Volume: 11, No: 02 ; February-2017
Visitors to Constantia, south of the city of Lucknow, have always struggled to describe this extraordinary creation, right from the start. George, Viscount Valentia, an English lord, saw it shortly after Claude Martin’s death in 1800. It was, he declared, a ‘strange fantastical building of every species of architecture and adorned with minute stucco fret-work, enormous red lions with lamps instead of eyes, Chinese mandarins and ladies with shaking heads and all the gods and goddesses of heathen mythology’. He continued, ‘it has a handsome effect at a distance, from a lofty tower in the centre with four turrets, but on the nearer approach, the wretched taste of the ornaments only excites contempt. A more extraordinary combination of Gothic towers, and Grecian pilaster…was never before devised.’ Lord Hastings, one-time governor general thought ‘the idea of [Constantia] was probably taken from those castles of pastry which used to adorn desserts in former days’ and others followed the culinary theme by comparing it to a wedding cake.
Apart from critical remarks about its appearance, the purpose of Constantia seemed equally baffling. Was it a palace or a tomb, or perhaps a palace-tomb? Was it a dwelling place, a castle, or a purpose-built school? And what happened to it after Martin’s death? It was inevitable that legends would grow around such an extraordinary building, and some persist to this day, although gradually we are getting nearer to the truth, both by empirical evidence from the building itself and historical research. Writing in June 1796 to a friend, Mrs. Elizabeth Plowden, Martin mentions Constantia for the first time. He tells her that ‘I have begun a house at my tope (Constantia Grove) or Lakh-e-Peara. I am constantly there every morning on horse back and every afternoon in carriages after dinner, that building I think improve my health by making me take plenty [of] exercise, as it is, or will be, a large pile of masonry, it will keep me long at it and perhaps as long as I live, if any accident happen to me, or otherwise I will have the happiness to see it finished and to hear people praise it, as they do my present one.’ [Château de Lyon]
So we can establish from Martin’s own words that Constantia was intended as a dwelling-place, but also a prestige project too. Martin was always greedy for compliments and no doubt thought that visitors to the new house would be overwhelmed by its sheer size, with the central five storeys rising to the dome-like structure on top. At the time of its construction, it would have been the tallest building in Lucknow, far taller than Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula’s rather squat palace at the Daulat Khana.
The inspiration for Constantia may initially have come from the tombs of the Mughal Emperors, and in particular Humayun’s tomb in Delhi. The idea of a large ‘platform’ rising to first floor height, with a central structure on top is common to both buildings. Martin may have wanted a dome on top of Constantia to rival that of Humayun’s tomb, but he had neither the skill nor the time to create it, so we have the outline of a dome, but not the real thing.
Time was a factor for Martin, who had been a sick man for many years, although he bravely carried on, operating at one point on himself for bladder stones. He feared, as he told Mrs. Plowden, that he might not live to see Constantia finished in his life-time. This is why he left detailed, if confusing, instructions in his Will on how the building should be completed. He entrusted the work to his faithful servants, Chhota and Mutchoo Qadir, to be overseen by his steward, Joseph Quieros, a Spanish nobleman whom Martin had found in Calcutta, working as an auctioneer. We do not know how much of the building remained unfinished on Martin’s death, but certainly the ground floor rooms were ready and their walls were lined with enormous mirrors that reflected light from hundreds of candles in the chandeliers.
Martin’s fine collection of paintings, including works by his friend Johann Zoffany and the Daniells had already been moved to Constantia from the Château de Lyon, and his large library was also here on newly installed shelves. The building was awash with marble too – marble tables, marble statues, slabs of marble for the floors, as well as 6,000 panes of glass and tons of stone from Chunar. Outside, and probably facing the river, were street lamps. Lanterns had also been placed inside the hollow heads of the stucco lions that growled menacingly from the first floor roof. Among the many items inventoried at Constantia on Martin’s death were dozens of barrels of Plaster of Paris and wax moulds. These were used to make the small round medallions that line the interior doorways of the main rooms. They were so skillfully made, with tiny cameo-like profiles that many people thought they came from the hand of Josiah Wedgwood himself, the famous English potter.
In fact the medallions were made of local clay by Martin’s own clever workmen. This was just one of the myths that grew up around the building. Another was that Martin had got his tomb constructed in the centre of the basement to prevent the Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula from seizing Constantia after Martin’s death. There werecertain restrictions on taking over a building containing a tomb (although sadly this has not prevented encroachments on a number of smaller tombs in the city). Asaf-ud-Daula was long dead before the building was completed, and Martin only seems to have decided on thebasement tomb in the last year of his life.
The name Constantia has given rise to all kinds of romantic stories about a lost love of Martin’s. In fact the real reason is equally intriguing. Martin had become a Freemason early in his army career. Freemasonry was popular among European soldiers in India and Lodges were established in most cantonments. Writing to his French friend, General Benoit de Boigne in 1798, Martin requested a number of books on Freemasonry together with ‘the jewels of the order in gold or silver, the ribbons and other things connected with this subject so that we can establish a [Lodge] here when you arrive, where you can serve as the grand master in my new chateau…’ Each Lodge had its own motto, and the words ‘Labore et Constantia’ inscribed on the building can be traced back to an English Freemasonry manuscript of 1621. Martin already had this in mind when he writes about his new house at ‘Constantia Grove’.
One aspect of Constantia which has been unjustly neglected is that despite its decorative appearance, it was in fact a defensible building. Martin had good reason to fear the troubled times of the late 18th century, and the description of Constantia as a ‘castle’ is not without justification. In fact Lord Hastings, visiting the building in 1814, says categorically that it was constructed ‘for the purpose of defence’. The doors on the ground floor were plated with iron and the windows were barred with iron railings. The spiral staircases were blocked at intervals with more iron doors. If intruders did manage to break in, then there were oval loopholes high up on the walls, where a sniper could fire down and pick off the villains. ‘In short,’ concluded Hastings ‘the whole [building] was framed for protracted and desperate resistance’.
Indications of this can still be seen within Constantia. Although the iron-plated doors are gone, the sockets where they were hung can be seen in every opening. There were double sets of doors on the ground floor and enormously thick exterior walls that would not fall easily to cannon fire. The loopholes are strategically placed so that a couple of men could cover several rooms and passages with their rifles. Recent exciting discoveries initiated by the Principal have uncovered three large and deep basons which could be filled with water from the Gomti in case the building came under a prolonged siege.
Psychological warfare is a fairly modern concept, but I believe Martin had factored this into his ‘castle’. Imagine for a moment that you are a young village boy around 1800 who has been dragged into some naive plot to steal into Constantia and hold its occupants to ransom. Approaching the building at night, all of a sudden there are gigantic lions at each corner belching out smoke and fire. This in itself is quite terrifying but on looking up there are rows and rows of figures standing on each parapet and looking down at you. Some are clearly shaking their heads at your effrontery. It would take a brave lad to defy them. So what seemed to the casual English visitor like a frivolous display of lions and figures with nodding heads, was actually a carefully thought out scheme to frighten off possible intruders. If these failed then the iron barred doors and windows were the second line of defence.
Much more could be written about this remarkable building, particularly its role during the Uprising of 1857/58 when its marble floors were ripped up and its doors and windows shattered as Indian and African troops sat at its windows firing at the British soldiers. But this is a story for another day.
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