I was all set the next morning to explore the fascinating old city of Lucknow which is steeped in history and culture. But as it was Diwali time and everyone headed home, cabs were just not available. It was only around noon that I was lucky enough to land one. Apart from the sumptuous food, the architectural heritage of Lucknow is a reflection of the Mughal era and you find that Mughal touch in almost everything that relates to Lucknow.
The Bada Imambada was the first on my list and when I landed there, I was told that it would open only around 2.30pm as it was closed for Friday prayers. I was just looking around when this Tonga wala(horse cart driver) approached me and said that for 50 bucks he would take me around the Chowk, Rumi Darwaza, Chota Imambada and drop me back. I grabbed the chance to ride a horse driven carriage and hopped on. The Tongewala was quite knowledgeable and gave me a rundown on the history of the place. He first took me through the Rumi Darwaza to the Chowk area.
The Rumi Darwaza of Lucknow is one of the most impressive and unique architectural marvels in India. Constructed in the year 1784 by Nawab Asaf-ud-daula., it is also known by the name of Turkish Gateway since it is supposed to be identical in design to a similar gateway in ancient Constantinople. The Tonga wallah pointed out how the gate looked different from both sides. I took pictures from both sides and wondered at the construction. One side has three arches while the other there is only one imposing arch.The Rumi Darwaza is a staggering 60 feet. The uppermost part of Rumi Darwaza comprises of an octagonal Chatri (Umbrella) carved beautifully that can be accessed by a staircase. It is said that on top of the Rumi Darwaza was kept a huge lantern that would light up the structure at night making it look absolutely fabulous. Little jets of water would rush out of the sides of the arch from beautifully carved flower buds thus making it look like a gateway to Paradise. Not anymore, though, wonder when the government will restore these pieces of art to their former glory. The beautifully carved flowers and designs speak volumes about the unique architectural style and eye for detail.
The Chowk is the pivotal point around which the traders, engravers, painters, artisans, weavers, singers and nautch girls flourished and grew in the past.The narrow streets are full of hustle and bustle, loud, lively, colourful and vibrant There are many Lucknow chikan workshops in the area. Chikan is perhaps one of the finest, delicate and intricate works of embroidery that one can find in India. The Mughal queen Noor Jehan is said to have revived this style in 655 A.D. in India. Today, Lucknowi chikan Kari is synonymous with fashion in India and abroad. I stepped into a few chikan stores and watched the entire process of block printing of the design to the embroidery being done and then the tailoring. You can find chikan embroidery in almost each and every piece of garment for women, men, and even kids. Apart from clothes, one can find chikan embroidery in furnishings like bed sheets, cushion covers, pillow covers and table cloths. I am not a shopaholic but then I couldn’t resist the exquisite hand embroidered delicate stuff and I picked up a couple of things for myself and as gifts.In the city, I was searching for Cherry tree restaurant as i had to meet my daughter there.I could not find it and a rickshaw wala said that he would take me there. Once I sat on the rickshaw he requested me to check out chikan ware at a store.I tod him that I had already shopped but he said that if he took me there he would get a kilo of rice from that store.I was so taken by his humble plea that I went to the said store so that he could get the rice and his family could get one meal free.
The Tonga wallah was waiting patiently all this time and he took me next to the Ghanta Ghar orClock tower and Chota Imambada.My eyes were trying to soak in all the sights and sounds of this medieval city. The Husainabad Ghanta Ghar or Clock Tower is one of the tallest clock towers in India and was designed by Roskell Payne. Located opposite to Chota Imambada and adjacent to the Rumi Darwaza, it is a fine example of English artistic brilliance. Gunmetal has been used to build the clock parts. This clock tower is an imposing structure and it was built as a replica of the Big Ben clock of London. I have been to Beg Ben too and I feel we Indians do not value our heritage sites like the British who preserve them so well. The Victorian Gothic clock tower is over 67 meters high with a huge pendulum at a length of 14 feet and the dial of the clock if designed in the shape of a 12-petalled flower with bells around it. The diameter of 2 feet and thickness of one and a half inches of the Clock makes it larger than even the Westminister Clock.
My guide cum Tonge wala pointed out the Naubat Khana and other minarets on the way back to the Bada Imambara . I thanked my vociferous guide and entered the Bara Imambara, which is very impressive and was built in the year 1784 by the fourth Nawab of Awadh known as Asaf-ud-Daula. The complex has four distinct structures – each a superb work of art. The Bara Imambara of Lucknow is one of the most famous monuments and it is also called Asafi Imambara after the name of the Nawab of Lucknow who got it constructed. It is an important place of worship for the Muslims who come here every year to celebrate the religious festival of Muharram.I was enjoying my Lucknow Heritage Walk.
The entrance is awesome and the verdant green courtyards are a sight for sore eyes. I was asked to remove my footwear and cover my head. The central hall or Prayer Hall of Bara Imambara is said to be the largest arched hall (50 meters long and goes up to a height of 15 meters) in the world with the blocks put together with an interlocking system of Lakhauri bricks and there has been absolutely no use of girders and beams. The roof stands steady till date without any pillars to support it. Matchless style of construction I must say.
I went first towards the Shahi Bouli or Royal Well which is 163 feet deep and an archaeological marvel. I was approached by a guide who didn’t even ask for my permission and said that if I liked what he said I could pay him or else let it be. It is a step well and was eerie and dark inside. I was thankful for the guide who accompanied me inside and revealed the intricacies of the unusual construction. The Bouli is said to possess the treasure of king Nawab Asaf-ud-Dawlah which has never been found to this day. This Shahi Bouli was the first part to be built. It is said to have been constructed in such a manner that the water present in the well was connected to the river Gomti. It is definitely super deep. It contained water at all times in the year but now it is dry. The Britishers approached the Nawab as he possessed a lot of treasure: the gold and silver and other precious ornaments. Afraid of it being ransacked, the Nawab stashed away all the treasure inside the monument, in a secret place which has not been found yet. The map leading to the treasure and the keys of the treasure were thrown in this well of Shahi Bouli by the treasure keeper of that time, Mool Chand Rastogi, who jumped into the well and committed suicide so that the treasure could not be looted by the British. The guide pointed out how one could see anyone entering the Bouli. From outside one cannot see anyone or anything inside but from deep inside the main entrance can be seen in the water below. The reflection is crystal clear and for the soldiers, guarding the treasure it might have worked like CCTV footage in those times. Lapping up all this information given by the guide, the traveller in me was really thrilled and I rewarded him handsomely. If I had not seen all this with my own eyes I would not believe it but then I did see it.
The Bara Imambara is known for its incredible maze called Bhulbhulaiya. This is located on the upper floor of the monument. I was told that there were more than 80 steps to reach the maze and I sadly had to turn back as I couldn’t think of trudging all the way up and then down. I was told that one can get a scenic panorama of the city from the top of this monument, which is absolutely breath-taking.The Asafi Masjid is also worth seeing but it is not open to non-Muslims so I just wandered around and took pictures. I loved the wide open spaces, garden, and the fountain.
At the gate there were a couple of souvenir shops which were selling life -like filigree bone carvings from with motifs of flowers, leaves, birds and animals on items like knives, jewellery boxes, shirt pins and other knick knacks. The cabbie was waiting for me and I asked him to drive me to the riverside. The Gomti is no longer a mighty river but just a small rivulet.
The residency was the last on my agenda for the day. The British Residency of Lucknow is a must see. An imposing monument of unmatched splendor, the British Residency in Lucknow was built by the erstwhile Nawab of Awadh, Saadat Ali Khan, in the year 1800 AD. Designed as a group of buildings that served as the residence of the British Resident General, who was also the East India Company’s representative in the Nawab’s court, the residency rests on the banks of the river Gomti, encompassed by fertile flowerbeds and neatly kept lawns. I walked around and I felt as if I was a part of that historic era.
Today, only the bricks and few pillars of the residency stand in mute testimony to the violence of the past. Unfortunately, a major part of the structure was damaged by cannon fire during the siege and now stands in ruins. What remains of the residency has been thoughtfully declared a protected monument by the Archaeological Survey of India and converted into a museum. I heard that several government offices are also functioning from here but didn’t see any government employees. The British Residency was the place that served as a refuge for approximately 3000 British inhabitants during the time of the uprising of 1857. The Residency still has within its walls, the graves of around 2000 British soldiers who died in the Revolt of 1857. The people of Lucknow tell intriguing stories of British who fled from their homes to seek shelter in these red buildings. Only a 1000 inhabitant survived this tough ordeal. On November 17th, the British troops led by Sir Colin Campbell defeated the Indian forces. Though they triumphed, it wasn’t victory in the true sense.
I have left out a few places due to lack of time but will make up for that on my next visit and my next Lucknow Heritage Walk .Lucknow has scorching summers and extremely chilly winters so the best time to visit is between the months of October to March. It was perfect when I visited at the end of November. Lucknow is also known as the golden city of the east and still retains its old world charm.
I had my fill of the history of the 18th century Lucknow and the foodie in me satiated with the delectable Awadhi cuisine, but I was a wee bit sad to bid adieu to my daughter and this city rich in heritage. Mehmaan nawaazi (hospitality) ke liye shukriya (thank you) Lucknow. Fir Milenge!