucknow is a fabulous city, you must plan a visit for sure :)

      Delete
  7. Hari OM
    Fabulous - what adds to the beauty is actually the rain - gives a depth of colour often missing in the heat!

    BB is a 'maze', as there are many channels, points of exit and entry and potential to get lost. Labyrinths have one central way, a single entry/exit point and the confusion only comes by the number of rooms which it may contain; but due to one central channel, one cannot actually get lost in a labyrinth - it is a common misunderstanding though. Whichever - it is very beautiful!!! YAM xx

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree Yamini, its more of a maze than a labyrinth!

      Delete
  8. Lovely place and wonderful photos. Thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It certainly is! Thanks for the comment :)

      Delete
  9. A very interesting place. Nice post, Sid.

    ReplyDelete
  10. The architecture is incredible. I am loving this type of design.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree! I also love this kind of architecture :)

      Delete
  11. Splendid photography as always. Personally I can easily manage to get lost without any building designed for the purpose!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Haha! I think you might actually enjoy this one a lot :)

      Delete
  12. The pictures and the story, both are intriguing.

    Lucknow, how long will you evade me? :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Inshallah you will be there soon Nisha :)

      Delete
  13. The rains, the colors and the stunning architecture come together so beautifully. I recently visited the Chowmahalla Palace in Hyderabad and was so fascinated by the Nawabs and their lives that I am eager to read about them! Thanks for sharing these breathtaking images!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Chaitali! I would love to know more about your visit too. Do read 'The White Mughals', it would give you a lot of perspective about their lives in Hyderabad state...

      Delete
  14. Beautiful shots of the place. A must visit place.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Rajesh! It is certainly a must visit place :)

      Delete
  15. You make Lucknow so inviting. It goes on the list of places to visit in India. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am glad you enjoyed the imagery from Lucknow :)

      Delete
  16. Dearest Joshi,
    It always is puzzling how in the world did they manage to build such luxurious buildings and gardens while the little man was struggling for daily food. In all cultures we find that! The power struggle over the ages...
    However, one can only admire such great architecture!
    Happy weekend.
    Mariette

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. So true Mariette...you made a very interesting observation indeed. All civilizations from past have managed to do it..

      Delete
  17. Your post reminded me of my childhood days when Bhool Bhulaiya used to be one of the favorite places to visit on my trips to Lucknow during the summer vacations.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In fact I also lived my childhood days on this visit...I also loved the place as a kid :)

      Delete
  18. Nice Article Siddharth. Bhool Bhulaiya is one of the popular monument in lucknow. The architecture is incredible.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Hey sidhart next time u came in lucknow contact mee m faizan from lucknow

    ReplyDelete
  20. This monument inspire me a lot I live in Lucknow and I wish that I could discover it more and more thank for sharing your story here and lovely pics.thanks

    ReplyDelete
  21. Siddharth !! You refreshed my old memories of this monument after 30 years with this beautiful post and lovely pictures.... thanks

    ReplyDelete
  22. From Kumar Ketkar: Dear Sidharth, I was in Lucknow, mainly to cover the historic assembly election last week. I visited the Batra Immawara and was intrigued enormously. Not knowing much about it, despite delightful facts and fiction from a guide, I was puzzled and wanted to know more. I googled and found your post. It satisfied my curiosity to a certain extent and thanks a lot for this wonderful post. I have not seen any modern architect or student doing PhD on this magnificent and mysterious building. Please let me know, if any. I did not go thru the Bohol bhulaiya, just stepped in and came out, partly because of fear of the unknown ( like in Passage to India by E M Forster ) and partly because of time constraint as I was covering momentous election. I thank you for this wonderful post. Not many people know about this fascinating work of architecture. KK

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks a lot Kumar for your kind words. I am happy that the post helped you find some useful information :)

      Delete
  23. I lived in Lucknow as a kid, for five years in 1944. I still remember my days there. I have vivid memories of bada imambara with bhool bhulayaan, chota imambada, chatar manzil and the zoo at Banarsi bagh. After 68 years, I'm again getting a chance to revive my memories of Lucknow as my niece's wedding is in Lucknow. I am excitedly waiting for this trip.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's fantastic Mohanlalji...do write to me when you visit Lucknow. I would love to talk to you about your experiences from 1944 :)

      Delete

Post a Comment

Popular Posts