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.

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  • The Lucknow Residency siege