Essay: Lucknow… a Tryst

By Mitali Chakravarty

Bada Imambara
Pic: Bada Imambara

Lucknow, the land of nawabs and kebabs, of grace, courtesy and old world charm had been tempting us since 2015, ever since we watched Badshahi Angti, the cinematic rendition of Satyajit Ray’s novel by the same name, in a movie theatre in Calcutta. We saw the Bhool bhulaiya for the first time on the silver screen as the modern version of Satyajit Ray’s famed detective, Feluda (Prodosh Mitter), wound his way through the dark passages of this labyrinth in the Bara Imambara armed with a mobile and a revolver. Watching him fight villains in the Residency and biting into succulent kebabs and delicious biryanis, we decided to explore this city of nawabs during our next trip to India.

Meeting nawabs was not on our agenda. The last one, Wajid Ali Shah, had danced the Kathak and sung Babul Mora into the arms of the British East India Company more than a century and half ago and eventually migrated to Calcutta. Still, there was his palace to be explored – Chattar Manzil on the banks of the river Gomti, and the mysterious Bhool bhulaiya built by Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah, who’d moved the capital from Faizabad to Lucknow in 1775. The Bhool bhulaiya is the only labyrinth of its kind in 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 – our little party was taking turns at stomach ailments since we’d arrived in India. The airport had access to one sad bathroom; the others were being cleaned… all a part of the endemic charm of small towns in India. 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 local cab drivers. The good thing was that the courteous drivers were willing to listen to us and eventually took us to the right place.

On our first morning here, the city greeted us with a mysterious shroud of white, opaque fog. We could hear temple bells from somewhere in the mist and strained our eyes from our hotel rooms to locate the source of the sound. As the fog drifted and lost its opacity, we noticed cows grazing outside one of the temples. As we ‘gazed – and gazed – but little thought’, we had a glimpse of a situation that promised to bring us pleasure in ‘vacant or pensive’ moods, 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 on philosophically. It was precisely at that juncture that a person – perhaps the ‘cow caretaker’ – decided to enter the premises when the bovine mind decided to make a bid for freedom and took the opportunity to run out of the gate. Waving frantically, the ‘caretaker’ shut the gate and after much hullaballoo, finally managed to chase his errant charge into the receding mists of Oudh… It was like an episode from a silent film – we could hear neither the man nor his cows; there was no way of knowing if the cows in the fold were doing a choral number pleading for the return of their truant mate.

Breakfast brought us back to the immediate reality. We had to arrange for transport to take our party to Bara Imambara. The night before, we had called up a distant contact to help us book a ‘big’ car. He’d promised to look into it. However, the next morning, our cousin as well as the hotel staff tried their best to assure us that Ola was the best option. We soon 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 it was around noon and we lacked patience. So we went to the hotel concierge for help. Within half-an-hour we had our ‘big car’ and started our journey by 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 (like Ekadashi) is said to absolve the bather of sins. In Lucknow, twenty-five drains pour their untreated sewage into the river. Perhaps the purity of the river dissolves the impurities generated by untreated sewage, but 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. I was disappointed to see that we could only see the building from outside; since 1950 it has been home to 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 as we would discover, it was milling with crowds. There were people outside, people inside and people all around!

Roomi Darwaza
Pic: Rumi Darwaza

As we entered through the majestic gates, the beauty and mystery of the structures overrode the congestion and the noise and enveloped us in its grandeur. The Asfi mosque on the right of the Imambara was exquisite; in the distance, beyond the palms and the boundary walls of the mosque and the Imambara, we caught a glimpse of the elegant Rumi Darwaza; on the left was the Baoli, a step-well built by the nawab. However, it was the Bara Imambara with its Bhool bhulaiya that took centre stage. The atmosphere was electrifying; the ancient edifices beckoned with past splendour.

The fact remained that there was a huge queue outside the Bhool 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. The guides wanted more. They told us that the 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 speedy journey of the complex.

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 commemorates sorrow and death. Here also lies the simple grave of Nawab Asaf-Ud-Daulah. In fact there is an interesting story around how this Imambara was built. In 1785, a huge famine broke out across the land. 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. 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, an approach that 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, the guide rushed us to the baoli, a step well with running water. The nawab’s source of water was guarded by a special mechanism. Skilled engineering enabled the security guards to see the reflection of people who were entering the gate in the water. From the baoli, the guide rushed us to the labyrinth in the main building. Perhaps, I thought panting, he wants more clients.

The huge queue of people outside had already deprived the labyrinth of its sense of mystery. However, once we had 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. Some portions of the passages were crowded while other 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 to light a match at the other end. The acoustics are still so good that we could hear him light the match despite the crowds.

Bhool Bhulaiya                        Pic: Bhool bhulaiya

The Bhool bhulaiya was an experience that I will not forget, especially the steep 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 artisans, 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 he waved us off, telling us we could do it on our own. Getting our shoes back was another task. The Asfi mosque was under repair; a sign said that as it was still used, only those offering namaz would be allowed in. What little we saw of the mosque’s façade was beautiful. We did the rest of our sightseeing from the comfort of our car.

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 Province of Avadh. The tower is located opposite the Chota Imambara built in 1838 by Nawab Muhammad Ali Shah to serve as a mausoleum for his mother and himself.

Pic: Residency ruins

Our next destination was the Residency. Our hotel concierge had described it as a set of insignificant ruins but the buildings held so much history and the museum had such a wealth of information about Lucknow that we spent the whole of the next day there. 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 its heyday. 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, not to be eaten; the pig is unholy and dirty to Muslims, therefore, not consumed as food. To be forced to bite into holy and filthy things was too much for the sepoys and 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 native soldiers loyal to the 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. For me, 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.

plaque at the Residency

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 a 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; his ancestors have been labelled 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 in 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 a 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 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 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 of a white child asking to be taken home within the Residency after dark. However, I only saw squirrels and birds having a feast with the grains in the bright light of the 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, according to the attendant, no running water for over a year. We were still using bathrooms frequently as our stomachs had not yet won the battle. 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 a 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…




Mitali Chakravarty writes essays, short stories, poetry and reviews. Her bylines have appeared in The ‘Times of India’, ‘Pioneer’, ‘Statesman’ and ‘Hindustan Times’. Her poetry has appeared  as part of two anthologies, ‘In Reverie’ (2016) and ‘An Anthology of Indian Poetry in English’ (1984). She has a book online, ‘In the Land of Dragons’ (2014, ISBN; 978-1490704333). She blogs at


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