Travelling back in time

Rumi Darwaza, an iconic structure, commissioned in 1784.  

Ye Lakhnau ki sarzameen... ye rang, roop ka chaman… Mohd Rafi’s captivating voice gave musical soul to the Guru Dutt classic Chaudavi ka Chand. But on this balmy morning, his rich voice is filling the air in Lucknow’s ‘Jarnail wali Kothi’ and recreating the splendour of the Awadh of the past, when it was a jewel in the crown of Hindustan. Winter is the season — and the reason — to put on your walking shoes and step out into Lucknow’s streets.

Awadh has been romanticised down the centuries. It’s often used as a backdrop in popular cinema, feted by wordsmiths, and endlessly hailed by connoisseurs of fine things and good food. How was Awadh born? The term Nawab (from the Persian ‘naib,’ meaning ‘deputy’) was originally used for a provincial governor under the Mughals and his primary duty was to uphold the sovereignty of the Emperor. The decline of the later Mughals saw the rise of the nawabs. One of these was Nawab Saadat Khan, who established the state of Awadh in 1722, which remained a force to reckon with till the First War of Independence in 1857.

The Awadh dynasty traced its lineage back to Neyshabur north-eastern Persia (Iran). The nawabs of Awadh were a feisty and arty lot who, during their reign, seamlessly wove Persian sensibilities into the local milieu: the Persian language flowered; buildings were commissioned; poetry, music and dance resounded; able jurists, architects, scholars and not to forget shahi khansamas (royal chefs) visited regularly. It’s this history I’m exploring in this conducted walk through Lucknow’s Qaiserbagh. The heritage district is almost an open-air museum, unravelling splendid structures and delicious stories at every step. The spirited team of Itihaas, led by raconteur Smita Vats is taking us around and magically bringing alive the past with music, visuals and even fragrances. A little attar is dabbed on our wrists. The scent is unmistakably gulab. “It’s not just any fragrance,” says Vats, “this was Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s favourite. The nawabs freely borrowed architectural genres, giving birth to the Awadh style. Chhattar Manzil on the banks of the Gomti has an astutely designed ‘taikhana’ (basement) that was used in the searing summer.

As I head towards the spectacular Lal Baradari or Coronation Hall, constructed during the reign of Nawab Saadat Ali Khan II (1798 -1814), Vats points out to the road we crossed to get here. “This was laid by the British; it was earlier a sprawling royal neighbourhood filled with gardens and fountains. The road sliced and divided the complex, a method typical of the British to establish their supremacy.”

Fiercely protective of their people and kingdom, the Nawabs did pander to British interests but resisted too (the third nawab Shuja-ud-Daula lost the Battle of Buxar in 1773, leading to a British Resident being placed in the kingdom, and the last nawab, Wajid Ali Shah, being banished to Calcutta in 1856.) Indeed, the British tried every trick to dull the shine of Awadh. They succeeded in making the Nawabs puppets but they couldn’t suppress the spirit of the land. It’s no wonder then that the annexation of Awadh was the last and most difficult hurdle the British had to cross to become masters of India. It is said that when Wajid Ali Shah faced the ignominy of exile, he told the British: “Taj (crown), takht (throne) le sakte ho, dastakht (signature) nahin”. Ironically, the takeover misfired as Awadh avenged its ruler’s insult and whole-heartedly participated in the Revolt of 1857; and a distance away, The Residency, which bore the brunt, stands mute witness to the uprising.

The walk concludes at Wajid Ali Shah’s Qaiserbagh, which has fantastical structures like the Parikhana, Marmari Bridge and Safed Baradari. What’s striking is the ornate Lakhi Darwaza, the west gate, built in 1850 and so named because it cost Rs. 1 lakh. It’s engraved with the Awadh insignia of twin fishes, an emblem adopted now by the U.P. government. This is an emblem I notice on all the buildings of those times, and it has a legend too: the first Nawab Saadat Khan, while still a Mughal governor, was crossing a river on his way to Lucknow when two fishes leapt into his lap. The locals aboard saw it as an auspicious sign and soon, Awadh was established. The nawab eagerly incorporated the fish into his kingdom’s emblems. The fish is part of Persian customs too, so I’m sure the insignia has another fish-tale. The twin fishes are now part of the UP government seal.

Later, the fish motif grabs attention when I visit the fourth nawab Asaf-ud-Daula’s iconic structures commissioned in 1784: Bara (or Asafi) Imambara and Rumi Darwaza. Interestingly, the design for the imambara was selected through a process of competition. The winner was Delhi architect Kifayatullah, who legend says so impressed with the design that he was rewarded with a burial place alongside the nawab inside the imambara. The imambara is among the largest arched structures in the world to have no beams supporting the ceiling. It also has a Bhulbhuliya or labyrinth on the periphery of the first floor that’s interconnected through identical 489 doorways, which were meant to confuse an invader. In today’s times, it’s visitors who get lost and can’t find the exit. True to tradition, my group got separated from the rest and we had to rely on cellular network to trace our way out of this quirky passage of history.

The cultural legacy of Awadh is connected to a great extent with Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. And the reasons are clear. How many kings have been not just patrons of the performing arts but proficient in them too? The Nawab was gifted musically; his thumri in Raag Bhairavi,  Babul Mora Naihar Chhooto Hi Jaaye, is sheer genius. He composed poetry, under the pseudonym Akhtarpiya while his pen-name was, well, Qaiser; the dance form of Kathak was revived by him and elevated to the level of a classic; and theatre was encouraged. He gave form to a unified dress code, the Awadhi angrakha (a front overlapping kurta) and dupali topi (cap), as well as the greeting of ‘adaab’ (which simply means ‘I bow to you with respect’). The now famous ‘chikankari’ (or the Persian embroidery form of chakeen, which essentially means passing thread through white cloth to embellish it) also took root here.

The Awadhi ‘dastarkhawan’ (or tablecloth but, metaphorically, meaning fine dining) evolved and ‘dum pukht’ (or the Persian style of slow cooking) reached culinary heights. During the trip, I met the engrossing royal scion Nawab Jafar Mir Abdullah, a personification of Awadhi culture and a gourmet, who highlighted the nuances of its cooking. “Awadhi cuisine is about zaika (taste), khushbu (aroma), peshkari (presentation) and most importantly the jod (balance),” he explained in mellifluous Urdu, adding, “The disguise of a dish was at its zenith in Awadh. A sweet could be presented in the shape of a sour dish and vice-versa. The guest had to deduce what he or she was about to taste. Innovation was in vogue as today’s guest was tomorrow’s host. So chefs were always trying to outdo each other.” As I discovered, present-day Lucknow’s famous Tunde ke Kebab or Idris ki Biryani is just a drop in the vast ocean of this gastronomy.

History books do teach us about Awadh, but nothing I saw today could have prepared me for this history lesson — both tangible and intangible.

Brinda Suri is a wanderer and chronicler of little offbeat stories.

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 3:09:07 AM |

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