Think of tehzeeb (courtesy) and nazakat (elegance), think of heritage and history, think of Nawabs and their extravagant lifestyle – and you will find yourself basking in the legacy of Lucknow! The capital city of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, located on the banks of Gomti River, Lucknow is the third largest city in the North of India after Delhi and Kolkata. Having passed through the reigns of the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughals and eventually the British Raj in the 18th and 19th centuries, Lucknow has emerged to be a treasure house of legacies.
They say, a city is not known by its buildings and flyovers, but instead by its people and its culture. When in Lucknow, there is no denying that! The people are still heavily influenced by the elite Nawabi dialect and cannot do without their “pehle aap” (after you) and “janaab” (sir). For a person like me who has heard this dialect sparsely in Bollywood movies, especially in humorous context, it was a remarkable experience. The citizens pride themselves in being the most courteous race in the world and although their dialect might be a subject of parody outside of Lucknow, they give no ear to the ridicule. Hustling through the bustling bazaars at Hazratgunj, I was beaming at being addressed as “Mohtarma” (Madame) and been offered a seat at the shops with the legendary “Ayiye, Tashreef rakhiye” (Pray enter and please have a seat). 🙂
The city showcases huge influences of both Mughal and British architecture. Lucknow cast its spell on me right at the Charbagh Railway Station. The design of the palatial building is a mix of Rajput, Awadhi and Mughal architectures. The crimson and the white building rendered a grand welcome!
A must visit in Lucknow is the Bara Imambara. Literally meaning the big shrine, it was built by the Nawab of Awadh in the 18th century. There is interesting history behind its construction. A catastrophic decade long famine hit the region in 1785 AD that dwindled the wealth of the populace. The Nawab started this relief project to generate employment for his subjects. It was decided that the needy and the poor will build during the day and the same will be brought down by the once-rich in anonymity of the night, thereby generating constant work and a steady income for the poor and the rich-turned-needy alike.
Approached by two enormous gateways and a string of gardens, the din of the busy noisy streets disappear as one walks through to reach the inside. The complex houses four distinct structures – each an exquisite work of art! Standing at an imposing height of 15 meters, the ceiling of the prayer hall inside the Bara Imambara is the biggest arched hall of its kind in the world, unsupported by beams or columns.
The imposing Asafi Mosque stands on the left of the Bara Imambara and with its curvaceous domes and sleek minarets, it takes your breath away.
To the right stands the the step well – Shahi Baoli, once a source of water for the construction of the buildings, it now stands redundant. Like all step wells, this one too has that spooky and claustrophobic feel to it. Legends say that the guards could see the activities at the entry gate in the reflections of the water here. Another legend goes that the Deewan (Finance Minister) of the Nawab jumped into the well with the key to the treasury to save the Nawabi treasures from being looted by the British!
I innocently asked the guide as to who exactly were these Nawabs? Were they kings or ministers to the kings? The guide explained patiently that they were deputies of the Mughals and Nawab, derived from the Persian word ‘Naib’ was a title conferred on them.
A chilling January morning with the sun shining up in the blue skies and the guide reciting these interesting anecdotes about the times gone by – the traveler in me was jubilant!
And yet I have not touched the most interesting part of the complex – The Bhoolbhulaiya! Don’t you dare enter this maze without a guide or you might not see the light of the day again! 😛 Bhoolbhulaiya was the master plan of the ingenious master architect Hafiz Kifayat Ullah. To be able to support the ceiling and the colossal dome of the massive prayer hall of Bara Imambara without columns, he came up with the first floor design of the Bhoolbhulaiya which is a labyrinth of interconnected passageways that sometimes lead to dead ends and sometimes open out to windows that offer magnificent views of the surroundings. It is rumored that the Nawabs played hide and seek inside the maze with their Begums. The guide eventually led us to the terrace which offered panoramic views of the Bara Imambara complex with the splendid Asafi Mosque and its long spanning courtyards and linear staircases sitting on the left and the city of Lucknow panning out till the horizon in all directions!
Having bid farewell to the history of Lucknow, there was an urgent need to satiate our famished stomachs. And hence, we began our food trail at the street dhabas in the centre of the old city to savor the authentic taste of Lucknow! The famous Galauti Kebab served with the Sheermals (sweet bread) melted in our mouths. How can Boti Kebab and Tundey Kebab be behind? A generous helping of Mutton Rogan Josh with Tandoori Roti later, we finished our meal with the not to be missed Lucknowi Paan!
Passing under the Rumi Darwaza – the imposing city gate, we headed to buy some exquisite chikankari! Chikan translates to embroidery in Urdu. This traditional style of embroidery is believed to have been introduced by Nur Jahan, the wife of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. We shopped to our heart’s content for the famous Lucknowi Chikan.
Before the evening drew the curtains on the day, we arrived at the last stop of our visit – The Residency! The residence of the British General appointed in the court of the Nawab of Awadh, this place came under a siege by the Indian soldiers during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. The ruins of the buildings hold testimony to the gun battle that was fought here. The British were forced to abandon it after the siege that ended six months later with the loss of 2500 of their troops. But in the end, although the Residency was abandoned, the British succeeded in winning back the city.
Having filled our bags with the history of the 18th century Lucknow and filled out stomachs with delectable Awadhi cuisine, it was time to bid adieu to this city rich in heritage. Shukriya (Thank You) Lucknow for the mehmaan nawaazi (hospitality) ! Aadaab!