City of nawabs & kebabs

City of nawabs & kebabs

Historical Lucknow

City of nawabs & kebabs

Lucknow is a city steeped in history, with many layers yet to be explored. Brinda Suri samples the assorted cultural elements that contributed to the richness of this city synonymous with a secular lifestyle, elegant speech, gracious hospitality and cuisine that’s fit for kings

I  was on my way to Lucknow with a group of colleagues who were eagerly sharing notes on kebab joints they should explore over the next few days. The galawati or galouti kebab-parantha at Tunday Kababi (near Akbari Gate, Chowk, and supposedly the original spot where Haji Murad Ali invented the pate-soft kebab over a century ago) topped the list followed by shammi kebab at Alamgir in Aminabad and nihari-kulcha at Raheem’s in Chowk. Besides this a selection of others kebabs, including patili, kakori, kathi etc were listed at places like Dastarkhwan and Naushijaan.

It was a maiden trip to the city for all of us except one, and she remained silent while foodie trails were being discussed. As quiet descended, she said, “Lucknow means the land of kebabs for all of you. This is my maternal home and throughout my childhood the major draw for coming to Lucknow was makhan malai!”

Seeing our quizzical look, she elaborated, “It’s a sweetly-sweet milk preparation, so soft and airy that it magically vanishes the moment it enters the mouth but leaves that lingering taste of wanting more. Winter is the only time it’s available as traditionally shabnam (dew) plays an important role in its preparation and cold temperatures preserve it from melting.” It was intriguing listening to her rave about something we were unfamiliar with; but which would soon become deliciously familiar to us.

This conversation centred on food, where the discussion was on two popular flavours, completely diverse from each other, but part of the same gourmet geography and similar in the pleasure they provided.

They almost seemed representative of Lucknow’s celebrated syncretic culture, the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, wherein communities were like weft and warp, cherishing and preserving their own cultural and religious identities but generously and spontaneously sharing each other’s customs to present a unified societal fabric. Illustrations of this composite culture can be seen across the Gangetic plain, but Lucknow is known to be its best keeper.

In today’s times when flashy malls have replaced bustling, serpentine bazaars, the click of a button makes and breaks relationships, and conversation has been reduced to tweets, would I still get to see assorted cultural elements that contributed to the richness of this city synonymous with a secular lifestyle, elegant speech and gracious hospitality?

Kings & kingdom

When tourism brochures promote cities on the basis of iconic structures, I feel they end up doing more disservice to the true character of a great city. For me, so was the case with Lucknow. I have travelled fairly wide across the country but somehow the UP capital kept falling off my plans.

Whenever I spoke to Lakhnavis or those who had visited the city, all they mentioned were the Imambaras as must-see spots, Hazratganj for shopping, chikankari as the must-buy item, kebabs and chaat at Chowk as the must-eats.

That’s the touristy checklist. But when a city is steeped in history and is as culturally rich as Lucknow is, it has many layers that need to be explored. A few days in town don’t do justice, but they surely whet the appetite.

The history of Lucknow translates into the history of Awadh, or Oudh as the British preferred calling it, a fertile region in the middle of the emerald-green Gangetic plain. The wealth of the land had a magnetic attraction and a succession of rulers began stamping their authority on it from the middle of the 14th century when the Delhi Sultanate began governing it.

This was followed by the Sharqi Sultanate of Jaunpur, the Mughals and Sheikhzadas. However, no one left a mark as indelible as the nawabs of Awadh who laid the foundation of their 139-year rule in the 18th century when Burhan ul Mulk Saadat Khan established the state in 1722 AD with Faizabad as its capital, which, however, got shifted to Lucknow when the fourth nawab, Asaf-ud-Daula, began his reign in 1775 AD. The nawabs ruled till 1856 AD when the British annexed Awadh and banished the last nawab, Wajid Ali Shah, to Calcutta.

Cosmopolitan hub

The nawabs were of Persian ancestry and connoisseurs of fine living. Under them Lucknow became a hub of cultural renaissance. Royal patronage, especially Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s, whose creative genius is legendary, saw the evolution of performing arts like kathak, thumri, ghazal, qawwali, sher-o-shayari and dastangoi or storytelling. Language got refined and Urdu gained its lyrical grace.

Thread-craft such as chikankari and zardozi flourished and couture skills reached dizzy heights. Such has been the impact of Awadh styles that not a fashion season goes by now when a contemporary Indian designer doesn’t present a collection based on patterns born during those times.

The popular angrakha kurta, a favourite with fashionistas today, also dates back to the time of Wajid Ali Shah, who introduced it as a secular dress code for his people.

At the time Lucknow was ascending the charts, the Mughal rule in Delhi was a pale shadow of its former glory. This saw the gradual shift of intelligentsia and commerce to the capital of Awadh.

So began arriving the poets and writers, artisans and artistes, Armenian and Jewish traders, Parsi merchants and Kashmiri pandits. The city became a melting pot with different communities making it intellectually vibrant and constantly adding to its fame.

Today, meeting places like the Parsi Anjuman on R F Bahadurjee Marg, community colonies such as Kashmiri Mohalla near Nakkhas in the old city, or clusters based on occupation, for instance Kangiwali Gali (lane of comb-makers), are symbols of the once-vibrant cosmopolitan culture.

A prominent French connection is the prestigious La Martinière College founded in 1845 AD from the grant willed for the purpose by Claude Martin, a French soldier who served in the British East India Company and rose to the rank of major-general.

It’s said Martin’s friendship with Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula went on to make him the richest Frenchman in India in those times, and the sprawling campus of the college, especially Constantia, the palatial building built in 1785 as Martin’s country residence which now houses the boys’ school, is evidence of that.

Quite honourably, La Martinière College for Boys is the only school in the world to have been awarded royal battle honours for its role in the defence of Lucknow during the Revolt of 1857.

Finding yesterday, today

Awadh’s intangible legacy, its celebrated ‘tehzeeb (culture) aur tameez (etiquette)’, much-romanticised by Hindi cinema of the 1960s and early-1970s in movies like Mere Mehboob and Chaudhvin ka Chand, is something today’s Lucknow still rides on. In reality, these nuances are few and far between. What was promising to note was the conscious effort being made by locals and UP Tourism to resurrect and protect what was still there.

Modern Lucknow is a sprawling city of wide roads, flyovers, manicured parks — some monstrosities in stone too, and high-rises. Standing in gallant contrast to the cookie-cutter modern urban planning are artistic structures in the older parts. These are what lend character to Lucknow; these are what the world comes to see.

I begin on the well-trodden path, marvelling the architectural beauty of Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula’s contribution: Bara Imambara, Asafi Masjid and Rumi Darwaza. As with the edifice of those times, lakhori bricks have been used in construction, whereas the mortar for masonry works was reinforced with materials like seashells, limestone, pulses and jaggery.

These have remarkably stood the test of time. The tour guide narrates tales of the nawab’s benevolence and rounds off with an oft-used couplet in his praise: Jise na de maula, usse de Asaf-ud-Daula... (He who does not receive from the Lord, receives from Asaf-ud-Daula).

Having said that, the guide added an adjunct: apparently, the nawab was upset at being placed on a higher pedestal than his Lord. He exhibited humility when he asked his subjects to say, Jis ko de Maula, usi ko de Asaf-ud-Daula... (To whom God gives, to him only Asaf-ud-Daula provides). These are but legends, but they bring alive a place and person.

While a lot has been written about the Bara Imambara, I feel the not-as-feted Rumi Darwaza, also called Turki Gate (as it’s said to be a near-replica of a gate in Constantinople or Istanbul), deserves equal attention. The 60 ft structure which once served as the entrance to town comes across as an exquisite illustration of Awadhi architecture.

A short tonga ride (most of these are being maintained for tourism purposes) away was the Chhota Imambara, and en route what caught my interest was the Victorian-Gothic style Hussainabad Clock Tower, built in 1887 AD to mark the arrival of the first Lt-Governor of Awadh, Sir George Cooper. At a height of 230 ft, it’s apparently the tallest British-made clock tower in the country. It’s lesser-publicised brick-and-mortar gems like these that set the ball rolling for more discoveries.

Next on my list is Chhattar Manzil, the seat of power of the Awadh nawabs till 1847 AD, when Nawab Wajid Ali Shah erected a new neighbourhood, Qaiserbagh, a short distance away, and shifted governance there. Constructed between 1798 and 1814 AD in Mughal-French-Awadhi vocabulary, Chhattar Manzil is crowned with domes styled like umbrellas (so the name chhattar from the word chhattri).

Till recently, government offices were functioning here. But now, realising the heritage potential of the spot, it is in the process of being vacated for restoration.Chhattar Manzil stands by the banks of River Gomti and quite remarkably has an ingenious basement which was used in the scorching summer.

Being close to the river, it remained cool and as mercury rose in these dusty plains, everything — residence and durbar included — simply shifted to the taikhana or cellar. No retreating to the hills, à la Mughals, for this set of royalty!

Additionally, historical evidence is beginning to prove the existence of an entire underground network connecting Chhattar Manzil to other parts of the city, which meant that people could live a complete life down-under.

During my visit, the city was agog with the news of conservationists having discovered a 350 ft tunnel and a waterway connecting the palace to River Gomti, indicating a water-route from the premises itself. Conservation experts further said they had found a link to the existence of a dual basement in the building and believed further digging may reveal several more levels.

A multi-level underground city in those times! It’s a marvel what builders of that era did. They had no electronic devices to aid them; theirs was simply paper-pencil skill, and its outcome was stunning and aesthetic.

This entire area, including Qaiserbagh, is dotted with grandiose palaces and mansions associated with various nawabs, and each has a fascinating story to tell. I move towards Lucknow’s British connection and history lessons come flashing back on entering The Residency.

Its need had arisen when the third nawab, Shuja-ud-daula, and his allies lost the Battle of Buxar and signed the Treaty of Allahabad in 1765 AD; one of its terms being the stationing of a British Resident in Awadh. The Residency was meant for the officer, his staff and their families, and its construction was undertaken by the fourth nawab, Asaf-ud-daula, in 1775 AD.

Residency turns haven

The Residency came to be associated with the Revolt of 1857, when it housed over 2,000 British civilians who fled here as Lucknow came under siege. Evidence of the Great Uprising is visible in the structures that witnessed heavy shelling, with some getting completely razed to the ground. Though Nawab Wajid Ali Shah had been exiled to Calcutta, his wife Begum Hazrat Mahal remained in Lucknow and led the charge for freedom from the British.

The Begum did not surrender but managed to escape to Nepal. The year 1857 AD changed the course of history in India and The Residency is symbolic of that. Though well-preserved, sombreness hangs heavy here. The 1857 Memorial Museum on the complex was a soulless commemoration. However, I was told the sound and light show held here is gripping.

A piece on Lucknow remains incomplete without delving into its food. As mentioned, elegance was visible in all walks of life and another art that had reached its zenith under the nawabs was gastronomy. If the Awadh durbar was known for its aristocracy, etiquette and hospitality, Awadhi cuisine was renowned for its nafaasat (refinement) and nazaakat (delicacy).

It was based on the Persian style of dum-pukht or the art of slow-fire cooking, but what took it to another level were the continuous innovations by chefs to please the palate of foodie nawabs. Reminiscent of those times are places like Bawarchi Tola (colony of cooks), or the vanishing clusters of karigars who produce chandi ka warq or fine silver foil used for covering desserts and select savouries.

Food & flavours

The old town is where authentic flavours are brewed, fried, baked, whipped or frozen. And Lucknow’s atmospheric food streets don’t only dish out kebabs. If nihari-kulcha is a popular breakfast, equally so is the Rastogi community (of moneylenders and jewellers) vegetarian nashta of khasta kachori-vada-aloo subzi-puri-jalebi.

Take a walk through Aminabad or Chowk and you’ll come across hole-in-the-walls baking nankhatai, peeling off layers of aam papad, tossing channa-churma (a variation of bhel) or churning thandai.

The repertoire of the city’s sweet flavours includes kheer, phirni, sevayaan, anarse ki goli (rice powder fritters available in monsoon, especially at Haji Sweet Shop), creamy hand-churned malai kulfi (at places like Prakash Kulfi or Ladoo Chanakya) and the unmissable makhan malai that I did manage to find at Chowk.

Covered under glass hoods and kept on ice, tasting it was, as my colleague said, a melt-in-the-mouth experience. Soufflé-soft, I discovered it was a variant of maliyo in Benaras and daulat ki chaat in Old Delhi.

The more I acquainted myself with Lucknow, the more I felt how important it is for us to change the way we impart history in our curriculum. There is such a wealth of enthralling information and all we get on our platters is some morsels.

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