There is something amazing about Lucknow, the city of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, the seat of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, the land of Nawabs famed for their courtesy, history and opulent grandeur.
Historically speaking, Lucknow was the capital of the Nawabs of Awadh and subsequently ruled by the Delhi Sultans and the Mughals. After the downfall of the Mughals, Awadh enjoyed a brief period of independence before coming under the sway of the colonialists in 1856.
Lucknow is a heady mix of the historical and ancient, and the contemporary. It retains its old world charm even in its modern avatar with burgeoning shopping malls, glitzy mini-city sprawls, cyber cafes, fast food outlets, young residents in snazzy, branded outfits zipping through its streets in trendy motorbikes and cars. The ‘chikan’ is very much ‘in’ and remains the bastion of Lucknawi trade. The teeming cycle rickshaws, horse drawn carts and the wafting aroma of kebabs and Mughlai cuisine from eateries – all vestiges from the past, makes the city alluring. The gilori or malai paan, native to Lucknow, with its unique flavour and taste, is irresistible. Above all, the tameez and tehzeeb for which the region has always been known, is yet well preserved, and completes the magic that is Lucknow.
A Tour Of History
The plethora of monuments, most of which lie along the southern bank of the Gomti River, bear testimony to the city’s rich and glorious past.
Bada Imambara is Lucknow’s enduring symbol from the days of Nawab Asaf-ud- Daula. It is a complex of buildings through the Rumi Darwaza, a stunning ornamented victory gate that is a fascinating blend of Rajput and Persian architectural styles. The area surrounding Rumi Darwaza is dotted with several architectural splendours, most prominent among them, a Gothic clock tower containing one of India’s largest clocks.
The 221 feet tall clock is shaped like a 12-petalled flower with bells around it. It was erected in 1887 by Nawab Nasir-ud-Din Haider to mark the arrival of the first Lieutenant Governor of the United Province of Awadh in that year. The other monuments include the Taluqdar’s Hall with its picture gallery, Nandan Mahal which is a Mughul-style sandstone tomb of Sufi saint Chishti’s son Shaikh Rahim, the Dargah of Hazrat Abbas, and the sprawling Victoria Gardens that was laid out in the 1890s.
The Imambara is an architectural delight. Asaf-ud-Daula, the then Nawab of Oudh had it built under the Food for Work programme to provide employment to thousands of people affected by the great Chalisa famine that lasted for almost a decade. Designed by Kifayatullah, a relative of the architect of Agra’s Taj Mahal, Bada Imambara reflects an era when ornamental Mughal architecture was at its zenith. It is considered one of the last examples of puritan Indo-Islamic style, bereft of European elements like spires and iron. It is also one of the largest arched constructions of its kind in the world.
Hussainabad or Chota Imambara is also known as the Palace of Lights, an exquisite architectural masterpiece built in 1839 under Muhammad Ali Shah as a burial place for himself. A well manicured lawn laid out with neatly arranged flowering plants, leads to the Imambara. A huge pool of water with two tiny bridges, embellished with gorgeous green and white stucco work, reflect the magnificent Imambara with its golden dome, silver throne and gold-edged mirrors. The Imambara is flanked on either side by miniature replicas of the Taj Mahal, each one a burial place of Ali Shah’s daughter and son-in-law.
Its walls are embellished with beautiful calligraphic verses in Arabic and its ceiling holds a most stunning array of chandeliers. There are several exotic objects on display including gilded mirrors and tazias made of sandalwood, paper and wax. It is evident that the Awadh Nawabs from Asaf-ud-Daula to Wajid Ali Shah, patronised every form of art and bequeathed upon their people a cultural freedom that found expression in the abounding structural designs that one gets to see in the city even today.
Walking Back In Time
There are several landmark monuments squirreled away in the alleyways of Lucknow. The Residency, infamously famous for the 1857 mutiny, Shaheed Smarak, a post–independence minaret in memory of Indian soldiers, the Vidhan Sabha building, Kaiserbagh Palace which was built in 1850 by Wajid Ali Shah and originally planned to be the eighth wonder of the world, Sikandrabagh Gardens, the pleasure park of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah transformed into a pre-independence era battlefield of sorts and now home to the National Botanical Research Institute and Botanical Gardens, the trio of magnificent buildings – Chhattar Manzil, Moti Mahal and Jama Masjid – on the fringes of the Gomti river – are all sights worth for a traveller.
Stepping into Hazratganj is like entering a funnel of beehive activity. It is the hub of Lucknow, conceived by Nawab Amjad Ali Shah in the 1840s to serve as a link for all major points of the city. Today, it has a number of international food chains and outlets selling branded western outfits and accessories.
A Scholarly Tale
A visit to Lucknow would be incomplete without a visit to La Martiniere School, which is significant, both historically and architecturally and boasts of a uniquely regal grandiosity. It was established posthumously by Frenchman Claude Martin who served the 18th century Nawab Shuja-ud-Daula and made a fortune for himself in the bargain. It was his express desire to found three schools, one each in Lucknow, Calcutta and Lyon in France, his birthplace. He is credited with having sketched every minor detail of the buildings in his will and even the manner in which the Founder’s Day be celebrated and the dinner menu for the occasion!
There is a profound sense of harmony that prevailed amongst its residents, warmed by its past that beautifully blends with the present. Lucknow offers hospitality at its genuine best, a trait you would not get to see too often in several other metros of India and the world. In short, the city is a veritable feast for the soul.
Written By: Chitra Ramaswamy