Lost and Found in The Labyrinth

Daedalus built the Labyrinth as a prison to hold the Minotaur. It was a structure designed to confuse. Designed for people to get disoriented and hence imprisoned by their own sense of bewilderment. One thing that a Labyrinth should not have is a window or multiple doorways. This automatically gives the intelligent person the opportunity to get a sense of where he or she is. However, it is for each one to test the GPS system inbuilt in one’s brain.

Last week I was in Lucknow and after we finished our work, had a couple of hours before the flight. The decision was to go to Bara Imambara. The complex is, well, complex.

The Bara Imambara – Second Gate

The Lucknow Bhul Bhulaiya or labyrinth is not so “difficult” to navigate. Built atop the central hall of the Bara Imambara, there are series of balconies and grilled windows (jharokas) that give you a glimpse of where you are and which way you should go.  Apparently the whole thing came about because of the design of the central halls.

The main hall of the Imambara, 50×16 is 15 metres tall without any central pillars or columns supporting it nor any girders. It is an arched ceiling made with interlocked bricks and stone. Along with the central hall where Asaf-ud-Daulah and the architect Khifayatullah are both buried, there are a number of other smaller halls of different dimensions including height.

The Central Hall is 50×16 with a height of 15 metres. There is no central column or pillar. In the back, the tent-like canopied space is the tomb of Asaf-ud-Daulah. Up you can see some windows and balconies. They are part of the Bhul Bhulaiya

This variable heights of different parts of the base structure gave rise to the maze on the roof. Building small doorways, 487 in all, the roof became an intricate network of passages. This can be seen from down as well.

Bara Imambara: The balconies are part of the Bhul Bhulaiya, One of the side halls in the base of the structure. The height is different (a bit lower). You can see two balconies up there.

In theory, the labyrinth is a single unambiguous path that leads to a point and one must simply walk back the same way. A maze is where a path breaks off into multiple paths, each of these paths subsequently breaking off into other paths, etc. The Lucknow Bhul Bhulaiya falls in the second category.

The first set of steps, 45, that lead you to the first level of the Bhul Bhulaiya. As you can see, there is sunlight to guide you

Once you enter the maze, you have at various points choices of choosing paths – usually steps rising or descending. It is quite funny but in the day time, usually, one of the paths will always lead to a part of the maze which has direct sunlight thus reducing the mystery. To use an old cliche, there is always light at the end of a tunnel.

Navigating the maze – the light at the end of the tunnel

There is really no sense of disorientation really. The entrance is on the east side (left) of the central hall (hall is roughly oriented on the west-east plane). As you enter, you have a sense that north (where the gates are) is on your right and the entrance (east) is behind you. Even after a few turns, you can still retain that. At least I could. What helped me significantly were of course these balconies that looked onto the central hall. The lighting system (or lack thereof) made the whole place look quite psychedelic if I may say so.

Looking into the hall from one of the balconies of the maze. The lighting – a heady mix of sunlight (direct, reflected and diffused) and electricity

Incidentally, economists may well have an interest in this monument. The Nawab of Awadh (Oudh for the Anglo) Asaf ud-Dowlah had moved his capital from Faizabad to Lucknow in 1775. However famine struck and people left the fields and migrated to the city looking for food and survival. The Nawab initiated the construction of this complex. The famine last a decade, the construction went on for that time. According to the wikipedia entry, the legend says that the ordinary people would build in the day time and go off for the night. The noblemen, the wastrels who had no skill nor ability, were told tear down whatever was built. This kind of predates Keynes and his theory of digging trenches, filling them up and digging again.

From the top of the Imambara, one can scan the entire complex and beyond

Over this period, besides the Imambara halls and the maze, the workers also built a Shia mosque (Asfi mosque), a step well (baoli) that leads to a bath on the Gomti, two elaborate gateways and another gate called the Rumi Darwaza. Besides these, there are supposed to be secret tunnels that lead people to Faizabad, Allahabad, Delhi, etc. Plus the regular urban legends, usually spread by the official guides, about great treasures.

This piece of architecture is also significantly different from the Mughal architecture (evidence Red Fort, Humayun’s Tomb, Taj Mahal of course, etc). The use of blue and the naming of one of the gates as Rumi Darwaza suggests Persian and Sufi influences (a legacy of lapis lazuli maybe?). Obviously, no British influence here. Given the time line, the East India Company was still settling into Calcutta and Madras.

Anyway, a good couple of hours well spent. It was a cloudy day with rain all around and the humidity made it quite a sweaty experience. But it was worth it.

More photographs in my continuous album – Traveling in India

Update: My online photo dump has been re-organised and new links are available on these two pages – The Geography Cut and The Culture Cut (Posted on 6th December 2012)


One thought on “Lost and Found in The Labyrinth

  1. You have provided a very interesting read. Taking up from where you had left after 2 hrs, I would say 10 min well spent.The photographs are nice as well. Do keep posting.You have earned yourself a genuinely interested reader. Take care.

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