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Of Mazes and Mourning: Getting Lost in an Indian Labyrinth

article-imageA view of the mosque attached to Bara Imambara from the top of the labyrinth. (photograph by Kristen Zipperer)

It was a summer that felt like forever — perhaps because all we had access to was slow dial-up internet, or maybe it was just so hot, the sun so overpowering, that everything seemed to move as if drenched in honey. Maybe it was because Lucknow, a city in India’s northwest, felt so trapped in its own history that time moved slower there. It seemed to inch by even more for those of us who moved to the sleepy town to learn Urdu, a language that had been wiped away from the region.

But when we ventured into the throbbing heart of the old city — maybe following the scent of charred meat dripping fat from skewers or whole barbecued chicken with sesame naans — the physical vestiges of some of the Urdu language’s greatest champions were hard to miss.

The Nawabs, who ruled the region around Lucknow before the British tightened their hold on the city — and eventually, the entire subcontinent — were famous patrons for the arts. Some of their greatest relics are not palaces, surprisingly, but a religious site. Tall, white gates mask towering minarets and the fine latticed plaster of a pair of Imambaras.

These elaborate ritual sites are spaces for Shia Muslims like the Nawabs to mourn the brutal killing of the Prophet Mohammad’s next of kin in a siege on their camp in Karbala, Iraq, 13 centuries ago. During the month of mourning, Shias still gather to hear the epic tale of defeat, told by members of the community, year after year with a day-by-day recounting of the month-long battle.

Women weep behind black shawls as each mounting loss is described in detail — some dying of thirst and others of arrow wounds. Men — as well as some children — perform acts of ritual penitence, beating their chests with tight fists, and, sometimes, with small curved daggers.

Outside of Muharram — the Islamic calendar month when this ritual mourning takes place — most visitors to the site are pilgrims and tourists who want just to take in the spiritual and architectural wonder of the two Imambaras which are called, fittingly, Bara and Chotha, or big and small Imambara.

article-imageA replica of the tomb of Hussain, the martyred grandson of the Prophet Mohammad that Shia Muslims use in processions to mourn his death along with that of other early Muslims including Hussain’s brother, Hasan, during the Islamic calendar month of Muharram (photographs by Francesca Chubb-Confer)

To be honest, I don’t remember much of the latter. It’s Bara Imambara to which my memory — and imagination — has clung since I last saw it about three years ago. I remember well the feeling of passing through its gates into a whimsical garden with fountains ordained with colorful twin fish — a symbol of the Nawabs, who are thought to have carried it to east India from their ancestral home along the Mediterranean.

The building that the garden’s paths lead to — which provides great refuge from the scorching summer sun — is a massive, cavernous hall divided into a carpeted prayer hall, and a storage space for objects important to Shias, like the large installations which are carried through the streets in Muharram. Each community has its own way to construct these, and the ones in the Bara Imambara were pyramids about six feet tall covered in what looked like metallic, Christmas wrapping paper.

The most remarkable part of the Imambara is far less adorned.

article-imageA passageway through the labyrinth in Lucknow’s Bara Imambara, a site of ritual mourning for Shias created by the region’s pre-colonial rulers and there are many rumors about the reason for the labyrinth. (photograph by Beenish Ahmed)

Climb up a dark, well-worn set of stairs at an outdoor corner of the building means stepping into a maze. A true labyrinth of high, white-washed walls, dirtied by the fingerprints of centuries of people feeling their way through the narrow passageways. Down a few steps and the narrow halls split off in two — go right and meet a dead-end. In fact, there are hundreds of passageways through the labyrinth and a nearly 500 identical doors to further confuse. A number of these turn into balconies overlooking the hall below, or the road on the opposite end of the building. Though these vantage points should provide some sense of place, turning from them and walking just a few paces means totally losing one’s bearings in the structure which seems like it was built out of a myth and not the rough cement that actually comprises it.

I tried to find my way through the labyrinth a few times during that summer in Lucknow. The first time, I wandered in with a friend from home who was spending her summer in Kolkata. After just a few turns in, we called upon our guide to see if he might give us just the slightest sense of how to proceed, but he turned and ran off ahead like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland.

About 15 minutes of wandering later, our guide reappeared (of course, out of nowhere) and asked if we’d given up. I wanted to keep going, if only he would point us to where the exit actually was, but he said he had something else to show us and asked me to walk a hundred paces and lean against the wall.

I did as I was told, looked back, and saw the guide lean into the wall and begin to whisper. And, those hundred or so meters down, I heard his voice carry through the plaster in the way that sound carries through tin cans held together with string.

I heard his voice in a muffled tone ask, “Can you hear me? Can you hear me?”

“There was a special kind of plaster used on these walls,” he said as I walked back toward him and my friend. “The Nawabs used it so that they could hear their servants and know if they were planning some kind of uprising.” 

article-imageA view of the mosque attached to Bara Imambara from the top of the labyrinth. The building is a site of ritual mourning for Shias created by the region’s pre-colonial rulers and there are many rumors about the reason for the labyrinth. (photograph by Beenish Ahmed)

I asked if they ever would really climb to the stairs up to the labyrinth and put their ears to the wall. It seemed unlikely that any ruler in the gold and silk that the Nawabs wore would make such an effort. He just shook his head at my disbelief. When I asked why the labyrinth was here atop this religious site anyway, he had a more ready answer.

“It was built to evade the British should they ever invade this place,” he said resolutely. So much of modern South Asian history has been written in opposition to the British who first came to India as private traders and then began to rule large swathes of it and eventually most all of it in 1757. The Bara Imambara came under construction around the same time as the British residency in Lucknow. This gated community of houses, a school, and church was home to the British Resident General — who sat on the court of Lucknow — as well as troops and their families as well as the support staff required to make India as comfortable as possible for British officials.

In time, the British soldiers came to be a sort of mercenary army supporting the Nawabs and their holdings against the encroaching Delhi Sultanate. But as they began to exert more and more control over domestic affairs, local rulers united against them as a threat, even if they were unwilling to admit so publicly.

Despite the covert hostilities, it seemed absurd to me then to think of the Nawabs racing around the labyrinth for an escape. If an attack was made by the British, wouldn’t it come in the form of canon and mortar fire and not a chase through a maze?

Implausible as it seemed, something about this strange attempt at duplicity awed me. Enough so that I went on believing this for years. After all, why else would such rulers extend such an effort to build such a complex maze — and it is complex — atop of an architectural feat built to house ritual mourning?

This Muharram, as I watched televised mourning processions in Pakistan where I now live, I got to thinking about Lucknow’s Bara Imambara and its mourning processions, but mostly, its oddly-placed labyrinth. After all these years away, I finally found myself looking up the maze and the reason for its making. Of course, like most things that rest so firmly in one’s memory — it wasn’t  the sort of wonder I had filed away. 

article-imageA sign indicating the stairway up to the second floor labyrinth atop Bara Imambara in Urdu, Hindi, and English. The maze is atop a site of ritual mourning for Shias created by the region’s pre-colonial rulers. The Bara Imambara along with its labyrinth are among the most popular tourist destinations in Lucknow, India. (photograph by Kristen Zipperer)

It turns out that that elaborate structure was built to support the one below it. The labyrinth actually evens out the weight from the enormous, totally unsupported vaulted hall below it, which was built on marshy land to boot. Some have also postulated that the labyrinth’s doorways helped servants drop down lanterns into the ceiling of the floor below. In a time when opulence meant domestic servants galore and not the latest gadget, I suppose this makes sense.

Now, the labyrinth offers far more wonder than the massive space below it. For residents and tourists, its narrow passageways, many turns, and incredibly resonant plaster offer an opportunity to get lost in that history — and the rumors that surround it.

Learning a language all those summers ago taught me something of mystery in a time when anything seemed possible while in a world away, trapped in its own past which was everywheren, but harder to find one’s way through than I first thought. 

article-image
A terrace outside of the labyrinth on the second floor of the Bara Imambara in Lucknow, India. (photograph by Kristen Zipperer)