Volume: 6, No: 11 ; November-2012
It seems a historical snub to the river Gomti to call Avadhi culture a Ganga-Yamuni tehzeeb. For neither of these holy rivers flows through Lucknow at all or even through Faizabad, one time headquarters of Avadh. It is the Gomti, a loop of the Ganges and one of the rivers that does not carry the burden of being “holy”, that fertilised the Baghs that sent medieval travellers into paroxysms of ecstasy. Nowhere else but on the southern banks of the Gomti could a unique interaction between a Persian dynasty, Indian natives, European adventurers and the East-India Company have led to a tumultuous phase of history between 1732 and 1947, of which the siege of the Residency was the bloody climax.
The second map of Lucknow has changed so dramatically after independence that modern day citizens would be surprised to know that the flow of the river dictated the site of the architectural extravaganza like the Asfi Imambara, Sheesh Mahal, Dilkusha Palace and La Martiniere. Europeans built their houses besides what was then a “broad and rapid stream”, as a sharp contrast to today’s middle class for whom fear of floods dictates housing decisions.
The Gomti provides continuity to the flow of overarching ambitions and caprices that seem to be Luckhnawi lot. The Nawabs were led on by the European “advisers” to get into bizarre, ill-conceived projects like the linking of the Ganga and Gomti by a canal. Or the building of an iron bridge by importing the metal superstructure all the way from Britain, whereupon it lay on the banks for 30 years before the work began.
Following unwittingly in the footsteps, the poor man’s neo-Begum. Mayawati – drafted during her tenure as Chief Minister the services of Satish Gujral to design Ambedkar Park. The park has so much marble paving and structure that it will look more like a concrete jungle if it is ever completed. Further downstream, the Sahara group is trying desperately to complete a super luxury apartment complex which has few takers but which has its fair share of controversies. Their efforts seem as doomed as those undertaken in 1803 to build a palace called Musa Bagh, which was accessible on from the river, the other roads being considered “almost impossible”.
The river perversely changed it’s course to almost a mile away, ensuing the ruin of a Nawabi dream that the British instead of moving too chose to comfort into the Residency, could be persuaded to stay at a safer distance in the Musa Bagh.
But the British just don’t stay away. In 1996, the British Government’s foreign aid agency, the ODA (now DFID), started an ambitious 25 year project to provide a sewage system for slums lining the Gomti’s nullahs. This was supposed to be preliminary to installing sewage treatment plants that could control pollution of the river once and for all. However, due to the change of the government in London and more importantly, the unsatisfactory progress of the project, the project was summarily abandoned last year.
The only “builders” who seem to have escaped the tint of folly are the Tatas, who have built the prettiest Taj Hotel this side of the Vindhyas a stones throw from the embankment. A kilometer from this five star, lavishly landscaped dome languishes the Butler Palace, for which the Rajahs of Mahmudabad and Sir Harcourt Butler. They were quickly abandoned when the Gomti menacingly overflowed during the monsoons.
Architectural experimentation was a feature of all constructions in the Nawabi era. The use of the Gomti as an integral part of Farhat Baksh attracts attention in this context. This was the first building constructed in Lucknow in 1781 by Claude Martin of La Martiniere fame. During the lifetime of the French soldier of fortune, one would have to enter Farhat Baksh by a draw bridge, because three sides of the building was surrounded by a moat, the fourth side being built into the river. Martin lived in these cool chambers during the summer months. When the river rose he moved up one storey, then the second and finally during the monsoons he was on the third floor, which also overlooked the river and supported by arches, in thus resting on piers sunk in the river at a point about one fifth across its width. In the book ‘Fatal Friendship’, historian Rosie Lewellyn-Jones says that within the basement apartment of Farhat Baksh were baths and fountains which sprayed water against the windows. In springtime when hot winds blew, the windows were covered by frames filled with “green bramble”. When the waters receded at the end of the monsoons, the mud that would accumulate in the basement rooms was removed and the rooms were annually repainted and decorated. Can the river ever be such an integral part of the Lucknawi’s life style again? The answer has to be a regrettable “No”. Scientists of the CDRI, who now occupy Farhat Baksh, as well as Chhattar Manzil, once an impressive palace, have literally turned their backs on the river, as the building is approached from the other side. Lewellyn-Jones reports that the arches of the basement storey are still submerged in water. A CSIR survey in the seventies found that any attempt to pump out the water from the two basement storey’s of the Farhat Baksh would de-stabilise the entire structure, the water level is therefore maintained by pumps. In fact, a bund (earth wall) now separates the building from the river.
Subterranean rooms were built at the La Martiniere too though critics have wondered how these summer-quarters would have been viable for living in after the lighting lamps in dark chambers and passages. Another innovative feature of this building are four circular walls sunk to a depth of 20 feet below the water bed and going right to the depth of the building. These walls have cooling ducts that allow cool air to be drawn up the walls. They also provided drainage when the Gomti overflowed its banks.
The dryness around the La Martiniere, now converted into plying fields for schoolboys, is a stark reminder that the continuity with the past won’t last long. The river has been tamed, and it is neither a friendly air-conditioning device nor a watery deterrent to marauders. It is merely a sluggish stream, and when your thoughts turn romantic, you do not take a stroll around any of the banks but head towards the forlorn monuments of the city such as Dilkusha – and of course, you need to beware the ANTI-LOVER cops who are on the prowl.
Back in the hay days of the Gomti, Nawab Nasir-ud-din Haider owned a steam vehicle for pleasure rides. Platforms were also built on the north bank for staging giant animal fights, such as, Tigers versus Rhinoceros, Panthers versus Elephants, etc. that were viewed safely from the other side of the river. Today, once again, families in search for a weekend outing head for boating at the Water Sports Club, Shaheed Smarak or the Kudiya Ghat.
They think wistfully of the floating restaurant, which sometimes offered Lucknowites an opportunity to mimic Nawabi hedonism. The venture however, sunk, as it was never commercially viable, nothing unusual with the State Tourism department. One can scarcely expect a return to the days of Wajid-Ali Shah who organised festivals on the banks of the Gomti. The Chhattar Manzil would be lit up and dancing and music on board various boats would go in well into the night.
It was a different century when Belgian chandeliers, artifacts and gizmos such as, clocks and cucumber slicers were transported up the Ganga from Calcutta to Kanpur for the Nawabs. From Kanpur they came by road in covered carriages. One shopkeeper found this method expensive and inconvenient and sought permission to bring the goods in boats up the Gomti. Today, the items are more likely to descend from the heavens: with direct flights from Lucknow to Sharjah a flood of electronic goods keep coming to Lucknow by air. In the next century, the city will even cannibalise the Gomti even worse: building more colonies on it’s shrinking riverbed, discharging more sewage, plastic bags and dead bodies into its waters, building more bridges to facilitate the movement of the growing population and vehicular movement. Reduced to a bubbly brook, there is little chance that the Gomti will have the guts to do what it did in 1962, flooding it to the extent of converting it into the Venice of Avadh.
A Luckhnawi’s passion for the river and its banks is not new but as old as Lucknow itself. Today too the banks of the river have special place in the hearts of the people. My fascination for this river is neither new nor unique- but as a true Luckhnawi, what I consider myself to be, I feel deeply hurt by the deteriorating condition of our Gomti.
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