The monuments, the makers, the real city

by: Rosie Llewellyn-Jones

LUCKNOW – ‘City of Vice and Roses’ as a British writer described it earlier this year, or ‘the last memento of Mughal culture’ as Maulana Sharar called it in the 1920s. Somewhere between the well-trodden clichés on the tawdry glitter of the Nawabi Court and the cosy view of a Mughal fly trapped in colonial amber lies the real city, greatly changed both by Indians and Britons – lively, carefree and a thousand times more interesting than you would imagine. Let us leave behind the books and films, the scandal and gossip and set out through its streets to meet some of its earlier buildings and their inhabitants.

A visitor to Lucknow in the 1760s would not have found, as is commonly thought, a meagre collection of villages on the banks of the River Gomti, but a large walled medieval town clustered round the Macchi Bhawan fort on the highest land in an otherwise flat, dull plain. The city was already famous for its bidri work, silver inlay in gun metal, its textiles and beautiful calligraphy, as well as its tobacco and sugar which were exported as far away as Afghanistan. Walking through the narrow Chowk, which still exists today, the visitor would have passed the Royal Mint striking coins in the name of the Mughal emperor, and the buildings of the Faranghi Mahal, a Muslim seminary. But he would have searched in vain for the foreigners who gave their name to the palace now inhabited by the learned mullahs.

A hundred years earlier a small community of Britons from the newly formed East India Company had been ordered to export to Bombay the fine cottons made in Lucknow. Houses were built or bought here in the 1640s for the Company officials who complained piteously about their isolation from the great cities of India, but who nevertheless lived in considerable style. The cottons, known as dereabauds were washed and processed on the north bank of the Gomti, but difficulties in transporting the goods across Mughal India proved too great and after thirty years or so, the British factory was shut down as being ‘too remote’ and expensive. The Company houses were later bought by the Emperor Aurangzeb and made over to the clerics, but the name of the foreigners palace still reminds us of Lucknow’s first British connection.

At the end of the Chowk stood the Macchi Bhawan fort, a forbidding, wall-encircled collection of inner courtyards, houses, gardens and gateways, high above the banks of the Gomti. It was here, in the mid-eighteenth century that another group of foreigners settled – the Nawabs of Awadh. Only slightly less exotic than the first Company officials, the Nawabs came from Naishapur in Iran, and they brought their own language, manners, clothes and architecture as well as their Shi’ite ceremonies to the Hindu city of Lucknow. Although the Nawabs lived in Lucknow for less than a century they left an ineradicable mark on the city, and during that time it flourished as few Indian cities have done before, attracting the most talented artists, the wittiest writers, the most beautiful courtesans and the most skilled artisans, all drawn to the magnet of the Nawabi Court.

With the vigour of the new immigrant the Nawabs made Awadh into an independent kingdom, but their success soon attracted envious British eyes and this time the Company was more interested in politics than cotton. Even before Asaf-ud-Daula, the fourth Nawab, made Lucknow his capital in 1775, the Company had decided that the new ‘royal’ family needed a British Resident. His brief was clear: he was to cement ‘the friendship between the Company and the Nawab and to obtain large sums of money said to be due from him’ – a shameless reason for all subsequent interference in the short-lived kingdom by the Company. We shall walk over the deserted Residency site later, but the most interesting Europeans to be met with in the city at this time were the free-booting adventurers also attracted to the glittering court.

They were giants among men, these early travellers, even at a time when India was attracting the most vigorous and imaginative immigrants, with the promise of untold wealth to be got by anyone who survived the meteorological and political climate. Antoire Polier, a Swiss architect was one such man. Working at first as chief engineer for the Company, he was seduced by the charm of Lucknow and became court architect to Asaf-ud-Daula. Polier also found time to serve both in the Nawab’s army and the Company’s force, for in those days no one thought it odd to have two or even three completely different but simultaneous careers.

Specialisation was considered eccentric, and when not fighting or building, Polier was experimenting as a perfumer, makingattar or perfume of roses from his Lucknow gardens and collecting Indian miniatures, then almost totally ignored by Europeans. It is sad that this gifted man, who was killed in a duel in Paris in 1794, left so few traces of his time in the city. He almost certainly worked on the ba’oli, a water palace cunningly cut into the Macchi Bhawan hill. A flight of steps led down to a tank filled from the waters of the Gomti and around three sides of the tank arose a honeycombed structure of cool, airy rooms, lined with marble and red porphyry and pierced by little balconies.

The ba’oli, now stripped of its finery is all that remains of the Macchi Bhawan fort, for everything above ground was dynamited in 1857 by Sir Henry Lawrence, who judged, quite rightly, that the fort would be impregnable if captured by Indians during the uprising. Only the semi-subterranean water palace escaped destruction, and the Lucknow Medical College now stands on the levelled site above.

But even Polier has been overshadowed by the best known European in Lucknow, the Frenchman Claude Martin. The two contemporaries were, not surprisingly, good friends, sharing the same interests, language and to a large extent the same occupations. Martin too, worked for both the Company and the Nawabs, having first come to Awadh as a surveyor. Though now known only for his buildings in the city, he was primarily an entrepreneur, never hesitating to supply exactly what was needed by anyone, at exactly the right time and for the right price. Whether it was mirrors from Europe for the Nawab, houses to rent for the British Residency staff, guns and ammunition for Indian princes, an unsecured loan, hot-air balloons or military advice, Martin was the man. He trod the delicate tightrope between the Court and the Company without ever losing his footing and died in 1800 regretted by all and a millionaire of his time.

Much of his money came from land. He had bought a large area near the Micchi Bhawan that was to become the Residency and he hired out the first houses to the British staff there. He owned gardens and farms, producing roses and indigo, as well as a riverside bazaar on the Gomti.

Martin’s first town house was the Farhad Baksh, east of the Residency which later became part of a Nawabi palace. Our imaginary visitor, now transposed to the 1780s would have found this curious building impossible to enter, except by invitation. Sited on the Gomti it had a deep moat round three sides with a drawbridge facing the city. Cannons which Martin himself had cast were mounted on the roof, providing a strange contrast with the delicate stucco swags and garlands which decorated the upper storeys. Inside, each room could be closed by thick iron doors and anyone besieged there could retreat until they reached the single spiral staircase leading to the roof with its telescope and armoury.

Conversely one could also descend into the lower storeys which were designed to flood each monsoon. As the water level crept down during the spring months, so too did Martin, into his cool underground retreat, the riverside door and windows covered with damp khus ki tattis or fragrant grass blinds. Even today, when the Farhad Baksh has become the Central Drug Research Institute, the basement levels remain flooded, for engineers believe any attempt to pump them dry would lead to the collapse of the building.

La Martiniere, Martin’s palace-tomb to the southeast of Lucknow exhibited the same fascination with defence and hydraulics. This extraordinary building, much described, was extended in the 1840s and became the school immortalized by Rudyard Kipling in Kim as St. Xaviour’s. At Martin’s death only the central portion was complete. One interior iron door remains today, leading down to his simple basement tomb originally guarded by four life size wooden soldiers. Statuary, was another of Martin’s passions. He taught his Indian workforce how to build up figures of brick and plaster round iron skeletons and old photographs of Lucknow show every palace adorned with these most un-Islamic ornaments. Many of the figures which decorate the terraces of La Martiniere today, however, are replacement for those destroyed in the earthquake of 1803 which brought nodding Chinese mandarins and French shepherdesses crashing earthwards in stony confusion.

Martin’s last building, barely designed at his death was Barowen, or Musa Bagh, a country palace four miles west of Lucknow. Because none of Martin’s plans exist today for his buildings, it is impossible to claim Barowen entirely as his conception, though the skilful use of underground rooms cut into the hill to guard against the summer heat recall the Frenchman’s other works. This lovely building, one of the happiest examples of the Indo-European style in Lucknow, rose majestically from the banks of the Gomti.

There were grand reception rooms for the Nawabs and their guests, who approached it by river, and a shady courtyard with underground rooms for the women of the court. The quality of the decoration was so high that even after nearly two hundred years, coloured stucco blinds can still be seen over the doorways, neatly imitating rolled-up tatties. Today Barowen decays quietly, disturbed only by villagers who need building material and see a ready quarry there.

Important as these individual palaces are, it was probably the Nawab Saadat Ali Khan who changed the face of medieval Lucknow more than anyone. Brother and successor to Asaf-ud-Daula, the Nawab was one of the great nineteenth century town planners, though he was seldom given credit for more than dabbling with the new Grecian style of architecture. He carved out the broad street known today as Hazratganj, running from the country house of Dilkusha in the east to the Chattar Manzil palaces near the Residency.

By 1815 our imaginary visitor would not have entered Lucknow through the old Chowk, but along the broad new street where sumptuous processions would pass, the jewelled elephants bearing nawabi guests to the palace past stuccoed European houses shimmering with gold tissues draped over the balconies. Hazratganj itself was barred by a series of gateways spanning the road like bridges, which according to a traveller, were European on one side and Moorish on the other, the term then used for the Lucknow style. It was undoubtedly one of the finest roads in India, leading to the delightful houses of the Nawab, each set in gardens where artificial ponds and canals ran in perfect symmetry and where nightly fireworks and silver trees transformed the scene into an Arabian fairy land.

Yet it was this almost theatrical quality of buildings like the Darshan Bilas and the Chota Chattar Manzil that provoked harsh criticism from European visitors to the city. Architectural writers in particular have never liked Lucknow. Scorn was poured on its hybrid buildings which were condemned for being neither one thing nor the other, neither Indian nor European, and it is tedious to repeat the cries of ‘Fake! Sham! Imposter!’ which sprang from the lips of those who seldom spent more than a few days in the city. Critics ignored the vitality of the Indo-European style and the Indian gift for rapid assimilation and translation of new ideas into something unique.

If we now set down an English man or woman in these same streets in the late 1830s we would, with amusement, watch them scuttling head down towards the enclave of the British Residency, now grown alarmingly from the first thatched bungalows and Martin’s rented houses. Once through the Baillie Gate entrance the visitor could relax in a small corner of Victorian England, safe from the noise and colour of the exotic city outside.

The days of the liberal eighteenth century European were over. The new Nawab, Nasir-ud-din Haider had been forced by the Company to sack most of his English staff, though he still maintained an unrequited passion for the West, even marrying two English women who lived in Lucknow. There were no more self-taught architects like Martin and Polier. The Company now ‘lent’ engineers to the Nawabs to build canals, schools, roads and other sensible buildings. An insularity had fallen over the British community, reflected in the prim Residency houses with their neat lawns, gravelled drives and iron gates.

The Residency itself was a dismal building, adhering to no particular style, and it was only the Banqueting Hall, built by Saadat Ali Khan for the Company which raised the area from the prosaic. Across the lawns sat the small Gothic church, designed deliberately to contrast with the ‘towering mosques and gilded temples’ of the city, but criticized even by its clergyman for its smallness and fake rose window.

It was the uprising of 1857 which immortalized the Lucknow Residency in British mythology. Rightly, the heroism of its British and Indian defenders during the dreadful six month siege has not been forgotten, though the real story of life inside the Residency has never been tackled, except in a fictionalized account by J.G. Farrell: The Siege of Krishnapur. The Residency which had grown up piecemeal since 1775 had never been designed for defence, it was residential. Desperate makeshift barricades were constructed out of anything that came to hand – the Resident’s furniture, books, packing cases and bizarrely, a Welsh harp. The defenders died from gunshot wounds, but illness and malnutrition also filled the new graveyard near the church.

It is still a moving experience to read the litany of the dead in the haunted overgrown cemetery, but the sight that brings real tears to the eyes is the desolation of Qaisarbagh, the last palace of the Nawabs. Built in an amazingly short period between 1848 and 1852 by the last Nawab, Wajid Ali Shah, the buildings, standing off Hazratganj are a rebuke to the British who dynamited the area in 1857 and the Indians who let them decay. Today, it is only from a series of photographs taken in March 1858, that one can form any idea of the grandeur, wit and style of this extraordinary complex. Surrounded by double storeyed terraces and pierced by elaborate gateways, the inner gardens held a series of unique buildings which served no other purposes than to please the eye.

There was the Lanka, an ornamental bridge over dry land, with its four domed towers, the double spiral staircase which led nowhere, decorated with plaster women holding hoops, clearly inspired by Martin’s earlier statuary. There was, most curious of all, the only classical pigeon house in India, probably in the world, a two storey narrow avian Parthenon, as well as the Mermaid gate with its voluptuous fish-tailed women tempting one further into the heart of the palace. To one side of the great garden stood the grandest building of all, the Roshan-ud-daula Kutcheri, with its ‘Ionic columns, balustrades with globe-like finials, Moorish minarets, Hindu umbrellas… all blended in a confusion which the eye may seek vainly to disentangle and surrounded with an unmeaning gilt band’, as a confused visitor wrote.

It was the very exuberance of the architecture which took the breath away, the sheer piling up of elements with a creative joy that resulted in a building which in its prime made England’s Brighton Pavilion look like a country vicarage. Much less is known about the Qaisarbagh palaces than the earlier Nawabi houses. This is not so strange as it seems, for with increased Company interference in the internal affairs of Awadh, the Nawabs, not surprisingly had become more reticent.

Where eighteenth century European travellers had been warmly encouraged to visit the Macchi Bhawan and left vivid descriptions of them, by the 1850s Qaisarbagh was described as a mysterious labyrinth into which Wajid Ali Shah would disappear with his strange retinue of female soldiers, known as the Amazons. Only once a year would the palace be open for the Yoghi ceremony, when everyone was bidden to wear yellow, and the Nawab, dressed as a fakir, would hold court under a mulberry tree near the marble barahderi, which still remains. There were rumours of more elaborate play acting when the Nawab would don female clothing and perform strange ceremonies with the ladies of the court.

The truth will probably never be known about the secret games played in Qaisarbagh, but we do know that Wajid Ali Shah was a gifted poet, writing under the pen name, Akhtar, and a sensitive, compassionate man. When abruptly dethroned by the Company in 1856 and forced into exile in Calcutta, one of his chief concerns was the welfare of thousands of palace servants whom he had to leave behind. There are pathetic letters from the nawab insisting that they should receive the pensions to which they were entitled, as well as instructions for the many animals left in the private zoos of Lucknow. Thousands of pigeons were released to circle frantically round the empty palaces, and elephants, tigers, antelopes and camels were sold to other zoos or destroyed.

Two years later Qaisarbagh was looted by British soldiers who recaptured the city after 1857, and troops raced through the empty rooms in an orgy of destruction, smashing jade bowls, mirrors and crystal chandeliers, burning priceless gold tissues and prising the jewels out of the thrones. It was one of the most shameful episodes of British rule in India.

But let us leave our time traveller in Qaisarbagh in 1855, before the fall. It provokes unnecessary grief to move him further forward to witness the destruction of the city during the last hundred and forty years. Just occasionally, especially at dusk, as the crows fly behind the peeling stucco domes to the palm trees in Qaisarbagh’s remaining garden, one can still catch a little of the lingering vitality of this once splendid city, old Lucknow.

* Reprinted from The India Magazine, April 1984.

Credits : Rosie Llewellyn-Jones. (This article was originally published in ‘The India Magazine’, April 1984). Rosie is a well-known British scholar with an expertise on Lucknow and its culture. Based in London, where she works for the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, Jones is a regular visitor to Lucknow and has authored several books on the city. Her books can be read at The Tornos Studio.