Volume: 11, No: 12 ; December-2017
Amongst the most intriguing and fascinating structures on La Martiniere Estate is the monumental tower or ‘Lat’ that adorns the east entrance to Constantia Palace. The legends that surround it range from the fanciful to the bizarre. These include, the Lat to be a memorial to Claude Martin’s horse; a structure with an underground tunnel linked to Constantia; the place where his heart is buried – a legend contributed to by a publication in The Illustrated London News many years after his death. It is the presence of such legends that adds mystique to a wonderful conglomeration of buildings that have acquired a character of their own.
The historical reasons for the construction of the Lat are different. Claude Martin, in his Will, provided significant instructions for what he described as an ‘Obelisk’, to be raised in the artificial lake created to build the promontory on which Constantia stands. In his Will, he wrote :
“The terrace I made in the middle of the tank to erect an obelisk on a base of 16 feet broad and 20 feet high and body of the obelisk to be about 80 feet high making in all 100 feet. For all these I will endeavour to make plan and elevation if God give me life to do it.”
Faithful executors of his Will commenced building the structure some years after his death. The structure itself was close to completion in 1814 when Governor General Lord Hastings toured the city, accompanied by the artist Seeta Ram, whose water colour c.1814 shows the scaffolding being dismantled around the giant pillar. School records of the time bear reference to the Memorial to General Claude Martin which was taken as a tribute of the people of those times to the Founder.
The structure itself, besides its rough dimensions does not bear any significant example of Claude Martin’s design. It was built by the architect and free mason J.P. Parker, who more famously built the Ochterlony Monument in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1825 in memory of Major General Sir David Ochterlony, commander of the British East India Company, to commemorate both his successful defense of Delhi against the Marathas in 1804 and the victory of the East India Company’s armed forces over the Gurkhas in the Anglo-Nepalese War.
Direct comparison can be made to the remarkable similarly in structure. This includes the base, with a typical Egyptian box design, the fluted column, the Syrian lantern and the Turkish dome. Unlike the Ochterlony Monument, the General’s Lat is a solid structure with no access from within.
Technological advances in photography have captured views of narrow steps leading into the lantern on the summit of the column. Internal mechanisms including stays for pulleys and a thick chain, add to the wonder and raise a host of unanswered questions. A massive hook set in a giant piece of rock begs the question as to why it is there. Similarly, an additional pulley system – definitely not part of the original design – took the place of convenience at a later date. This was recently re-activated to commemorate the bicentenary of the structure. Further developments are bound to provide answers for the function and operation of the lantern.
Considering the layout of Lucknow and its surrounding villages, the Lat would have been the most striking structure rising above the forests of Luckperra – General Claude Martin’s Estate, boasting of 100,000 trees. It was built close to the River Gomti, the annual flooding of which inundated the lake in which the column was erected. It would have been a significant and regal marker, indicating the extent of General Martin’s estate. Traffic through the forests and groves would have been limited; people of wealth and importance preferring to use the river route. The great palaces and buildings of Lucknow all face the river, though the river entrances are no longer in effective use. These include the Imambara Complex, The Machchi Bhawan, The Farhat Baksh, The Chattar manzil, The Shahnajaf, Constantia Palace and Bibiapur Kothi and gardens. The grand ‘Lat’ acting as a complementary building to the baroque style mansion called Constantia would have created perspective enhancing the admiration of Constantia. The wide flight of steps, its railing, gateways, free-breathing, lions rampant, assorted statues and surmounting crown, was a grand statement made by the young French boy who made it big in a foreign land.
The ‘Lat’ continues to charm and to provoke us to a romantic thought, when a barn owl is silhouetted against the moon that shines through the arch on the lantern atop the lat, its hooting sends a direct message to the fired imagination of the smallest boy studying at La Martiniere, who looks up in wonder. This creates one more story to surround the silent spike pointing to the sky.
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