There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Lucknow (1), City of Nawabs: Part 7 of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh

The evening's biryani and vegetable jalfrezi weighed heavily on Lynne's already delicate stomach so she heard the thunderstorm in the night and the dawn call to prayer from the mosque. I slept through both.

In the morning the air was fresh and clean, the sky clear and Lucknow was looking a far pleasanter prospect.

We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast before Sanjay arrived to show us the city.

A short drive brought us to the outer gate of the Bara Imambara. An imambara is a hall used by Shia Muslims for the annual commemoration of the martyrdom of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet; ‘bara’ just means ‘big’.
Outer gate, Bara Imambara, Lucknow

The Bara Imambara was built by Asaf-ud-Daula, Nawab of Awadh in 1784. As the Moghul Empire weakened, Awadh, in central Uttar Pradesh, was one of several statelets that achieved de facto independence. Sa'adat Khan set himself up as the first Nawab in 1722 and Asaf-ud-Daula, the fourth of the dynasty, moved the capital from Faizabad to Lucknow in 1775.

Inner gate, Bara Imambara, Lucknow
Awadh is noted for its fertility but drought in the early 1780s brought the danger of famine and the building of the Bara Imambara was a ‘workfare’ project for otherwise unemployed farmers and labourers. There is a story that the peasants were paid for building during the day while the nobles spent their nights dismantling their work to make the job last longer. There are many reasons for doubting this story, not least the feeling that even if Asaf-ud-Daula’s generosity was legendary, the same was not necessarily true of the rest of Awadh’s aristocracy.

Both the outer and inner gates are magnificent and beyond them the Asafi mosque is equally splendid.

The Asafi Mosque, Bara Imambara, Lucknow

The tomb of Asaf-ud-Daula is inside the imambara hall which is alleged to have the world’s largest unsupported brick roof.

Imambara hall and tomb of Asaf-ud-Daula, Bara Imambara, Lucknow
On that roof, which is easily reached by a set of stone stairs, is a labyrinth.
Rooftop labyrinth, Bara Imambara, Lucknow
Navigating with assurance, Sanjay led us through the twists and turns to emerge on the balcony of the hall where we amused ourselves with the acoustics which, like the Whispering Gallery at St Paul's, allow conversations over large distances in quiet voices.

On the balcony of the Imambara hall, Lucknow
Diving back into the labyrinth we re-emerged for the best views over the imambara complex and the city of Lucknow.

Looking over the Imambara complex and the city beyond
Imambaras are an extreme example of the Number 9 Bus Phenomenon. I waited sixty-two years for the first to turn up and the second came along twenty minutes later. But first we had to pass under the Rumi Darwaza, one of the city gates. Also built in 1784 by Asaf-ud-Daula it is (very loosely) modelled on the 'Sublime Porte' in Istanbul and is regarded as one of the finest examples of Awadhi - as opposed to Moghul - architecture. The word 'Rumi' means 'Roman'. The Sublime Porte is actually Ottoman, but a thousand years earlier Istanbul had been the capital of the eastern Roman Empire, so anything from Istanbul must be Roman – obviously, duh.

The Rumi Darwaza, Lucknow
The second imambara, the Chhota Imambara (sometimes called the Husseinabad Imambara) is a little way down the road. It was built in 1838 by the ninth Nawab of Awadh, Muhammad Ali Shah as a tomb for himself and his mother.

The Chhota Imambara, Lucknow
It is a beautiful building, light and almost lacy, standing at the end of a long narrow pool. Supposed replicas of the Taj Mahal stand to right and left of the pool, housing the tombs of other family members, but they are not good replicas and the ensemble looks ill-matched.

The Chhota Imambara and its mosque

As we walked towards the imambara a mongoose ran across our path, swiftly followed by a second one. Photographs? No chance, they are far too quick for me.

Besides the Nawab's tomb….

The tomb of Muhammad Ali Shah, Chhota Imambara, Lucknow
… the imambara contains his crown, his throne….

The throne of Muhammad Ali Shah, Chhota Imambara, Lucknow
…and any number of chandeliers - he was quite taken by them and built up a fine collection, mostly imported from Belgium. There is also a painted European style portrait. On it, he is labelled ‘King of Oudh’, the title by which the British, with the Anglophone's usual assured handling of foreign languages, knew the Nawabs of Awadh.
Several chandeliers, Chhota Imambara, Lucknow
A Nawab must have clean clothes, so we drove to the banks of the River Gomti to inspect the city's laundries. Dirty clothes lie in piles….

Piles of dirty clothes by the River Gomti, Lucknow
…. while the dhobi wallahs stand up to their thighs in the river slapping clothing against stones.

Dhobi Wallahs in th River Gomti, Lucknow

Further over some of the clean washing had been hung up to dry while the rest was laid out on the litter-strewn grass. We never cease to wonder how it is that clothes washed in dirty water and dried on dusty ground can be clean, yet somehow the whites gleam and coloureds glow.

Washing drying on the dusty, litter-strewn ground, River Gomti, Lucknow
There is open ground around the dhobi area and this being India every space was filled with lads playing 'gully’ cricket. Half a dozen games seemed to be going on, their outfields overlapping in a cheerful confusion of fielders.

Gully cricket by the River Gomti, Lucknow

Satisfied with our inspection we next went to the market.

At the entrance a man with a barrow was selling what looked like cream sprinkled with pistachios and coated with silver leaf. Sanjay called it ‘butter cream’ and suggested we should try it.  Very soon we had a disposable bowl of pressed leaves, a wooden spoon and a dollop of butter cream. With an already upset stomach Lynne approached it warily, but it was sweet and lovely and slipped down so easily that we had no problem finishing the bowl.

Selling nimish, Lucknow market

[In Rick Stein's India, shown on television a few months later, he called it nimish and bought his from the same vendor - or at least one on the same spot. I am indebted to his website for the ingredients which, beneath the pistachios and silver leaf, are double cream, icing sugar, rose water and saffron. The silver has no culinary purpose, but the food of Lucknow is the food of Nawabs so it must look opulent.]

Eating nimish, Lucknow market
We walked on through the narrow streets of the market....

Lucknow market

passing shops selling wool, perfume,.......

Perfume shop, Lucknow market

.... kites......

Kite shop, Lucknow market

 and dozens of other things banal and exotic.
Selling water pipes, Lucknow market

We watched a man printing a border pattern on a piece of cloth, hand stamping it with a wooden block. With apparent ease he was, time after time, banging the block down in precisely the right spot to make the pattern smooth and continuous.

Hand stamping a pattern, Lucknow market

We marvelled at his skill and also, though for different reasons, at the electrics. Fires in Indian markets are regularly reported in the press - and looking at the wiring no one should be surprised.
A tangle of wires, Lucknow market

Eventually we reached the shami kebab stall in the centre of the market. We think of kebabs, and skewers come immediately to mind, but no skewers are involved with these patties of minced lamb.

I had been unimpressed so far with the food on this trip. All Indian cooking uses spices in great quantity and variety, but with less skilful chefs everything blurs together to produce a monotonous bludgeon of flavour. When spicing is skilfully done the spices trip tidily across the palate and introduce themselves one by one. So it was with the shami kebabs. They would have been perfect if only the meat had any texture, but it was so soft you could almost suck it through a straw. [The stall is a Lucknow institution and Rick Stein ate here too. He filmed the preparation of the kebabs and has a recipe on his website. He also tells how shami kebabs were, allegedly, invented for a toothless Nawab, hence the texture.]

Shami kebabs, Lucknow market
After our break in the laundry and the market it was time to return to the Nawabs.

Asaf-ud-Daula's father had made the fateful decision to accept a 'British Resident' in Awadh. The East India Company's resident first offered protection, then advice and then more advice until gradually, after many years, he became the true ruler - while always deferring to the Nawab in public. The frustration this caused came to boiling point in 1857, a date which will feature in the next post.

Asaf-ud-Daula, died in 1797, and was succeeded by his son Wazir Ali Khan. Wazir Ali Khan proved to be too independently minded for British tastes and was removed from power in 1798, the pretext being that he was not actually the son of Asaf-ud-Daula. The pretext may actually have been true, Asaf-ud-Daula preferred the company of young men and there are doubts that his marriage was ever consummated.

Asaf-ud-Daula's brother was crowned Sa'adat Ali Khan II by Sir Peter Shore, the East India Company's Governor General of India, and became the Wazir Nawab of Awadh, or King of Oudh, if you prefer.
Tomb of Sa'adat Ali Khan II, Lucknow
Although compliant to British desires, he was regarded as a good ruler and an indefatigable builder, being responsible for most of buildings between the Qaiser Bagh and Dilkusha (see next post). He and his queen are buried in twin tombs in the Qaiser Bagh built by their son, Ghazi-ud-din.

Disinterested guardian, tomb of Sa'adat Ali Khan II, Lucknow
The Qaiser Bagh is a pleasant garden, but the tombs have a sad and neglected air, their guardians showing no inclination to open them up for visitors. Like any green space in any Indian city the Qaiser Bagh was hosting any number of impromptu games of cricket. Centre picture, in front of the tomb of the queen, players cluster round after a batsman has been out, while on the right the fielder in another game is about to throw the ball in and on the left two fielders in yet another game move in as the ball is bowled.

Three games of cricket outside the tomb of Sa'adat Ali Khan's queen

Sa'adat Ali Khan died at the age of 48 and was succeeded by his son Ghazi-ud-din who ruled for thirteen years before being succeeded by his son, Nasir-ud-din. The new monarch was more interested in wine, women and astrology than government and was murdered in 1827. The widow of Ghazi-ud-din tried to put a man called Muna Jan on the throne, but was opposed by the rest of the Awadh royal family and, perhaps more importantly, the British.

A palace used to sit just over the road from the tomb of Sa'adat Ali Khan. Only a library and wedding hall remain, and it was in this hall that the British kidnapped the widow and Muna Jan.
Wedding hall, scene of the 1827 kidnapping

Instead, Muhammad Ali Shah, a brother of Ghazi-ud-din, was put on the throne. He was an able ruler though he died only five years later. He did, though, have time to build himself a fine tomb, the Chhota Imambara, which we had seen earlier in the morning.

It had been a long morning by the time Sanjay dropped us back at the hotel, his day's work over. We did not linger in the hotel but walked up to the Coffee Day café at the end of the street. Offering air-conditioning, comfortable chairs and reasonable coffee, it was a good place for a lunchtime snack. It was also, we discovered the place to see and by seen for a predominantly well-off youthful clientele.

Lynne's chocolate brownie was probably better than my chicken sandwich which was under spiced (and this in India!), but the young staff were helpful and friendly and it proved a pleasant place to sit and wile away an hour.

We took a walk in the afternoon, starting with St Joseph's Catholic cathedral. It is certainly a striking building but after giving it due and careful consideration I came to the conclusion it is dire.

St Joseph, Cathedral, Lucknow
There is always plenty to see walking about any Indian city. At one point we found ourselves engulfed by a horde of children leaving a posh school. All with immaculate uniforms they set off home on foot or bicycle, in parental cars or crammed into crowded tuk-tuks. And wherever we went there were always dozens of bicycle rickshaw drivers keen to offer us a lift.

In the evening we went to the Royal Café, a restaurant not far away in Hazratganj that had been recommended by Sanjay. It was a good choice. Lynne was not up to eating but watched as I ordered Gosht Mughalai (Mughal style mutton - ie goat). Apart from the shami kebab (which was only a snack) I had not eaten a really good meal since the garlic chicken in Delhi over a week before, nor had I eaten any meat; these facts may or may not be connected. As with the shami kebabs the spicing was expertly done but the big chunks of tender, flavoursome meat meant this also had texture. It was as good as the garlic chicken, which made it the joint best meal of the trip so far.

Having done so well with the main course, I ventured a dessert. Lynne described it as an upside down trifle. I would describe as a delight, and anyway I am not sure whether a trifle actually has an upside.
Upside down trifle? Royal Café, Lucknow
I have no excuse for the demonic grin.

Lucknow has its share of persistent beggars, but on the way back Lynne dropped a 2 rupee coin into the cup of an old man who was sitting quietly and patiently in hope rather than expectation. He looked up, smiled and said, 'Thank you, very kind.'

We passed a toy shop selling games, action figures and model vehicles. What drew out eye was not the stock but the soldier making a purchase, a sub-machine gun slung over his shoulder.

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