A Monument with No Pillars : The Tribune India

Sunday Reading

A Monument with No Pillars

Bara Imambara in Lucknow is a symbol of a Nawab's generosity besides being an architectural marvel

A Monument with No Pillars

The year 1784 might have passed as any other year in the history of Awadh (in present-day Uttar Pradesh) if not for a terrible famine that struck the region that year. So severe were its effects that not only the common people, but even most of the noblemen were reduced to penury.

People had no jobs and no food to eat. At that time, the Nawab of Awadh, Asaf-ud-Daulah, came up with a brilliant way of generating employment for the rich and the poor alike. He did not want to give out free doles to jobless workers and believed that people needed to earn a living and not depend on charity, so he decided to build the biggest prayer hall in the country, an imambara. The imambara would need many workers and all the people working on it and their families would be fed by the Nawab.

So the Nawab summoned the best architects of the time and commissioned them to design a grand prayer hall. After shortlisting the design created by Kifayatullah, an architect from Shahjahanabad (in present-day Delhi), he laid the foundation of the most ambitious building of the province, the Bara (meaning ‘big’) Imambara.

The Nawab employed more than 20,000 men for the construction of the complex. Soon, they started their work — digging, laying bricks, carving stone and wood, carrying earth. It is said that the common people would erect the walls during the day, and on every fourth night, the noblemen would bring down whatever was constructed. For their efforts, the nobility also received  payments.  This ensured that the work lasted and common people did not starve while the unskilled aristocrats were also employed and their much-needed anonymity thoroughly maintained — this was the Nawab’s way of making sure that no one in his kingdom was ever out of work. (Yes, quite ingenious and generous this Nawab was!)

Roof of Rice Husk

  • Did you know that this royal structure was built without any modern tools and made of organic compounds? Yes, that’s true. The walls of the imambara are made from  a mixture of urad dal and limestone, and the roof is made from rice husk. Tree gum and jaggery were used instead of cement to fix the bricks together. Fascinating, isn’t it?

The famine lasted eleven long years. And to continue to generate employment, the construction also continued for the period the famine lasted. Despite the repetitive building and breaking, the Bara Imambara, also called the Asafi Imambara after the Nawab, turned out to be magnificent. It was neither a mosque nor a mausoleum, but was meant to be a prayer hall where the community could congregate for mourning during Muharram. It rivalled Mughal architecture, and even today, the imambara is thronged with crowds who get mystified by the grandeur and exquisiteness of this mega monument.


 The Bara Imambara is a large complex, which has a mosque, courtyards, gateways and a baoli (stepwell) with running water. The main building of the imambara is a three-storeyed building constructed on a raised platform that one can enter through one of the two arched gateways separated by a grassy courtyard. On the left of the main building is the exquisite seven-level Shahi Baoli, initially dug as a well during the construction. As it was a perennial source of water, a guest house was built around it later.

During the days of the nawabs, the heat-stricken citizens of Lucknow went to Shahi Baoli in the summer months for its cool breeze. The baoli is at an angle of 45 degrees to the main gate of the imambara. What’s interesting is that it offers a secret view of the visitors! Because of the angle in which it was constructed, and the alignment of one of the windows of the building, the water of the baoli reflects the shadow of the visitors. When the British came to India, the guards of the Nawab could see the red uniforms of the British soldiers at the main gate reflected in the clear water of the baoli — much like the CCTVs that watch over people’s gates these days!

A palace built from a hut

  • It is believed that the place chosen by the Nawab of Awadh to build the Bara Imambara had the hut of an old woman in which she kept a small tazia — a replica of the shrine of Imam Hussain, Prophet Muhammad’s grandson. She was reluctant to give her land to the Nawab but when he promised to keep her tazia in the imambara, she gave the land for free. The tazia is kept    in the Bara Imambara even today.

On the right side of the main edifice is a flight of stairs that leads to a plinth on which stands the three-domed Asafi mosque. Surrounded by intricate minarets, the mosque has two large prayer halls and eleven arched doors. The mosque faces Mecca, the holiest city in Islam. It was also built as part of relief measures. With sculptured domes and minarets, the mosque provides a most splendid look and many thousands of people of Lucknow come here on Friday to offer namaz. There’s also a story about how a secret tunnel was created in the mosque, which goes all the way to Delhi. It’s believed that this secret tunnel was later sealed by the British after some of their soldiers went looking for royal treasure there and never came back.


 Even as the architects spent days, weeks and months designing the Bara Imambara and the other buildings in the complex (including the mosque and the stepwells), they were given an interesting challenge by the Nawab to work on. For prayer purposes, it was decided that a big central hall would be built without any columns or pillars! It’s 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. For such a massive structure, the absence of pillars sounded almost impossible. But then the great architect who was working on the imambara had a brainwave and he decided to create eight chambers in such a way that all of them have different roof heights and lend support to each other. The space above and below these chambers is like a magic maze that supports the massive dome on top of the imambara.

A view of the Bhul Bhulaiya

This unique architectural design gave birth to the famous Bhul Bhulaiyya, which is a network of narrow passageways that, when negotiated correctly, wind their way to the upper floor, leading eventually to the rooftop balcony. This strange labyrinth has about a thousand passageways and 489 identical doorways. Some passages have dead-ends, some have steep drops and some others lead to the entrance of exit points. Only one passageway leads to the rooftop balcony. If one gets into the labyrinth, it would be easy to get lost in its numerous passageways and it might take a while before one has figured the way out! Thus, one of the largest existing mazes in India, the Bhul Bhulaiyya, though created for practical purposes, has become the showstopper of the imambara!


 If the Taj Mahal in Agra is a symbol of love, Lucknow’s Bara Imambara is all about empathy and compassion. While its architecture itself — a huge hall with beautifully adorned ceilings and no pillars — inspires wonder, the history associated with it — of Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah commissioning the imambara during the time of the great famine to enable Awadhis to earn a living, as he thought they would be too proud to takes alms from the Nawab — makes it a fascinating piece of architecture.

The genius architect

  • Kifayatullah, the architect who designed the Bara Imambara, did not take a penny  from  the  Nawab  for his services. He only asked for land for his  burial as fees. He is buried, along with the Nawab, in the central hall of the Bara Imambara.

This is precisely the reason why the centuries-old building is much more than a monument and never fails to generate awe both in the people of Lucknow and the visitors to the city alike. What brought the strange idea to the Nawab is unknown, but his ingenuity and generosity sure led to the creation of a magnificent structure that nobody in the world has ever been able to replicate. During the Nawab’s time, there was a popular saying, that if one does not receive something from God then he will receive it from Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah. And by visiting the imambara, one can see why this saying was prevalent among the people of Lucknow.


 Inside the main hall of the imambara, the acoustics are such that even a match being struck on the other side of the hall can be heard. Whoever said walls have ears probably said it while visiting the Bara Imambara.

— Excerpted from A Dozen and a Half Stories - Strange and Mysterious Places the World Forgot by Arti Muthanna Singh and Mamta Nainy with permission from Rupa Publications

Tribune Shorts

Top News

India’s democracy ‘vibrant’: US allays concerns ahead of PM visit

India’s democracy ‘vibrant’: US allays concerns ahead of PM visit

Says strength of democratic institutions to figure in discus...

NH-44 blocked, farmers cane-charged

NH-44 blocked, farmers cane-charged

BKU protests as sunflower not procured on MSP

BSF constable killed, two hurt in Manipur ambush

BSF constable killed, two hurt in Manipur ambush

Kuki insurgents target soldiers’ camp in school

Biggest LSD haul, darknet cartel busted

Biggest LSD haul, darknet cartel busted

NCB unearths pan-India trafficking | 6 held, all in their 20...


View All