UP’s state capital, Lucknow, is best remembered abroad 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.
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Extraordinary sandstone monuments, now engulfed by modern Lucknow, still testify to the euphoric atmosphere of the Islamic Avadh’s 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 colonial Lucknow is literally crumbling away.
Eating in Lucknow
The rich traditional Lucknavi cuisine – featuring Mughlai dishes as well as the local dum pukht (steam casserole) style, sometimes known as handi after the pot it’s cooked in – is available from food stalls throughout the city, in places such as Shami Avadh Bazaar, near the K.D. Singh Babu Stadium, the Chowk, Aminabad and behind the Tulsi Theatre in Hazratganj. Luknavi “kebabs” – extremely delicious – are in fact fried patties of very finely minced meat. The bazaars are the place to get Lucknow’s popular breakfast speciality paya-khulcha, a spicy mutton soup served with hot breads.
Shopping in Lucknow
Chikan is a long-standing Lucknavi tradition of embroidery, in which designs are built up to form delicate floral patterns along edges on saris and on necklines and collars of kurtas. Workshops can be found around the Chowk, the market area of old Lucknow, and shops and showrooms in Hazratganj (especially Janpath Market), Nazirabad and Aminabad.
Lucknow is also renowned for its ittar (or attar), concentrated perfume sold in small vials – an acquired (and expensive) taste. Small balls of cotton wool are daubed with the scent and placed neatly within the top folds of the ear; musicians believe that the aroma heightens their senses. Popular ittar include ambar from amber, khus from a flowering plant and rose-derived ghulab.
With its shops and upmarket restaurants and hotels, and a concentration of banks and other services, Hazratganj is the modern centre of Lucknow. Though not as bustling as the older Kaiserbagh and Aminabad neighbourhoods to its west, Hazratganj still has quite a buzz, plus a handful of interesting sights.
Shah Najaf Imambara
With its huge dome, the Shah Najaf Imambara, named after the tomb of Ali in Iraq, is at its best when adorned with lights during the holy month of Muharram. Its musty interior holds some incredibly garish chandeliers used in processions, several tazia, and the silver-faced tomb of the decadent and profligate Ghazi-ud-din-Haidar (ruled 1814–27), buried with three of his queens.
The Imambara was commandeered as an insurgent stronghold in 1857, and the crucial battle that enabled the British to relieve the Residency was fought in the adjacent pleasure gardens of Sikandrabagh on November 16. It took one and a half hours of bombardment by Sir Colin Campbell’s soldiers to breach the defences of the two thousand sepoys; then the Sikhs and 93rd Highlanders poured through. There was no escape for the terrified sepoys, some of whom are said to have believed the bloodstained, red-faced, kilted Scots to be the ghosts of a group of European women slaughtered at Kanpur earlier in the uprising. Driven against the north wall, the sepoys were either bayoneted or shot, and the dead and dying piled shoulder-high. Tranquil once again, Sikandrabagh is now home to the National Botanical Research Institute and the beautiful Botanical Gardens, with manicured lawns, conservatories, nurseries and herb, rose and bougainvillea gardens.
Towards the east of Lucknow, an extraordinary chateau-like building has become almost a symbol of the city – La Martinière remains to this day an exclusive boys’ school in the finest colonial tradition. It was built as a country retreat by Major-General Claude Martin, a French soldier-adventurer taken prisoner by the British in Puducherry. The enigmatic Martin later joined the East India Company, made his fortune in indigo, and served both the British and the nawabs of Avadh. The building is an outrageous but intriguing amalgam, crowned by flying walkways; Greco-Roman figures on the parapets give it a busy silhouette, gigantic heraldic lions gaze across the grounds, and a large bronze cannon graces the front. Martin himself is buried in the basement. During the uprising, La Martinière was occupied by insurgent forces, its boys having been evacuated to the Residency.
The zoo and State Museum
Close to the centre of Hazratganj, its grounds dotted with derelict Avadhi monuments, Lucknow’s small zoo also serves as an amusement park with a miniature train to view the animals. Inside the zoo, the State Museum exhibits delicate, speckled-red-sandstone sculpture from the Mathura School of the Kushana and Gupta periods (first to sixth centuries AD). Besides sculpture from Gandhara, Mahoba, Nalanda and Sravasti, it has a gallery of terracotta artefacts and even an Egyptian mummy. Musical instruments, paintings and costumes provide atmosphere in the Avadh gallery, while the natural history section is a taxidermist’s dream.
The State Museum
Inside the zoo, the State Museum exhibits delicate, speckled-red-sandstone sculpture from the Mathura school of the Kushana and Gupta periods (first to sixth centuries AD). Besides sculpture from Gandhara, Mahoba, Nalanda and Sravasti, it has a gallery of terracotta artefacts and even an Egyptian mummy. Musical instruments, paintings and costumes provide atmosphere in the Avadh gallery, while the natural history section is a taxidermist’s dream.
In the west of the city, in the vicinity of Hardinge Bridge (or Pucca Pul) around “old” Lucknow, lie several crumbling relics of the nawabs of Avadh. Among them are two particularly impressive imambaras (great halls used for Shi’ite religious commemorations).
Hussainabad Imambara and around
A short distance west of the Rumi Darwaza, the lavish Hussainabad Imambara is also known as the Chhota (small) Imambara, or the Palace of Lights, thanks to its fairy-tale appearance when decorated and illuminated for special occasions. The raised bathing pool in front of it, which is approached via a spacious courtyard, adds to the overall atmosphere. A central gilded dome dominates the whole ensemble, busy with minarets, small domes and arches and even a crude miniature Taj Mahal. Built in 1837 by Muhammad Ali Shah, partly to provide famine relief through employment, the Imambara houses a silver-faced throne, plus the tombs of important Avadhi personalities. The dummy gate opposite the main entrance was used by ceremonial musicians, while the unfinished watchtower is known as the Satkhanda or “Seven Storeys”, even though only four were ever constructed.
Beyond the Hussainabad Tank is the isolated 67m-high Hussainabad clock tower, an ambitious Gothic affair completed in 1887 which carries the largest clock in India. Southwest of the Hussainabad Imambara, and surrounded by ruins, are the two soaring minarets and three domes of the Jama Masjid. Commissioned by Muhammad Ali Shah, who ruled Avadh 1837–42, the mosque was only completed after his death.
Bara Imambara Asfi Masjid in Lucknow © PRABHAS ROY/Shutterstock
The Bara Imambara boasts one of the largest vaulted halls in the world – 50m long and 15m high. Flat on top, slightly arched inside, this imambara was built by Asaf-ud-daula in 1784 without the aid of a single iron or wooden beam; the roof was constructed using a technique known as kara dena, in which bricks are broken and angled to form an interlocking section and then covered with concrete – here several metres thick. The imambara is approached through what must have been an extravagant gate, now rather battered. Two successive courtyards lead from the gate to the imambara, on the left-hand side of which steps lead up to a fascinating labyrinth of chambers known as bhulbhulaiya – the “maze”.
Overlooking the Bara Imambara from the south, the Asfi Mosque is set on a two-tiered arcaded plinth with two lofty minarets. Even though it is inside the Bara Imambara compound, it is closed to non-Muslims, but anyone can check out its exterior, from the gardens adjoining it to the west.
Straddling the main road west of the Bara Imambara’s entrance gates, the colossal Rumi Darwaza is an ornamental victory arch modelled on one of the gates to Asia Minor in Istanbul (known to the Islamic world in Byzantine times as “Rum”). Now decaying, it sports elaborate floral patterns and a few extraordinary trumpets; steps lead up to open chambers that command a general prospect of the monuments of Hussainabad.
Muhammad Ali Shah Art Gallery
Close to the clock tower monolith lies Taluqdar’s Hall, built by Muhammad Ali Shah to house the offices of the Hussainabad Trust and the dusty Picture Gallery, also known as the Muhammad Ali Shah Art Gallery. Arranged chronologically, the portraits of nawabs graphically demonstrate the decline of their civilization, as the figures become progressively portlier. In a famous image, the androgynous-looking last nawab, Wajid Ali Shah (1847–56), is shown in a daringly low-cut top that reveals his left nipple.
The blasted Residency rests in peace amid landscaped gardens southeast of Hardinge Bridge – a battle-scarred ruin left exactly as it stood when the siege was finally relieved by Sir Colin Campbell on November 17, 1857 (see page 264). Its cannonball- shattered tower became a shrine to the tenacity of the British in India, and continued to be maintained as such even after Independence.
During the siege, every building in the complex was utilized for the hard-fought defence of the compound. The Treasury, on the right through the Baillie Guard Gate, served as an arsenal, while the sumptuous Banqueting Hall, immediately west, was a makeshift hospital, and the extensive single-storey Dr Fayrer’s House, just south, housed women and children. Most of the original structures, such as Begum Kothi, were left standing to impede direct fire from the enemy. On the lawn outside Begum Kothi, a large cross honours the astute Sir Henry Lawrence, responsible for building its defences, who died shortly after hostilities began.
The pockmarked Residency itself holds a small museum. On the ground floor, the Model Room, the only one with its roof intact, houses a large model of the defences and of the Residency and a small but excellent collection of images, including etchings showing wall breaches blocked up with billiard tables and a soldier blacking up in preparation for a dash across enemy lines.
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.
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.
Top image: Aerial view Bara Imambara and Asfi Mosque in Lucknow , India © Subodh Agnihotri/Shutterstock