Faded glory: Exploring cultural legacy of Lucknow

07 May 2023 12:03pm
Lucknow, known as the City of Nawabs. - FILE PIX
Lucknow, known as the City of Nawabs. - FILE PIX

LUCKNOW, India - Lucknow, known as the City of Nawabs, was once a thriving cultural hub known for its exquisite aesthetics, monumental architecture, and refinement. Its legacy includes the extraordinary Urdu literature and delicate manners that were hallmarks of the city's educated class.

Unfortunately, over time, the memory of this fabled past has become a fading recollection.

But still, what endures from the bygone era is incredibly captivating and transforms a visit to this North Indian city into a truly fabulous experience.

Located in India's most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, Lucknow served as the administrative centre of the Kingdom of Oudh, also known as Awadh. It was part of the mighty Mughal Empire but the nawabs became rather autonomous as Mughal power declined. Today, it is the capital city of the state, which was called the United Provinces during British rule.

I began my tour from the Husainabad Picture Gallery, a two-storey building that was once a royal summer palace but today presents a sorry picture. It now serves as the office of the Husainabad Trust. Its main hall houses life-size portraits of the rulers, starting from Nawab Saadat Khan (regnal years 1722-1739) to Nawab Wajid Ali Shah (1847-1856). Never mind its decaying state, the gallery will introduce you to the 18th and 19th century rulers in the quickest possible time.

Their reign ended when the British usurped power in 1856. Lucknow was one of the main arenas of fighting when the Great Mutiny, also known as India's First War of Independence and by the British as "Sepoy Mutiny", occurred. Indian troops employed with the British East India Company erupted in rebellion in 1857. Stepping onto the balcony of the Husainabad Picture Gallery, you are immediately met with a breathtaking panoramic view of the historic Husainabad neighbourhood. With its proximity to other notable landmarks and buildings, it is an ideal location for starting your tour.

Most of the area's must-visit sights are within walking distance, allowing you to easily take in the sights and sounds of the city. It is best to tour the area on foot. If you are looking to dive deeper into Lucknow's fascinating history, you may want to allocate a few extra days to your itinerary. However, one or two days should suffice.

The Baradari building, named for its twelve doorways, was erected in 1838 by Nawab Muhammad Ali Shah during his reign from 1837 to 1842. A short walk away lies the Satkhanda, which could be called Lucknow's own Tower of Babel. Originally intended to have seven levels, the tower's construction was halted at the fifth floor after Muhammad Ali Shah's passing.

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For heritage enthusiasts, the Clock Tower is a must-see attraction. Standing at an impressive height of 67 metres, it is the tallest clock tower in India and was constructed by the Husainabad Endowment in the 1880s. Designed by Roskell Payne, the tower was erected to commemorate the arrival of Sir George Cooper, the lieutenant governor of the United Province of Awadh.

After admiring the Clock Tower, visitors must make a quick decision on which direction to take next. Standing on opposite sides are two gateways: the Husainabad Darwaza and the Rumi Darwaza.

To further explore the legacy of Nawab Muhammad Ali Shah, visitors can pass through the three-arched Husainabad Darwaza to reach the Chhota (Lesser) Imambara. On the other hand, Lucknow's most renowned attraction, the Bara (Great) Imambara, is located in close proximity to the imposing Rumi Darwaza. During a period of famine in the late 18th century, Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula (ruled 1775-1797) ordered the construction of the Bara Imambara and Rumi Darwaza as a means of providing employment to the people.

Today, these structures stand as a testament to the grand vision and architectural talent of that era. Designed by Kifayatullah, the Bara Imambara complex is the dominant feature of the neighbourhood and is home to several attractions, including the Asafi mosque, the Bhulbhulaiya (labyrinth), and a stepwell known as the baoli. The design of the Bara Imambara is in accordance with the Muharram rituals of Shia Muslims and features the tombs of Asaf-ud-Daula and Kifayatullah.

The main hall, measuring approximately 50 metres in length, 16.6 metres in width, and 15 metres in height, is an architectural wonder with no girders or beams. It was once the largest vaulted hall in the world.

Every part of this complex is worth exploring. You may need a guide to navigate the labyrinth. Many enjoy getting lost in it, but its narrow and dim passages become choked when too many tourists are inside. It is recommended that you end the tour of this area at the Rumi Darwaza.

The Rumi Darwaza, also known as the Turkish Gate, was inspired by the Sublime Porte (Bab-i Humayun) in Istanbul. However, its unique construction story has a local flavor.

An exhilarating sight, the arched gateway is colossal and truly iconic. As the story goes, the project was initiated to help people find work during famine. (To preserve their dignity, people wanted to earn their livelihood through work rather than seek charity). What was built by workers during the day was undone at night at the ruler’s order so that people could be kept employed for a prolonged period! Ultimately, the combination of welfare economics and architectural brilliance resulted in an enduring masterpiece that continues to be an icon - the Rumi Darwaza is to Lucknow what the Qutub Minar is to Delhi or the Taj Mahal is to Agra.

No trip to Lucknow is complete without experiencing the city's famous Mughlai cuisine. Tunday Kababi, located in the bustling Aminabad area, is among the most popular restaurants and a destination in itself for food lovers. Their "melt-in-your-mouth" galawati kebabs live up to the hype, and the biryani, parathas, chicken tikka, and seekh kebabs exceeded my expectations. However, the free-seating environment can be disconcerting during peak hours, with patrons vying for tables and waiters catering to hundreds of people. Despite the rush, the serving staff maintains their courteousness, in line with Lucknow's reputation for nafasat (good etiquette or refined manners).

For a shorter waiting time, Dastarkhwan is another popular casual dining restaurant. Seeking a more authentic experience, I visited its old branch in the China Bazaar Gate area of Hazratganj. The restaurant has a small open kitchen area, allowing diners to observe the cooks at work flipping parathas, grilling kebabs, and dishing out hot, spicy gravies. Gravy dishes are best eaten with naan, paratha, or with rumali roti (named because it is as soft and light as a handkerchief). Biryani, one of the main items in Mughlai cuisine, is regarded as the best in Lucknow, better than Delhi, Hyderabad, or anywhere else. Lucknow's techniques in using herbs, meat, and rice selection have no parallel. The dish has an appetising aroma, with unmutilated rice grains and tender meat cooked to almost perfection and brightened with zafrani colour, making each morsel flavourful.

One eatery that has acquired extraordinary fame is Idris Biryani. Despite its faded signage, the long queue of customers outside is a clear indicator of its location. If you are a rice dish enthusiast, this place is a must-visit. It is situated opposite Pata Nala, Jauhari Mohalla, near Raja Bazar Police Chowki. Idris Biryani's success is likely due to the consistent quality of their biryani, which is prepared in a degh (large cooking vessel) and served hot. When I asked a customer if he enjoyed standing in the queue, he replied that he came there every day. Many consider it to be the best biryani in Lucknow, but aficionados may clearly have a different view.

Lucknow is famous for its chikankari or chikan work, an art of embroidery unique to this city. Many visitors, especially women, buy hand-embroidered clothes, but you need to have some basic understanding of chikankari to be able to buy genuine artisan products. Chikankari is traditionally done on cotton fabric, but it is also found on other lightweight fabrics such as muslin and silk.

The Chowk and Aminabad markets are popular places for chikankari shopping, and they also offer great food options to satiate your hunger. Chowk is an excellent place to take a break while exploring the Husainabad tourist area. Hazratganj, Lucknow's main shopping street, has a wide variety of branded stores. If you are looking for a modern shopping experience, the newly opened LuLu Mall, located about 20 km from Hazratganj, is a great family destination for shopping and entertainment.

If historically the city was known for its tehzeeb (culture) and tranquility, today’s Lucknow has plenty of din and disarray. A person who spoke excellent conversational Urdu didn't know how to read or write the language. This is a common problem even in traditional Muslim families whose ancestors may once have been part of the city's Urdu literary circles. In fact, Hindi utterly dominates Lucknow's life today. Whether that is good or bad is not the question; being the capital of Hindi-speaking Uttar Pradesh, Hindi's reign is totally understandable. However, it is Urdu, not Hindi, which is the basis of Lucknow's past.

Once the British seized power from the Nawabs, the city's cultural decline became irreversible. The Nawabs had begun to lose their grip on power as their administration did not evolve with the times. Over time, decadence and debauchery began eroding what was otherwise a strong civilization. Song and dance pleasures became an obsession with the nobles and elites, who failed to grasp the modern elements of governance and power. The British took advantage of this state of effeteness and planted their direct rule in Awadh with full force. The rest, as they say, is history. - BERNAMA