UP’s state capital LUCKNOW is best remembered for the ordeal of its British residents during a five-month siege of the Residency in 1857. Less remembered are the atrocities perpetrated by the British when they recaptured the city. Lucknow saw the last days of Muslim rule in India, and the summary British deposition in 1856 of Wajid Ali Shah, the last nawab of Avadh, was one of the main causes of the 1857 uprising.
Avadh (Oudh, as the British spelt it) broke away from the Mughal Empire in the mid-eighteenth century after its nawab, Safdarjang, was thrown out of office in Delhi for being a Shi’ite, but as the Mughal Empire declined, Avadh became the centre of Muslim power. Under the decadent later nawabs, the arts flourished. Lucknow, the Avadhi capital, became a magnet for artisans. Courtesans became poets, singers and dancers, and under the last nawab the amorous musical form called thumri emerged here. The city was also an important repository of Shi’a culture and Islamic jurisprudence, its Farangi Mahal law school attracting students from China and Central Asia.
The patronage of the Shi’a nawabs also produced new expressions of the faith, notably in the annual Muharram processions. Held in memory of the martyrdom of Muhammad’s grandson Hussain (the second Shi’ite Imam) at Karbala in Iraq, these developed into elaborate affairs with tazia, ornate paper reproductions of Hussein’s Karbala shrine, being carried through the streets. During the rest of the year the tazia images are kept in Imambara (houses of the Imam); these range from humble rooms in poor Shi’a households to the Great Imambara built by Asaf-ud-daula in 1784.
Extraordinary sandstone monuments, now engulfed by modern Lucknow, still testify to the euphoric atmosphere of this unique culture. European-inspired edifices, too, are prominent on the skyline, often embellished with flying buttresses, turrets, cupolas and floral patterns, but the brick and mortar with which they were constructed means that they are not ageing as well as the earlier stone buildings, and old Lucknow is, literally, crumbling away.
Most of Lucknow’s monuments are spread along or near the southern bank of the Gomti River, which is sluggish and weed-covered except at monsoon time, when its waters swell enough to accommodate hordes of local fishermen’s dugout boats. Close to the main central bridge lies the modern commercial centre of Hazratganj. Between here and Charbagh, the old city sector of Aminabad holds a maze of busy streets and fascinating markets.Read More
The Lucknow Residency siege
The Lucknow Residency siege
The insurgent sepoys who entered Lucknow on June 30, 1857, found the city rife with resentment against the recent British takeover of the kingdom of Avadh. The tiny and isolated British garrison, under the command of Sir Henry Lawrence, took refuge in the Residency, which became the focus of a fierce struggle.
Less than a third of the three thousand British residents and loyal Indians who crammed into the Residency survived the four-and-a-half-month siege. So unhygienic were their living conditions that those who failed to succumb to gangrenous and tetanus-infected wounds often fell victim to cholera and scurvy. While a barrage of heavy artillery was maintained by both sides, the insurgents attempted to tunnel under the defences and lay mines, but among the British were former tin-miners in the 32nd (Cornish) Regiment, who were far more adept at such things, and were able to follow the sounds of enemy chipping, defuse mines, and even blow up several sepoy-controlled buildings on the peripheries of the complex.
Morale remained high among the 1400 noncombatants, who included fifty schoolboys from La Martinière, and class distinctions were upheld throughout. While the wives of European soldiers and non-commissioned officers, children and servants took refuge in the tikhana (cellar), the “ladies” of the Residency occupied the higher and airier chambers, until the unfortunate loss of one Miss Palmer’s leg on July 1 persuaded them of the gravity of their predicament. Sir Henry Lawrence was fatally wounded the next day. The wealthier officers managed to maintain their own private hoard of supplies, living in much their usual style. Matters improved when, after three months, Brigadier-General Sir Henry Havelock arrived with reinforcements, and the normal round of visits and invitations to supper was resumed despite the inconvenient shortage of good food and wine. Not until November 17 was the siege finally broken by a force of Sikhs and Highlanders under Sir Colin Campbell. Their offers of tea, however, were turned down by the Residency women; they were used to taking it with milk, which the soldiers could not supply.