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Lucknow, The Perfect Heritage Holiday Spot

Bara Imambara, Photo Credit: Courtesy Wikipedia
15 Min Read

Lucknow lies in the middle of the Heritage Arc. This bustling city, famed for its Nawabi era finesse and amazing food, is a unique mix of the ancient and the modern.

The city of Lucknow has never been as glamorous as Delhi or as important as Agra. It has always been a provincial seat of government, and these were glittering Mughal capitals. But for a brief period between 1722 and 1856, it shone brighter than any other star in Hindustan. The men responsible for this came from Persia and ruled in this time for a while as vassals of the Mughal emperor, later as kings in their own right. They bequeathed a unique Indo-Persian culture to their province of Avadh. Ever since, Lucknow has been a byword for cultural refinement. Here the Urdu language was refined, here was created the magic of the tabla and sitar, and of Kathak, northern India’s most refined dance form.

The sprawling grounds of the Bara Imambara

Lucknow’s rise began in 1775, when Asafuddaulah, the fourth Nawab of Avadh, abandoned the Avadhi capital Faizabad to set up court in Lucknow, 127km away, on the banks of the Gomti. He set about creating one of the most cosmopolitan capitals in 18th-century India. By the time Asafuddaulah died, in 1797, Lucknow was firmly the centre of the Avadhi universe. His successors added more extravagant buildings to the city, which gave an air of unreality to Lucknow. Even in medieval times, it was a thriving city. But for most Indians, Lucknow will always be associated with the splendour of the nawabi era.

THINGS TO SEE AND DO

The Founder’s Flamboyance

Asafuddaulah’s Rumi Darwaza is the symbol of Lucknow. It formed the western side of a great courtyard in front of the Bara Imambara, which may have been a market place. When Asafuddaulah chose to build the Bara Imambara in 1784, he seems to have embellished the existing western gateway, turning it into the spectacular archway we see today. Stately processions of elephants, horses and camels carrying nawabs, the British Resident and his retinue, and pilgrims, passed through this magnificent gateway.

Imambaras

Found all over Lucknow, imambaras are peculiar to the Shia faith and hold taziyas (symbolic tombs), but can also be burial places. The architect of the Bara Imambara, Kifayatullah, is buried within the building he created next to his nawab. This imambara is both the first and the largest of its kind in Lucknow. All are welcome in both gardens and imambara, but there are restrictions on non-Muslims entering the adjoining Asafi Mosque (also called Jama Masjid).

Crystal lamps and chandeliers hang from the ceiling of the Hussainabad Imambara

The great central hall of the imambara measures 163ft – then the world’s largest vaulted hall to stand without wooden supports. You will find the tombs of Asafuddaulah and his relatives, and a collection of old gilt mirrors, chandeliers and ornate taziyas here. Lose yourself in the Bhul-bhulaiya, a structural device to distribute the weight of the vaulted roof below. It provides a panoramic view of the complex.

Visit the baoli that leads off the eastern side of the gardens. There was once a magnificent set of rooms surrounding the deep well here. It is the only remnant of the Macchi Bhawan Fort, which was built over the adjacent hill in medieval times, and became Asafuddaulahs first home until he built Daulat Khana.

Having seen the Bara Imambara, it is interesting to compare it with the two other important imambaras here. The Hussainabad Imambara is decorated with black and white calligraphic patterns. Buried here are Muhammad Ali Shah and his mother. For many years, the Sibtainabad Imambara housed a carpenter’s shop and government offices. Eventually it was vacated, and restored. Its interior is bare compared to the other imambaras.

Located on the banks of the Gomti and easily recognised by its large, shallow dome is the Shah Najaf Imambara. It was erected in 1814– 27 by Nawab Ghaziuddin Haidar. The interior of Shah Najaf is a blaze of light from numerous chandeliers and giant candlestands given as gifts to embellish the building. Here too are some of the best taziyas. Ghaziuddin transformed the nawabi court into a kingdom, with the full support of the British, who were delighted at this further weakening of the Mughal Empire. Shah Najaf was the scene of fighting during the recapture of Lucknow by the British in 1858, and contemporary photographs show the building and its defensive walls pock-marked with shots from Company firearms.

Bottles filled with attar

The Nawab’s Palaces

Four great palace complexes were built in Lucknow during the nawabi era. Only a handful of buildings remain of the last two palace complexes. The Macchi Bhawan Fort was demolished between 1858–90. On its site is the Chattrapati Shahuji Maharaj Medical University, erected in 1912. Asafuddaulah also built the Daulat Khana Palace complex. In its time, it comprised elegant havelis, with small palaces and sarais draped along the Gomti. Today, it is difficult to imagine what it looked like, but a walk around the site will still uncover things of interest, many added by later nawabs. The Hussainabad Clock Tower, which boasted the largest clockface in India and one that could be illuminated at night, is a famous landmark here.

The most important building is the Asafi Kothi, now mutilated by encroachments that make it almost impossible to see what a fine Palladian-style house it was. Asaf-ud-daulah held his durbar here.

Head back towards the town and you will go past the Chattar Manzil Palace, begun by Saadat Ali Khan. This was the man responsible for building Hazratganj, connecting the inner city to the excess of monuments on the riverbank. This elegant building, renamed Farhat Baksh, utilised the river water to cool it in summer. It, and the adjoining Chattar Manzil, now form part of the Central Drug Research Institute.

To the south stand the Gulistan-i-Iram (‘Rose Garden of Paradise’) and the curious Darshan Bilas, whose façades imitate those of other Lucknow buildings. The Lal Barah-dwari, once a durbar hall and later the throne room of Nasiruddin Haider, lies in a direct linewith the Farhat Baksh, though the British ruined the symmetry by driving a major road between the two.

Qaisarbagh – One Last Fling

The last and greatest palace, Qaisarbagh, was built between 1848 and 1852, but occupied by its builder, Wajid Ali Shah, for only four years before his deposition. It has undergone much demolition and subsequent rebuilding, but it undoubtedly was a handsome series of gardens and European design, with a number of follies where theatrical events would be staged. The Qaisarbagh buildings were among those demolished by the British. The Fairy Bridge in the north of the main garden is in a sorry state. The impressive gateways which lead into the garden are choked by traffic hurtling along the roads which now criss-cross the site.

The ruins of the British Residency in Lucknow

Chowk stories

Change the mood by visiting Chowk and eating some of the best street food you will find anywhere. Although Chowk itself runs in a straight line between Gol Darwaza and Akbari Darwaza, the little winding streets off it bend and double back in seemingly random patterns. Temples, mosques and sarais are hidden away, up steep paths, evidence of the pilgrims who came to visit the Tomb of Shah Mina, the 15th-century Muslim mystic. The renowned Farangi Mahal is here, a seminary established in the 17th century as a gift from the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. But the buildings the emperor bestowed on the mullahs had previously belonged to the Company in its earliest days, which is why it is still called the ‘Foreigners’ House’.

Remnants of the Raj

Among all the foreigners who came to Avadh and its rich capital, none were more insidious than the officers of the East India Company. Posing as advisors to Asafuddaulah, they collected a huge annual subsidy from him. The steady interference by the Company led to a gradual decimation of the Avadh Court, which outraged the populace. When the Mutiny broke out in May 1857, Avadh was ripe to respond. Lucknow rose in a revolt whose consequences saw the eventual dissolution of the Company. The cantonment four miles north of Lucknow was burnt to the ground, and the British barricaded themselves into the Residency on one of Lucknow’s small hills. Here, they were besieged for many months by sepoys under the determined leadership of Begum Hazrat Mahal, a wife of Wajid Ali Shah, and her young son Birjis Qadr, who had been crowned king in the nawab’s absence. The siege assumed almost mythological importance in Victorian Britain. Rescued by the Company Army in March 1858, the defenders of the Residency were led to the safety of the British cantonment at Kanpur. During the winter of 1857–58, Lucknow, briefly independent again, prepared to defend herself from avenging Company troops. She lost and the nawabi period was finished forever.

The ruins of the British Residency in Lucknow are a poignant reminder of the heroism on the part of besiegers and defenders alike. The museum inside is a must-see. Do inspect the model of the complex at the time of the siege, complete with ballrooms, the Bailey Guard Gate and the church (now in ruins), and the sheer number of ‘native’ buildings outside that surrounded the compound, later blasted away to clear a passage around the Residency.

La Martiniere School

Excavations continue on the site of the ‘native hospital’ that was built by the British for Indian patients, as well as the barracks for the sepoys. Artefacts found here include a silver-plated stick, bayo-nets, fragments of English dinner plates, and imported wine bottles. A few skeletons have been uncovered too. Also visit the little cemetery near the ruined church, where the Resident, Sir Henry Lawrence, lies buried, an early victim of the siege. The resting places of the Indians who fought to defend their deposed nawab and their country are, unfortunately, largely unknown.

Banarsi Bagh, an old nawabi garden houses the State Museum, a post-Independence building con-

taining a wealth of material on the Hindu origins of the city. Only a small portion is devoted to the nawabi period. At the rear of the museum is a curious ‘graveyard’ of British-era statues. The Sound and Light Show at the Residency depicts the history of Lucknow, along with the siege.

Monument entry ₹55 Videography ₹25 Timings Sunrise–sunset Sound and Light Show ₹25 Timings 7.30pm (1 November–14 March); 8.45pm (15 March–31 October)

The Seats of Power

Walk or drive past the Legislative Council Chamber on Vidhan Sabha Road, a British-designed building from 1928, with a fine dome. A little further on is the entrance to Raj Bhavan. It is believed to have been developed by Major General Claude Martin from his powder mill, an 18th-century building with immensely thick walls to contain any accidental explosions. Today, it is home to the Uttar Pradesh governor. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to catalogue the paintings hanging in the main rooms, which came from Government House, Allahabad, in the 1920s and are supposed to include portraits of the famous Begum Sombre [Samru] of Sardhana.

Martin’s Wondrous Folly

The road past Raj Bhavan takes you into the grounds of La Martiniere College. Described as ‘palace, tomb and college’, it is an extraordinary building, a memorial to a remarkable man, Claude Martin, who was a Major General in the East India Company’s army. La Martiniere was his ‘country house’, then named Constantia and several miles outside the city. It is now one of the best schools in India, immortalised by Kipling as “St Xaviers in Partibus” in Kim. Because it is a working college, you cannot just turn up and expect a tour, but it is worth making an advance appointment with the principal, who may arrange for you to be shown around.

The Nawab’s English Manor

Near La Martiniere are the remains of the Dilkhusha Palace, an ‘English countryhouse’ erected in 1805 for Saadat Ali Khan. It is based on a Palladian house in England, but was subtly adapted for the north Indian plains. It stands in ruins today, but the still gives an impression of the former grandeur of this nawabi hunting lodge.

You can also visit newly-restored memorial to General Sir Henry Havelock, a Company commander who died during the final relief of the Residency. The grave has been restored, and is now a plea-sant garden.

WHERE TO STAY

Vivanta by Taj (Tel: 0522-6711000; Tariff: ₹15,000–32,000) offers an excellent view of the silver Gomti and La Martiniére on the opposite bank. Specially visited for its Avadhi cuisine at Falaknuma Restaurant, Clarks Avadh (Tel: 2616500-09, 2620131; Tariff: ₹9,000–15,000) on MG Road is also an important Lucknow landmark. La Place Sarovar Portico (Tel: 4004040; Tariff from ₹3,000), from the Sarovar group, is on Shahnajaf Road.

The three-star Hotel Gomti (Tel: 2611463, 2612662; Tariff: ₹900–3,000) on Sapru Marg is amongst UP Tourism’s prized properties, offering all the necessary facilities. Hotel Arif Castles (Tel: 4098777; Tariff: ₹6,500–7,500) is on Rana Pratap Marg.

WHERE TO EAT

The Nawabs were great connoisseurs of cuisine and to them can be credited the creation of such Avadhi delicacies as galouti kebab, kebab paranthas and not to forget an entire technique of cooking – dum pukht. Those who want to savour these joys should head to Naushijaan on Chaina Bazaar Road in Hazratganj. Tuck into majlisi and galouti kebabs. Dip into aflatooni korma with a gigantic Afghani parantha and round off your Nawabi repast with shahi tukra.

Do not miss out on Tunde ke Kebab. The original outlet is in Chowk. The traditional Lucknow brunch comprising nehari and kulcha at Rahim’s, opposite Tunde, is dynamite.

On a sidestreet just off Hazratganj, amongst crowds thronging Shukla’s Chaat House, you’ll discover peas– simple green peas spiced, soured with lemon juice, cooked dry and hand-pounded to a light consistency. Also try golgappas Lucknow-style in Chowk. Each puri comes with a different stuffing. You start with the zeera flavour and move on to hing, pudina, lemon etc. till your tastebuds can’t take any more teasing.

FAST FACTS

When to go Winter is the best time. Summer sees blazing heat, while the monsoon season is muggy

Tourist offices

UP Tourism Reception Counter

Hotel Gomti

Tel: 0522-2611463

Directorate of Tourism

Paryatan Bhavan, C-13, Vipin Khand

Gomti Nagar, Lucknow

Tel: 0522-2308993/ 017

UP Tourism

Chandralok Building

36, Janpath, New Delhi

Tel: 011-23322251

W uptourism.gov.in

STD code 0522

GETTING THERE

Air Lucknow International Airport at Amausi is connected to most major cities across the country

Rail Lucknow Junction is connected to Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and other cities

Road Lucknow is directly connected to New Delhi by the Agra-Lucknow Expressway and the Yamuna Expressway/ NH19. The city is linked to AH1 that connects Delhi to Kolkata via Agra, Kanpur and Varanasi. Lucknow is linked to Kanpur by NH27 and to Bhopal by National Highways 27, 34, 44 and 146 Bus Private and state buses connect Lucknow to other cities

Read more in the new Outlook Traveller Getaways Heritage Holidays in India

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