Lucknow’s sights were made for royalty. Each time we pass under the grand Rumi Darwaza, I’m aware that I’m witnessing a greeting fit for a king. Rumi Darwaza’s mammoth scalloped arch through which one enters the old city, was modelled on Istanbul’s magnificient gateway, Sublime Porte. It is one of the city’s many portals into its rich past, from being governed by the Nawabs on behalf of the Mughals in the 18th and 19th centuries, to the close ties it had with the British East India Company later on.
Lucknow blends chaos with calm; fusing together the manic speed of the present with the painstaking details of a departed time. Walking through Aminabad, one of the oldest markets in the city, is a sensory overload, bustling with local businesses and the textile industry that brings in a large part of the city’s economy. Vehicles vie for space with humans, monkeys hustle on rooftops, and glorious aromas waft from food carts. But step aside for a moment and look up, and you will catch intricate latticework veined by tangled electrical wires, a silent reminder of the past. Lucknow blossomed under the rule of the Nawabs as a hub of art and culture. The Nawabs arrived from Naishapur in Iran, introducing their language, fashions, etiquette and architecture, along with Shiite ceremonies (such as the mourning rituals that continue to be held at the Bara Imambara and Chhota Imambara). Their aesthetics transformed the city’s landscape, as did their investment in quality production, almost to the point of excess. William Dalrymple, in The Age of Kali, highlights the craftsmanship brought to the city: “artisans from Tashkent and Samarkand, masons from Isfahan and Bukhara”. They showed no restraint, he says, going beyond the “pure lines of the great Moghul golden age” to be inspired by creations from around the world.
On our heritage walk in and around Kaiserbagh – an area once home to the sprawling palace complex of the last nawab, Wajid Ali Shah – our guide Smita Vats, director of heritage society Itihaas, points out the Indo-European architectural style employed. It’s a style that didn’t garner much praise at the time – British scholar Rosie Llewellyn-Jones writes, “Scorn was poured on its hybrid buildings which were condemned for being neither one thing nor the other, neither Indian nor European.” At the Kothi Darshan Vilas, built by Nawab Ghazi-ud-Din Haider Shah and now undergoing restoration, the wooden windows that open inwards are a particularly British feature, says our guide. Perhaps the key to these influences lies in the fact that Haider Shah had a European wife and court artists such as the Britisher Robert Home in attendance. Chattar Manzil, Haidar Shah’s palace that stretches along the banks of the Gomti, has both Corinthian columns and Shah Jahan-style scalloped arches.
A similar kind of architectural extravagance comes to the forefront at the La Martiniere College, a palatial residence that was designed to eventually serve as a boys-only boarding school. The architect, French major general Claude Martin (whose tomb also lies within), was an intriguing gentleman – he worked closely with both the British East India Company and the nawabs, and dabbled in interests ranging from bladder surgery to purveying hot-air balloons. La Martiniere College suffered damage from an earthquake in 1803, but you can still see the original detailing such as Martin’s motto, “Labore et Constantia” (Labour and Constancy) engraved over one of the balconies.
It wasn’t only earthquakes that destroyed Lucknow’s architectural heritage. During the Siege of 1857 – the city’s most significant contribution to India’s freedom struggle – the British fought from the Residency, a large expanse of structures sandwiched between the Kaiserbagh complex and the formidable fort of Macchi Bhawan. The ruins of the Residency are among the better-maintained sites in the city, and are ideal for a spot of quiet time with their open lawns and secluded nooks. Macchi Bhawan was devastated during the battle, along with vast sections of Kaiserbagh plundered after the war. The loss was significant – “Before its partial destruction during the” Siege, Dalrymple writes, “Kaiserbagh had been larger than the Tuileries and the Louvre combined”.
Today, tourists don’t flock to Kaiserbagh or the colonial remains as frequently as they do to the Bara Imambara and the Chhota Imambara. Like the Rumi Darwaza, the phenomenal Bara Imambara – a shrine built by the Shia Muslims for mourning practices – was also commissioned by Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula in 1784 to create employment in his famine-struck kingdom. A common tale about the process suggests that, in true Keynesian fashion, the workers toiled away at the construction site during the day, only to have their work torn down at night so that the employment wouldn’t cease.
Standing outside the Bara Imambara (pronounced “bada” for big), my eyes are drawn to the official insignia of Awadh: two symmetrical fish extending over the central scalloped arch. The emblem is said to have been created after the first nawab, Saadat Khan, on a sailing excursion, had a fish jump straight into his lap. The Hindus accompanying him pointed out the auspiciousness of the event, which led the nawab to incorporate the fish in the royal insignia. It’s a narrative that seems to have affected each nawab and architect who came after, right until the last nawab, Wajid Ali Shah, whose reign saw mermaids added to the archways in Kaiserbagh.
Anyone who visits the Bara Imambara knows that the Bhul Bhulaiya – a labyrinthine network of corridors with 489 identical doorways, positioned above the main hall – steals the show. The imambara consists of a large, pillarless vaulted hall done up in pista green and white, at the centre of which lie the decorated graves of the architect and the nawab, side by side – but it’s the Bhul Bhulaiya that supports it, our guide explains. As our guide explains the mystifying blend of art and science that enables the centuries-old narrow corridors to offset the weight of the roof of the underlying hall, I can’t help imagining the potential it holds for endless games of hide and seek. One of the first tips we were given was to keep climbing up; eventually you’ll reach the terrace with a gasp-inducing view of the city, from the Chhota Imambara on the left to the River Gomti straight ahead and the stark white campus of King George’s Medical University cordoning it off on your right. The Chhota Imambara, built in 1843, pales in comparison to the genius of the Bara Imambara, but its stock of curios is thrilling – on display are collections of glass items from Belgium, lamps from Japan and China, and silver products from Germany.
Lucknow’s intriguing blend of cultures extends beyond its buildings, of course. The Mughals, who preceded the Nawabs of Awadh, found it important to incorporate local indigenous cooking practices with their own Persian heritage. Salma Hussain, in The Emperor’s Table, describes how Akbar set up a royal orchard and employed horticulturists from Central Asia and Persia; Mughal emperors imported “nuts and dried fruits such as almonds, pistachios, walnut, raisins, prunes and apricots from Persia, Balkh, Bukhara and Samarkand.” Mangoes came from Golconda, Bengal and Goa. When the Portuguese arrived, potatoes and chillies became a common feature. Bahadur Shah Zafar’s table is said to have been the most lavish of all, including aspects from Turkish, Persian, Afghani and Indian cuisines. Today, you can sample Awadhi-inspired food on street corners – such as galouti kebabs at Tunday Kababi and slow-cooked biryani at Idris–but it’s hard to to say what’s authentic.
You can hear the strong fondness for the past in the way that locals recall the Nawabi era and its ideas of tehzeeb (a cultured, extremely polite form of etiquette), elaborate presentation and aesthetic values. During my visit, I realised the immense history that doesn’t find its way to our textbooks. On my walk in Kaiserbagh, I heard an amusing tale of Wajid Ali Shah being deposed because he was seen more often in his harem of 365 wives than at court. It’s the kind of walk through history that you can only fully appreciate in person.
Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, lies at the centre of the state. The city lies about 473km away from Delhi, which is the closest metro. The best time to visit is between October to March, when it’s cooler. It can get very hot during the summer.
Non-stop flights run from most Indian cities, but you can catch a connecting flight from Delhi too. There are two railway stations, Lucknow Charbagh Railway Station and Lucknow Junction, which lie in the same vicinity and connect Lucknow to the rest of the country.
Autorickshaws are the best option to make your way around the city; negotiate a rate with the driver. You could also hire a car.
Good to Know
Dress conservatively. Women need to cover their heads while entering monuments like the Chhota Imambara — you can rent a scarf, but it’s best to carry your own just in case.
Tornos India runs regular heritage walks and a day-long city sightseeing tour, but ask for a customised heritage tour of Lucknow based on the areas you’d like to visit. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for details. The Indian Traditions and Heritage Society (Itihaas) also conducts day or half-day tours, based on requests. Book in advance. Email email@example.com for details.
Fabiola Monteiro was formerly a member of National Geographic Traveller India's digital team. Since then, her words have featured in The Hindu, Mint Lounge, Roads & Kingdoms, The Goya Journal, and Condé Nast Traveller India. She tweets as @thefabmonteiro and is on Instagram @fabiolamonteiro.