Lucknow, the land of nawabs and kebabs… of grace, courtesy and old world charm had been luring us since 2015, after we saw the cinematic rendition of Sandip Ray’s father’s story, Badshahi Angti, in a movie theatre in Calcutta. We saw the Bhul-bhulaiya for the first time on the silver screen as the modern version of Satyajit Ray’s famed detective, Feluda or Prodosh Mitter, wound his way through the dark passages of this labyrinth in the Bara Imambara armed with a mobile and a revolver. As he fought villains in the Residency and bit into delicious kebabs and savored biryanis, we imagined ourselves in this city of grace, charm and courtesy and firmly decided we would explore Lucknow during our next trip to India.
Meeting nawabs was not on our agenda as I had read the last one, Wajid Ali Shah, had danced Kathak and sung Babul Mora into the arms of the British East India Company conquistadors more than a century and half ago and eventually migrated to Calcutta. Still there was their palace, Chattar Manzil, on the banks of the river Gomti and the mysterious Bhul-bhulaiya built by the nawab who moved the capital from Faizabad to Lucknow in 1775, Asaf-ud-Daulah, that remained to be explored. The Bhul-bhulaiya is the only labyrinth of it’s kind in all of India. As for the kebabs, the thought of them made my mouth water…
When we landed in Lucknow, we were told courteously and gracefully that no cab could accommodate four adults and a child from the airport to the hotel. They only had small cars. While the negotiations were on, I was forced to make a minor diversion in quest of a washroom as our little party was taking turns at stomach ailments after landing in India. The airport had access to a sad bathroom as the others were being cleaned… all a part of the endemic charm of small towns in India, I thought as we got in to the cabs that would take us to the hotel. The two cab drivers we finally hired did not know the way as the hotel had opened a fortnight before our arrival in the newer part of Lucknow that was being developed. We, first timers to Lucknow, had to download google maps to guide the seasoned local cab drivers. The good thing was that the courteous drivers were willing to listen to us and took us to the right place.
The first morning greeted us in a mysterious shroud of a white, opaque fog. We could hear temple bells from somewhere in the mist.
We strained our eyes from the inside of our hotel rooms to locate the source of the sound. As the fog drifted and lost it’s opacity, we noticed one of the temples had cows grazing outside. As we ‘gazed– and gazed– but little thought’, we had a glimpse of a situation that would bring pleasure when we were in a ‘vacant or pensive’ mood, much like the daffodils did for Wordsworth in 1802, about fifty four years before Wajid Ali Shah succumbed to the poet’s countrymen. The sight we had from our rooms was that of a cow chase. As the cows ambled on the grounds, one of them strayed near the gate and looked philosophically out. The person who I would dub the cow caretaker decided to enter the premises at this precise juncture. The bovine mind decided to make a bid for freedom and took the opportunity to run out of the gate. The caretaker started to wave and shut the gate and chased his errant charge into the receding mists of Oudh… It was like an episode from a silent film as we could not hear either the caretaker or the cows’ voices. There was no way of knowing if the cows in the fold were doing a choral number pleading for the return of the cow on the run.
Breakfast brought us back to the reality of arranging a transport to take our party to Bara Imambara. We had called up a distant contact to help us book a “big” car the night before. He had said he would look into it. The next morning, however, he as well as the hotel staff both assured us that Ola was the best option, except we discovered that Ola taxis did not offer cars that could accommodate five people…four maybe, three yes, two … surely… but not five. We called up the airport taxi company. They promised us a transport in some time… when we checked after half an hour, they said as the big car was coming from Kanpur, we would have to wait a couple of hours! Mind you, all the while everybody, including the hotel staff, had been courteous, warm and welcoming!
But, we lacked patience… it was around noon. So, we went to the hotel concierge for help. We had a big car in half-an-hour and started our journey by the sides of the river Gomti, a tributary of the Ganges.
In Hindu mythology, Gomti is regarded as the daughter of Ganga and sage Vashisht. Bathing in the Gomti river on certain auspicious dates (Ekadashi) is said to absolve the bather of sins. However, 25 drains in Lucknow also pour untreated sewage into the river! Perhaps, the purity of the river dissolves the impurities generated by untreated sewage … I definitely would not want my sins absolved in this manner. The banks of the Gomti had gardens and fountains. It is known to house some magnificent structures, including the Chhattar Manzil. However, I was disappointed to see that we could only see the building from outside as from 1950 it housed the Central Drug Research Institute. Though the Wikipedia entry said that the government of Uttar Pradesh is renovating it to make a museum of it, the CDRI board still hung at the entrance. A bit confusing for a tourist I guess.
As we approached Bara Imambara, we were amazed at the number of people, vehicles, cows and dogs that infested the entrance. In the movie, the area had looked deserted and mysterious. But, we discovered that it was a haven for crowds. There were people outside, people inside and people all around!
At a distance we could see the Rumi Darwaza. Despite the crowds, as we entered through the majestic gates, the beauty and mystery of the structures overrode the sense of congestion. The Asfi mosque on the right hand side of the Imambara was exquisite. One could get a glimpse of the elegant Rumi Darwaza beyond the palms and the boundary walls of the mosque and Imambara. On the left hand side was the Bowli, a step well built by the nawab. The Bara Imambara with it’s Bhul-bhulaiya took the center stage. The whole atmosphere felt electrifying as the ancient edifices beckoned with past splendor.
But the fact was that there was a huge queue outside the Bhul-bhulaiya and we had to find a guide. As we approached the doorway of the main building, we were told to take off our shoes and enter to locate the guides. A square counter of shelves surrounded the shoe keepers, who seemed so busy that it was a task to get their attention and deposit the shoes.
As we padded into the Imambara in our socks, we were surrounded by official guides. They negotiated a fee with us. The ticket counter had given a hundred and fifty rupees as the fixed price. But the guides wanted more. They told us that price only covered the labyrinth. We needed to pay more if we wanted a guide for the whole complex. In the Chinese tradition, we had to pay before the guide took us on a journey of the complex at breakneck speed.
We started by exploring the inside of the Imambara. The elegant black and white ceiling is fifteen metres high. Ornate tazias line a wall… tazias from the recent and past Muharrams, a festival that celebrates sorrow and death. And here also lies the simple grave of the Nawab Asaf- Ud- Daulah. In fact there is an interesting story story around how this Imambara was built. There was a huge famine in 1785. People had no jobs and no food. The nawab decided to generate jobs by having this Imambara built. Every day the workers would toil to build the walls. And every night, noblemen would tear down what had been built during the day. In this way the nawab and his noblemen generated jobs for the jobless. This process went on till 1791 when the whole edifice was completed. The nawab did not want to give out free doles to jobless workers. He believed that people needed to learn to earn a living and not depend on charity and avoid work. This approach has been dubbed Keynsian by some. The other unique thing about this Imambara is that the architect of the building is also buried here.
From the Imambara, we were rushed to the Bowli by the guide. The Bowli is a step well with running water. The nawab’s source of water was guarded by a special mechanism. The security guards could see the reflection of people who were entering the gate in the water with the help of skilled engineering. It was interesting to see.
From the Bowli, the guide literally ran to the labyrinth in the main building. Perhaps, I thought, he wants more clients.
The labyrinth had no sense of mystery at the entrance, as there was a huge queue of people outside. But once we squeezed ourselves behind the guide with crowds pressing on us from both sides on the ancient staircase, we reached the outside of the maze. There is a beautiful view of the main gate from the top, especially of the front entrance.
The labyrinth itself has 1024 passages and 489 doorways. Some of the passages are said to lead up to the river Gomti, Faizabad, Agra and even, Delhi. There are stories of people lost forever in the maze. Portions of the passages were crowded and portions were dark and empty. When the labyrinth came in view of the main hall, the crowds grew in strength. The guide left us at one end of the labyrinth above the main hall and went and lighted a match at the other end. The acoustics were that good that we heard him light the match despite the noise of the crowds.
The Bhul-bhulaiya was an experience that I would not fast forget, especially the steepness of the stairs and the sense of relief I had on reaching the open top… definitely not a climb for people suffering from claustrophobia. It was amazing to see the engineering feat of the nawab’s fleet, elegance laced with practicality. As we came out of the maze, the guide bid us adieu. I still wanted to see the Asfi mosque but the guide told us we could do it on our own. Getting our shoes back was another task…but we managed to be well shod again. The Asfi mosque was under repair and a sign said that as it was still used, only namaz readers would be allowed in. Perhaps, an understandable precaution for the devout… what little bit we saw of the façade of the mosque was beautiful.
Then amid beggars, flies and crowds, we found our way to the oasis of our car and did the rest of the tour of the area from within the vehicle. The Rumi Darwaza was exquisite. The clock tower adjacent to the Rumi Darwaza is 67 metres high. It was built in 1881 to mark the arrival of the first lieutenant governor of the United Provice of Avadh. The tower is also located opposite the Chota Imambara built in 1838 by the then nawab to serve as a mausoleum for his mother and himself.
Our next destination was the Residency. The hotel concierge had described it as a set of insignificant ruins but the buildings held so much history and the museum had a wealth of information about Lucknow. The Residency has the remains of homes, a palace of an English Begum, a mosque that is still functional, a church, a graveyard, mess hall for bachelors, canons, storages and so much more. The museum had photographs, paintings, maps, letters and etchings from the eighteen hundreds. It was constructed by the fifth Nawab of Awadh, Sadat Ali Khan II, between 1780 and 1800. It must have been a magnificent building in it’s hey days. Now, what remains are bombed towers and edifices, broken buildings with big holes. The Residency was almost completely destroyed in the revolt of 1857. This rebellion took place because the British altogether ignored the religious sentiments of the soldiers who battled for them against their own kind. The British greased cartridges with pig and cow fat. The Hindu and Islamic soldiers had to bite the cartridge open while loading the rifles. The cow is holy to some Hindus and therefore, inedible and the pig is unholy and dirty to Muslims, and therefore, inedible. To be forced to bite into holy and filthy things was too much for the sepoys and, therefore, they broke into a rebellion, which lasted almost a year in the Northern belt of India. People from both sides died. The Residency remains an ode to those who fell to the rebel guards.
Interestingly, there were still some indigenous soldiers loyal to the obtruding British during the rebellion. At the entrance to a hall is a plaque bearing the names of Indians who remained loyal to the British and fell as victims to the ‘rebels’, their own countrymen who felt their religion had been violated. There are two ways of viewing the rebellion … as the traditional Indian historians do it and as I see it. The traditionalists side with the rebels and talk of Jhansi and Bahadur Shah Zafar. I see it as a tryst to express the soldier’s indignation against the violation of their beliefs. Both sides lost men, women and children.
Violence is the last resort of the uneducated and that is what most of the troop was. The strange thing was that most of the nawabs and majority of the population had not noticed that in the name of trade, the British had taken over their country, perhaps more peacefully than the violent predecessors of the last Mughal , Bahadur Shah Zafar. The rebels crowned him emperor, though his ancestors have been labeled conquerors. Bahadur Shah, no one noticed, was the last vestige of the earlier conquerors, who built buildings that are still disputed (like the Babri Masjid).
The indigenous people had reacted to an act they felt would destroy their religious standing. Was that more important than the lives of humans, especially their own brethren who fought by the side of the British or against them? The handful of rulers who joined the rebellion probably felt violated as their crowns had been taken or shaken by the traders of the East India Company. How many of them really thought of an unified India? Did India exist as a unified whole before the advent of the British? The British introduced the concept of nationalism after industrialization so that, eventually, the cloth mills of Lancaster could have a market and raw materials. Jehangir never realized that he was playing into the British hands when he signed the document. So, what were the rebels really fighting for?
The Residency stands as a mute witness to the destruction generated by wars and differences. The sprawling lawns and graceful architecture is preserved but only to highlight what negative passions can do to the innocent, the beautiful and the helpless.
We were told not to stay within the precincts after dark. I wondered why as I strolled through a graveyard with graves of children and adults. There was uncooked rice strewn all over the buildings. Evidently, uncooked rice keeps out evil spirits. There are tales of cries of anguish and a white child asking to be taken home within the Residency after dark. However, I only saw squirrels and birds having a fiesta with the grains in the bright light of an afternoon sun.
The other thing we discovered in the Residency is that the bathrooms had no running water. They had beautiful pictures indicating men and women and all the fixtures but no running water for more than a year, according to the attendant. We were still using bathrooms frequently as our stomachs had not yet won the battle against the germs of India.
Actually, it was difficult to find decent bathrooms and clean restaurants in Lucknow outside of our hotel. The driver took us to a few recommended by friends and the concierge but they did not live up to our hygiene standards. One of the most sought after kebab and biryani joints had no running water in the bathroom and the kitchen but lot of dirty water running on the floor of the smelly yard…
We had a memorable trip to Lucknow, except we met no nawabs or their ghosts and had no kebabs or biryani…