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Lucknow and Hookah

Volume: 10, No: 09 ; September-2016


Nawab Asif Ul Daula attending a sermon at Imambara with his Hookah in place.

One of the favourite pastimes of Nawabs and their Begums was to smoke Hookah (or Huqqua). Hookah did not originate in Lucknow but because of the patronization of royals here it became an integral part of Awadh culture.

The Hookah is said to have originated during the Safavid Dynasty of the Persian Empire. And could have entered into Mughal India along with the Nawabs who came from Persia or another theory states that Hookah made its debut in India during the Mughal era as a part of Unani Medicine System. According to some historical narrations, Hakeem (Physician) Irfan Sheikh, who used to work in the court of Emperor Akbar, is said to have propagated the idea of Hookah. Hakeem Irfan Shaikh actually emphasized on the medicinal value of smoking Hookah by incorporating a mixture of mint, ginger, cloves, almond and other herbs to cure cold and fever. Later this concept reached Awadh and was further improvised and glamorised upon here. Hookah actually became a symbolic representation of the Awadhi culture and the Nawabi rule. Hukkas are traditionally smoked after a meal and during social gatherings.

Nawabs of Awadh are to be credited for propagating and beautifying this culture of ‘Hookah’. They often indulged in Hookah sessions over long conversations pertaining to state welfare or on other occasions such as over a game of chess or may be when enjoying a traditional music or watching a dance performance in their courts. Even the ladies from royal families joined in for a smoke. In Awadh (Oudh) the Hookahs were made by experienced craftsman in the most flawless manner, hence their designs were inimitable. They were developed with intricate silver work, Bidri work (silver on metal), Ganga-Jamuni (silver with gold coverings) or even made of intricately carved and designed terracotta. One of the most popular of all these were Pinchvan Hookahs, made with a slight extension of the stem portion.

Moreover these Hookahs in the Nawabi culture were not only affiliated with wealth (as noticed in the pre-Nawabi world) but also to etiquette and courtesy, they became a symbol that was no longer “looked through” but rather “looked at.” In contrast to Paandans and Khasdans, it was not the size or the cost but the sheer presence of the Hookahs that uplifted the social status of the user. Using these symbols and their physicality allowed the user to become a part of the new world of the Nawabi culture and tehzeeb (mannerism). Particularly because of the fact that Nawabs used Hookahs it became a status symbol for the masses in Lucknow to redefine their social status irrespective of economic strata. Gradually Tawa’ifs (courtesans) also began using hookahs to emphasise their social status. These ladies were trained dancer and singers and were at the top of the hierarchy. They were seen the epitomes of culture and civilised behavior. The association of Hookahs with the courtesans raised hookahs from the level of being a mere pleasure object to a stamp of highly civilized and cultured society.

With the advent of the British in India in general and Lucknow in particular began a new series of encapsulations vis-à-vis Hookahs. The Hookah gradually became a symbol of social prestige as well as culture for the English, Nawabs and other royals. William Dalrymple, a celebrated historian, describes the love of Hookahs among the East India Company officers while discussing the character of the fourth baronet, Sir Thomas Metcalfe : “Certainly he was a notably fastidious man, with feelings so refined that he could not bear to see women eat cheese …. He would never have dreamt of dressing, as some of his predecessors had, in full Mughal pagri and jama…. His one concession to Indian taste was to smoke a silver hookah. This he did every day after breakfast, for exactly thirty minutes”.

Hookahs along with Hookah Burdars (a person who used to prepare hookah pipes for the British to smoke) became a means to underscore the difference between the civilised and the barbarian. Although the use of hookah was adopted from the Indians, soon this was embellished along with the use of expensive tobacco and came to signify the civilised nature of the British rather than Indians. This became such an integral part of the East India Company officials that social gatherings could not be conceived without a puff of Hookah.

Nowadays the act of smoking a Hookah has lost its royal significance, however it continues to be a social facilitator. This habit still can be gauged in the old areas of Lucknow such as Nazirabad, Akbari Gate and Chowk where people could be seen engaged in lengthy conversation on local and political affairs with their Hookah with traditional ‘Khamira, a mixture of rose petals, ripened fruits and tobacco in it.


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