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Bara Imanbara in Lucknow in northern India. Source: Memories Over Mocha / Adobe Stock

The Gravity-Defying Bara Imambara was Built to Create Jobs During a Famine


The Bara Imambara, or “Great” Imambara of Lucknow in northern India, stands a testament to human ingenuity and compassion. Built during a devastating famine in the 18th century, this architectural marvel served as more than a place of worship—it was a beacon of hope and a source of employment for thousands.

Creating Famine Relief Through Architecture

Commissioned in 1784 by Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula—a Muslim nobleman or prince who governed Awadh in present-day Uttar Pradesh as a vassal to the Mughal Empire—the Bara Imambara was conceived as a response to the acute famine that gripped the region. Known for his generosity, Asaf undertook ambitious construction projects to create jobs during times of scarcity.

With food shortages and economic hardship rampant, Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula embarked on a bold initiative to provide employment to the famine-stricken populace. Legend has it that over 20,000 people were hired for the project, a figure which included not only workers but also nobles who had been impoverished by the famine.

Nevertheless, Asaf-ud-Daula ensured the upper class's dignity during the Bara Imambara's construction. Commoners built by day, while nobles were paid to secretly demolish what was constructed every fourth night. This ensured continued work for all. A popular saying of the time lauded his generosity:  Jisko na de Maulā, usko de Asaf-ud-Daulā (“To whom God does not give, Asaf-ud-Daula gives”).

But the building of the monuments he ordered in Lucknow was not just a charitable endeavor. The commissioning of grand architectural projects such as Bara Imambara was also a way to showcase wealth and power, as well as attempt to surpass the splendor of Mughal architecture.

Drawing by Sita Ram depicting the simple grave of Asaf al-Daula under a canopy inside the Great Imambara in Lucknow. (Public domain)

Drawing by Sita Ram depicting the simple grave of Asaf al-Daula under a canopy inside the Great Imambara in Lucknow. (Public domain)

Gravity-Defying Architecture and Labyrinthine Wonder at Bara Imambara

A kind of Shia Muslim congregation hall used for religious gatherings, especially the Muslim festival of Muharram, the Great Imambara was designed by architect Kifayat-ullah. It later became the mausoleum for Asaf ud-Daula when he died in 1797.

The most striking feature of the Bara Imambara is its central hall. Measuring about 52 meters (170.6 ft) long, 17 meters (55.8 ft) wide and 15 meters (50 dt) tall, what sets this hall apart is its gravity-defying roof which was constructed without the support of beams or pillars. The absence of columns is a marvel of architectural engineering, defying conventional construction methods of the time.

Another fascinating feature of the Bara Imambara is the  Bhul Bhulaiya—meaning “a place where one is likely to forget directions and can get lost” according to Gulf News—located on the upper floor. An intricate labyrinth of narrow corridors, winding passages and almost 500 identical doorways, tradition holds that it was created to provide an escape route for the Nawab and his courtiers during times of danger.

Architecturally speaking, the labyrinth's design helped to distribute the weight of the massive structure and provided structural stability to the building. However, many claim that its primary purpose was to serve as a form of entertainment for visitors.

Top image: Bara Imanbara in Lucknow in northern India. Source: Memories Over Mocha / Adobe Stock

By Cecilia Bogaard

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Cecilia Bogaard is one of the editors, researchers and writers on Ancient Origins. With an MA in Social Anthropology, and degree in Visual Communication (Photography), Cecilia has a passion for research, content creation and editing, especially as related to the... Read More

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